We caught up with Shu Han Lee, author of the brilliant book Chicken and Rice. We spoke about everything from her favourite recipe from the book to what's in her fridge.
Can you tell us a bit more about your cookbook?
Chicken and Rice is a collection of Southeast Asian recipes with a strong focus on local seasonal ingredients – basically the way I cook! Growing up in a food-obsessed nation, and inspired by all that I learnt from working part-time at the farmers’ market in my student years, I’ve learnt to adapt traditional recipes with the best of what the UK has to offer that time of the year.
If you had to pick one recipe to show off what your book will be about, which one would it be and why?
Mum’s Fail-safe Greens. I do this with any vegetable that’s in season (rainbow chard was the one used in the book). While a vegetable dish, this is hardly vegetarian, being stir-fried with dried shrimps and garlic. It exemplifies the Asian approach to eating – we don’t shy away from meat or seafood, but rather than treating it like the star of a meal, we use them as a complement, or in this case, to add flavour to the dish.
Here at The Happy Foodie, we're totally obsessed with cookbooks. Can you tell us a bit about the favourites in your collection?
Made in India by a fellow Fig Tree Penguin author, Meera Sodha. Her approach to Indian cooking is very much similar to mine with Southeast Asian cooking– simple, fresh and not at all pedantic.
Pok Pok is one of my favourites for Thai cooking; Andy Ricker is an inspiration for his dedication to Thai cooking, having spent 20 years there! I can’t flip a page without mentally bookmarking the recipe.
Every Grain of Rice by Fuschia Dunlop, a combination of the reasons why I love the above two. It’s clean, simple food by a chef who’s committed herself to learning about the vast and fascinating cuisine of China.
Is there an ingredient you are really enjoying cooking with at the moment?
Since it is February, purple sprouting broccoli. I think the asparagus season is overhyped; purple sprouting broccoli, to me, is the vegetable that really signifies the change of the seasons. It’s got such great flavour – nutty, sweet and crisp – you don’t need to do much to it. Steam and then drizzle with soy sauce, sesame oil and fried shallots; or throw into your stir-fry with extra garlic.
What excites you about the British food world at the moment?
Britain never was really known for food; I, for one, wasn’t thrilled about the food prospect when I first moved here. I think the general attitude in the past used to be one of apathy and what’s changed now is that people actually get excited about their food, and celebrate new flavours and techniques from other cultures. London, especially, has become such a fantastic melting pot of cultures from all around the world that we don’t bat an eye when we see things like kimchi on the menu.
What’s your comfort food?
Congee. It’s the best thing the day after a crazy night out, or after a holiday with too much rich indulgent foods.
If we had a look in your fridge, what would we be bound to find?
Coriander, miso, fermented shrimp paste, some kind of pickle, and leftovers from the night before because I always cook too much.
Are you from a family of great cooks? How did you get interested in cooking and food?
My mum is a brilliant cook. Being the eldest daughter, she started cooking for her whole family at the age of 10. I wish I could say I grew up throwing things into woks and pounding spice pastes, but Mum never let us into the kitchen. Like all Asian mums, she believed time should be spent on studying and the piano; and any chance I got to help her in the kitchen only came as a reward after I’ve finished my homework. I really only learnt to cook when I moved to London for my studies at Central Saint Martins. It’s a mixture of greed, hunger and curiosity that led me to cooking. I’m obsessed when I find something I’m passionate about, and would do long Skype sessions with Mum, or test 8 recipes for a dish till I find one I like.
Where’s your favourite place to eat out?
I’m very lazy to travel beyond my area, so thankfully the East and North of London are full of amazing places.
Salvation in Noodles (Dalston) for amazing Vietnamese noodle soup bowls and fish sauce wings. Rochelle Canteen (Shoreditch), for great simple seasonal British cooking. I also like that it’s tucked away in an old boy’s school and only open weekday afternoons – the fact that I’m there means I’d scored an afternoon off, so I’m already there feeling very pleased about myself. The Good Egg (Stoke Newington) for amazing brunches (think New York diner meets Ottolenghi). Broadway market (Hackney) on a Saturday, where I can wander about grazing non-stop. I almost always get a Taiwanese steamed pork bun from Bao, and a nice sourdough loaf from the nearby e5 Bakehouse.
Let’s play foodie Cluedo. You can cook one dish, for one person, in one location. Who, what and where?
Barbecued sambal mackerel or lemon sole, by the beach (and in summer of course). I can’t pick just one person; it will feel like an awkward date and barbecues are more fun with more people.