Watching Adam Liaw cook was a bit like watching Yoda of the culinary world in action – precised, focused, with one hand expertly manoeuvring a knife like it’s a lightsabre.
Every now and then, the 37-year-old Australian Masterchef champion, whose mile-wide smile and trademark hairdo are as well-known Down Under as the jedi master, would dispense – in perfect English – gems such as this: “I think the systematic and organised way of cooking can be really beautiful and almost Zen-like. It’s all about doing things the right way – and it’s not always about the result but also about the process.”
This: “There’s no point spending all that money on a fancy knife if you’re not going to maintain it. My family has been using the same knife that is sharpened regularly over 30 years.”
And this: “For me, giving my son a good relationship with food on an eating level is far more important than teaching him how to cook. A lot of people always think ‘I wish I had learnt how to make that dish’ when their parents or grandparents grow old. To me, that is far less important. Once you have eaten that dish and grown up appreciating it, cooking it is a pretty easy step.”
It’s an illuminating piece of advice from one whose creativity, versatility and perfectionism have kept him at the pinnacle of the Australian food scene since his launch to fame in 2010. Like any number of celebrities before him, Liaw has taken advantage of his reputation to vault into several new endeavours: cookbooks, newspaper columns, TV shows, and celebrity endorsements.
Recently, his partnership with Mission Foods, one of the world’s biggest flatbread makers, has brought him to this part of the world. Their mission? To take on one of the biggest culinary trends to sweep the Klang Valley – food trucks – and simultaneously promote the brand in Malaysia. Launched last month, the Little Red Food Truck, which hawks a variety of Asian-inspired wraps cooked up by Liaw, is the first of its kind in KL to feature an entire menu by an acclaimed chef.
In a sense, it was a homecoming for Liaw, who spent the first three years of his life in George Town, Penang. Born to an English mother and a Hainanese-Chinese father, he began venturing into the kitchen at an early age – one of the first dishes he made was gulab jamun, a milk-based Indian dessert. He began cooking for his family in earnest at eight years old.
However, Liaw never really intended to be a chef. Instead, he became a certified lawyer by age 20, and was working as the head of Legal Asia in The Walt Disney Company in Tokyo when he decided to pursue his other passion – cooking – on Masterchef.
“There is no room in life for secret passions,” he was once quoted as saying. “Even if you are not dropping everything and quitting your job, just talking about and making what you love come to life is so important.”
In the show, Liaw exudes graciousness and a sense of old-world decorum reinforced by Asian-inspired values. His cuisine, meanwhile, is a product of two worlds, merging classic Western techniques with a mastery of the flavours and ingredients that he first acquired during his childhood in Malaysia, and then broadened during his time in Australia. It was nothing short of a winning combination – and the Masterchef finale in which Liaw bagged the coveted white apron still holds the record as the most watched programme in Australia.
Fast forward five years later, and Liaw remains just as bankable. His TV work, in particular, has brought him to several parts of the world, including Scandinavia, where an encounter with New Nordic Cuisine left him inspired.
“It’s about eating seasonally, locally, sustainably, and organically,” says Liaw. “It’s also about the ingredients you choose, and how to really celebrate that ingredient, like ‘what if I take the potato and make it the tastiest potato?’ I really liked the Scandinavian way of thinking. It’s something that works very well with Asian food.”
Without a doubt, he’s incorporated some of this philosophy, together with his hybrid approach to cooking, into his latest endeavour. His food truck recipes – which he’s brought to life in his short visit to KL – are equal parts well thought out and delicious. For instance, the Laksa Fried Chicken Wrap with Pineapple Salsa, which is made by simmering chicken strips in a fragrant house-made laksa paste before frying them and spiking it with pineapple salsa, is a marriage of Asian-Mexican flavours that results in something cheeky yet spectacular. Ditto the Roast Carrot Hummus with Avocado Wrap, which plays up the creaminess and sweetness of caramelised carrots and avocados by enveloping them in a crunch of green lettuce.
“For the recipes to really work, you need a balance of flavours and textures. You don’t want anything too crazy,” he explained.
Ultimately, however, Liaw is excited to be part of a new movement that pioneers interesting, accessible cuisine on the go. “It is certainly different from what I’m used to,” he said, slumped in a chair at the end of the day. “And the chance to try something new is always good.”
Just don’t let him hear you calling it a trend. “I am not really much into food trends. For me, food trends imply that there is food which is not trendy. Food is food.”
The gourmet wraps are for sale on the Little Red Food Truck which will be making its rounds in the Klang Valley following a set weekly schedule which will be shared on Mission Foods Malaysia’s facebook site.
LAKSA FRIED CHICKEN WRAP WITH PINEAPPLE SALSA
10 dried red chillies
3 large red chillies
2 tbsp dried shrimp
1 tbsp belacan
8 red shallots, peeled
4 garlic cloves
1 tbsp grated ginger
2 tbsp minced lemongrass
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground turmeric
Laksa fried chicken
2 cups laksa paste
¼ cup oil
400ml coconut milk
6 chicken thigh fillets, cut into 3cm pieces
1 cup flour
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
1 cup dessicated coconut oil, for deep frying
salt and Korean chilli powder
1 tsp honey
2 limes, grated and squeezed
2 cups Japanese mayonnaise
1 cup finely chopped pineapple
½ cup red onion, finely chopped
½ laksa leaves (Vietnamese mint), shredded
½ cup mint, shredded
½ cup takuan, finely chopped
1 tsp fish sauce
6 Mission curry wraps
3 cups shredded lettuce
3 cups finely sliced cucumber
1 cup picked laksa leaves (Vietnamese mint)
To prepare the laksa paste
Combine all the ingredients in a blender and blend to a very smooth paste. Heat the oil in a medium saucepan and fry the paste for about 20 minutes on medium heat until fragrant.
To prepare laksa fried chicken
Add the chicken to the pan and stir. Add the coconut milk and bring to simmer for 6 minutes.
Turn off the heat to allow the chicken to cool in the sauce, preferably overnight.
Remove the chicken from the sauce and coat in flour, then egg and then a mixture of the panko breadcrumbs and dessicated coconut. Deep fry the chicken pieces for about 2 minutes at about 180°C until golden brown and warmed through. Season with salt and Korean chilli powder.
For the lime mayonnaise
Mix the ingredients together to a smooth consistency.
For the pineapple salsa
Mix the ingredients together.
Fill the wrap with lettuce, cucumber, a spoon of the pineapple salsa and a few chicken pieces, then drizzle with the lime mayonnaise.
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