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Sunday June 30, 2013
By MICHAEL CHEANG firstname.lastname@example.org
Celebrity chef Adam Liaw was in town recently to try and define Australian cuisine.
WHAT is Australian food?
More specifically, if you walked into a restaurant with a sign that says, “Australian Restaurant”, or attended a dinner of “Australian cuisine”, what would be on the menu?
That was the question celebrity chef Adam Liaw, winner of MasterChef Australia 2, had to answer when he was commissioned to prepare the menu for the gala dinner of the Flavours of Australia festival at Doubletree by Hilton Hotel in Kuala Lumpur recently.
Organised by the Australian High Commission and Australian Trade Commission (Austrade), the Flavours of Australia food festival, which ends today, was designed to highlight the best of Australian cuisine and what the country can provide to Malaysia’s growing food and beverage industry.
According to Liaw, Australian cuisine is more of a hybrid that directly reflects the culture and history of Australia, from initially being a British colony to the later waves of Mediterranean and then Asian migration.
“We have a huge number of influences from all over the world. Italian, Mediterranean, English, French, and far more recently, a lot of Asian influences as well,” he said. “Many Western countries with strong migrant population like the US and Canada have similar culinary influences, but what sets Australia apart is a real focus on South-East Asian cuisine as a part of Australian cuisine. Malaysian, Thai, Vietnamese cuisine ... Australians eat those foods daily.”
According to him, although Australian cuisine has a very distinctive style, it just doesn’t have distinctive dishes.
“When it comes to individual dishes, you can always tell if it is Thai, Japanese or French, but when you go to Australia, there are few dishes that you can point at and say it is an Australian dish,” he explained.
“Also, many of the more distinct and famous cuisines around the world come from older countries with a narrow source of ingredients. For instance, Thai cuisine doesn’t have the same ingredients as South American or European cuisine.”
Australia, however, has always had a huge range of fresh produce, and because of that their cuisine has also a big range of variety.
“Australia has a fantastic reputation in meats, livestock, meat, lamb ... our produce is great, our wines are world-class,” said the 32-year-old, who was born in Penang and emigrated to Adelaide, Australia, when he was three.
The menu he cooked up for the gala dinner also included a lot of influences from different areas of Australia.
“When I was putting it together I was thinking about how people in Australia think – they’d have pasta one night, then Japanese the next, and Chinese after that. And it’s all grounded by the quality of Australian produce.”
One of the most common perceptions of Australians right now is that they are still meat and steak lovers, he reckons.
“People still think of Australian food as still very British – meat pies, steaks ... and that’s how it was 20 to 30 years ago. Many chefs and food writers come here and are amazed by the variety of food here today,” he said.
“You also probably wouldn’t describe Australia as a food-loving nation 30 years ago, but these days, we’re catching up with Malaysia in terms of our obsession with food!”
After work chef
Liaw, who was a lawyer in Japan and Australia for a number of years before his rise to fame as a chef, will be publishing a new cookbook in September titled Asian After Work (his second, after Two Asian Kitchens), which is about food you can cook when you come home from work.
“Most people don’t have time to come back and cook meals that take a long time. I used to work in an office a long time ago, and these are the kinds of food I would then cook after I came home from work,” he said. “Most trained chefs would tend to write from a perspective of life in the kitchen, but I’m writing from the perspective of working in an office and then coming home to a kitchen!”
The most important thing about a “come-home chef” is putting in the preparation time beforehand, something Liaw learned a long time ago, from his mother.
“My mother used to work as a doctor – but I remember she used to cut vegetables on Monday morning before going to work to prepare for dinner on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. All it took was 15 minutes on Monday morning and she would have everything ready for three days!” he recalled.
For most people, the main obstacle to doing cooking after work is they don’t have a well-stocked fridge in the first place, which Liaw reckons shouldn’t be too great an obstacle these days.
“Food is so readily available these days and we can stop by the supermarket any time we want. In the book, I chose ingredients that were easy to find, relatively cheap, and simple dishes that don’t take too long to cook.
One of the simplest dishes he likes to cook regularly (and which is also included in the book) is kimchi chigae or kimchi stew.
“I used to cook this all the time when I was a lawyer – all you need to do is fry some pork or chicken, tip in a whole tub of kimchi, add some water, some tofu, and a few other things, let it cook for 40 minutes and it’s ready!” he said.
Prior to coming to KL, Liaw also just wrapped up filming for the second season of his travel food show, Destination Flavour, which he says is about understanding culture through food and the people who work with food.
“We not only focus on food, but also on the people making the food. Why does this person want to be a sushi chef? Why is this person making sake the same way his family has done for 400 years?” he said, adding that having filmed the first season in Australia and the second season in Japan, he has plans to bring the show to Malaysia one day. “Food is so closely related to culture in any place, and in Malaysia it’s probably truer than anywhere else!” he said. “For now, we’ll be going back to Australia and New Zealand for the third season, but I do have plans to come to Malaysia in the future.”
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