A Doctor, A Writer, A Carrot Cake Maker

News | 20 November 2013 Views: 565

I must admit, I was pretty excited to interview Dr Leslie Tay, celebrity food blogger of ieatishootipost, to discuss his many passions over lunch. For the uninitiated, Dr Tay is known for being one of the few Singaporeans who reintroduced the beauty of hawker food through his food blog, which has won numerous awards for excellent food photography and food anecdotes, and is a go-to site for foodies who want inspiration on where to sample the best local cuisine. 

Upon exchanging a handshake with him, I sat down to a decent plate of biryani and teh tarik, which he had ordered for the both of us minutes before I arrived. Just as I was about to tuck into my food, I noticed that he was twiddling with his phone. Manners aside, I wondered what he was doing and proceeded to ask. 

‘Oh don’t mind me. I’m taking photos of the biryani for my blog! Please, go ahead and eat.’ 

Between mouthfuls of fluffy saffron rice and chicken meat, I watched him standing up to take aerial shots of the dish, bending to the left to take a side shot, and even moving the plate of biryani to another table for better lighting. While this may seem a little excessive to some, his excellent photography skill that always manages to capture the essence of the dish is one of the reasons for his large following. What also sets him apart from other celebrity food bloggers in Singapore is his focus on hawker fare rather than restaurants and cafes, and his occupation as a general practitioner. While many rarely view hawker food as healthy, this doctor believes that the food of our tradition can easily go hand in hand with a balanced lifestyle. 

Ten minutes later, as I am halfway into my meal, Dr Tay finally proceeds to indulge in his biryani. 

‘How is it?’ I asked, awaiting his verdict.  

‘It’s still good, but it wasn’t as great as before. You know, the founder’s children are now running this stall. It reassures me that hawker food is here to stay for a long while!’ 

Eventually we started the interview proper, but not without distractions.

The Medical Confidante 

At the peak of his teenage years, while he was serving National Service, Dr Leslie Tay had decided he wanted to save the world. Despite his engineering background in Raffles Junior College (RJC’87) he applied to do medicine in Australia. He has never regretted being a doctor since and believes that by combining his knowledge of medicine and his affable nature, he can try to cure the root of the pain by treating the person and not merely the symptom.  

Putting down his cutlery, Dr Tay, who opened Karri Family Clinic, looks me in the eye to reinforce his point. ‘A general practitioner’s role is to be able to relate. To me, being a doctor requires not only medical knowledge but the emotional quotient to be approachable. If my patient keeps getting headaches, I feel that it’s not right to merely dole out the right medication. There is a reason why he or she keeps getting headaches - perhaps due to work stress or relationship problems. I try to talk things out with my patient and if the problems are too deep seated, I will refer my patient to a counsellor who may be able to help.’

When it comes to service, one thing that distinguishes Karri Family Clinic from others might be his constant interaction with his patients beyond his room. He never fails to hold the door for his patients and greets everyone in the waiting area before inviting the next patient in. Not only does this reassure his patients, it helps them feel that they are valued.

‘Besides,’ he says, smiling conspiringly, ‘I benefit from such a service too. I get exercise out of it!’

The clinic is also known for being child friendly. The energetic and youthful doctor takes the extra effort to interact with his little patients to calm them before he checks their health. Like Santa Claus, Dr Tay believes in having a stash of little gifts at the ready to reward his little patients once he has finished diagnosing their symptoms. He even makes balloon sculpture for them whenever he has the time! Often, they come running into his clinic, fever and all, attracted by the promise of rewards and entertainment.  

Dr Tay treating a happy little patient

Local Food, Healthy Food 

For almost a  decade now, this doctor not only ‘saves the world’ through his medical advice, but has been saving culinary heritage and tradition through his passion for hawker food. Since he started his food blog in 2006, Dr Tay has managed to garner an average of 14 000 web views a day, inspiring foodies to go on a food hunt to try out his suggestions. In fact, he has recently published a concise food guide called Only the Best! featuring his recommendations on  the best hawker stalls to better cater to the foodie adventurer.  

Is your stomach growling already? This can be found at Chia Keng Kway Teow Mee.

 

Recalling an argument I once had with a Westerner in Penang about which country or state serves better local cuisine, I asked Dr Tay for his opinion. Without contemplation, he firmly said that Singapore’s local cuisine is the best.  

‘What sets us apart is the quality we put into our food. Sure, you can get a similar traditional dish in any other part of Asia, but the best, if not most, Singaporean hawkers use better quality ingredients. This pride and passion in the culinary heritage of our migrant past is what makes Singapore a foodie’s dream destination.’  

I went on to question why he chose to focus on hawker food, and if hawker food was ever really threatened by the increase in artisanal cafes and restaurants serving international food in Singapore.

To Dr Tay, a good hawker is chef, manager, historian and stockist. Besides being able to cook quality dishes on his or her own, manage customers’ orders during rush hours, and ensure that his ingredients are constantly fresh and of good quality all within a small space, the hawker is a link to our heritage. 

‘Look at it this way. Hawker centres have been an intergral part of social life in Singapore since the 60s, serving the food of our forefathers and perfecting it with quality ingredients. The hawker, having mastered the culinary secrets, takes it upon him or herself to continue to share the secrets as a hawker rather than as a chef in a restaurant, preserving the social food culture at the same time,’ Dr Tay explained.  

Yet many Singaporeans give little thought to the service provided by hawkers, and in turn do not adequately appreciate the historical value of local cuisine and hawker culture. Dr Tay’s mission is to therefore unearth the history of the food, question what defines delicious local fare, and then scour Singapore for the hawkers who serve the best dishes. 

On the threat of local cuisine losing out to international foods, Dr Tay is positive that Singapore’s culinary heritage is here to stay. Citing the spike in events promoting hawker food such as Singapore Food Festival, Ultimate Hawker Fest, and the focus on local cuisine at international Singapore Day events, Dr Tay is proud that the local cuisine is a significant part of a Singaporean’s identity. 

The next step, which Dr Tay has since taken, is to explore the precision required in achieving a perfect dish or drink, and to understand the influence of different variants of a particular ingredient in a dish.

‘With the internet and social media, recipes are easy to obtain. But often times the instructions only tell you so much. Add scientific precision and knowledge to your recipe and then you’re almost always guaranteed success.’ 

‘For example,’ he continues, ‘the optimum temperature to deep fry is at 160 to 180 degree Celsius; the best prawn species for tempura is the Kuruma prawn. Your basic tempura recipe would rarely include such precision and you’ll end up discouraged to attempt another batch.’

‘In fact, how the prawn was bred also affects the taste. It may be a challenge to be so particular but I personally believe that if you want to try something new, learn as much as you can so you’ll get a good result at the first try.’

Dr Tay dilligently chronicles the different types of prawns available and advises which prawn is best for which dish. 

‘Hawker food tends to be seen as oily and unhealthy. How does a hawker enthusiast lead a healthy lifestyle?’ I queried. 

Dr Tay stresses that it simply requires moderation. For breakfast, he has a good, strong cup of tea with no sugar and oatmeal with fruit. For lunch, he eats whatever he wishes to. For dinner, he eats home cooked meals and a bowl of freshly cut fruits-He runs almost every day and spends time in prayer and meditation in order to keep a healthy mind, body and spirit.   

At this point, Dr Tay excused himself to buy a dozen otak-otak. When he returned to our table, he proceeded to open the coconut leaves to expose the otak, arrange the pile in an enticing manner, and then whipped out his phone to snap a picture. A perfectionist, his first try was not satisfactory and eventually he asked me to hold the dozen in my hands hoping that the colour of my shirt would complement the earthy tones of the otak and enhance the image. Unfortunately, it was not good enough and he moved off to another spot with better lighting once again.

Once satisfied, we each took two and after discussing about the paste used, we continued with the interview. 

High School Sweethearts 

Although he spent only two years as a Rafflesian (he went to RJC), Dr Tay knows exactly how it has influenced his life. He met his life partner, his wife, when he was in the students’ council and is blessed to be building a family with her now. Dr Tay stresses the importance of bringing up children of character. In a recent interview for the ‘Dads for Life’ campaign, he discussed his notion of what makes a family good.

‘Ideally, men should not begin to father children until they have committed to loving their [wife].’ 

Their approach to having a loving household is simply to take advantage of the resources available. Both husband and wife attend parenting talks, knowing that the discipline methods of an earlier era may not be effective on their children who come from a generation highly influenced by technology. He also encourages his children to be inquisitive, and feels a sense of pride when they discuss their future with his wife and him. 

His family is also very supportive of his passions and regularly indulges in them with him. In fact, these days, especially on weekends and during school holidays, his son is the designated photographer when they go on their family food hunts. 

With a full stomach and a quenched thirst two hours later, I come to comprehend how Dr Tay has saved the hawker heritage by getting Singaporeans to rethink their dining options and appreciate local cuisine instead of constantly venturing to new restaurants and cafes offering fusion or international cuisine. With his medical and historical knowledge of good hawker foods, their origins, and a balanced lifestyle, he hopes to inspire the next generation of Singaporeans to treasure and preserve our culinary heritage!

 © The interview was conducted and written by Izyan Nadzirah over biryani, teh tarik and otak-otak at Geylang Serai Market. For the foodie adventurer, Only the Best! is available in all major bookstores now. 


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