A freelance food writer, Melissa Leong has written for publications like The Australian Gourmet Traveller Restaurant Guide 2010, Time Out Sydney, Daily Addict and New Matilda.
Also a food media consultant, she has worked with clients like patissier enfant terrible, Adriano Zumbo. Always on the go, she also hosts The Friday Delicious on Sydney’s FBi radio and has just completed working on the Good Food Shopping Guide 2011.
How has your cultural heritage influenced you and your cooking?
Singaporeans are food people, period. My first memories, let alone of food, were of sitting on the floor of the kitchen with my mother, watching her pound aromatics to make sambal and later on, learning to stuff wonton pastry. So you could say my family’s background sparked the initial curiosity for exploring the food landscape. Oddly, my father’s decade or more of working in Sydney’s Italian district, Leichhardt, has also figured pretty heavily on the way we cook and to this end, I’ve come to appreciate the full gamut of global cuisine – I make a killer Hainanese chicken rice, but my Jewish matzo ball soup and Italian ragu (I’m told) are convincingly authentic, too.
What have you learned about food from your family?
My family taught me to be adventurous. As fearless eaters, mum and dad were never afraid of exposing us to strange textures, scents, and offally bits – the works. We were never forced, but always encouraged to discover food in our own, and these days, it’s likely I’ll try anything once, even if it is only just the once!
What's your favourite family recipe?
My mother’s Hainanese chicken rice. For many years I put off attempting it, in the fear of not being able to nail that perfect skin, the grainy, aromatic rice and the bitey ginger spring onion and garlic sauce. I’m glad I got over that – it’s actually a very simple dish to make!
How much do you think multicultural cuisines have influenced the Australian food scene?
There’s a school of thought that credits our Asian proximity and its influence in terms of what makes the culinary style we’re developing in Australia truly exciting – and I’d tend to agree. While working on the Good Food Shopping Guide, a writing gig that took me all over Sydney in the search of food gems, proprietors would tell me about customers who drive across the city for proper Portuguese bacalhau (salted cod), Hunanese fermented bean pastes and Cypriot red wine sausages. Our unique concentration of cultures - not only Asian but Middle Eastern, European and beyond, can only offer us a broader range of flavour profiles, ingredients and inspiration to play with.
What cuisine do you most like to cook?
I have an affinity with Mediterranean cuisine. Spending a few summers in Italy, France, Spain and Turkey, there’s something brilliant about freshly caught fish, slashed, scattered with a few herbs, a squeeze of lemon, a slug of good olive oil, then thrown on a grill. Served with really good bread and a glass of vino, not much beats it.
What makes this cuisine special?
I like the ease of technique, the beauty of simple flavours and the celebration of really good produce.
What is your secret food shame?
I have been known to do a drive-by for a McDonald’s Happy Meal when hung over.
What ingredient can you not live without?
Garlic. I have an irrational fear of running out of it at home, so I always buy another bulb when I’m at the market.
What is your favourite recipe:
Chinese canapés: prawn and veal wontons with ginger, enoki and black fungus, served with black vinegar dipping sauce. It’s the simplest recipe in the world, but I always get repeat requests.
You can’t go past a huge bowl of spaghetti bolognaise, made the proper way – reduced for hours, eaten with really good quality pasta.
For an easy weeknight dinner?
Xiong Hoi Lai Mein – fresh Shanghainese noodles, blanched and wok-tossed with strips of pork loin, shredded Chinese cabbage, ginger, garlic, sweet soy and a slug of Chinese black vinegar. I promise it takes about 10 minutes flat.
What chef inspired you in your youth?
I’m part of the Peter (G’day) Russell Clarke generation. I met him at a party a few years ago. He asked me if the bar tab was still open.
Tell us about your favourite food event in Australia.
I’m still in awe of the Melbourne Food & Wine Show. Decades of finely honed food love culminated in this year’s program, which spanned some 85 pages of events ranging from international celebrity chef dinners with the likes of Alex Atala, Massimo Bottura, David Chang and Claude Bosi to dumpling crawls and an edible garden in the middle of Fed Square – food should be accessible to everyone on some level and the joy is in the discovery of new ideas and experiences.
Your favourite cook book, food show and cooking utensil?
Book: The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating by Fergus Henderson. Essential reading for any food lover.
TV: I love any of Rick Stein’s television productions – the way he speaks about food is with such love and respect "¦ I am loving Food Wars, at the moment, too.
Tool: My favourite tools are my knives. Particularly the sashimi knife I chose and had custom grinded for me in Tokyo.
Can you tell us your favourite restaurant in your area?
I will always go back to Onde, French bistro and Darlinghurst institution. I find it hard to deviate from my standing order of a dirty gin martini, duck liver pate and steak pommes frites, simply because it’s a guaranteed, no-fail meal. Consistency, quality and good service are important and this place has it in spades.
What is your message for fellow foodies?
Don’t get jaded. There’s always plenty to discover – you just need to keep looking.