A MOST UNLIKELY COOK
A former anthropologist, who says creativity and flexibility are more important than authenticity, presents dozens of dishes from different countries in her latest book. reports.
With vivid images and descriptions of color, taste and smells, Tzu-i Chuang’s book of recipes Simple, Sumptuous, Sublime is an enjoyable read. The book showcases 84 dishes from different cuisines, such as pickled Chinese lettuce stems, Indian keema curry and Mediterranean style roast fish.
“There are also dishes cooked in a combination of different styles,” she says in Beijing.
“Cooking food is more diverse than the dichotomy between ‘Chinese’ and ‘Western’ cuisines.”
With each recipe, Chuang shares an essential cooking technique that can be applied to other dishes, allowing readers to create their own dishes.
“Rules can be broken,” Chuang tells readers at a recent event.
“I think creativity and flexibility are more important than the authenticity of dishes.”
Chuang has some 170,000 fans on Chinese micro blog Sina Weibo, where she shares her cooking.
Chuang, who was born in Taiwan, had no plans to become a chef and food writer when she was growing up.
In 2006, she was a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Washington in Seattle.
“Writing a thesis is tough work and it was making me depressed,” she says.
“Cooking was my only consolation. I used to cook at home and invite friends over to eat and chat.”
Chuang then decided to move to Massachusetts, to be with her husband who was at Harvard University then, and finish her thesis there.
One day, she passed by the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, and saw students busy cooking.
“That was when I became aware that there is such a thing as a culinary school,” says Chuang.
She then applied to join the school.
“I thought that I would try it (cooking) for a year. And if it didn’t work out I would go back to finish my doctoral studies,” says Chuang. “But after two weeks, I decided I would not go back.”
“At a party at Harvard, when I told people I am a chef, they were like ‘that’s amazing!’ ” she says. “People can see your passion when doing the thing you love and they feel happy for you.”
As an anthropologist- turned-chef, Chuang wrote about her experiences online, and then published two books: Anthropologist in the Kitchen (2009) and Everybody Wants to Cook (2012).
Hong Kong writer Leung Man-tao in a recommendation for her first book, says: “Chuang is not a betrayer of anthropology. She is a gourmet who finally finds the kitchen, the place where she belongs.”
In her books, Chuang supports organic farming, eating local seasonal food and reducing waste.
“It is not very good that young people do not know how to cook at home,” she says. “We need to go back to the kitchen.”
Chuang has been posting videos on how to cook on YouTube since 2013. And her videos have received tens of thousands of views, besides gaining her nearly 60,000 followers.
As for fans, a young reader says at the event: “I learned to cook a lot of dishes by watching your videos.
“I hope to see more videos from you because they are a really convenient way to learn cooking.”
Chuang, who has spent the past few years in Boston, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Washington and Jakarta with her husband Jim Mullinax, a US diplomat, says that through cooking people can forge closer bonds with family and friends.
“Everywhere I went, even if we were just spending a year or two there, I decorated our house to make it homely. And made a lot of friends.”
Chuang says that when inviting friends home to eat, it is better to increase the quantity of each dish than to cook many dishes.
“So you can have the time to dress yourself, put on make-up and chat with friends. This is a more elegant way to live.”
Chuang left Jakarta in June and is set to move to Chengdu, in Sichuan province, in August, where she hopes to discover new things about food.
Cooking was my only consolation. I used to cook at home and invite friends over to eat and chat.” Tzu-i Chuang, anthropologist-turned-chef
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org
Zhou Yifan contributed to the story.