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Few ingredients release such a universally understood aroma as garlic. Chef Jason Chan reminisces about his grandparents as he recalls the much loved scent of garlic wafting throughout the streets of Hong Kong.
Yasmin Noone

10 Jan 2022 - 10:48 AM  UPDATED 10 Jan 2022 - 10:47 AM

--- The Cook Up with Adam Liaw airs weeknights on SBS Food at 7.00pm and 10.00pm, or watch it free on SBS On Demand. Stream the garlic episode now. ---


When chef Jason Chan of Sydney’s Canton Kitchen inhales the scent of cooked garlic dancing in the air, there’s one place that both his mind and senses visit – Hong Kong.

“I was born and bred in Australia but my grandparents would take me to Hong Kong, where they lived, often when I was young,” says Chan, Queen Chow’s former head chef.

“I remember the smell of garlic cooking throughout the streets. The garlic aroma in the air attracts customers to eat street food – the smell travels everywhere. Garlic always reminds me of Hong Kong.”

“Every time they had an opportunity to, they’d take me out to eat. That’s why I have so many memories of food, my grandparents and the smell of garlic cooking in the streets of Hong Kong.”

As Chan recalls the scent of the world city decorated with food vendors cooking Cantonese favourites, memories of the chef’s beloved late grandparents return.

Jason Chan (left) with Adam Liaw and Brendan Fong

“Being the eldest grandchild and a boy, my grandparents wanted me to spend time in Hong Kong for the sake of tradition. So I would go to Hong Kong as a child and stay there with them for a couple of years [at a time].

Steamed oysters with whey and green garlic butter

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Subtle and intense flavours

Garlic is an ingredient that’s been used for thousands of years in China, valued for its flavour and traditional medicinal purposes.

“It’s among the top ingredients we always use in Cantonese cuisine – most dishes have garlic, scallions (green onions) and Shaoxing wine.”

As much as Chan loves garlic, he concedes that some people have reservations about the pungent vegetable because of its intense flavour. Associated with vampires in folklore and first date failures, garlicky tastes can prove overpowering.

“There are so many ways you can use garlic. It’s so versatile."

Yet Chan explains that it doesn’t need to be that way. It all depends on the way you cook with garlic. You can confit garlic or use garlic oil to embed flavour into a dish. You could also choose to deep-fry, shallow fry or steam the ingredient.

Or perhaps you can opt for garlic chives or scapes instead of garlic cloves. “By cooking with garlic chives, you will have a more subtle dish," he says.

Garlic-loaded butter tastes better

One of Chan’s most nostalgic uses of garlic is in Cantonese garlic butter. “The taste of garlic butter always brings back memories of eating seafood in Hong Kong as a kid.

“Snow crab with garlic butter sauce is a Cantonese classic you can’t ever go wrong with. You can also use leftover garlic butter from the dish to dip your bread in.”

Home cooks can also utilise garlic butter as Chan does in the SBS series The Cook Up with Adam Liaw, as a key ingredient in Cantonese garlic bread.

Cantonese garlic butter

A classic Cantonese garlic butter for all occasions – try it simply spread on toasted bread or tossed though prawns or pasta. The amount of garlic you use is totally up to you. If you love garlic, then feel free to add more.

To make the butter for the dish, Chan combines minced garlic with thinly sliced garlic stems, unsalted butter, kombu dashi, cornflour and caster sugar.

“The minced garlic gives the butter a fragrant taste and the stem provides colour and crunch. Both forms of garlic are really subtle and work well together.”

Of course, garlic is a staple in so many cuisines, not just Cantonese. Chan reaffirms that the vegetable’s uses are as varied as the many other ingredients garlic can compliment.

“There are so many ways you can use garlic. It’s so versatile.

“So don’t be afraid to cook with it. But definitely don’t go on a date after you’ve eaten garlic.”

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