Spicing up dishes

Cookbook author Andrew Johnson's fascination with spices started when he was four and he wondered if he could cover a tree in stars by planting star anise.

When he was nine, he discovered the medicinal properties of spices when his mother rubbed a clove on his gums to cure a toothache.

As a 20-year-old on a trip to the coastal city of Kochi in Kerala, India, he was constantly told by the locals that "spice is mother earth".

That mantra stuck with him and spices have become part of the 44-year-old's cooking.

They feature prominently in his debut cookbook, AJ's Food Roots: Southeast Asian And Sri Lankan Flavours, a collection of family recipes and those he developed over the years. The recipes are versatile too; meats can be substituted with seafood or vegetables and vice versa.

One of his recipes - prawns in cream sauce - is his spiced-up version of a simple prawn dish.

Johnson, who is AJ to friends and family, says: "My mother-in-law is very into Chinesestyle cooking. She always recommends using Shaoxing wine to mask the fishy flavour of seafood."

So with the wine, he makes a basic marinade using corn flour, black pepper, sugar and salt.

The passionate cook advocates making everything from scratch and not using processed food such as prepacked curry powder. He spices the prawns up with a creamy sauce of coconut milk, turmeric powder, Thai basil, curry leaves and chilli padi.

His love for cooking stems from growing up in Penang. His 74-year-old Anglo-Burmese father is a retired colonel from the Malaysian Army and his 70-year-old housewife mother of German and Dutch heritage is from Sri Lanka. His 47-year-old sister, a chef, lives in Perth.

Calling himself a "kampung boy" at heart, he regales SundayLife! with stories of fishing with his father in Malaysia, bonding with his mother over cooking and gutting fish for the neighbours.

He used to work at the front desk of Raffles Hotel in 1990 before working as a systems engineer.

But the call of the food industry was one he could not ignore and he went on to open a curry puff shop called Spice Tree in Geylang in 2003. It received rave reviews and topped a blind tasting of curry puffs that year by the nowdefunct Streats newspaper. However, due to steep rental hikes, he closed it a year later.

In 2005, he went on to be director at Italian restaurant Il Lido for three years before joining Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel as group sommelier of Italian restaurant Pontini in 2008.

He is now managing director of Ayden Wines, which distributes wines for Marco Bacci, which owns three wineries in Tuscany. He is so serious about his job as its wine ambassador that he visits the wine region in Tuscany every three to six months to check on the harvest and even harvests the grapes himself.

In his free time, he is a body builder.

He and his wife Barbara Chng, 40, a personal trainer, have four-year-old twins, Brad and Ariel. The children have developed his love for cooking, he says.

"People scare children about how the kitchen is dangerous. But it's how you train them," he says. "My son sits in front of the oven to wait for cookies to bake. He opens it for the 'cookie smell' and, through that, he learns about aromas."

The savvy daddy also fills pans with cold water and leaves the handles sticking out.

"When my kids pulled the pans, they got a shock from the water. Then I explain that it's not safe, imagine if it's hot water. Now, if I leave handles sticking out when I cook, they will remind me," he says.

He also shares another tip: Put a tomato in a blender and blend it in front of the children.

"After they see what happens to it, ask them if they can put their finger in. They will shake their heads in horror," he says with a chuckle.

AJ's Food Roots: Southeast Asian And Sri Lankan Flavours is available at all major bookstores at $49.90.

This article was first published on December 28, 2014.
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