He cooks in the dark

Allan Fraude cooks in the dark!
When a friend told me about Allan Fraude, the star of a 13-episode TV series “Cooking in the Dark,” I was keen to share his story because Fraude is blind and he cooks.  With the right attitude, Fraude, 53, has overcome obstacles with sheer determination and I believe his passion for cooking will inspire others who may be going through challenges in life.  So I made arrangements to visit him and experience his culinary skills.  It was a reunion of sorts when I invited myself over for lunch because way back in the 1950s, my parents and Fraude’s mother used to work together in the Johor Baru General Hospital (now known as Hospital Sultanah Aminah). 

So while our mothers sat down for their chit-chat, I join Fraude in the kitchen to start his cooking demonstration.  Even sighted people may have problems in whipping up a meal but when Fraude comes into his kitchen, he seems comfortable in a
familiar space.  That’s because his wife, Wong Man Chen, has organised their kitchen in such a way that Fraude knows where everything is and can reach for items quite conveniently.  The twin sinks, narrow draining board area as well as the four-stove gas cooker are his domain when he takes over the kitchen to cook seven dishes for our lunch.
Fraude's spicy Devil Curry
The affable Fraude kept up a lively banter as he worked and he did not hesitate to apologise for his small kitchen and how he always works up a sweat while cooking.  I assured him that it’s all right because perspiration is all part of the exercise and that I will let him freshen up after cooking with enough time to powder his nose before the photography session. 

Throughout this time, Fraude was moving around the kitchen between the sink, stove and refrigerator and I was careful to dodge out of his way as he moved with confidence in his familiar work space.

Early Influences

Fraude, the sixth in a family with five older sisters and one younger brother, was not born blind but gradually lost his sight in 1990 due to glaucoma.  His late father, Kalliff Paul Fraude, a Eurasian of Scottish and Thai descent was born in Ipoh and came to Johor to work as a Field Conductor with the Kulai Palm Oil Estate.  His Thai grandmother used to prepare spicy dishes in Thai recipes and as his father acquired a very spicy taste, Fraude and his siblings also got used to the fiery flavours of their unique Thai-Eurasian recipes.  Fraude recalls how he used to help his grandmother buy ingredients for her recipes and this was probably what sparked his interest in cooking and the reason for his personal taste of extremely hot spicy flavours!

Fraude pounding dried prawns using
a traditional mortar and pestle
Chili padi – the small firecracker chili peppers – features greatly in the recipes that were handed down through his Thai grandmother to his father.  Fraude said that his father had a few favourites like Devil Curry, fried kway teow and fried rice that he often cooked for the family, always laced with a generous dash of chili padi.  He fondly remembers how irresistible his father’s Devil Curry was because no matter how spicy it tasted, they would bear the heat to eat it.  They were probably trained for it because since he and his siblings were about 2 or 3 years old his mother would pick the potatoes from the spicy Devil Curry and rinse them out in water for them to eat! 

In the estate, they lived in a bungalow and had a carefree childhood, roaming the estate and mixing freely with Malay and Indian neighbours.  Fraude said they discovered the pleasure of eating traditional Malay and Indian food and were exposed to various cuisine and cultures especially during their festive seasons.  One of the images he remembers well from his childhood is how his mother would grind her own chili paste manually using a batu giling or grinding stone, to cook her famous curry and other spicy dishes.  She is Chinese Teochew and between her Chinese recipes and his father’s Eurasian dishes, they created some unique family favourites, the most popular being a form of Roti John they fondly call Roti Babi because it is a sandwich filled with minced pork, dipped in egg batter before being fried and then savoured with a special spicy dip sauce.  

In those days, travelling traders would set up a small pasar malam or night market in the estate on pay days to sell food and clothes.  Fraude said this was a much anticipated month-end treat for the family because his father often bought them satay and ketupat from a vendor.  He said they seldom ate out and the only times they could savour meals in restaurants was when they were invited to relatives’ wedding banquets.  Even after tasting a wide variety of food, the fond memories of all the good food that his parents used to cook are an inspiration for him to replicate them.

Turning Point

His wife, Man Chen, was a former schoolmate who became his sweetheart and they were married in 1989.  For 10 years Fraude was a Frontline Staff with a bank in Kulaijaya and over the years, he often experienced high eye pressure and was later diagnosed with glaucoma.  He did not realise that optic nerve damage was gradually developing in his eyes and his vision was slowly deteriorating.  Man Chen recalls the horror of being called to the bank one day for an emergency when Fraude was suddenly bleeding from his left eye.

Allan Fraude with his wife, Man Chen [2nd from Left], their daughter Rebecca [Left], his mother, Rose [Right] and
their pet dogs Dang Dang and Tzu Tzu [on his lap]
She rushed him to the hospital but after treatment, the permanent damage to the optic nerves resulted in his gradual loss of sight in his left eye.  Man Chen will never forget that night in 1990 when she was pregnant at full-term and her water suddenly broke.  She said it was a miracle that Fraude managed to drive her safely to the hospital in Johor Baru at about 2am when there was less than 10% vision left in his right eye! 

Fraude’s glaucoma degenerated rapidly and when their daughter, Rebecca, was just two months old, he became blind.  With such a disability, he could no long work with the bank and had to be rehabilitated to acquire new skills.  In 1993, Fraude joined the Gurney Training Centre in Kuala Lumpur where he learnt to read Braille and other skills to live with his disability.  Even though Fraude took a training course in massage therapy, he did not pursue it as a career.

Fraude with the dishes he cooked for
our lunch!
Man Chen became the sole breadwinner of the family and as she hardly had time to cook, they usually had their meals in the homes of Fraude’s mother and his mother-in-law or they would eat at nearby restaurants.  At one point, they decided to order catered food for its convenience but it was not long before they got tired of the menu and cancelled the order.  In her advancing age, his mother seldom cooked and as Fraude started to miss her food, he decided to try cooking their family recipes.

It was a turning point for Fraude when he made up his mind to be useful in the kitchen to provide meals as memorable as what he experienced in his own childhood.  If he was unsure of the recipes, he would phone his mother to ask her about ingredients and how to prepare certain dishes.  He realised that if he did not learn how to cook those familiar favourites, he may never taste them again because even his sisters did not master their family’s recipes. 

“My wife and daughter were my guinea pigs,” said Fraude with a chuckle as Man Chen smiled in agreement.  Her courage in supporting his culinary pursuits reaped a mutual benefit because Fraude gained a new confidence as he successfully whipped up many family recipes not only to his own satisfaction but to the delight of family and friends who enjoy his delicious dishes.  

Cooking in the Dark

Fraude’s new-found confidence in cooking caught the attention of his niece, Sonia Chall, who was so impressed that she introduced him to a local production company, Crooked Mirror Productions.  The producer cast him as the star of their 13-episode TV series “Cooking in the Dark” where the blind cook shares the secrets of his family recipes.  In the 30-minute programme hosted by Malaysian TV personality, Jay Menon, Fraude demonstrates his unique ability to cook in the dark as he kept up a lively banter with her.  This TV series aims to inspire the disabled with Fraude’s “can-do” spirit and uses cooking as a life analogy to show how we can overcome any obstacles in life with determination and a positive attitude.  

Cameras filming Fraude for the TV series
with Jay Menon looking on
He recalls his exciting experience during the filming in Kuala Lumpur and the challenges of cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen but agreed that it was great fun to whip up more than 20 of his family’s recipes for the series.  Besides his father’s recipe for Devil Curry, Fraude also made local favourites like popiah, nasi lemak, petai sambal as well as Indian fish curry.  While the TV series is in post production and waiting to be aired, I’m glad that Fraude graciously agreed to demonstrate his cooking and let me taste some of his food.

“I’ve never cut myself before,” said Fraude with a smug smile as he wielded the knife with precision to slice the cucumbers for stir-frying with dried shrimps and garlic.  Using his touch and feel senses, Fraude put dried shrimps and garlic pips into the mortar and pounded them with the pestle.  I watched with fascination as Fraude washed and measured out the lengths of brinjals and ladies fingers and deftly cut them into equal lengths to add into the Fish Curry simmering in the pot.  He listens to the sizzle and pop and smells the fragrance of the sautéed ingredients to ascertain how well cooked the food is as he moves the pots and pans around the stove and sink with an amazing skill by literally cooking in the dark.

My mum [Left] catching up with Rose, a former colleague
As we sit down to enjoy a sumptuous lunch of some of Fraude’s favourites, I’m deeply humbled because he has proven beyond a doubt that his sightless eyes, is no disability.  My respect for Fraude grew with every bite of his fiery Devil Curry, Fish Curry, Masala Mashed Potatoes, Egg Omelet, stir-fried Cucumber with dried shrimps and garlic, Stewed Chicken in black sauce and stir-fried Bean Sprouts with salted fish.  His determination to live more independently and contribute actively to the well-being of his family, is truly an inspiration.  As Rebecca helped to serve at the table and Man Chen tidied up the kitchen, I can sense their unspoken pride in Fraude.

A version of this article was published in The New Sunday Times, Life & Times on 20 July 2014

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