If you’ve ever had to live overseas for an extended period of time, you’ll know that settling your meals is one of the most trifling yet persistent problems. Food consultant and writer Shu Han Lee was no different – she arrived in London for a degree in graphic design at Central Saint Martins – without knowing how to cook. Fair enough – it’s a common problem.
A mix of experiments, Googling and numerous Skype calls to Lee’s mom resulted in her picking up the ropes quickly enough and eventually, even penning her own cookbook, entitled Chicken and Rice, published in 2016.
That’s not to say she became a culinary star overnight. Prior to the cookbook, Lee had already been been steadily blogging under the moniker Mummy I Can Cook (no prizes for the rationale behind the name), where she’d eventually be named as one of the UK’s best food bloggers by The Sunday Times. Lee has also been tapped on to contribute articles to notable titles such as The Guardian and Food & Wine.
Since the cookbook’s publication two years ago, Lee went back to hit the books and occasionally hosts pop-up brunch clubs (that are usually sold out) at her own place where guests are served -you guessed it – South-East Asian-inspired dishes. She’s also just launched a range of self-designed spices, called Rempapa – from the looks of which is poised to be her next runaway hit.
Here, we caught up with Lee for a little chat:
As a Singaporean, what made you decide to expand your cookbook’s scope to cover Southeast Asian recipes?
“I’ve grown up in a country that prides itself on being a hotpot of cultural and culinary influences – and I wanted the book to celebrate that. Singaporean – and in fact Southeast Asian – cuisine is born out of a mishmash of culinary influences from our early and more recent immigrants. That’s often why flavours and ideas often overlap across Southeast Asia. For example: Hainanese Chicken Rice, one of the national dishes of Singapore, can also be found in Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia, just under different names and with slightly different sauces/ ways of serving. Cuisines are ever evolving and expanding and intersecting… It seemed right to create a cookbook that teaches you how to create the flavours of Southeast Asia, rather than country-specific dishes.”
What’s your favourite dish from the book?
“There are so many favourites! But in terms of versatility, probably ‘Mum’s Fail-safe Vegetables’. I do this with any green that’s in season (rainbow chard was the one used in the book), or even sweet starchy vegetables such as pumpkin. While a vegetable dish, this is hardly vegetarian, being stir-fried with dried shrimps and garlic, and in lard if you can have it. It really illustrates many Asian families’ approach to eating– we don’t shy away from meat or seafood, but rather than treating it like the star of the dinner table, we often use it to add flavour to a dish, or to balance out a meal. I don’t believe in diet fads; eating well is simply about eating – and very importantly, enjoying– everything in moderation.”
Having been based in London for the past 8 years, how would you say foreigners perceive Singaporean cuisine?
“I remember ‘Singapore noodles’ being the ultimate representative of Singaporean cuisine that Londoners often cite when I first moved here. Things have definitely changed since then, especially with the recent explosion of street food markets and chefs introducing Londoners to Singaporean cuisine. We used to sell out in minutes when we first started doing Singaporean supper clubs – which is definitely a sign that Londoners love the food and flavours of Singapore!”
What’s a big food trend in London right now?
“Vegan fried ‘chicken’, which is really deep fried seitan. In general, vegan junk food and plant-based proteins.”
How do you think Singapore’s food scene has evolved in recent years?
“Singapore’s food scene has always stood out for its diversity of tastes, and I think it’s only gotten even more exciting in recent years, with chefs bringing influences from all corners of the world. I love that you could be sitting, sweating, in a hawker centre over your Michelin-starred plate of chicken rice; or trying modern interpretations of local cuisine/ ingredients in fine-dining restaurant. I love that this passion for great food can be found in all sorts of settings, and that it’s getting recognised on an international scale.”
What to you is the ultimate Singaporean dish?
“I can’t just name one… but I really love most things Peranakan, because it shows that good things can only happen when cultures collide.”