I am a recipe developer, food writer and contributor to food media websites such as Food52, Bon Appetit. I also have a food show with BFM (Malaysia’s No. 1 Business station), and in 2019, I launched Take a Bao, a podcast focused on Asian food culture.
I graduated with a chemical engineering degree at Cambridge University. Right after, I was weighing my options and considering which direction I should take with my career. None of the typical chemical engineering jobs in oil and gas or pharmaceuticals or consulting called out to me.
I’d also started cooking a bit more during my time in university with a roommate of mine. I became interested in food and cooking, and we started experimenting with fancy ingredients like duck. Since I did not know what I wanted to do after graduation, I went a little bit out of my comfort zone and signed up for a Le Cordon Bleu 9-month culinary course in London and Paris. After LCB in 2017, I interned at Blue Hill Restaurant in New York for six months. I learnt the ins and outs of working in a kitchen. It was really intense, laborious work – back-breaking work. Knowing how a restaurant runs is a really important part of being in the food industry. I just wanted to learn and absorb as much as I could over the six months that I was there, and it was the toughest six months of my life. That was where I gained an appreciation and respect for chefs, and just everyone in the food industry including the service staff, farmers, producers etc.
I went into the industry knowing that I probably was not going to be a chef or a restaurateur in the future. There is a given expectation for me to open a restaurant or cafe but up till now, it’s still not something that I’ve had in my mind.
I started Jun & Tonic during university, uploading recipes and writing for personal fun, as and when, and gradually, it grew from there. I’ve just kind of kept it up ever since.
The Start of Take a Bao
Launching Take a Bao has been a journey on its own. It is a narrative podcast that looks at different aspects of Asian food culture in particular. In each episode, we’ll learn about how the different cultures and communities across Asia shaped—and continue to shape—food and culture. From sniffing out the funkiest durian fruits to lauding the importance of rice grown in the tropical rainforest, exploring the history of Chinese tea to audio expeditions of Asian wet markets, I want the show to give voice to the intriguing, little-known food stories of Asia. Alongside BFM’s Breaking Bread show that I host, it gives me a window to just talk to people about food and that in itself is a joy – to be able to discuss food with people and to call that your job.
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The second episode of Take a Bao is out! 🎉🤗🎊 . It's titled "The Disappearing Coffee Houses of Malaysia". You can listen to it on Spotify and iTunes, but if you want a textual teaser before diving into it… 😉 It's a real doozy—and possibly a slight tear-jerker—about the coffee houses of Malaysia (what we call kopitiams), and tells the story of one particular kopitiam's woes about its future. ☕ . Because even before the pandemic hit us all, kopitiams were already having a tough time surviving. . Decades ago, our capital used to be littered with kopitiams. Their kopis, chicken chops, and kaya (coconut jam) toast were all the rage. But nowadays, they are few and far between, and many have been forced to shutter. The charming kopitiams of old, with stained marble tabletops, yellowing Chinese watercolour paintings on the wall, and a bunch of uncles in a corner drinking their afternoon tea, have been replaced by modern, air-conditioned, Wifi-offering 'kopitiams' like PappaRich and Old Town. Nothing against the latter, but it isn't quite the same. And with the closure of these vintage kopitiams, the history and traditions surrounding them will only follow suit. . So in a (very tiny) way, this episode hopes to preserve some of that. In it, you'll learn how kopitiams first came to be—a heady mix of Chinese tradition and British colonialism is involved—and hear an inter-generational story of one famous kopitiam's beginnings. . Do tell me what you think after listening to it, and if you liked it, if I may be so bold to ask, please share it with a food-friend! 🧑🤝🧑👭👬👫 Just sharing it with one other person will do great in helping the show grow! 🙌🏻 . (Photo by the magical duo @trishates and @calvingoh. 🧡) . . . . . . . . . . . ________ #kopitiam #coffee #brewing #rotibakar #kayatoast #eggs #balancing #foodstyling #quarantineandchill #coffeeshop #pouring #malaysianfood #podcast #foodphotography #f52grams #eattheworld #vscofood #bonappetit #foodpodcast #podcastmovement #nytcooking #saveur #tastecooking #asianfood #forkyeah #eattheworld #takeabao #junandtonic
Over the many interviews that I’ve done, I can tell when someone is genuinely passionate about the industry. Although some are running a food business, they might not be interested in food and I think that is something that is really important to have in the food industry.
It’s something that draws me to the food industry as well like just how genuine people are in this industry. Aside from the genuine part, I just find it really fun and I just enjoy any sorts of conversations around food.
With food, I’ve come to realize that there’s no way of faking someone’s interest or enjoyment of food.
When you speak to someone else that really loves food or is really into food and cooking, you can tell immediately whether they are genuinely interested. Some notable podcasts I really adore are Gastropod, Bon Appetit, Eat Drink Asia by SCMP. But beyond that, I haven’t really heard of any other Asian based food podcasts. So, I just thought like, someone should be talking about that. I’ve been listening to all these podcasts for many, many years now and I thought, “Oh, there should be one representing Asia!” Six months later or so, I launched Take a Bao (2019) and just tried my hand at it.
The purpose of a narrative podcast is to tell an engaging story. Interview podcasts are more straightforward when compared to narrative podcasts, where you build a story around a subject. Every minute of it is curated to engage your audience, rather than listening to a one hour interview with your subject.
It’ll take time to pick up in Asia but I feel there will come a time when people will understand the power of audio podcasts to tell stories.
And this is what I’m trying to do with Take a Bao. I am by no means an expert on it, I just enjoy listening to all these different podcasts and picking on things like, “Oh, this would be so good to make the story smoother”, or they did a certain transition there and how they combined different voices and different interviews together to make a storyline that grabs your attention at every single second. It’s a constant process of learning and significantly more work than the interview-based podcast. But I am having fun. By producing it, I just hope that people will appreciate it and receive that same enjoyment.
For every episode, I need to interview different characters for different perspectives. From chefs, farmers, food writers, and eaters, learn how to cook and eat iconic Asian dishes, and really celebrate the food of Asia to give it the representation it deserves. All the interviews probably take forty-five minutes to one hour to record. From my audio files, I’ll go over them again and pick up engaging pieces, splice them, and link them with my own narrative and condense them into a half-hour episode.
A lot of times, the parts I really want for an episode are just a handful of five-minute highlights from the whole interview
and all the leftover materials are not utilized. At the same time, though, it takes a while for people to warm up, right? It’s only after you form a connection with them, which takes time, that they start to speak about more interesting things and they start to include very personal anecdotes, and those are always the bits that are the most interesting.
Here is a story. For Episode 7: Tracing the Way of Kueh, I reached out to Christopher Tan, author of the landmark kueh (or kuih) book, The Way of Kueh, and scheduled a 20-minute video call with him. We began by just chatting about kuehs, the etymology behind the word, and what a kueh really is. But 15 minutes into the conversation, Christopher had so many great anecdotes, from him waxing lyrical about jemput-jemputs, to sharing his feelings of connectedness when he saw a Thai version of kueh bahulu in Bangkok, to his wacky idea of incorporating cocoa into his modern interpretation of kueh kole-kole.
I didn’t want the conversation to end. So we ended up recording for close to two hours
and still, I felt I had so much more to learn about kuehs! Now that is the power and hallmark of a good interview, but it also speaks to how adaptable an interview will have to be to get the best out of it. If I cut the conversation short just 20 minutes into talking, the end result would be very different, and a lot less engaging. I believe a good rule of thumb is that as long as I’m feeling giddy with excitement from learning and conversing about food during the interview, I’d keep it going and continue geeking out over food along with the guest.
My mom is a brilliant cook. She cooks a lot of Chinese food, whereas for me, I cook more whacky Western dishes. This kitchen is like a space for me to experiment and have fun. Recently, I discovered Mochi Donuts by ladypup and it blew my mind because she used glutinous rice flour. Yes, the flour we use for traditional Chinese desserts. The whole process was so easy and defied the usual Western method of whole afternoon proofing, etc. I had all the ingredients on hand and I just made it on the fly within an hour. I was mind blown.
Top five pantry ingredients
- Kimchi because I love strong, punchy flavours.
- Coconut flour sugar, which is a finishing sugar that my mom discovered. This is all random. My mom makes this really amazing pumpkin nian gao where she tosses them in coconut sugar, almost like a desiccated coconut substitute
- Soy Sauce. This is from Musees Artisan Soy Sauce. A good soy sauce just elevates things to another level! I love having it with half-boiled eggs for breakfast in the mornings! Such a classic combination.
- Coconut cream. I usually try to get fresh santan from the wet markets in SS15, Subang Jaya. But I always try to have a pack of ready coconut cream in my pantry, y’know, in case I’m in need of a little creamy fragrance or richness in curries and stews that I make.
- Miso paste. There is just this umami richness to it. Here is my ultimate comfort food recipe, Miso-Mushroom pasta
I often gravitate towards ingredients that you can just put in addition to make the whole dish much better, like soy sauce and miso paste.
Traditionally, the cobalt blue for Pulut Tai Tai is extracted from butterfly pea flowers. They’re not the easiest flower to source, even in South-East Asia, but luckily for me, mom planted some across the road and they’ve been blooming non-stop ever since. In the mornings, we collect the flowers and then she would boil it in water to get the cobalt blue coloring to make the glutinous rice and kaya from scratch. This experience is dear to my heart, growing up. I actually have a fun little poem I wrote too! It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek here.
The food world is constantly changing. There are podcasts that are speaking of how the pandemic is changing the food industry. For Take A Bao, I want to inform, inspire and educate people about the enjoyment of food, highlighting Asian food culture. I would like to push for better representation for Southeast Asian food culture in whatever way that I can. Listen to Jun’s Take a Bao on iTunes or Spotify. Follow his IG and Jun & Tonic for recipe inspirations, food stories and musings.
Images credit: Jun & Tonic. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Interview by Theri B. Edited by Lim Aileen.