Many know veteran actor Li Nanxing as the King of Caldecott Hill (before Mediacorp moved to, er, Stars Avenue). But Ah Ge does not wear a crown at home. Instead, he wears a comical-looking plastic yellow hairband, to keep his luscious locks out of the way when he slaves away in the kitchen.
Wait a minute. Ah Ge, in the kitchen? Yep — it’s a little known fact that besides acting, Nanxing is also fab at cooking. And at 53, he still looks as dishy as ever.
“Home-cooked food is okay lah, but I cannot do a banquet.” he chortles in Mandarin over the phone to us in his signature husky voice.
He’s surprised that we express interest in his cooking. “It’s not like my cooking is very good. People just didn’t expect that I can cook traditional dishes,” he says modestly.
After all, the man is so boyishly handsome that you can hardly imagine him in his crisp white T-shirt, stirring a wok loaded with assam curry fish head. “It’s my favourite dish, assam is very appetising,” he enthuses to us.
He learned how to cook his fave Peranakan food from mum and grandma
According to Nanxing, his interest in cooking started from childhood. “Since young, I have been observing my mother preparing food. On special occasions, she'd cook a lot of dishes for my family. It’s tiring work, but she enjoyed the process of cooking. Her specialty was curry chicken.
She’s no longer with us now, but I remember she insisted on pounding her own chilli [with a mortar and pestle] instead of using a blender,” he reminisced.
He picked up cooking chops by helping his mother in the kitchen, explaining: “I have been cooking my own meals since I was around eight years old, things like fried rice. I come from a very poor family, so cooking my own meals was a daily chore. I also prepared the ingredients for my mother to make dinner when she got home from work.”
His cooking is influenced by Peranakan recipes. Ah Ge says: “My [late paternal] grandmother is Peranakan and I have Peranakan blood, so my cooking is very much Nonya-style. I grew up watching her make kueh with pandan leaves too.
I lean towards heavier flavours, so my food may not be suitable for everyone. Some of my friends say it’s too spicy! I grow my own chilli padi and curry leaves [at his semi-detached house in the Holland Village neighbourhood].
I like to cook traditional dishes that my mother and grandmother used to cook, like chicken curry and sambal sotong — I add lemongrass to the sotong so it’s more fragrant.
I’m still experimenting with the dishes till I get them right. There was no such thing as [specific] recipes during my mother and grandmother’s time — everything was agak agak [Malay for estimation]!”
He also enjoys preparing Teochew food
Nanxing, who’s Teochew (his dad is Teochew-Peranakan) and was recently spotted at Chen Shucheng’s new Teochew restaurant called Teochew City, can also whip up a few of his dialect’s specialties.
He explains: “We Teochews like steamed fish and braised duck. I can cook a few things, but I’m not very good at it lah. My Teochew dishes seem to lack a certain something. The Teochews’ traditional braised duck is so good, you can enjoy the sauce with just plain rice.
In the past, there were no refrigerators, so my grandmother would put [braised duck] sauce on leftover fried fish and it becomes a different, delicious dish. The elders are very resourceful. I learned a lot from them.”
Celebrity dinner guests
And then there are the star-studded dinner gatherings that Ah Ge hosts at his crib. He says: “When I’m inspired to cook, I’d ask a few close friends like Chen Liping and Rayson Tan to come over to my place to eat. I need to think of who to invite first, ’cos some of them can’t take spicy food. It depends on who’s free on that day, and they won’t know what I’m serving till they sit down at the table.
My friends always leave my house very stuffed. I told them, ‘Wah, we cannot eat like this everyday’ (laughs). My dishes are heavy and unhealthy. But you can’t tell me to cook with less oil or salt, I wouldn’t know how to modify the recipes! I only serve brown rice ’cos my friends like it. They’d comment on my food and I use their feedback to improve on my cooking.”
Nanxing doesn’t like eating clean
But if Nanxing had his way, he would ply everyone with coconut rice. He raves, “People say it’s unhealthy, but the fragrance of coconut milk is very tempting. You’ll want to eat the rice as soon as you smell it!
When I go to the wet market, I like to check out the spices too. Sometimes when I can’t find a certain spice, I go to Mustafa and they’d have it. Kampong-style cooking is getting harder to do ’cos certain ingredients are difficult to find these days."
Despite his love of all things lemak, Ah Ge is still in fantastic shape. He shares: “I do gardening and brisk walking daily, and I cook and eat at home almost every day unless I’m travelling or out at work.”
According to Nanxing, the fancier nosh is reserved for gatherings. “I cook a bigger variety of dishes when my friends come over. Otherwise, I eat very simple stuff like porridge with steamed fish and vegetables. I can eat the same thing every day!”
Cooking inspiration from nasi padang stall makciks
Don’t be surprised if you find Nanxing doing some foodie research at a nasi padang stall. “Sometimes I go to a kopitiam and ask the nasi padang stall makciks how they cook things like squid ink sotong. I’d try it myself at home, but it’s never as good as theirs (laughs). Because they’d never tell you all their secrets!
But when you taste their food, you can kind of guess what they put in it. So I’d tapow a packet home to slowly taste it and come up with a recipe. Then I’d invite my friends over to try. I don’t repeat dishes often, unless there’s a special request from my friends for a particular dish.”
His most requested dishes, he says, are “fried crabs, sotong with squid ink and steamed chicken with rice wine”. He usually prepares crab and lobster dishes by himself. “Sometimes my helper will help with the preparation,” he shares.
His sumptuously plated food also look like dishes you’d find at a good Chinese restaurant. “I simply cook [the food] and place it on the plate. I don’t think it looks professionally plated, but thanks for the compliment,” he laughs.
The self-proclaimed local food fiend will also roam to wherever the food is good. He says: “I don’t have specific favourite makan places in Singapore, but I’m willing to try any place serving good local food.”
Will he open a restaurant?
But alas, you may never get to taste Ah Ge’s cooking. When we ask if he’d open his own eatery like his pals Constance Song and Chen Shucheng, he says: “I don’t think so! It’s a huge responsibility to run a restaurant. You need to cater to customers’ taste, and everyone has different preferences. You’d end up losing the authenticity of your heritage dishes.”
He was briefly a co-partner of seafood specialist Roland Restaurant in Marine Parade, but dropped out of the business some years ago, citing that he was too busy filming overseas. “I just came back from Beijing as I have a few projects there. I’m reviewing scripts and I’ll be travelling to China for work again at the end of this year,” he shares.
“[Roland Restaurant’s eponymous towkay] Roland and I are good friends, and we both love food. I like eating seafood, so I invested a small sum in his restaurant.”
He has since gotten other offers to set up a restaurant, but Ah Ge declares firmly that he “would rather eat than run a restaurant”. He explains: “Doing F&B is very tiring and requires long hours.”
You also won’t catch him frying up a storm in a cooking competition. “I wouldn’t put myself under pressure like that!” Nanxing exclaims. “Your [cooking] standard drops when you’re under pressure. I cook ’cos I enjoy the process of preparing the ingredients. If I forget something, I would drive out just to get it. I don’t use substitutes! If you cook, do it properly. Don’t take shortcuts and deprive yourself of the real deal.” Spoken like a true gourmand.
Scroll through the photo gallery above for a peek at Ah Ge's dishes and the leading man in action in his home kitchen.