FL: Gong hei fat choy and Happy Lunar New Year! What are your New Year traditions and how do you celebrate?
EY: Gong hei, gong hei, sun tay gheen hong, sun leen fai lok! [Wishing you prosperity, good health, and a Happy New Year!] To be honest, we don’t do too much – it’s always a nice dinner at home, and Mum makes Nian Gao (New Year Cake) every year. We burn paper money and incense for our loved ones who have passed, and I used to get ‘Hong Bao’ money bags but sadly I’m too old for them now.
Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
I’m a bit of a foodie – not the dine-out foodie, but the cooking-at-home foodie. I love food, I enjoy learning the aspects of food origins, and how food is made from scratch. I’ve been a marketer by trade, but have recently taken the dive into self-employment, working on my business Thea Matcha, and doing a few client jobs on the side.
Can you expand more on the phrase ‘nostalgic food’ from your Instagram bio? I love the idea of this, as it speaks to so much more than just food – how food can serve as a cultural tether to our family, heritage and past.
This phrase is relevant to myself and a lot of people I’ve spoken to on Instagram. A lot of people are living away from their parents, and they crave the homecooked meals they had as a child. Unfortunately, they don’t know how to make them so they find comfort in the content that I share. I eat separately from my Mother, even though we are living together at the moment. Mum stopped cooking a lot of dishes since my Dad passed on, and I really missed the foods they cooked together. When I participated on MKR she got her passion back, and she’s now eager to cook again, and to learn other recipes too.
This idea really resonates with my own identity – as a second generation Chinese, I have grown up in a very western culture - I can barely speak Cantonese and I don’t know how to cook a lot of Mum’s family recipes. Inevitably, and I find this quite confronting, my Chinese-ness will be diluted in the generations below me. You have experienced this in the hardest of ways with your Dad passing - but I can imagine cooking with your Mum has become more than just about the food?
Yes it has - although there has been a lot of head butting, I have a new found appreciation and understanding of my heritage. Growing up, I had to suppress a lot of my identity because I wanted to fit in, and sadly this resulted in internal racism. Imagine being a minority in school and facing insults from other children about your ethnicity, or being mocked for wanting to do well in school. As I spent more time with my Mother after my Dad’s passing, seeing the love she puts in her cooking has made me realise I need to cherish these heirloom memories. I hope to one day create a cookbook with the family recipes as a homage to both of them.
What is your first food memory?
Wow, this is hard. My first food memory was enjoying the umami explosion of biting into a pan-fried spam with egg, on a soft pillow of steaming rice. I still crave this but don’t go out of my way to eat it. I did cook spam last year after a 23 year hiatus. My Mum said it’s unhealthy and it stopped making itself a feature in the pantry.
Don’t get me started with spam, my ultimate nostalgic guilty pleasure!
It’s very much a part of traditional Chinese culture to be more passive in character and less outwardly emotional – both in a family setting and out in the world. Do you think this is why food is such a big conduit to communication in our culture – we tend to say it all with food?
My parents would never openly show affection to me as a child, but they did it in other ways. Cooking was one of them, but also my Mum wanted a good education for me, despite growing up in South Auckland, and not being able to afford living in posher suburbs. She sent me to a private school (unfortunately I was not grateful for that haha), in the hopes I would be a straight A student.
My parents would never show affection for each other, and they would always argue. However when it came to dealing with scenarios outside of the family home, my Father was more passive; he preferred to have no fuss and a chilled life. My Mother however would speak her mind, and that would often result in someone being offended. When I fought with my Mum in my teenage years, I would be sneeringly angry for days, but afterwards I would see a big plate of food for me and I knew it was her way of waving the white flag.
I want to talk food sustainability with you, as there are so many parallels here within the food and fashion industries. A huge part of Asian food culture is using ingredients to their full potential. I find terms like nose to tail slightly comical in this sense, as this sort of cooking has been engrained in the Chinese home for centuries – using bones for stock, drying fruit skins and seeds, cooking with offal. This obviously ties into much larger global issues such as food waste and food insecurity – but is this way of cooking something that you consciously try to promote and educate within your community?
I agree, there are many parallels between the two industries. It’s mind boggling to know the amount of food that is wasted. I cry internally each time I haven’t been able to use a product before mould starts growing. One thing I am grateful for is having a chest freezer and a compost bin to really cut down on food waste. To me, using everything to the last drop, last grain and last portion has been instilled in my blood. “Don’t waste it”, has been etched into my brain so I follow this guideline when it comes to cooking at home. But I do draw a line in the sand that I’m not as frugal as my Mother is, and I will throw out ingredients (in the compost) if they are very bad and cannot be saved.
The main idea behind cooking from scratch is really knowing what goes into your food and understanding the process, so you are not so far removed from how it was manufactured. I think Chinese food is very undervalued in this way - there is so much preparation and so many elements to a dish, and it seems like blasphemy to only pay $2 for a bao for example, whilst a cookie can sell for $5. When I make bao, you have to prepare the ingredients the day before, make the bao dough from scratch, filling and pleating, then steaming - a process that can take the entire day to create.
I totally agree with this – society has formed a very discriminatory bias across Asian cuisines and cultures that is now so hard to break. It’s not dissimilar to how society has associated the words ‘Made in China’ with mass production, unethical working conditions, and bad quality, ultimately encouraging racism to rear its ugly head. I’m not saying this doesn’t exist, but it also exists in other countries and continents, yet China cops the flack. In reality, China also produces some of the world’s finest goods, and I think it’s so important to talk about this to change the narrative.
It is very important to change the narrative. It’s unfortunate that China started off on the back foot being the sweatshop factory to the world, coupled with counterfeit/quality scandals that really cemented this bias about Chinese-made products. It’s starting to take a turn, and I can see that narrative changing slowly, but not quick enough.
For myself, two of the biggest hurdles to eating more sustainably are time and cost. Do you have any gems of advice for how we might tackle this, in our everyday, busy lives?
Yes, time and cost are huge factors that get in the way of cooking at home. I’ve tried the Hello Fresh’s and My Food Bag’s, and while they do cut down on food waste, you stop using your brain to get creative with the recipes. I’m very basic Mon – Fri, I tend to make the same thing every morning, and then change it up slightly for lunch and dinner.
The key is to be prepared, and having pantry staples on hand. As part of preparation, I get frozen meat (if needed) out the night before, so we have a form of protein ready for dinner. I tend to make more for dinner so there is extra for lunch for the next day. On the weekends, I bake a batch of muesli so that my breakfast is sorted for the week. I have a somewhat fussy fiancé who loves a tasty meal, so I can’t be too boring with our meals. I generally avoid all pre-made foods such as pasta sauces or heat and eat, because you can cook something so much better in 30 mins - 1 hour that your body would appreciate so much more.
Speaking of, what are your top staples for the Chinese pantry?
Light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, sesame oil, cooking wine, Chinkiang and White Vinegar, corn starch, chicken bouillon and soybean paste!
What are your thoughts on fusion food? Is it favourable or detrimental towards uplifting marginalized cultures?
This is a catch-22 and really tough to have a stance on. All food has become fusion in some form, from the dish itself or the ethnicity of the chef cooking the recipe. Food is the ultimate international language and the best way to get familiar with a culture is through food. I am all for taking influence from different cuisines to craft a recipe unique to you; that is the only way to get new ideas. If the fusion food in question was taking the piss out of the culture, or using it as an opportunity to profit off simply because “it’s a trend”, then it is detrimental. If they are honouring the cuisine, or have a genuine interest in it, then that’s okay. If you don’t have a good explanation behind the choice of your restaurant name or recipe apart from “it sounds cool”, then I don’t think it deserves respect.
Yes, I ultimately think it is about respecting the cultures you are combining – because one will always be more marginalized than the other. Respect across all forms – the ingredients and their provenance, the language, the authenticity and origins, and of course profit.
You’ve worn many hats within the local food industry – from years in marketing, to being on MKR, to owning some incredible businesses such as Thea, and creating delicious content for @cookwithenna. What are some of your proudest moments?
It’s crazy to think that I’ve done a few different types of jobs throughout my life, I’ve always wanted to work and got my first official job at the age of 15 (my parents takeaways don’t count). I was pretty proud that I landed an intern job in my last year of studying, and then securing a full time job immediately after University, ending up at a big corporate. During that time I did some incredible work - creating the KFC candle was a proud moment.
Starting a business was another proud moment, I was surprised at the drive I had to learn what it took to start a business in the food industry, and growing it into a known matcha brand in New Zealand is pretty cool. I get “Yeah, I see you guys all over on Instagram”, and it feels so awesome when you see known influencers buy your product and post about it.
What is your dream for @cookwithenna?
I wish I had more time!! I would love to start a YouTube channel where I can get my Mum to feature, and follow along with learning how to cook Chinese food from scratch.
You get to cook for five guests, living or passed – who are you inviting?
My Dad - I want him to see how far we’ve come and for him to critique my cooking. Amy Poehler, she is incredibly funny. Nathan Fielder, the genius dead pan expressions get me every time. Gemma Chan, she is an incredibly gorgeous human being, but also a loud voice for the Asian community. And finally, Gordon f*cking Ramsay, I love his shows and I would like to get into an argument with him over food.
And what are you cooking? (No pressure!)
So much pressure haha, oh lordy. I would want a Chinese-styled Banquet as you’ve got to impress these guests! I would get my Mum in to help with this, so she would end up being the star chef. It would be steamed tofu boat with minced pork, salt and pepper ribs, garlic stir fried vegetables, hot oil blanched chicken with ginger spring onion sauce, salted egg yolk prawns, roast pork, lemon fish, and blanched bak choy.
Let’s talk clothes! How do you approach your personal style?
I don’t like to stick to one particular style, some days I like to be in colour, and some days neutral. At the moment, I like to be low key and simple, and that’s across daywear to glamwear. I used to love dressing up a lot but nowadays you’ll find me in a comfy tee, wide legged pants, sneakers and a shirt.
What does LOCLAIRE mean to you?
Timeless, quality, transparent and sustainable. I really love the direction you’ve taken with LOCLAIRE, it’s been incredible to see the journey and growth from your launch to now! You’ve taken the lead with your made-to-order, and it’s very cool to see other brands doing the same thing.
Finally, what are you looking forward to in 2022?
I am looking forward to having my own space, and being able to fully explore the creative side of my brain with our new space. Our house has been three years in the making and we are so close to finishing it.
Dream foodie destination – Japan or Korea. I love all the food there and the presentation is impeccable.
Breakfast, lunch or dinner? I love a good cooked breakfast, but dinner would be my favorite meal because the possibilities of what to cook are endless.
Sweet or savoury? Definitely savoury but I do love a good sweet treat.
Drink of choice? Gingerbeer!!! It’s an addiction.
Best kitchen accessory - My cooking spatula, and mini tongs. I’m able to scrap clean a pan with a spatula, it won’t scratch my pan and it’s a jack of all trades.