Two Asian Kitchens by Adam Liaw

Mastermind meets MasterChef

By Robyn Lewis
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Two Asian Kitchens by Adam Liaw

Two Asian Kitchens by Adam Liaw


It's not often that you sit down to lunch and the guy on the table next to you is engrossed in reading a cookbook, especially one that was released only that morning.

I couldn't help but strike up a conversation, as I had the very same book in my bag. 'What do you think of it?' I asked as we laughed when I produced my own copy.

'It’s the cookbook I've been waiting years for!' he replied. He was taking notes, writing in the margins, and was in foodie dreamworld. Apparently he'd been sitting there for an hour, a professional man who found reading about food of far greater interest than attending another meeting. Being a senior partner in his business, why not?

Our conversation continued as we ate our respective lunches, which were pleasant but no match for the photos in Two Asian Kitchens. Turns out that he and his wife love to cook, and have been experimenting with new culinary styles since their kids left home and they've had more time for both cooking and travel.

'Finally I've found the book for me!' he exclaimed, 'Look at these pictures, it's just what I want in my pantry' as he pointed to photos of frozen stocks in serried ranks of containers.

No, he wasn't nuts. I often hanker after a more orderly kitchen myself, one where I have leisurely Saturday afternoons to prepare masterstocks and marinades for feasts to come, my pantry is full of essential and exotic ingredients, there’s nothing composting in the bottom of the fridge, and the dishes become a reality instead of lingering dreams on cookbook pages.

I was looking at Two Asian Kitchens in a new light already. Sure, he was a MasterChef fan, but this book transcended TV hype and was clearly striking a chord. 'I grew up in a house where my mother served us meat and three veg for years,' he confided. 'This sets me free.'

As I later read it myself, it made me realise just how many recipe books that I see make huge assumptions.

Although my mother was of the same school of cooking as his, mine knew her bounds and had the style to take me out to dine from a young age, as much to relieve her own domestic tedium as to educate me in the culinary arts. Determined as I was to replicate such dishes at home, I equipped myself with then glamous titles from Beverley Sutherland-Smith (my first foodie idol), Time-Life and Vogue, and unleashed my creations on a not-so-appreciative audience.

In doing so, and like many other young girls of the time, I learnt to cook, like a painter learns to paint, when technique eventually becomes second nature (along with some regrettable bad habits). Our brothers and boyfriends played sport, fiddled with cars and did whatever boys do, and back then mothers never thought they might also one day need culinary skills, or to wield a knife on anything other than a flapping fish or rabbit.

How times have changed, and with them, Australian culture. I had yum cha recently in Melbourne’s Springvale, a city which I was informed that (together with nearby Dandenong) has just surpassed New York for the title of world’s most culturally diverse, being home to more than 62 nationalities. Walking around their shopping centre, you could be in Kuala Lumpur. No need for Two Asian Kitchens there.

But in other Australian suburbs and towns, the legacy of meat, three veg and inability to dice or even to cook lives on, at least in some generations. But our expectations are now a lot higher.

Many turn to cookbooks for guidance – but the recipes can seem too hard, or illogical. It’s usually not the recipes that are the problem, but more often the authors’ assumptions about their readers’ proficiency and understanding: for example, the fact that you need to cut things into even sizes for them to cook in the same time. It might seem basic, but not if you are just learning. If mum (or dad) didn’t show you, how are you supposed to know?

Many cookbook authors also fail to cater for the TJs on the Myer-Briggs scale – people who thrive on logic and planning, and leave little to guesswork or feel. Vague instructions and ‘cook until done’ type statements are not for them; they want an engineer’s handbook with precise steps and measures, and lots of photos.

Without going so far as ‘Step 1: lay the meat on the chopping board with the grain running lengthways and pick up the knife in your preferred hand’ (I can see why cooking videos and schools are becoming so popular), Two Asian Kitchens helps fill this practical void, in particular with ‘modern Australian’ i.e. Asian-inspired food.

Author Adam Liaw, best known for winning the 2010 Australian MasterChef title, was born in Penang, raised in Adelaide and lived in 20 different homes in four countries before turning eighteen. His father is Hainanese Chinese from Malaysia, his mother Singaporean-born of English, French and Indonesian ancestry. He has lived and worked in China, India and most recently Japan.

What a great background for providing us with an entrée to Asian cuisine, especially with a home rather than restaurant emphasis. The fact that he’s also a lawyer no doubt adds to the book’s unique and intelligent structure.

The first section is simply called 'Pantry'.  More usually relegated to last, Liaw says '.. the idea of a pantry full of basic ingredients you have made yourself goes a long way towards making your kitchen the living heart of your home.'  As the media release says, 'with this insightful statement, he proceeds to start us each on our own journey towards a personal food culture'.

The essence of Two Asian Kitchens is based on a Confucian proverb, in Japanese ‘onko-chishin’ or the need to ‘consider old things to understand new things’.

The ‘old kitchen’ is that of his forebears and his history – food that Liaw learned to cook and faithfully replicated until he moved to Japan age 24 and was thrust into ‘a wild new world’. The ‘new kitchen’ is his subsequent learning and creation: Australian food that draws on many Asian flavours and influences.

But before we get to the recipes, there’s a section ‘On Techniques’. Here the simple and elegant Asian skills are laid bare, and Liaw states 'they do not require and special training or skill to execute well'. Starting with how to cook perfect rice (he recommends short grain), he takes us through dumplings, stir-fries, tempura and sushi, to (curiously) fruit liqueurs.

Within the old kitchen, are 'the dishes that drive the soul of (Liaw’s) food'. Here you’ll find hawker noodle dishes, Japanese yakatori (numerous variations of chicken on skewers), creamy coconut laksa, authentic Malaysian rendang, Vietnamese pho (pronounced fahr, not fo) and Liaw’s – and many children’s – favourite, Hainanese chicken rice.

I lived for years in Malaysia and can attest to their authenticity. There’s even one of my old favourites, belachan kangkong – prawn-flavoured water spinach, a plant that grows by the megatonne in the waterways of Kakadu and we in our ignorance and neglect never harvest, let alone cook (there’s enough in the Northern Territory to sustainably feed the entire nation…).

There are some Westernised dishes too: taco rice, a result of the American occupation of Okinawa; goya chanpura, a dish of bitter melon and SPAM (the canned, not the email, sort), and that Cantonese-Western staple, lemon chicken, but without the MSG and lemon essence.

Desserts include the evocatively named ant’s nest cake, the simple but delicious tapioca pudding (known to expats as gula Melaka, and often given a Sunday curry lunch kick with brandy), and the fiddly kuih lapis, like a nine-layered edible jewel.

Unlike some other authors, Liaw doesn’t hold back with his secret ingredients and methods, either, like using waterchestnut flour instead of cornflour for a crispy chicken coating (another trip to Springvale looms, this time for shopping).

If you think you can’t cook Asian food, you might do well to start in part two, the ‘new kitchen’. Here it’s east meets west, where ‘rules’ are thrown out the window and the results with their bold, new flavours are the only criteria. You like laksa? Well, try its ingredients on fried chicken pieces instead of soup. Or spice up beef mince and peas with ‘dan dan’ and serve on rice, for easy but delicious TV food.

Liaw tells us how to cook Asian greens in 90 seconds, from fridge to plate. Slower-food enthusiasts would enjoy the sticky-rice stuffed pork trotter. You get to use the masterstock you have lovingly prepared here too, to poach fish or chicken – the more you use it, the better it tastes (some chefs keep theirs going for years).

Like green tea? Put it in croquettes, with peas, or make meringue or granita with it. Learn how to cook cheaper cuts of lamb – a meat little used in Asia, outside the north of China and Mongolia – with an Asian-Australian touch, several ways. These recipes make you want to cook, and try new ways with our old staples.

Desserts are eminently do-able and drawn on common Aussie ingredients too: Farmers' Union iced coffee puddings (with five spice), mango pies with the good old wholemeal biscuit crust, and onto creations like cheese mousse made with tofu. I’m already looking forward to doing some experimenting of my own. Freedom indeed.

Two Asian Kitchen’s pictorial glossary helpfully includes photos of the bottles and labels that Liaw recommends, as well as the raw ingredients, and a section on basics like how to make dashi (fish stock), your own pickled daikon (cheaper and preservative free), and a fantastic lemon paste for putting zest into both savoury and sweet dishes (which could also be used in Moroccan-inspired cooking).

The recipes are simply and clearly worded, and each has a good photo, for the TJs or those needing guidance for intended appearance. But hey, it can look like whatever you want in part two.

It's clear the MasterChef series only drew out a little of Adam Liaw’s true creative genius. Perhaps it’s as well he didn’t reveal his gifted hand until the finale, or we might not have Two Asian Kitchens as our modern Australian culinary guidepost today. It’s a great cookbook and I’ll be using it often. I'm sure my new foodie friend is, too.

Two Asian Kitchens by Adam Liaw is published by Ebury Press (an imprint of Random House, Sydney; hc, 240 pp) and retails in Australia for RRP A$49.95

Two Asian Kitchens is also available via Booko here »



  • Sydney (NSW)

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May 29th, 2011
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