A Doctor, A Writer, A Carrot Cake Maker
News | 20 November 2013
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.
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
mind me. I’m taking photos of the biryani for my blog! Please, go ahead and
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.
later, as I am halfway into my meal, Dr Tay finally proceeds to indulge in his
‘How is it?’
I asked, awaiting his verdict.
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
we started the interview proper, but not without distractions.
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.
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.’
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.
he says, smiling conspiringly, ‘I benefit from such a service too. I get
exercise out of it!’
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.’
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.’
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.
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.
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.
satisfied, we each took two and after discussing about the paste used, we
continued with the interview.
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.
men should not begin to father children until they have committed to loving
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.
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
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!
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.