Chinese food, although delicious in its own right, takes most of the limelight when the topic of Southeast or East Asian food comes up in any discussion. The highly adaptable and easy-flowing style of cooking has been the reason for its mega popularity. The evolution of the cuisine itself, in different parts of the world, has had a role to play. Eventually, the authentic Chinese cuisine got adapted into various region and culture specific versions, to make it more palatable to the masses.
Credit where it's due - we’re not claiming Chinese food doesn’t deserve that adulation that it receives. But in that process, many other worthy indigenous Asian cuisines have never been able to make their case.
However, since the latter part of the previous decade, dishes from other Asian countries have seen a surge in popularity worldwide. Although few Japanese or Korean eateries have existed in major cities for a while, the number of Asian restaurants have increased exponentially over time. And this is not including the lesser known cuisines from countries such as Laos or the Philippines. Today, if you’re situated in a place like LA, for example, a Google search would return innumerable listicles of “Best Laotian and Filipino Restaurants near you” and the likes. This highly awaited cultural shift is what people had been waiting for; which now ensured that people had easier accessibility to the many forms of East Asian food.
Jenn Lee - The MasterChef Australia Alumna wants to make traditional East Asian food accessible to all..
Chef Jenn Lee is one such personality who is on a culinary journey of her own to play her part in educating more people about different Southeast and East Asian cuisines, often putting her own touch on the recipes.
Born in Taiwan, Lee with her parents and two sisters moved to Brisbane, Australia at the age of six. However, the family always remained very attuned to their Taiwanese lifestyle, especially through food.
“..Mom always made authentic dishes for us during cultural holidays so we didn't miss out on that experience. That really rubbed off on me because I grew up watching her being busy in the kitchen, watching her pour love into the food. And you can directly feel how happy that makes somebody feel when they eat that food. I think that's what really got me so fascinated by cooking..”
In hindsight, it makes sense to see how this early interest in cooking eventually got her a ticket to the world’s grandest culinary stage. A dentist by trade, Jenn shies away from being called a “chef” even today. Yet she mounted an impressive challenge against chefs from previous seasons and new entrants, in the special edition of MasterChef Australia: Fans and Favorites, of which she was a part. Her participation in a show like MasterChef ignited an increased fascination among audiences on the nuanced variety of East Asian cooking. Melissa Leong, one of the judges echoed the same sentiment, stating that the kind of dishes Lee cooked on the show is not something one would be able to order at restaurants anywhere.
After months of back and forth, we finally got the opportunity to have a conversation with Lee as she spoke to us at great length about her culinary journey so far, her thoughts on the introduction of tech in the kitchen and her own philosophies behind the food that she loves to create.
QnA with Chef Jenn Lee
N: Chef Jenn, please start off by introducing a little bit about yourself and what got you interested in cooking.
J: Yeah. So I'm Jenn, and I guess my ethnic background is Chinese, but I grew up in Australia, and I've always loved to cook. From the start, a lot of that was driven by a desire to eat delicious food, because who doesn't like delicious food, right? When I first came to Australia, even though I was young, I really missed a lot of the delicious food that I was used to eating and had easy access to in Taiwan. Australia, a couple of decades ago, was not as culturally diverse as it is now. Access to ethnic food that was authentic and delicious was quite difficult. So a lot of the time, the food that we missed and wanted to eat, we would have to ask mom to make it for us. My parents were very big on knowing our roots, and not losing touch with our cultural and ethnic background. Mom would always make homestyle Taiwanese food at home. She loved to cook, she loved to bake. She would make sure she made something authentic for us on culturally significant days so we didn't miss out on that experience. That really rubbed off on me because I grew up watching her being busy in the kitchen, watching her poor love into the food. Transforming simple ingredients into something beautiful and wonderfully delicious.
N: Who would you say were your major influences in becoming a chef?
J: My mom cooking for our family from a young age has definitely nurtured my love for cooking. And, when I was able to go back to Taiwan to visit my grandparents, I would watch my grandma's cooking as well. Everyone has a different style, and I was definitely immersed in the experience from a young age. It's really allowed me to be passionate about the kitchen. I wouldn't say it's directly influenced me wanting to become a chef. A lot of that sort of came later. It sort of just happened after my time on MasterChef. I wanted to improve my cooking. I wanted to learn more. I wanted to do more. Ultimately, it is driven by a very selfish desire to just eat good food all the time because I'm a bit of a picky eater. So I wanted to go and learn how to become someone who can cook good food. I went on to do work experience at Gerrard's Bistro and Restaurant, where I was offered to become part of the team on a part-time basis. So I wouldn't really call myself officially like a chef yet because I still think there's heaps of stuff for me to learn, and I definitely still split my time between food and dentistry.
".. We want to send a message that one shouldn’t judge our food before you've tried it and in that process, try to bring that awareness to the surface. If more people are exposed to it, the more comfortable they'll feel about it. It will be easier for them to view it not just as take-out food or something that's cheap and off the streets, but something that has its own distinct histories.."
N: Would you like to share some of your fondest food or cooking memories from childhood?
J: One of my most vivid memories is when my mom, one year, wanted us to eat very authentic Zongzi, which is what we eat during Dwanwu Festival, a culturally significant festival across China and Taiwan. And Zongzi is basically a savory glutinous rice that's wrapped in lotus leaves. To prepare some of the ingredients inside, she started months before, by salting her own duck eggs, because the type of food we eat usually has salted duck egg yolk inside it. And back in the day, there weren't that many Asian grocery stores. So she went to the farmers market, found duck eggs, and then started salting them, months before we had to cook. So when it came to the festival day, she had everything ready to go. She tied the strings on the back of an Ikea wooden chair to hang up the dumplings as she was making them. I just watched her make each one of them. And I thought to myself, that's who I want to be when I grow up. I want to be someone who can provide so much love for the people I love, through food.
N: You had stated in another interview that "Asian food is not just Chinese takeout". So we wanted to understand, what is your perception of Southeast Asian food culture? And how do you try to replicate your vision through your recipes?
J: I think at the end of the day, it's helping people understand and educating them. Our cuisine hasn't been represented enough in mass media. So a lot of the time, people are scared of the unknown, they're scared of foreign, exotic things, but at the same time, there is a sort of excitement around it. Some foods that we traditionally eat are not something that's socially acceptable in the Western world. However, that's just because of how it has been shaped by the media. We want to share our food as something that is culturally significant to us but which is also delicious. We want to send a message that one shouldn’t judge our food before you've tried it and in that process, try to bring that awareness to the surface. If more people are exposed to it, the more comfortable they'll feel about it. It will be easier for them to view it not just as take-out food or something that's cheap and off the streets, but something that has its own distinct histories.
N: When it comes specifically to Taiwanese food culture, can you tell us a little bit about the cuisine itself and how it is different from the other Southeast Asian cuisines?
J: Taiwan has got a very rich historical background and heavy influence from all sorts of cultures because for a long time, they were essentially under ownership of different countries. So it's got a slightly complicated history. But because of that, we've got beautiful food, beautiful cuisine that has taken influence from all of these cultures and it's shaped into what it is today. For instance, we've obviously got heaps and heaps of influence from China. Contrary to popular belief, Chinese food isn't just one type of cuisine. China is such a big region. Each region has their own specialty and their own flavors. And at the same time, Taiwan went through a period of time when it was under the rule of Japan. My paternal grandparents have lived through the period when Japan reigned over Taiwan. So they’ve experienced first-hand - the heavy Japanese influence in Taiwanese culture. The food itself contains a lot of sauces, pickles and condiments which need to be fermented first. I love that sort of farm to plate philosophy. A lot of the cooking was based around seasonality. At the same time, Taiwan has also got its own indigenous population and native food, so they've got their cuisine as well. So it's a really beautiful place where you can taste lots of different cuisines across East Asia that have all converged into one thing in this one place.
N: And when it comes to representing a lot of these influences on your plate, how do you try to keep innovating ?
J: Yeah, so I think innovation is a very difficult thing, but I always try my best to keep innovating with my recipes. But a lot of the times I find myself thinking - okay, well, if this authentic traditional food is so delicious as it is, it becomes very hard to make it innovative or very difficult to make it new or modern, because sometimes it just doesn't need to. It could just be a simple matter of changing up the plating or the presentation so that it's elevated to a more fine dining standard. But I will say that food doesn't have to always be beautifully plated, because, for some dishes, no matter how much you try, it will still not look as appetizing. As long as it smells wonderful, and tastes wonderful, people overcome the looks of it, and they can't help but salivate and want to try it.
"..There's a lot of fermenting, a lot of pickling and preserving involved to transform the produce to different flavors, and I absolutely love that about Korean food. It isn't just monotonous spiciness. It's a lot of other strong umami notes and unique flavors.."
N: You mention your mother and grandmothers a lot when you refer to your childhood experiences around the kitchen. Do you have any other food idols who you look up to from the culinary world?
J: Yeah. So one of my biggest food idols is Michelle Roux. Unfortunately, he passed away a few years ago. He has been a massive inspiration for me because, obviously, growing up in an Asian household, I didn't have a lot of exposure to Western food. But I remember when I was transiting through the airport one time, my mom asked me to pick up a book I would like to read on the plane. So I was at the bookshop and I saw a book titled “Eggs”, and it was written by Michelle Roux, and the whole book is obviously about eggs. But the way he talks about food, you can really feel the passion from the text itself. He talked so beautifully about produce and how that food is meant to elevate the produce, not for covering it up. I ended up collecting a few of his recipe books and I've learnt so much from them. He’s a French Chef and a lot of the fundamentals in cooking are French techniques. So I'd say I learned a lot from that. Another chef named Josh Niland, for example, is probably most well known for pushing and pioneering, using the whole fish, which is something that's very common in Asian culture, but it's not very common in Western culture at all. So seeing his interpretation of that in a Western cultural sense has been very interesting. To see how he was able to educate and therefore change people's perspectives about fish. So that kind of links back to what I mentioned before about exposure and educating people.
N: What is your relationship with Korean Cuisine? What is it like plating a Korean dish?
J: Yeah, so actually, I can't eat a lot of spicy foods. Korean food is known to be very spicy. But that was my first impression of Korean food many years ago when, unfortunately, in Brisbane, there weren't a lot of good Korean restaurants. So my first impression was, oh, this is not very fun. It's a bit boring because it's super spicy and it's the same seasoning. But that changed over the course of years when more authentic Korean restaurants and eateries opened up. And there was a beautiful restaurant in Brisbane run by a Korean lady. I loved eating at her restaurant because she made everything from scratch, and she showed me how different and how fun Korean food could actually be. In some ways, there are similarities to what I like about Japanese cuisine, where they again cook with respect to seasonality. There's a lot of fermenting, a lot of pickling to transform the produce to different flavors, a lot of preserving, and I absolutely love that. She was able to show me that Korean food isn't just monotonous spiciness. It's a lot of other strong umami notes and unique flavors.
"..I remember clicking on that email and I was thinking - 'a cooking robot?! Like what?' I've never heard of anything like that. I clicked into the link for the presentation and I was just absolutely blown away.."
N: Let's talk a little bit about your experience on MasterChef Australia, Season 14. How did it feel to be a part of it? What were your first thoughts when you got to know that you were selected? Did you have any apprehensions? How did you deal with it all?
J: I kind of always wanted to do MasterChef because I watched it growing up. And every time I watched it, I just felt such a strong pull towards a group of like minded people who are also passionate about food. We got these unique opportunities to learn from guests, mentor chefs, and be a part of these really unique food challenges. I am really pleased I got to experience it all. But I guess for a long time, I didn't feel like I could take that step out of my safety zone. I thought I wasn't good enough, because a lot of my food is sort of Asian cooking, and it's not always beautifully presented. So I always thought maybe there isn't really a place for my type of food on national TV. That held me back from applying. But then when COVID happened, that was a turning point. I thought to myself that I should really pursue my passion of cooking. So I applied for MasterChef and just went for it. And from the start, it was like an absolute dream. The whole experience has been incredible. Our season was a little bit unique in the sense that we got to meet the food idols I watched growing up on TV, and also the return-contestants. So that was even more amazing. But of course I was extremely intimidated because I already thought I wasn't going to be very good. And then they're putting me against the return contestants. I definitely freaked out when I found out, but I told myself it's now or never.
“..I have picked recipes that are quite versatile and practical, because I'd like to think that I'm a fairly practical person. Also, I think this is a fun and fresh way for people to get to know a wide variety of Asian flavours..”
N: Speaking of making your recipes more accessible to a lot of people, what did you think about Nymble when we first reached out to you?
J: Yeah, so I remember clicking on that email and I was thinking - a cooking robot?! Like what? I've never heard of anything like that. I clicked into the link for the presentation and I was just absolutely blown away. Because you have tools that have been invented to make cooking easier. For example, the Thermomix. People I know who don't cook usually rave about it, about how it's made their life easier, but ultimately it's still a tool. You have to follow a recipe, you have to be there and put ingredients in. But Nymble is revolutionary. Like, everything is automated. You can literally set it on and go to work, come back and there's food ready for you. So I think that's absolutely incredible.
N: And with respect to adoption of tech in the kitchen, what is your take on that?
J: I'm someone not super techy in the kitchen, but the more I work in sort of a commercial kitchen environment or more difficult recipes I take on, I definitely see a massive need for technology. And my wish list, it just keeps growing. But I think it comes down to determining practicality because everyone has limited space. So you want to make sure your purchase is going to be practical, it's going to last you a long time and something you're going to be using often.
N: When it comes to some of the recipes that we collaborated with you on, how would you describe each of them? What makes them so special to you?
J: The recipes I've chosen to collaborate with Nymble are delicious. The Gamja Jorim, for example. Like, who doesn't like potatoes? Right? They're cheap and easy to get. They're available all year round. It is a delicious dish that can be a main dish. It can be a side dish. It can be eaten hot. It can be even cold, and it's great in lunches or packed breakfasts. So I've tried to pick recipes that are quite versatile and practical, because I'd like to think I'm a fairly practical person. And I think it's just a fun, fresh way for people to get to know Asian flavors. It's a new way of eating potatoes, I guess, rather than just roast potatoes all the time.
On the other hand, I absolutely love Congee I've included as well, I think it's a highly adaptable recipe. You can make it vegetarian because ultimately, Congee is rice cooked in soup or water until fluffy. It's a one pot wonder, really. Like, it's comfort food. You can eat it when you're sick, when you're feeling down, you just need a little bit of a pick me up, and it's very easy to customize the plate as you like.
And the Dak Galbi, is, I guess, something a little bit more special. So I consider it to be our party food. When you have footy night with your mates, and you get, I don't know, ribs or chicken wings and fries, the Korean answer to that is Dak Galbi, because it is flavor bomb. It goes great with drinks, great with beer, and it's designed to be shared. There's lots of ingredients in it, and they're all delicious, and it's actually fairly balanced and nutritious in a way.
Jenn Lee is one of the many MasterChef contestants who we reached out to collaborate and co-create some of their signature dishes on our cooking robot. This is a candid interview series where the chefs interact with our cooking-robot, as we draw from their experiences as chefs, their own cooking philosophies, techniques, tips and much more.
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