Outside of work, he’s eating and drinking with his wife Kathryn Yap, and stealing time to cook something for family and friends. He has lived and worked in the US and all over Asia, but his hometown in Georgetown, Penang has a special place in his heart and stomach.
When we asked Martin to share one of his beloved recipes, he chose the aburi salmon belly and fried onions on sushi rice, saying that “it’s an easy and beautiful dish to make”. Most of the food he cooks are inspired by something he and Kathryn enjoyed during their travels. They believe one has to eat a lot to learn about food, and the same goes with wine. Ahead, he shares more about the dish and how cooking is his respite from these uncertain times.
Why were you inspired to re-create it?
It seemed relatively easy. I never try to reproduce something exactly the way it’s made in a restaurant. I’m a home cook, not a professional chef, and I’m too lazy and impatient to follow recipes. If I can’t comprehend the dish in my mind I won’t try making it with my hands. Over the years I’ve made this dish dozens of times. It’s only for sit-down dinner parties of no more than 12, and best enjoyed in small portions. The food I make is full of natural fats, so we don’t invite anyone who is on a low-fat diet. I know it’s not very inclusive but that’s the way we roll in our family! Maybe it’s confirmation bias, but our friends who have had this all commend the char from the aburi salmon belly, the acidity from the ponzu, the umami in the konbu rice, and of course the oomph of the French fried onions!
How long does this take to make?
Depends on how well you cheat! It takes 30-40 mins from start to finish if you can buy pre-sliced sashimi grade salmon belly. If you want to slice the salmon yourself, it will take longer.
Suggestion of alcohol pairing, if at all?
Champagne, white burgundy or rosé. A good IPA works too!
This dish can impress…
Pescatarians and anyone who loves salmon belly.
Are you a good cook, generally speaking?
My wife says so, and she is my ultimate critic. This dish is on her approved list.
Who did you learn to cook from?
You know the story of the boy who grew up as his mother’s kitchen assistant? The one who grated coconuts for santan, and pounded sambal belachan, and walked to the neighbourhood sundry shop for supplies? That’s me. I learned thru osmosis; growing up in a home with good food, being in Penang with the best street food in the world, and having nothing else better to do.
How often do you cook?
I cook on demand, i.e. when my family demands! I used to cook mostly for parties at home, but Covid-19 led me to cook almost every day, which is therapeutic for me. In a year when nothing seems in control, it’s nice to be able to still make a good meal and see it take shape in my hands. Of course, I make simpler food now at home since there are no big parties anymore, but the feeling is the same. It’s like breathing life back into the soul, after a world full of bad news has depleted us.
Do you bake?
I don’t bake at all. Baking is a science, you need to respect the recipe and follow it diligently to get something predictable. Cooking is an art, you get to express yourself and take risk at every step of the process. If you approach cooking like a science you can still make great food, but it won’t really be from deep inside you.
What is your personal favourite dish that you cook yourself?
It’s always the next thing I’m inspired to make. The next thing is always going to be greater!
Any favourite recipe books, chefs or cooking shows you can recommend and why?
Too many to list! I get ideas from everywhere. But I do love Nigella Lawson because she’s someone I’d like to cook for one day. Oh, and Chef’s Table on Netflix for the artistic direction.
Ingredients (serves four to five people if you’re complementing with one or two more dishes)
40 slices sashimi-grade salmon belly; roughly half the thickness of sashimi
2 cups Japanese rice
3 to 4 tablespoons mirin
3 tablespoons shio kombu, finely chopped
2 large or 3 to 4 smaller onions; yellow or purple, sliced
8 to 10 tablespoons ponzu, according to taste
100 to 150g ikura
Japanese mayonnaise (Kewpie is fine)
Furikake, any type you like
- Soak and cook the rice. Let it cool to lose some steam.
- Fold in mirin and chopped shio kombu. This is to be used as the base.
- French-fry onions in your choice of oil until golden brown
- In a very large shallow dish or pan (like a paella pan), quickly spread the konbu rice to about 1 to 2cm in height
- For the second layer, lay out the sliced salmon belly in a non-overlapping pattern, covering most of the rice. Using your fingers, squeeze and smear a thin coat of mayo over each slice of salmon belly
- Using a torch, sear the salmon belly slices until you see fat bubbling and some charring occur. Don’t worry if some of the exposed rice starts to char as well — that’s a good sign!
- Drizzle a tablespoon of ponzu over the salmon belly to season.
- Add French-fried onions generously over the salmon belly, and follow with the ikura.
- Garnish with furikake sprinkled over everything.
Remember, the rice is at the bottom to soak up the aburi salmon fat and ponzu from the upper layers, so make sure you eat every grain of it!
(All images: Martin Geh)