Meet the 79-year-old grandma & 19-year-old poly student gunning for MasterChef S'pore

Stories of Us: Lilly Ong Swee Neo, a grandmother of 18, and Tara Prasob, a polytechnic student, tell us about their love for cooking and for sharing food with family and friends.

Jane Zhang | February 07, 2021, 02:34 PM

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At first glance, you might think that Lilly Ong Swee Neo and Tara Prasob couldn't be more different.

Ong is 79 years old and the grandmother to 18 grandchildren. Tara, on the other hand, is a 19-year-old polytechnic student studying events management.

But one thing they definitely have in common? A passion for cooking.

Ong and Tara are also the oldest and youngest applicants to sign up for the second season of MasterChef Singapore, respectively.

Oh, and the best thing they have in common (in my opinion)? Their generosity with food, which they both shared with me when I sat down to chat about their passion for cooking a few months ago.

Started at a young age

Sitting in the living room of her youngest son's flat, where she lives, Ong tells me that she started learning to cook Peranakan cuisine from her grandmother when she was only eight years old.

And because her neighbours came from diverse backgrounds, she also learned to cook a variety of cuisines — Malay, Indian, and Chinese.

Back then, she says, things were different. There were no machines, so everything had to be done by hand.

"Nowadays, all press button. Last time, your fire, must chop the wood, bring charcoal."

Coincidentally, Tara also developed an interest in cooking at the young age of eight.

Realising that she enjoyed cooking, Tara's parents allowed her to work in the kitchen under supervision.

Back then, she would prepare simple dishes, like omelettes and instant noodles, she tells me, perched on a couch in her parents' living room.

Tara's cooking skills developed further when, as a teen, she began searching for more difficult recipes online, expanding her repertoire to include western food, Chinese food, and her favourite cuisine of all — Thai.

Experimenting with new recipes

As someone who is quite inexperienced when it comes to cooking, one thing that I'm curious about is how Ong and Tara even decide what to make, and where their recipes come from.

For Tara, cooking is very much about experimenting with different flavours and trying to replicate dishes that taste good, rather than following recipes to the tee.

"It's like, when I've tasted a curry, I have the ability to be like, 'this has tamarind, this has tomato, this has sugar.' Then I will know that these are the ingredients in there."

She then looks up the recipe online to check the basic ingredients, and then adjusts them as she sees fit along the way.

"I don't really follow a recipe that often," she chuckles.

Innovation is a big part of her cooking, Tara explains, rather than being a "copy-paste chef".

"I feel like when it comes to cooking, if you copy-paste, you don't really learn much, lah.

When it comes to turning the dish to your favour and start incorporating things that are not in the recipes, that's when you start to realise that, hey, this is actually quite fun."

Photo courtesy of Tara Prasob.

Tara explains how she started off her experimenting with spaghetti carbonara when she was around 14 years old, after having used an original recipe many times.

First, she says, she tried adding mushroom, which turned out tasting "not bad".

Another time, she tried adding tom yum paste. Unfortunately, that was "not that nice", Tara says quickly, laughing.

However, it did open up a different door for her:

"I mean, it's a mistake. But then what happened is that I realised that carbonara and tom yum, no.

But just tom yum with pasta? It actually tastes good. Just don't add cheese to tom yum."

Tara brings me to the kitchen, where she opens up the fridge to give me one of her latest creations — an earl grey tea cupcake.

"Yesterday, I drank earl grey tea, and I was like, I want to make this into a cake. Maybe I'll turn it into a cupcake first."

Photo by Jane Zhang.

While making it, she felt that the recipe could use a bit of citrus, even though it seemed like a "weird combination", so she added a bit of lime juice to the buttercream.

Perhaps she will try adding sour cream to the cupcake batter next time around, to make it more moist, she muses.

She's only in the early stages of this taste experiment, she says, but she will eventually come up with a recipe.

Peranakan culture

Ong also enjoys playing with different flavours.

She serves us generous heaps of tom yum tang hoon that she made, a dish derived from Thai, Peranakan, and Malay cuisines, checking repeatedly throughout our one-hour conversation whether we've had enough to eat, and if we'd like more water or tea.

Ong's beautifully plated tom yum tang hoon. Photo by Jane Zhang.

A proud Peranakan, Ong loves to make traditional Peranakan food, a food culture which is already imbued with a montage of flavours.

Her favourite dishes to make? Fish otah, babi pongteh, and chicken rendang, she says.

She hopes to pass these Peranakan recipes down to her grandchildren, especially the recipes for making Nyonya kaya and Nyonya cookies, as they are part of their culture.

Ong with her four children and 18 grandchildren, in 2009. Photo courtesy of Ong and family.

And as all of her recipes are currently in Ong's head, her eldest granddaughter is helping her to write them down.

"It's for your own good," she tells her grandchildren.

"Because you can never get such ethnic food [outside] nowadays. Even if you go to a Peranakan place, the food is totally different."

Time- and labour-intensive

The thing about cooking, though, is that most of the time, it isn't quick and easy.  Sourcing ingredients also takes time.

Ong wakes up early in the mornings to go buy the best spices and freshest ingredients. One of the places she frequents is Kovan Market, where she goes to buy her fish.

"Because I know the fishmonger. So I will bargain with him lah! I always tell him, 'I always buy from you, so expensive!'" she says lightheartedly.

The cooking process itself, though, Ong says is "very fast", despite having to prepare large portions for her large family. As she has been cooking for decades, she's picked up a habit of efficiency.

Tara, on the other hand, loves to savour the time she spends cooking.

When she cooks — usually twice a week — she sets aside seven hours to do so, starting at around midnight.

"When I'm cooking, I feel like I'm in a different space. I can't really see the things around me, and there's drive, there's a focus. I know what to do.

And the seven hours just go like that. I won't even notice it."

And that's not even including the time it takes her to acquire ingredients, a process which starts with her earning the money to buy them.

Tara still lives with her parents, but funds her cooking by working part-time.

"That's something unique about me, I guess. Most of my friends, when they get money, they'll be like, 'Eh, let's go to a bar.' Or 'let's go drink'. Or 'let's go for a movie'.

I'm the kind who will say, 'I'm going to go home and cook now.' That's how much I really love to cook."

Despite the time and energy that the cooking process demands, both Ong and Tara say that they don't feel stressed or tired while cooking.

"Actually, if you see me cooking, right, I don't look stressed at all. Like, it can be 100 degrees in the kitchen, but I can be dancing and cooking, in my own world," Tara explains.

"So, it's more an escape from reality, and that's what I enjoy so much about it."

Cooking for loved ones

Ong and Tara both find joy in cooking for their loved ones.

Ong, who cooks a few times a week for her church members, remarks:

"It's really a joy, to see people eating [your food]. The way they eat, that is satisfaction."

A shepherd's pie Ong cooked for her church. Photo courtesy of Ong and family.

Cooking for her family also brings her that joy, she adds, earnestly:

"People ask me, 'You go to market, you cook, you wash, you clean, then after that at night you still cook some more?'

I say, 'Nothing, what.' It's like nothing to me. It's the kind of joy you get."

For Tara, she really enjoys cooking for her friends and her parents, and often gets their help to taste-test new recipes that she tries out.

She often organises picnics where she prepares food for her friends.

"The most recent one was butter chicken and naan, and they finished it before I got back from the toilet.

When I asked if it was good, they just said, 'Is there any left?'"

I make a mental note to myself that I should definitely encourage more of my friends to take up cooking.

Tara's father has also been one of her biggest supporters, and gives her constructive criticism whenever she tries a new recipe.

"He's very critical of my cooking, but it's a good thing in my opinion [because] there's always room for improvement."

Encouraged to apply to MasterChef Singapore

Ong and Tara — who are the oldest and youngest applicants to audition for MasterChef Singapore's second season — were both encouraged by their friends and loved ones to apply.

Ong had actually wanted to apply for the first season, but missed the deadline. So when she saw a call for applicants for season two on TV, she immediately asked her oldest granddaughter to help her sign up.

"It was a wonderful experience," she says about the opportunity to cook in the test kitchen.

Just like Ong, Tara had also wanted to audition for the first season of MasterChef Singapore. She was disappointed to find out, though, that she was too young for the cutoff age.

So when the call for season two participants went out, a number of Tara's friends reached out to encourage her to sign up.

One of the recipes Tara submitted for her MasterChef Singapore audition. Photo courtesy of Tara Prasob.

What's next?

The next step in both Ong's and Tara's cooking journeys is finding out whether they made the cut for MasterChef Singapore season two, which will premiere Sunday, Feb. 21 at 9:30pm on Channel 5.

The top 24 cooks will be chosen to contest one another in a series of high-pressure cooking auditions, and the top 12 will then have the opportunity to compete in the MasterChef kitchen to become Singapore's next MasterChef.

Whether or not Ong and Tara make the cut, they both seem to be content pursuing their passion for cooking.

After she finishes polytechnic, Tara plans to apply to culinary degree programmes, because cooking is her first love — a realisation that she had after studying events management for three years:

"I realise that... what you love comes first. So that's when I realised that I really want to be a chef now. There's nothing else that can even compare."

Thankfully, she says, her parents are supportive.

Tara with her parents. Photo by Jane Zhang.

Tara's father tells me:

"You can study be a doctor or whatever, but if you don't have a passion, there's no use. Your life will be ruined, you know.

If you have a passion, no matter what, it's not [about] money, it's other things; it's job satisfaction that makes you happy."

While joining a culinary competition is an exciting prospect for Ong, there is no doubt that she will continue to derive great joy from serving delicious food and passing on her culture to those around her, be it her family, her church members, or even a random Mothership writer.

As she presses a takeaway container full of tom yum tang hoon and an entire jar of homemade achar into my hands, Ong remarks about her passion for cooking for people around her:

"It is a kind of a life that you feel is well worth it."

Photo by Jane Zhang.

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Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people in Singapore and the unique ways they’re living their lives. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or the struggles they are facing, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.

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Top photos by Jane Zhang and courtesy of Tara Prasob. Some quotes have been edited for clarity.