‘You are what you eat’ is a philosophy chef Lai Kuan Geo follows, while believing food on the table always has a story to tell. In Hyderabad for a 10-day food festival at Zega, Hotel Sheraton’s pan-Asian restaurant, he advocates innovating with food every day, with slight changes, to keep things interesting.
Born into a Chinese family in Malaysia, Chef Lai says his food is a reflection of Nyonya cuisine, a blend of Chinese and Malay cuisine. “It is a mix of two cultures, so one finds a little bit of Chinese infused into Malay. I like to keep it simple without using any fancy methods or ingredients. I like to present food that appeals both visually and to the taste buds.”
With more than three decades of experience as a pan-Asian cuisine specialist, he has been at the helm of several restaurants in Europe and South Africa. He was always interested in travelling to explore food from different continents. “My work experiences have made me flexible to adapt to all kinds of environments. I always find myself fitting in easily.”
As a chef and consultant, he feels promoting Nyonya food is a great way to showcase how cultures can unite and marry beautiful flavours.
In his cooking, steaming, wrapping and cooking in bamboo hollows are a big thing. “That is how we enjoy our traditional food. I am very strict about my ingredients. For the Hainanese rice, I made sure the procurement team got me the most tender birds (chicken). For the steamed rice cake, I insisted on the right bamboo hollows; it was a task for the procurement team but they did it.”
Chef Lai tells the story of a Chinese princess who wanted to eat good food to stay pretty. “In ancient times, princesses did one important thing to stay pretty and young; they ate right. It was left to the cook to prepare good food, including snacks and desserts that did wonders to their skin.”
“When the princess or the queen tells the cook to prepare a snack or a sweet that will keep them looking young and healthy, the cooks fell back on the traditional.”
Chef Lai goes on to offer two mochis — stuffed steamed sticky rice buns had as a snack or dessert — one with black sesame and another with strawberry. Also on the table was another dessert, the eight treasure delight.
He explains the ingredients of the mochi: “We use glutinous rice flour, natural sweeteners and black sesame. Every ingredient serves a purpose. It is believed that black sesame is good for the eyes and hair, sticky rice flour is good for skin and digestion etc. The other dessert — the eight treasure cup — is made with a combination of eight fruits and berries.”
None of the desserts are sweet and Lai says too much of sweet is not a good idea.
The Asian food festival at Zega (Sheraton Gachibowli) ends on March 19 for lunch and dinner.