Adam Liaw takes on the Celebrity Mastermind challenge on February 22. His speciality topic is Asian cuisine and we're pretty chuffed!
Bron Maxabella

19 Feb 2020 - 11:57 AM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2021 - 3:07 PM

No doubt Adam Liaw is feeling just a touch nervous about his upcoming Celebrity Mastermind moment. Perhaps he's feeling just a little bit daunted after pitching himself as an "Asian Cuisine" expert. It's a rather gigantic topic, after all, and encompasses the eating habits of more than 60% of the world's population.

No pressure, Adam. But also, we have faith...

It might help if we reflect on how much he already knows about this mammoth topic and how thankful we are for all his talents here at Food HQ. 

1. XO sauce has only been around since the 1980s

While this spicy seafood sauce tastes like it's been brewing in the back streets of Sham Shui Po since ancient times, it's only a few decades old. The name 'XO' comes from a brand of cognac that is popular in Hong Kong. Weirdly, XO sauce doesn't contain a single drop of this or any other brand of cognac.

Liaw family XO sauce

XO sauce only appeared in Cantonese cuisine the 1980s. It’s a collection of the most prized ingredients from around China, and it was named after XO cognac – the height of sophistication in Hong Kong at the time. The dried scallops are a little expensive, but that’s kind of the point. Destination Flavour China 

2. Lion's head meatballs are not made of lions

The giant pork meatballs are called 'lion's head' because of the way they are presented on the plate. The meatballs form the face of the lion and pak choy, or other green vegetables, the lion's mane.

Lion's head meatballs

Find Adam's recipe here.

3. Chop suey is an American invention

One of the most popular Chinese dishes in America is not Chinese at all. The story goes that at the turn of the 19th century, the late-Qing Dynasty politician, Li Hongzhang visited the United States to meet with President Grover Cleveland. After a full day of meetings, Hongzhang visited a New York Chinese restaurant late at night. The kitchen was closed but the chef rustled up a dish from leftovers in the style of Li’s home province of Anhui. The chef called it ‘za sui’, later westernised to chop suey.

Li Hongzhang’s chop suey

The dish of chop suey was more likely to have developed as a simple stew of whatever ingredients were available, seasoned with the only common Chinese seasonings available in the Americas at the time – soy sauce and rice wine. Here’s a version of chop suey in the style of Anhui cuisine, with a rich broth, silky soup and delicious mountain ingredients. Destination Flavour China 

4. Green tea can enhance umami flavours

Green tea is high in the amino acid theanine, which has been shown to contribute to the umami flavour of meat protein. Try Adam's take on a Singaporean thunder tea rice with sardines and numbing flavour.

5. Eight-tenths full keeps the doctor away

Harahachibu ni issha irazu is the Japanese version of ‘an apple a day’. This mantra for avoiding over-eating has been touted as one of the reasons for the longevity of the Okinawans. Click here to read what else Adam has to say about the Japanese approach to food.

6. Silkie chickens are jet black

While silkies tend to only be kept as egg layers in Australia, in Singapore they are a delicacy. They are eaten as much for their delicious flavour as their startling colour. The black skin and meat are enough to freak many out, but Adam rates it. You can buy black chickens frozen at Asian grocers and butchers, or substitute a standard chicken if needed.

Try Adam's black chicken rice recipe here.

7. Skim your oil

A favourite thing for Adam to point out is the necessity of oil skimming. "When deep-frying, skimming oil is a really important step that many people overlook," he says. "It preserves the oil by keeping it clear, and stops burnt flavours creeping into later batches." To skim your oil, simply use a spider or slotted spoon to remove any residue from the top of the oil to keep it clear.

8. It's impossible to replicate 'Mum's cooking'

Even a cook with Adam Liaw's finesse knows that you can never quite get the flavour of your mum's cooking.  Even religiously following the recipe she wrote down herself won't get you there. "The missing ingredient is not a secret spice or a hidden flip of a whisk; it is something unquantifiable and irreplaceable," says Adam. "You may as well try to bottle a mother’s love."

9. Popcorn chicken originated in Taiwan

Yan su ji has long been a popular street food in Taipei, made traditionally with sweet potato (tapioca) flour coating. It was a grand day when the western world discovered these little fried chicken balls of yum.

Devour the recipe here.

10. Sesame seeds grind better when toasted

Toasting sesame seeds brings out their strong, nutty flavour, but it also makes them easier to grind. This is because toasting releases some of the sesame oil, making the seeds more brittle and crunchy.

11. Never use the f-word

The word 'fusion' has fallen out of favour to describe Australian cooking. Now we all just agree to borrow from all nations to create a flavour that is uniquely our own. "Today the fusion food of the past is as cringe-worthy as looking back at what we wore to our Year 12 formal," says Adam.

Baklava vanilla slice

Aussie favourite meets Middle Eastern delicacy. Creamy vanilla custard scented with cardamom and topped with a caramel pistachio crunch, here’s my take on a timeless classic. #BringBackTheClassics

Tom yum sausage rolls

A Thai twist on one of Australia’s favourite meaty pastries. The lemongrass and ginger add zing, while the shrimp paste adds to that salty-umami flavour we all love. #BringBackTheClassics

Buckwheat crepes with mango, macadamia and kithul

This dish is inspired by the mango pancakes found in a yum cha trolley that I usually find too sweet and a little fake. This version uses buckwheat for savoury notes, with sourness from India, a little sweetness from Sri Lanka and the buttery nuttiness of macadamia.

12. Keep your hairdryer handy

Adam isn't afraid to bust out the hairdryer to ensure his chicken skin will roast extra crispy. If you haven't got time to dry your bird out overnight in the fridge, a quick blast with the hairdryer on a cool setting will do the trick. Perfect for any roast dish, but especially for Adam's flavourful Shandong roast chicken.

13. Always keep a bottle of kimchi in the fridge

That way you can whip up dishes like kimchi fried rice in no time at all.

Find the recipe here.


Great to have with rice and seaweed, with cold or hot meats in a sandwich, and also as an instant flavouring for soups. Poh & Co. 2

14. Dinner requires a minimum of three dishes

This advice comes from Adam's grandmother, who said that a well-constructed shared meal should contain an odd number of dishes, three dishes minimum. As always, Adam is on our side as we blanch at the very thought of preparing a feast for weeknight dinner. According to Adam, serving one big pot in the middle of the table is also perfectly acceptable when its not a banquet spread. The main thing creating variety within the dish, and gathering to share it.

15. Tokyo is the world's best food city

Even Adam admits it's a "big call", but he's standing by this truth. The variety, depth and affordability of Tokyo's food makes it his top pick. "There’s no other place in the world I’d rather find myself footloose and with a healthy appetite," he says.

16. 'Tomalley' sounds more palatable than 'crab fat'

Tomalley is the name given to the digestive organs of shellfish like crabs and lobsters. It's a delicacy on the island of Hainan, where it is also known as crab fat, lobster pâté, or mustard. Fresh ginger and garlic are often steamed alongside the seafood to balance the 'fishiness'.

Try steamed oysters with garlic, ginger and crab tomalley.

17. Ice cubes in your soup are a thing

Adam makes a sweet potato and snow fungus soup that's served for dessert. You can eat it warm or chilled, but Adam prefers it chilled with a few added ice cubes.

18. Don't miss 'Beijing bolognese'

Zhajiangmian translates as fried sauce noodles, and it's so popular with families in Beijing and so easy to prepare that Adam calls it 'Beijing bolognese'. Pork mince is flavoured with aromatics spring onions, ginger and garlic, then tian mian jiang, a sweet bean sauce, adds punch.

Zhajiangmian (fried sauce noodles)

"Translating literally as ‘fried sauce noodle’, this classic home-style dish is popular with peasants and nobility alike. With thick fresh wheat noodles, pork and bean sauce, it’s kind of like a Beijing bolognese." Adam Liaw, Destination Flavour China

19. The hot pot should be savoured

They might sell hot pot in food courts as a quick lunchtime option, but not on Adam's watch. "It's not about getting in and out quickly," he says. "You should be planning to sit back for a couple of hours and getting a leisurely meal out of your experience." 

Adam Liaw's food crawl through Market City's Dining Precinct
In the heart of Sydney's Chinatown, lies Market city's 1909 Dining Precinct and who better than Adam Liaw to take us on a food crawl through all its glory.

20. Hokkien isn't a specific kind of noodle

Despite what the packet might say, Hokkien is a style of noodle dish, not the noodle itself. Hokkien travellers from the Fujian province brought their style of cooking throughout Southeast Asia and adapted their cooking to suit the neighbourhood. This is why Hokkien noodles take the form of a soupy dish of prawns in Penang, or a fried dish with pork lard in Kuala Lumpur. Try Adam's take on Hokkien fried noodles.

21. Never forget the basics

Adam also taught us that this basic egg fried rice is a good choice for your first attempt at wok-frying. No meat or delicate vegetables to worry about – just a simple dish that will work well with good wok technique. So you have your wok and now what?  Oil is very important and you must flavour your oil first with spring onions and garlic and it's best made with leftover rice that has been cooked and refrigerated, explains Adam. 

Either way, we're going to be cooking up quite the feast ahead of Adam's episode on Saturday night.

Celebrity Mastermind airs 7.30 pm on Saturday, 22 February on SBS and is then available via SBS On Demand.

Adam's Asian
Bai-style grilled pork

This popular Bai dish, known as “sheng pi” – literally, raw skin – has a long history. Marco Polo even reported on it after visiting Yunnan in the 13th century. He wrote, “The gentry also eat their meat raw; but they have it minced very small, put in garlic sauce flavoured with spices and then eat it as readily as we eat cooked meat”. Thankfully for those of us who find the idea of raw pork unpalatable, there is a cooked version where the meat is fried in rapeseed oil before being finely shaved. This version is known as “zhu sheng pi”, or “cooked raw pork”. Destination Flavour China 

Tibetan yak stew

Once a staple of Tibetan cooking, yak meat is very similar to beef and many Tibetan families now use beef or cross-bred yak meat as a more cost-effective substitute for full-blood yak meat. You won’t find yak in Australia so beef or camel is a great alternative. In the high altitude of Yunnan and Tibet, these braised dishes can take nearly double the time to cook than they would at sea-level because of the low atmospheric pressure.  Destination Flavour China 

Thunder tea rice with sardines and numbing flavour

"Thunder tea is a mix of vegetables, served together with rice, and a tea poured over the top. I remember making make this dish called lei cha, which translates as thunder tea. Tea can really bring out some umami flavours and is therefore well suited to a savoury dish." Adam Liaw, Destination Flavour Singapore

Singapore chilli crab

“The king of all crab dishes, this popular dish is served with the shell on, and is typically eaten with one’s hands. Make sure you have plenty of napkins handy – it’s messy work!″ Adam Liaw, Destination Flavour Singapore

Okinawan salted shortbread

The tiny islands that make up the tropical paradise of Okinawa are some of my favourite destinations in Japan. The pace of life, the weather, the beauty and of course the food make them a great place to visit. Okinawa is known for many things – the birthplace of karate; a unique fusion cuisine that blends southeast Asia, China, the US and Japan; and extremely high quality produce, from pork to bitter gourds to seaweeds. Two of its most famous exports are a rich, black sugar called kokutou and mineral-rich sea salts. Of course, if you can get those products from Okinawa, more’s the better, but otherwise any dark brown sugar and sea salt flakes will do.