• Leigh's 10th birthday. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Hoarding food was not an option for me when I was growing up - but this has given me a lifelong appreciation for food.
Leigh Louey-Gung, Presented by
Elli Iacovou

5 May 2021 - 1:47 PM  UPDATED 5 May 2022 - 8:47 PM

Growing up as one of four kids raised by a single mother in the mid–80s meant our food experience was somewhat limited - especially by today's standards. 

We were homeless for the early part of my life and even when we secured government housing and mum landed full–time work, there was still very little money to spare on fancy or exciting food.

Our meals mostly consisted of massive amounts of starchy carbohydrates. Pasta, rice, and bread all formed the basis of most meals to fill the stomachs of four very active kids. It simply wasn’t economically viable to feed us any other way.

Even with this strategy, there was often little left in the cupboards as we closed in on shopping day. Meals were scraped together from leftovers and random jars lurking in the back of the pantry — something I'm sure a lot of families who are struggling in these times are well accustomed to.

The one food treat we all looked forward to was my mum's fortnightly payday. It was the one meal we 'splurged' on if you can call it that. 

Leigh Louey-Gung.

Us kids would all be at home ready and waiting for mum to get back from work before we all piled into the car. We'd drive the five minutes through the back streets until we emerged on King St in Newtown at Clem’s Chicken Shop. If we were lucky, we'd grab a park just outside and watch with hungry eyes as mum made her way to the front of the queue. 

The smell when she made it back to the car with the BBQ chicken and chips — I still remember it today. The chips, sweating in their cardboard packages, would be stacked neatly from the bottom of the plastic bag with the chicken, wrapped tightly in its foil bag, resting contently on top.

Once home, the ritual would begin. We'd start with a picnic rug on the lounge room floor with the much–anticipated meal stacked in the centre and plates and cutlery around the outside. We'd all wait patiently as the precious cargo was divided evenly between all of us. It was the only way to avoid fights with four kids.

Then, we'd eat. All of it. Every single bit. We'd even pick over the chicken carcass, removing every scrap of meat hidden in forgotten corners. 

It was the most emotionally satisfying meal I'd eat all week and even though I have my own family in a different part of the world, we still go through at least two BBQ chickens per week.

Amye’s hot and spicy charcoal chicken

This is a traditional Timorese recipe passed to Ibu Amye Un from her mother and grandmother.

Connecting to my Asian heritage through food

My mum is Anglo-Australian and even though her upbringing in the suburbs of Melbourne didn't expose her to much international cuisine, she tried her best to keep us connected with our Chinese heritage from my dad’s side through food.

We’d regularly have stir-frys and Vietnamese rice paper rolls, and it wasn't uncommon to find new jars of strange sauces and weird pastes in the back of the fridge every few weeks.

Mum tried her best to keep us connected with our Chinese heritage from my dad’s side through food.

It was one of these adventures into new Asian foods that's at the centre my other most memorable food experience.  It was a Thursday night payday but this time, instead of our usual chicken and chips, my mum told us she had a special treat. 

She left the house and arrived back with 20 minutes later with few plastic take–away containers of which I recognised contained stir-fries, but there was one container of something I'd never seen before. 

It kind of looked like brown–grey brains with green leafy vegetables and carrots spread throughout. It didn't really tantalise my taste–buds until mum opened the lid and I smelt pad see ew for the first time. The first taste was remarkable. 

I remember sitting on the lounge room floor on our picnic rug desperately trying to work out how to get more and more on my plate before my siblings worked out just how incredible it was. 

It's still one of my favourite dishes.

After trying those Thai noodles, I started exploring more and more Asian food in my once-per-week cooking sessions. Curries and soya chicken more complex stir-fries from different countries made it onto the menu. The Complete Asian Cookbook by Charmaine Solomon was a massive inspiration as were some cooking tips from my mum.   

Grilled pork ribs with Vietnamese dipping sauce

These ribs are lacquered with a vibrant gamut of Vietnamese flavours, and served with punchy dipping sauce. Sticky-fingers are inevitable! 

Sharing food with those less privileged during the pandemic

It's an unbelievable privilege to be able to stock food. Not just for single parents but anyone on a limited budget. I currently live on the far south coast in an area that has the second-lowest average wage of any area in NSW. There were plenty of people doing it tough during the good times, making it even harder in challenging times like this.

When the pandemic first hit and the supermarket shelves were stripped of supplies, people posted to social media offers of basic items to those in need. I am lucky to be part of an amazing community where people help each other out.  

My wife and I are instilling the importance of food and cooking in our son. He is only four, but he loves to help where he can. He's steadily improving his ability to crack eggs and loves to help stir food when it's not too hot. 

He will either love cooking as much as I do or resent me for it. But for now, I just want him to have fond food memories like mine. 

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @ellijac.

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