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Jul 21, 2017

Violet Oon's Spice of Life

Photo courtesy of Violet Oon.

When Violet Oon was skinny as a child, her mother fed her with "Scotts Cod Liver Oil" to make her fat. She told John Lui in an interview over a decade ago in The Straits Times of 14 December, 2009.

Our pioneer generation friends and I missed this candid interview with Violet Oon and many interesting articles written by her for many years as a journalist in The Straits Times, Singapore Monitor, New Nation and other publications which are now defunct.   Some may have read it but have forgotten the full detail of the interview ... unless one of Violet's food fan to keep the newspaper clippings.

The old newspapers are not just rubbish or garbage for the "karung guni man" to sell at a few cents a kati.  The printed words in all languages of the newspapers and other publications are the gems valuable for knowledge and resources which everyone could learn and share for education.  Lessons on spice of life which are worthwhile to share.

Once thrown away, general knowledge which are precious and hard to find.  Thanks to media technology as archived articles which are scanned and stored in the public libraries available all over the world on the Internet.

It is my pleasure to reproduce this "aged" newspaper article as "memory-aids" (with courtesy of NewspaperSG, National Library Board of Singapore) which we learn lots of meaningful stuff to share her memories and experiences on Violet's spice of life.  

Despite being Peranakan, the food guru did not pay much attention to food when growing up.

One would expect that Violet Oon, 60, who made her reputation as a food writer, cookbook author, gourmand and expert on Peranakan cuisine, would have learnt to cook the way all privileged Peranakan girls do; at her mother's knee.

But in fact, she did not learn to cook till she was in her teens.  Her mother, Mrs Nancy Oon, belonged to the first generation of liberated, progressive Peranakan women who did not believe that women had to learn homemaking skills.

Mrs Oon worked for a while as secretary to Singapore's first chief minister David Marshall but later spent much of her time doing voluntary community work.  She was the voluntary chairman of a family planning association in Malacca.

"She went out to educate villagers about contraception," Violet says.  Even before she was born, her parents had decided to have only one child, regardless of the child's sex.

Her father was an executive with the Shell oil company, and as the daughter of a well-placed couple, she enjoyed the life-style of British colonial expatriates just before the era faded away.

The family had a nanny who cooked and the young Violet did not have to step into the kitchen.

She was born in 1949 a "totally skinny baby", weighing 2.3 kg, delivered at Kandang Kerbau Hospital by Dr Benjamin Sheares, who would later become the second president of the Republic.

President Benjamin Sheares

Her father named her after Violet Caldwell, an English woman whom he had befriended while working for the British Army as a radio monitor in Kashmir, India, during World War II.

"My first food memories were of being fed cod liver oil to make me fat.  I think my mother regretted it forever because I later remained fat," Violet says laughing.

She insists that the beguiling byline photograph for her restaurant revies in the now-defunct New Nation newspaper that many remember from the 1970s was deceptive.  She had a thin face, she says.

The small semi-detached in Kuo Chuan Avenue, near Still Road, where she spent her first years still exists.  Her mother fed her simple, nutritious Chinese food cooked by their Cantonese amah.

The young Violet did not enjoy the meals much.  But when she was at her neighbour's, a Hokkien family, she would enjoy forbidden pleasures such as coffee and a particular type of "smelly fried fish", she recalls.

While life in Singapore was, by the middle-class standards of the day, fairly ordinary, it was during her father's regular postings to Malacca that her family would go "Somerset Maugham", she says.

There were tea parties on the lawn of their black-and-white bungalow, retreats to hill stations in the Cameron Highlands, a driver and servants, and, of course, a Hainanese cook.

It was about as colonial an experience as one could get in post-war Malaya without actually being a white expatriate.

"We lived the life of pukka sahib people," she says with a laugh, using the phrase popular during colonial times to describe the privileged lifestyle of the British posted to an exotic outpost of the empire.

Her father, Mr Oon Beng Soon, was one of the few Asians in Shell's management in the 1940s.  He had been educated at Raffles College and had told her that her great-grandfather had been a professional gambler and a man skilled enough in his profession to afford sending several of his children to medical school.

At three, she left Singapore and Malacca for the first time.  The family would spend two years there.

"We lived in a humongous black-and-white bungalow in Klebang Besar.  There were three houses - the middle one was for the manager of Shell flanked by two houses that were for the assistant managers."  Her family took one of the side bungalows.

In Malacca, she remembers watching how the locals ate.  She was fascinated by how rice farmers made salted duck's eggs, in front of the bungalows was a citrus farm where they grew pomelos and local oranges, she says.

She reckons she attended six schools from Primary One to Secondary Four during the years when her family lived in Singapore, Malacca, Kuala Lumpur and London.  Most were convents, though the family is not Catholic.

"One Reverend Mother would write to another and you could get into some of the best schools in the world" is how she describes being able to jump from one convent to another.

Her tertiary education was at the then University of Singapore, where she studied political science and sociology.

In Secondary One, though, she boarded at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus in Victoria Street and remembers she "went to sleep with the blinking lights of Capitol cinema every night".

Her father had put her there because, as an only child, he felt she lacked contact with other children.

Mr Oon, with the memory of World War II still fresh in his mind, also believed that things were just a bit too cushy for his only child.  "He said that anyone could get used to luxury, but youd had to be trained to get used to war."

He got his wish.  "The food was dreadful," she says.  Rice with one meat and one vegetable "boild to death" was served.  Meal times also came with its own rules.  She remembers one girl who tossed her food, uneaten, into the bin.  The nuns made her take it back and eat it.

"I'm not precious about food," she says of her own daily meal-time routine now, thanks to those formative years.  She will happily eat at any coffee shop or hawker centre.

She has other more pleasant food memories, such as going with her father to eat nasi melayu, or Malay rice, every Sunday morning.  Her mother finally learnt to cook out of necessity, taking classes in Chinese cooking so she could serve home-cooked meals in London.

When Violet was 16, her eyes were opened to the intensity and sophistication of Nonya food through Mrs Khoo Heng Loon, whom she called Auntie Nanny.  Mrs Khoo's husband was her mother's uncle.

Auntie Nanny, an Indonesian Chinese, was a "spectacular cook" and her first inspiration to learn kitchen technique, say Violet.  From her mother, she learnt that everyone can cook, at any age.

She studied Mrs Khoo's methods and asked to be taken under her wing to learn her specialities such as nasi udang (prawn fried rice), nasi kuning (Indonesian tumeric rice) and kueh lapis.  So traditional was Auntie Nanny that she made her own vinegar and yeast, skills that Violet says she has since forgotten.

She also credits her mother and her father's sister, Mrs Nona Bong, with teaching and inspiring her in the kitchen.

She learnt by watching and asking, she says.  Like many great cooks, her relatives worked by estimation and instinct, and the student had to work out the exact amounts on her own.  Once she had it written down, she would test out the recipes immediately.

During that period, she was interested in only Indonesian and Nonya cuisine.  The interest in the food of other cultures would come later, as would formal culinary training.  But she never thought about pursuing the culinary arts as a career.

"As a teenager, my first love was music and I sang a lot and performed a lot," she says.  The keen opera and classical enthusiast once won first prize at the Singapore Musical Society Open Competition for Singing.

She used to sing duets with her father, who was untrained but had a natural tenor voice.  "People said he sounded like Mario Lanza," she says.

Over the decades, she has seen food culture explode in Singapore.  Today, people travel the world sampling food and whip up complex dishes at home.

Compared with classical music, which requires determination and effort, she says that learning about fine food and wine is relatively painless.

"For many young executives, food is the fastest and cheapest way to buy into culture and a sophisticated lifestyle," she says.

You cannot bluff your way in Beethoven, the same way people can about food and wine, says Violet, who was trained up to Grade 8 in piano and voice in London and Singapore.

In 1971, she joined the New Nation, an afternoon daily, as a features writer.  Thanks to her background in music, she was also given the job of music critic.

"Wah! Paradise! Free tickets to every concert.  In those days, I would pay $50 to watch the London Symphony Orchestra, I was lucky to have my hobby turn into a career," she says.

Mr David Kraal, 72, the former New Nation editor who hired her as a music critic, remembers her as someone who came from a "privileged background but she was tough.  She had no airs".

She was later given the job of food writer, thanks in part to her culinary skills.  In the newsroom, many knew of her culinary talent because of the home parties she threw.

As a food critic, she had to talk to hawkers, a job she had no problems with, Mr Kraal recalls.  He believes she was the first in the English-language press to write regularly about street and coffeeshop food.  Her column quickly became popular.

"She would go out to some nasi padang stall and she would come back with a half-page story.  If she said it was good, the crowds would flock there," he says.

Violet left New Nation in the late 1970s to write for Her World magazine.  She left in 1981 to do freelance writing and conduct cooking classes.

This grew into a consultancy and she now advises event organisers on how to promote Singapore through food.  She is also a Singapore food ambassador for the Singapore Tourism Board promoting local cuisine overseas.

Perhaps more than any other writer in English here, she turned street food into topics that people talk and get excited about.  Her recipes demystified Peranakan food, long considered a black art with a reputation for jealously guarded secrets, tedious preparation and complex ingredient lists.

The voluble writer's memories emerge in an untamed torrent during the interview.  But the one-time journalist also has a trained ear for the anecdote, especially ones where she pokes fun at herself.

"People heard my singing voice when I was younger and fell in love on the spot, then they heard me speak and they fell out of love at once!  Why do I sound so mak nenek?  Dreadful."

The interview with Violet is a very entertaining three hours spent at her flat in Braddell Hill.

Her home is filled with photographs of her and her two children, a son and daughter, as well as her current pride and joy, her 2½ -year-old grandson, her daughter's child.

The plant filled flat is furnished with a mix of modern and Peranakan pieces.

Now, she has a new venture.  She has launched a business that she calls a "deli makan shop" in a nondescript industrial spot in Toa Payoh North.  It is part-laboratory and part-kitchen for her food consultancy business.

It also serves Nonya food such as ayam buah keluak, garam assam fish, sambal sotong and ngo hiang to drop-in customers from 11.30 am to 7 pm, Mondays to Fridays.  Dinner is by reservation only.  Set meal prices start at $7.90.

Her hesitancy in going full bore into a pure restaurant business is understandable as not all her past business endeavours have paid off.  Her publication, The Food Paper, and her own chain of eateries folded in the 1990s.

Why is she launching another eatery at this stage of her career?  Violet is fond of a phrase of Mr Steve Jobs', the chief executive of Apple.

Quoting a 2005 commencement speech he gave at Stanford University, she says: "Stay hungry. Stay foolish."

This favorite photo taken at the National Kitchen with Violet Oon and Sylvia Toh Paik Choo (best known for her "Eh Goodu" books and long-time colleague with The Straits Times) for high tea. 



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