Rosheen Kaul didn't set out to make a cookbook featuring lazy XO sauce, unauthentic prawn toast and Sichuan sausage sandwiches inspired by Bunnings Warehouse. But The Isol(Asian) Cookbook ended up being the Melbourne chef's creative lifeline after a year that was flipped upside down by industry strife and the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I had been working at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal up until February, when the restaurant went into administration and subsequently closed," she says. Soon after, restauranteur and chef George Calombaris's Made Establishment restaurant group collapsed – "which unleashed thousands of hospitality workers back into the workforce", adds Kaul.
"There simply weren't enough jobs available in high-calibre kitchens, so I made the decision to move to London after my sister's wedding in May."
The plan was to survive on casual hospitality shifts until she relocated to the UK. Soon, she was at Melbourne's Carlton Wine Room – but her job security didn't last for long.
"I went to India for two weeks with my parents to make wedding preparations, and then the pandemic hit. I lost my shifts at Carlton Wine Room and the entire industry shut down. For the first time, I was hit with the reality that hospitality is as volatile an industry as any, and I was forced to think outside the box."
The chef had some time to consider what to do next. When she returned to Melbourne in March, she had a 14-day quarantine period to get through, and it turned out her family home was a good place to spend it.
"My parents' house where I was isolating is incredibly well-stocked. I doubt you'll find a more worldly pantry anywhere else," she says. "My family is of mixed Asian heritage, and each of those cultures has a very involved cuisine. Our pantry is reflective of the breadth of dishes that are cooked in our household."
The dried chilli situation alone was impressive: you can find the complex firepower of Indian, Kashmiri, Chinese, Italian and Mexican varieties in the family's spice cabinet.
The chef drew on their heat and the vivid flavours of the sauces, oils and other pantry goods around her, and cooked "Chinese-ish" dishes which she shared pictures of on Instagram. But she "started receiving recipe requests from the most unexpected demographics", she says.
It was clear that people wanted an entry-level understanding of how to cook Asian dishes in their own kitchens. They just didn't feel equipped with the right knowledge.
In response, Kaul started The Isol(Asian) Cookbook.
"I've had farmers write in to tell me happily about their successes with making chilli oil."
The chef enlisted her friend and illustrator Joanna Hu as a collaborator. In the book, Hu's introduced as a former waitress from Vue de Monde and The Fat Duck, and someone who recommends shifting from your day pyjamas to your night pyjamas – to give your increased days at home some structure, of course. She likes to illustrate to Law & Order: SVU episodes, which she intersperses with the Paddington movies when the TV show's body count gets out of hand.
The Isol(Asian) Cookbook has the DIY punk spirit and wry tone of a zine, and because Kaul was in mandatory isolation, some comical extremes were required for the photoshoots.
"I fashioned a hilarious cowboy setup," says the chef. "I had a giant linen tablecloth that I draped over a sofa, with the background of the 'studio' provided by a table laid on its side. I also only had about two hours of 'good' lighting each day before photos became impossible.
"Where food photographers use plenty of non-edible tricks to keep food looking fresh and lively, everything I photographed was inevitably part of my lunch or dinner. I had to take photos quickly, before any of the elements could wilt or coagulate."
Stylishly holding a Sichuan sausage sandwich – garnished with well-placed lime and herbs – and keeping it in focus, well-composed and intact while taking the photo with her other (non-wobbling) hand was one of the project's many challenges.
Her craftiness with photoshoots also translates to her recipes. While she mainly sticks to traditional methods, the chef also happily champions shortcuts. There's "no shame" in microwaving rice or resorting to instant noodles. It's how she'd eat after intense 14-hour days in restaurant kitchens.
"Instant noodles provided nourishment when my fatigued brain couldn't compute anything more elaborate. I know plenty of chefs who'd finish work, eat a bowl of cereal and go straight to bed, too exhausted to do anything else," she says.
Sure, you could rehydrate the required dried seafood overnight and meticulously hand-chop the pricey ingredients. But why dip into your "wine money" when Kaul provides an easier, home-friendly alternative?
"The XO sauce is adapted somewhat for the Western kitchen, where the only real changes I've made are swapping dried scallops for oyster sauce, prosciutto for Jinhua ham, and incorporated my beloved microwave into a quick rehydration method, for those who struggle to plan ahead," she says.
By encouraging people to make a cheat's version of XO, she hopes it'll make people appreciate the incredible skill involved in the 'proper' version – particularly at Chinese restaurants, where the accessible prices mean people undervalue the effort involved.
While Kaul mostly adheres to tradition, she's also open-minded about remixing Chinese staples: her Sichuan sausage sangas are a hot and numbing take on the Bunning sausage sizzle, while her prawn toast has been transported from yum cha trolleys to summery Australian backyards.
"The cured meats treasured by our Italian community in Australia can always be found in my fridge at home, and I saw no disrespect in adding guanciale to the mix. The Italian community and their delicious traditions are as Australian to me as any other community that has made Australia their home. While it may not be an authentic Cantonese prawn toast, it is a reflection of my authentic experience."
It's moving to see that Kaul's inclusive approach has been reflected by the truly diverse nature of The Isol(Asian) Cookbook's readership.
"I had orders from all over the world, from tiny villages in Ireland to Penang to North Carolina. Our reach was further than we had ever dreamed. The book was nothing more than a creative outlet from two unemployed hospitality workers, yet the most unexpected individuals found that we shared common ground," she says.
"Many people sent us messages, mostly thanking us for giving them an approachable introduction to Chinese cooking, but some wrote to check in on our welfare and offer assistance. I've had farmers write in to tell me happily about their successes with making chilli oil, seniors writing to tell me they'd used the wontons to practice fine finger movements, and others reaching out to share stories of their childhood. It seemed that the personal experiences that punctuated my writing hit home with many others in the Asian community."
This means there's an audience for The Isol(Asian) Cookbook: Volume Two, which comes out in September.
It features 12 more "Chinese-ish" recipes, as illustrated by Hu (and Kaul's well-stretched, photo-taking arm). The book promises to feature fiery Sichuan cheese fondue, Yunnan mashed potato, billionaire fried rice and Hu's ode to eggs.
"We've taken more time to edit and perfect this copy, something we didn't do for the first," says Kaul. "The first book is beautiful in its imperfection, but now knowing that we have an audience, we've taken our time to make sure we have something important to say."