• Adam Liaw has learned a lot about his family and heritage through food. (by Adam Liaw)Source: by Adam Liaw
From Tokyo's high-end sushi joints to Rome's trattorias, Adam Liaw has been there. However, nothing compares to a family meal at home.
Melissa Woodley

1 Jul 2021 - 10:02 AM  UPDATED 21 Mar 2022 - 4:49 PM

--- The Cook Up with Adam Liaw's second season airs weeknights on SBS Food at 7.00pm and 10.30pm. It will encore on SBS Food at 11am weekdays and at 3.40pm on SBS. SBS Food will air a marathon on Sundays at 2.00pm, and series will be made available after broadcast on SBS On Demand. --- 


Food has always been an occasion for cook, presenter and author Adam Liaw. It's something he's loved since the moment he was born. Adam grew up eating three meals a day plus snacks, all prepared by his paternal grandmother who lived with him.

"My grandma on a weekday would make pancakes in the morning for breakfast, packed lunches and then ham and cheese toasted sandwiches after school," Liaw recalls.

Every meal was happily devoured, but dinner was always the main event. His Chinese-Malaysian grandmother would serve an array of traditional Hainanese dishes with favourites including her braised pork and Hainanese chicken rice.

"As someone who lived almost all of my life outside of Malaysia, the only way I've learned about my heritage is through food," Liaw says.

These authentic dishes were accompanied by a wealth of knowledge about his Malaysian roots and stories about what life was like for his grandparents growing up in Malaysia.

"Food when it comes to culture is so ingrained in every aspect," Liaw says. "It teaches you a lot about everything from culture to economics to seasonality to hygiene."

Takeaways from Liaw's grandmother were the importance of manners and expressing gratitude by finishing everything he'd been served.

"There are these old kinds of idioms that every Asian kid grows up with…," Liaw explains. "My grandma used to tell me that every grain of rice would be like a mark on my future wife's face."

Simplified Hainanese chicken rice

Widely considered to be the national dish of Singapore, Hainanese chicken rice has played a significant part in Adam Liaw’s upbringing.

It was around the time that his parents divorced at age eight that Liaw took an interest in cooking. He began making sweet foods like gulab jamun and fried ice cream. However, it wasn't long before he was serving orange-glazed chicken for family dinner.

When his mother remarried, Liaw and his brother and sister gained another four siblings. A love for food was shared between all of the children, as well as an eagerness to get their hands dirty in the kitchen.

"Each of the kids would take turns making dinner one night a month," Liaw explains. "There were seven kids at that stage, so it meant that for one whole week of the month none of the adults had to do the cooking."

This chore turned into a mini-MasterChef battle between the siblings to see who could create the best dinner.

"If you wanted to cook something, we'd be the ones to decide what to cook, we'd get started and then mum would help," Liaw explains.

Once the food was ready, the whole family would sit down at their extended dinner table to enjoy the meal. They treasured this time spent together catching up on their days, telling jokes and debating.

"Food is something that definitely brings people together. It forms such a part of your identity, not just what you eat, but how you eat it and who you eat it with," Liaw says. "I literally cannot ever remember having a meal in front of the television. It was always sitting down and talking with the family.

"Even doing the washing up was fun too because it was just hanging out with your brothers and sisters," he says.

"As someone who lived almost all of my life outside of Malaysia, the only way I've learned about my heritage is through food."

Birthdays were the one occasion that Liaw's family made sure to celebrate. Liaw laughs as he reminisces on the moment his eighth birthday cake was brought to the dinner table.  

"It was a cake in the shape of the dog and had different colours, but [my stepfather] didn't have any strawberry jam for the mouth, which was supposed to be red and so he used tomato sauce instead," Liaw recalls. "He scraped it off before we ate it, but even the idea of having tomato sauce in the cake I found very distressing."

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Being taught to appreciate the importance of eating in good company and using food as an opportunity to connect with others is something that has shaped Adam's style of cooking and the way he feeds family and friends today.

"Now I've got my own family, three kids, and we will all sit down together to have every meal," Liaw says. "I hope to be able to continue doing it when they become teenagers and so forth.

"There's this old trope about Asian families and the ultimate expression of love is when you get cut fruit after dinner," Liaw explains. "I mean, we still do that, I still give my kids cut fruit after dinner."

Whether shared over Hainanese chicken rice or bangers and mash, these loud and esoteric moments at the dinner table have made Liaw the cook he is today. He is constantly experimenting with new ingredients and recipes, weaving his culture and lessons learnt from the dinner table into every element of his life.  

Love the story? Follow the author Melissa Woodley here: Instagram @sporkdiaries.

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