• Brendan Fong's Fijian-Chinese heritage has influenced his love of pan-Asian cuisine. (Lilymu)Source: Lilymu
Growing up spanning two cultures taught chef Brendan Fong there are no boundaries when cooking. If you respect the original recipe, you can create a new dish.
By
Renata Gortan

16 Sep 2021 - 11:14 AM  UPDATED 8 Oct 2021 - 3:47 PM

--- The Cook Up with Adam Liaw airs weeknights on SBS Food at 7.00pm and 10.00pm, or stream it free on SBS On Demand. Watch Brendan Fong as he shares his recipe for stir-fried beef and potato this Thursday 14 October. ---

 

There were no sausages insight at Brendan Fong's family barbecues, instead, his family would tuck into epic Fijian feasts cooked in a lovo — an underground oven or fire pit.

Growing up on a five-acre block in Queensland, the 35-year-old executive chef at Lilymu in Parramatta in Sydney's west, says he lived for the big family gatherings on weekends and school holidays when the whole extended family would get involved in cooking the traditional Fijian food on his mother's side.

"On the weekends, when family would come over, we would cook in the lovo, similar to a hungi, where the food is cooked in the earth for three hours," he says.

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"There was a whole ritual to it, my parents would be up early to wrap all the meat in banana leaves and light a fire that would heat up all the stones. Dad would be up at 5am preparing it and throughout the day people would start to trickle in and help with cooking and wrapping the meat."

Fong says it was a huge process. "We wouldn't eat until 2pm and by that time everyone would crowd around the fire to dig out all the food, put it on trays and transport it inside.

Wrapping a leg of pork in palm leaves for lovo cooking, a traditional cooking method used in the Fijian islands.

"As kids, our jobs were to hold the trays and have them ready, so that when they dug the food out of the dirt and picked it out of the fire, we were there and could run it inside while it was still hot. I was also always excited to help start the fire and collect the timber for it."

The lovo would be used to cook meat and a variety of vegetables, but Fong's favourite was always the pork wrapped in banana leaves.

"Pork shoulder and pork bellies would get so smoky and really tender, the meat was so moist because the steam in the earth had nowhere to go," he says.

"As kids, our jobs were to hold the trays and have them ready to so that when they dug the food out of the dirt and picked it out of the fire, we were there and could run it inside while it was still hot."

The menu would also include paulisami, a traditional Fijian dish where taro is stuffed with onion, salt and coconut milk, alongside Chinese dishes such as stir-fried noodles, siu yuk and wonton soup, which represented his father's side of the family.  

Now that he's an adult, Fong can appreciate the amount of work that went into these huge family feasts.

"When I was little, it just felt normal to us. It wasn't every weekend, but it would be very regularly and now that I've grown up and look back at that, those times are actually quite special."

Fong is the youngest of four and his parents worked full time, so day-to-day meals were quick, simple dishes. His father would cook Chinese food such as stir-fries and riff on Hainan chicken.

His mother would make Fijian dishes such as boiled taro with fish braised in coconut milk. "They cooked dishes they knew, that they simplified so that they were fast because there was always more than one dish — there would be a meat dish, a vegetable dish and rice," he says.

"Sharing and cooking a good meal with your family shows how much you care and love them. So, I have always related to food in that sense and still apply it to whoever and whatever I cook to this day."

"Fong has always been interested in cooking and he learnt by watching. His favourite TV show was Cooking with Geoff Jansz and he would hang out in the kitchen to see what was going on. "I would always ask my dad how to cook his dishes and he would always say, 'No recipe, if you want to learn you have to watch'." 

These days, he brings the dishes of his cross-cultural upbringing together. Lilymu is a pan-Asian restaurant that doesn't restrict itself to one cuisine, which gives Fong a chance to play with dishes he otherwise wouldn't be able to create. "Lilymu has no set boundaries, the idea is to bring different Asian cuisines together," he says.

Combining both his cultures in a dish wasn't easy because the ingredients don't lend themselves to fusion, but he has given Fijian kokoda a Southeast Asian twist for the menu at Lilymu, reinterpreting it as a kingfish and coconut ceviche with taro.

KOKODA
Fijian ceviche (kokoda)

This is a traditional Fijian seafood dish served as part of a shared meal though delicious by itself or with some steamed rice. It is similar to a “ceviche” where the fish is slightly cooked from the acidity of citrus. Food Safari Water

"Kokoda is one of my all-time favourite Fijian dishes and it's easy for everyone to relate to — Japanese eat raw fish and South Americans eat ceviche so this version blends Southeast Asian ingredients with a Fijian dish. It just fell into place," he says.

Another family-inspired dish was the beef rendang and mozzarella spring roll, with the rendang recipe coming from Fong's grandmother-in-law, who is Singaporean-Chinese. Rendang's origins can be traced to Indonesia, but it has filtered into other Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore and Malaysia. 

"The passing down of recipes in the Asian community is almost ritual. A grandmother will share her recipes with her children and then her grandchildren and even her great-grandchildren. It means that these age-old recipes and traditions are kept alive through this tradition," he says.

"I wanted to put rendang on the menu as a normal dish, but I like to be creative and think about dishes in a different way. I had some leftovers that I made for the staff meal, tried it and it worked.

"I hope we've given the recipe respect and reinterpreted it."

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @RenataGortan and Instagram @renatagortanPhotographs by Lilymu.


Beef rendang

Ingredients

Serves 4

  • 1 kg beef shin, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 45 g desiccated coconut
  • 20 g coriander seeds
  • 8 g fennel seeds
  • 50 g dried chilli
  • 80 g lemongrass
  • 20 g galangal
  • 150 g eschalot
  • 20 g garlic
  • 30 g ginger
  • 1.5 litres coconut milk
  • 200 ml vegetable oil

Method

  1. Prepare this dish the night before. Soak the dried chillies by placing them in a bowl and covering with enough water so that all the chilled are submerged.
  2. The next day, in a warm pan, toast the coriander seeds and fennel seeds until they become fragrant and set aside.
  3. In the same pan, add the desiccated coconut and toast until it is a rich dark brown. A good way to tell if it's roasted enough is if the coconut smells sweet and not burnt. Set aside to cool on a flat tray. It's important that you don't put it in a bowl to cool because it will retain heat, keep cooking and burn.
  4. For the curry paste you'll need a blender to make it as smooth as possible. A food processor won't make the paste fine enough.
  5. Start by roughly chopping the eschalots, garlic, galangal, lemongrass and ginger, and set aside in a bowl. Drain the water from the chillies you soaked the night before and place them into the same bowl as the garlic and the other fragrant plants and roots.
  6. Blend the toasted coriander and fennel seeds with coconut until it becomes a fine paste. Then add in the eschalots, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, ginger and soaked dried chillies that you chopped earlier with half the oil and blend again to a fine paste.
  7. In a large heavy based pot, heat the remaining oil on a medium heat and add the paste. Cook the paste out until the oil starts to separate, then add the diced beef shin and coconut milk. Stir then bring to a slow simmer and stir every 10–15mins, making sure the curry doesn't stick to the bottom. Cook for 1.5-2 hours, until the beef is soft and tender.
  8. Season with salt to taste and serve with steamed rice, or if you are feeling luxurious, coconut rice.

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