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In Conversation With Chef, Food Writer And Author Lara Lee On Her Second Book Cookbook ‘A Splash Of Soy’

Since we first interviewed Lara Lee, we’ve admired her vivacious character and ability to work on multiple projects as a chef, writer and author. Now, she’s also a mother. Following the launching of her new cookbook, A Splash of Soy, we took a second chance to catch up with her to discuss her inspiration for the book and how her cooking and recipes have evolved.

While her debut cookbook, Coconut & Sambal, traces her Chinese-Indonesian heritage, A Splash of Soy draws on her mixed Asian-Australian background, introducing playful adaptations of traditional Asian flavours to offer surprises and fresh offerings – and most importantly, they’re all easy to make.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself again and talk about your latest cookbook A Splash of Soy?

I am a Chinese-Indonesian and Australian chef, food writer and cookbook author now based in Sydney, Australia (although I spent the last decade in London). I am a regular contributor for the New York Times, the Guardian, Bon Appetit and Harper’s Bazaar and my first book, Coconut & Sambal, was named one of the best cookbooks of 2020.

I started writing A Splash of Soy during the pandemic when I had a small baby and the weight of new parenting fatigue stopped me from wanting to go into the kitchen. I realised what I needed to get cooking again were quick, easy and delicious Asian-inspired recipes I could cook effortlessly. So I wrote a book doing just that, using accessible ingredients, with recipes that can be whipped up in 10, 15, 30 or 45 minutes, with flavours that for me personally, blow my mind. I’m really proud of it. It is a book for meat lovers and veggie lovers alike; there are 38 vegan recipes and 57 vegetarian ones, and plenty of substitutes along the way for those that are that way inclined.

Woven throughout are the cultural stories behind the recipes, how they’ve been adapted, and how they – and Asian food in general – have shaped my life.

“I realised what I needed to get cooking again were quick, easy and delicious Asian-inspired recipes I could cook effortlessly.”

Has food always been what you were passionate about?

I am a woman of many creative passions. I’ve always been a writer, and public speaker, but dancing (tap, ballet, hip hop, cabaret) was my first love. My Indonesian grandmother was an incredible home cook, and she planted the seed for a lifelong love of good food. I didn’t get into cooking passionately until I hit my mid-twenties, and I eventually changed careers and traded a corporate career for a culinary one in my early thirties. Fast forward to now and I’ve worked in Michelin kitchens, run my own catering company and written two cookbooks. My life is now defined by food!

Favourite recipe from your new book?

I adore the Miso and Gochujang Butter Roast Chicken and it’s on weekly rotation in our house. The miso and gochujang sauce is so pungent and robust that you don’t even need to marinate the chicken in advance. Just mix the sauce (it takes 5 minutes) then bake the chicken. That’s it. So simple. While the chicken is baking the rendered chicken fat combines with the buttery richness of the spicy-sweet marinade, becoming an irresistible gravy. It’s heavenly to eat.

I adore the Miso and Gochujang Butter Roast Chicken and it’s on weekly rotation in our house.

What does cooking bring to your life?

Purpose, self-care, a joyful awakening of the senses, togetherness of friends and family around the table and being able to offer the gift of food to others.

How do you get inspiration to create new recipes?

I get inspiration from everywhere. When I wake up, I jot down notes in the middle of the night and think, “Oh yes, those two flavours will work”. When dining at restaurants, I take inspiration, or when travelling, cooking from cookbooks or seeing something online. Rich stories are behind the recipes because they were all inspired by someone or somewhere. For example, how cheese and kimchi have been paired in Korea since the Korean War, how the flavour base of tom yum soup in Thailand can transform a classic tom yum bloody mary, or why I’ve had an obsession with tantanmen since a visit to Tokyo.

When dining at restaurants, I take inspiration, or when travelling, cooking from cookbooks or seeing something online.

What’s changed about your relationship with food and cooking since we last spoke?

My first book was about tradition and exploring family history. This book is about survival from the daily grind, but with quick, easy and delicious recipes to get you through it. I still honour the culture and heritage of a dish or an ingredient, but I am also far more open to adaptations to make home cooking inclusive and accessible, no matter your time or energy levels.

I still honour the culture and heritage of a dish or an ingredient, but I am also far more open to adaptations to make home cooking inclusive and accessible, no matter your time or energy levels.

What is your most used or favourite ingredient that people might not have guessed, and why do you love it?

Tom yum paste hails from Thailand, the base of the iconic tom yum soup, and it’s spicy, sour and fiery, flavoured with fragrant ingredients such as lemongrass, galangal, chilli and lime leaves. I use tom yum paste a lot in my book, from tom yum bloody mary, tom yum roast chicken, and my famous 15-minute tom yum soup, which I have been cooking since I was a university student because it is so simple to make. You can buy instant tom yum paste online or at your local Asian supermarket, so if you don’t have this in your pantry, I suggest you don’t walk but run, and go out and grab some.

Any recent standout memories of working as a chef, writer and mum?

When Jonah was about eight weeks old, my mentor Sri Owen had invited me for lunch, and I wanted to bring her beef rendang, a Sumatran caramelised beef dish. I had been living on a diet of frozen meals and takeaway, so this was the first time I had stepped back into the kitchen, and I was exhausted. But I wanted to do it for Sri. So I strapped Jonah into the baby carrier and did a lot of the prep and early stirring with him strapped on my body. I had to transfer him to a cot when I finished the dish to caramelise it, as the sauce can spit at you in the final stages of cooking. But I did it, and it was incredibly challenging but tasted amazing.

Now that you have a child, has your approach to cooking and eating changed?

I love being a Mum, but the juggle of work, life and family is real, and it’s ok to acknowledge that sometimes one of those spinning plates drops. It is essential to me that we eat together around the table, so we now eat dinner between 5-6pm, which feels so early. I want to cook just once for the whole family, so I look at dishes where the chillies can be added to serve or add lots of extra sambals, so my son Jonah can have the non-spicy version.

I love being a Mum, but the juggle of work, life and family is real, and it’s ok to acknowledge that sometimes one of those spinning plates drops.

Do any recipes or dishes hold special memories for you?

My family’s recipe for chicken satay with peanut sauce. It belongs to my grandmother, but the whole family gets involved in cooking it, from Dad on the Barbie to Mum making the peanut sauce and my grandmother marinating and skewering the chicken. We cook it regularly at family events.

Favourite restaurants in London?

Keu for banh mi, Xian Biang Biang noodles in Shoreditch, Padella, Dishoom, Hoppers, Clove Club, Sambal Shiok.

And elsewhere?

In Sydney it is Chin Chin, Ester, Il Baretto, Chat Thai, Ichi-ban Boshi and Hong Ha for banh mi.

Anyone who you’d like to collaborate with? Any other chefs or restaurants?

I’m currently doing a collaboration with the vegan zero-waste food delivery company DabbaDrop based in London. They are revolutionising the way we eat takeaway using sustainable, reusable dabba tins with rotating menus that travel across Asia, from South to East. I adore Ixta Belfrage (author of Mezcla) who has a similar philosophy of cooking to me, so I would one day love to collaborate with her.

I’m currently doing a collaboration with the vegan zero-waste food delivery company DabbaDrop based in London.

What’s next for you?

I’m writing a children’s book on Lunar New Year aimed at 4-year-olds. My son is 3.5, so it’s such a gift to be able to write a book that he can read and enjoy very soon.

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