Fusion dancer’s grace and flavor

by Victoria James

When you think of Australian cuisine do you first think “oxymoron,” imagining barbecued kangaroo steak washed down with a swill of Foster’s lager?

Well, if you’re still stuck with the Down Under stereotype, there’s few better than Cheong Liew to correct your preconceptions. From now until April 12, Liew is guesting at the Tokyo Hilton in Shinjuku, where he’ll be dishing up such “New Australian” delicacies as sea urchin souffle and shark fin pouch in venison consomme.

Before turning out his first cover at the hotel’s Twenty One Restaurant on Wednesday, Liew, the father of fusion food and one of Australia’s most acclaimed chefs, laid on a demonstration of his skills for an appreciative audience. On the menu were two dishes: laksa broth with ocean trout and sea urchin mousseline, and boned quail filled with chestnuts and sweet glutinous rice with a taro basket of ostrich and vegetables.

With an assistant at his side and a small army of sous-chefs visible in the open kitchen behind, the diminutive, genial Liew breezed through the demonstration in well under an hour. But forget about trying this at home. The laksa broth alone has 20 ingredients and four garnishes (the mousseline boasts a relatively modest 12 components). In fact, with a shopping list that includes tamarind skin, ginger flower, candlenuts and galangal, you’d be doing well even to assemble all the ingredients.

This isn’t home cooking; it’s restaurant food, and Liew is used to making his at The Grange at the Hilton in Adelaide, the capital of the state of South Australia. A small, rather genteel city that is still firmly attached to its Anglo-Saxon roots, Adeleide was the unlikely birthplace of a culinary trend that has since become a global norm: fusion food. Liew, who is of Malaysian-Chinese ancestry, was there at the beginning.

Indeed, some say that Liew was the beginning.

“As a style of cooking [fusion] wasn’t given this label in America until 1979,” writes journalist and broadcaster Cherry Ripe in “Goodbye Culinary Cringe” (1993). “The ‘first’ so-called East-meets-West dinner — a collaboration between Ken Home and Jeremiah Tower — took place in California in 1980. But it was already being practiced in Adelaide back in 1975. This can be attributed to one man, Cheong Liew . . . He took Asian cooking techniques, applied them to Western ingredients and presented them in a European fashion. What Cheong was turning out was revolutionary.”

For a revolutionary, albeit one who is now part of the establishment (the chef was decorated with the Medal of the Order of Australia in the Queen’s New Year’s honors list in 1999), Liew is laid-back and affable. At the demonstration, he peppers the audience with directions in warm detail — “black beans and brown beans, they just love garlic and ginger” — and self-deprecating humor, describing the fashioning of a basket of mashed taro that will then be deep-fried as “just a little bit of arts and crafts.”

When you pick up the spoon to taste Liew’s cooking, however, there’s no doubting that you’re in the presence of a master. The palate can detect each item from that long list of seasonings in every mouthful, and all are exquisitely harmonized. “The only important thing is harmony and balance of flavor,” Liew explains as we eat. “That, and [the food's] texture on the plate.” (This, too, is spot on; the creamy urchin mousseline complements the firm, pink portion of trout, both nestling under a thatch of noodle-and-beansprout salad bathed in delicate flavors of lime juice, chili, shallot and a “secret ingredient” of preserved shrimp.)

Liew’s skill with seasoning and flavors comes from his familiarity with a variety of culinary traditions. It’s a treasure trove of experience few chefs can match.

Liew grew up following his grandmother to market and learned in her kitchen in Kuala Lumpur the blend of Malay, Indian, Chinese and European cooking that is Malaysia’s culinary heritage. In Australia, he received his first formal training at a Greek restaurant in Adelaide, where he learned the basics of classic European cuisine. Then in 1975, Liew opened Neddy’s, his first restaurant, where he served up dishes that drew on an unprecedented range of culinary traditions.

“Fusion” has been his hallmark ever since.

“But not just anyone can do it,” Liew cautions his audience. “You have to understand French cooking, and at least two others — be they Indian, Chinese, Southeast Asian or whatever.”

The true chef carries this knowledge within himself. “It’s in my body to be able to blend all these spices,” he explains later, describing how he devises new dishes. “And what that means is that when I create a dish, the result is uniquely my own.”

Liew’s signature dish, the Four Dances of the Sea, expresses not only his own personality but that of his adopted country, according to Australian journalist Stephen Downes, who nominated it as Australia’s “National Dish.” Four Dances of the Sea comprises soused snook, cuttlefish sashimi, octopus aioli and spiced prawn sushi. The four elements (to be eaten in that order, on account of increasing flavor and spiciness) represent Japanese/East Asian, contemporary Australian, Mediterranean and Malay cuisines, respectively. It is a bold — and utterly harmonious — culinary statement of multiculturalism and a reflection of the diversity of modern Australia.

This belief in the harmonious co-existence of diverse elements is what makes Liew’s cooking simultaneously daring and satisfying, and his world view so humane. For this master chef literally serves up his philosophy on a plate. “The important thing is [for a chef] to create a dish that’ll make you feel you’re in the company of a person who really loves this planet, loves its people, loves the land,” he told his audience.

“I hope that with food we can reach out in friendship to other cultures around the world.”

It is a philosophy as appetizing as Liew’s cooking itself, and both are a comfort in today’s grim world.