Food has become my favourite conversation-starter.
Anyone – from a three-year-old to a gastroenterologist to a taxi driver – has an opinion on what’s worth eating. It’s probably not a coincidence that the ice-breaker question used, when testing someone’s microphone for a broadcast, is “what did you have for breakfast?” It’s the no-brainer anyone can answer, and everyone – from champion competition eaters to people reined in by allergies and aversions – can freely talk about how they handle their appetite. There’s my dad, the family-appointed plate-clearer, whose job was to ensure everyone’s dinner never had a chance to accumulate leftovers – he would finish everything, in a judgment-free, workman-like way. Then there’s the restaurant-goer who presented a local chef with a list of dietary restrictions so encyclopedic that it ran over several pages and came with footnotes (I saw this file and was knocked out by its extensiveness).
Sometimes you’re defined by what you can’t eat, and sometimes you’re defined by your uncapped enthusiasm for food.
And maybe I’m a little from column A and a little from column B?
I started my food blog, entirely for fun, 10 years ago today. I’m sure that sentence already sounds carbon-dated – like the fact I met my boyfriend of 11 years ago on MySpace (also true – you’ll still find him on my dust-gathering list of Top 8 friends). When I started The Unbearable Lightness of Being Hungry, I was using it as a searchlight on Sydney – wielding it in certain directions to discover (and rediscover) parts of my home town via places to sit down for a meal. I wanted to appreciate my own city with the wide-eyed keenness you freely deploy when you’re a tourist, when you’ve landed somewhere with just your passport and bag and you think somewhere great could be close by – or worth the extra travel time – if you just do the research or take a gamble. It’s an inspiring way to get to know postcodes or street blocks you’re unfamiliar with – or corners you’ve often walked past and overlooked.
I’ve also been a vegetarian for 20 years and sometimes people get hyper-focused on that fact as a way to disqualify any kind of interest I have in food. (I definitely have been trolled about this at least once!) But blogs are a rule-free zone and I just covered cafes and restaurants and bars (with my carnivore boyfriend in tow) in my own way. If I was feeling apologetic, I could say that not all music writers wholesale-like all genres of music, and film writers don’t unreservedly love all kinds of movies. And I know of one prominent food writer who is lactose-intolerant and another with a shellfish allergy, but I don’t think that diminishes their overall curiosity about food. In fact, one of the nicest things anyone has said about me appeared in this Good Food story on vegetarian dining by Levins in 2015: “Lee Tran loves food as much as I do, she’s just been a vegetarian for the past 18 years”.
Also another way to look at it: the world has plenty of people who eat meat and write about it, so maybe having one less person laying down opinions on fried chicken or poke bowls is not exactly a big deal? (Joe Yonan, The Washington Post‘s food and travel editor, wrote quite wonderfully about his “coming out” as a vegetarian back in 2013.)
Being a vegetarian is way easier than it used to be – as anyone haunted by flashbacks to sad veggie stacks, curried lentil patties, and uninspired pesto pasta dishes from the 1990s would know. People have wised up that vegetables don’t have to be an afterthought anymore. On Desert Island Discs, Rene Redzepi, one of the world’s greatest living chefs, said: “I started changing my view completely on vegetables. Whereas before I’d seen them as simple garnishes, I could now suddenly see them as something strong enough to stand alone, to be the lead guitarist of a dish.” It’s galvanising to see the spotlight not only directed on vegetables, but driven to full-blaze brightness in vegetarian-friendly cafes like Two Chaps and Cornersmith Annandale as well as restaurants like Yellow, Gigi, Bad Hombres and Madre. And a place doesn’t have to trade on a vegetarian tag to showcase how brilliant veg dishes are. Restaurants across Sydney do this, repeatedly – from ACME and beyond – and I’m very grateful for it.
So the reasons for ditching meat from your diet have expanded greatly from that fateful day I received an email from a fellow teenager who’d just become a vego. I remember him describing the treatment of farmed animals in such a graphic way that I literally clutched my stomach. The gruelling metric of chickens kept in a cage the size of an A4 sheet of paper always stayed with me. Nowadays, most people I know seem to eat less meat for environmental reasons – the fact that livestock creates more greenhouse emissions than all forms of transport combined seems to be compelling factor. Of course, being a vegetarian is not as sermon-y or as grim as this origin story might suggest – I’ve tallied up plenty of knockout meals over my lifetime. I think of the slow-roasted cabbage hearts at Adelaide’s Africola, served with smoked butter, salted plum powder and “crisps” produced from the outer leaves of the cabbage heart that are basically the best salt and vinegar chips you’ve ever eaten. Or exchanging a handful of euros for the wrapper-destroying glory of eating awesome falafel from a Paris shopfront that’s always recognisable from its queues. Or heading to Granville to eat a hot-chips roll from El Jannah, garnished with garlic sauce, slaw and pickles. Or dining at Kanga-An, a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, where the visual presentation is so stunning that a serve of vegan sushi actually comes with its own landscape gardening. In the last year alone, I was lucky to experience three meals that would rank as lifetime greats: at Noma Australia, Den in Tokyo and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York.
One funny thing happened after I started my blog – I started to get commissions to write about food for places like The Good Food Guide, The Sydney Morning Herald and Time Out. I once even wrote about Sydney dining for Turkish Vogue magazine, which is hilarious, given my wardrobe is mainly hand-me-downs and updated once a year with a new novelty T-shirt. (The last pair of pants I bought was two years ago, for my grandmother’s funeral.) Because of this blog, I was even interviewed by a German regional newspaper about Gelato Messina and then the Danish Broadcasting Corporation because of my Noma Australia booking. And maybe my greatest “achievement” is having a sandwich named after me at Saga in Enmore. (Co-owners Andy Bowdy and Maddison Howes christened it that way because I’d always fan out about the café’s charred broccoli and Parmesan focaccia, so now there’s a toastie with similar DNA – charred broccolini, fermented chilli mayo, capers and caciocavallo cheese – called The Lee Tran. I guess I can retire now?)
Another funny thing about writing about food: people constantly question you about your weight. Like, a LOL amount if you don’t have a hang-up about it. (But a concerning amount if you do.) I remember a friend’s mum telling me, after I explained that I was (then) working at a national food website, that I “didn’t look like I wrote about food”. (‘Cos every mum’s superpower is being able to undermine younger women with a throwaway comment.) Luckily, growing up with an Asian mum who constantly told me I was not “fat enough” had immunised me against caring about my weight. Inheriting her generous metabolism also helped, I have to admit. I’ve stayed pretty much the same weight since high school and can still fit some of the clothes I bought for Year 10 work experience. I don’t really have much of a say about scoring this genetic piece of luck (it’s balanced out by the fact I’m also very short, so nature gives and takes). But it’s funny how a pair of scales can be used against you, too. I remember going to a Q&A with Lucky Peach editor Chris Ying, where the moderator (Masterchef winner Adam Liaw) made an insightful comment about Ying’s anomaly as an Asian-American with senior editorial status – he stood out at a time most editors were white.
Then Liaw undermined this observation with his next comment.
“90% of food bloggers in Australia are skinny Asian girls who don’t look like they eat any food.”
Because, of course, weight is the only legitimate measure of what someone knows about food. It’s purely a coincidence that this fact is only used against women. (The only time I’ve heard of a guy’s mass being used to question his credentials is through Massimo Bottura’s jokey title to his 2014 cookbook: Never Trust A Skinny Italian Chef; the punchline being, of course, you could very much trust him – Bottura’s one of the world’s top authorities on food and his restaurant, Osteria Francescana, was named the world’s best in 2016.)
I think, beyond your appetite, curiosity is a fantastic way to engage with food. There are so many entry points to having your world broadened this way – I think of Rising Sun Workshop’s Nick Smith, who first got into cooking via an incident with the bomb squad. (His interest literally started with a bang.)
And then there are the endurance levels that make food so compelling. I think of the crazy-hard things chefs do to complete a dish – like Hanz Gueco, the young gun who had to cut calamari into tiny tiny grains to resemble risotto at Marque. Or his head chef at Cafe Paci, Pasi Petanen, who tried to crystallise parsley in the UK, but was foiled by the fact the result didn’t translate overseas: “It was like trying to spread wet toilet paper.” Or Carlos Heng and Dan Pigott at MakMak Macarons who had an intense order of gold-leaf macarons for a wedding – and it became a full-on nightmare, because the static of their hands kept repelling the glitzy ingredient away from the biscuits. I think of Analiese Gregory getting a rash of mysterious scars all over her arms when she went foraging for ingredients – to the point her doctor was stumped. (It turned out fig-leaf sap had been eating her skin and now she’s gloved up on these excursions, the scars haven’t returned.) I think of the bakers from Bourke Street Bakery who took their sourdough starter on fishing expeditions with them, so it’d keep thriving. (I also think of the chefs at Sixpenny and their long-standing relationship with a 10-year-old starter endearingly named Bob.) None of this stress is necessary to meet the baseline of just keeping someone alive – but it’s this level of dedication beyond meeting the minimum calorie intake that makes you appreciate what ends up on a plate.
Then I think of how the lifelong menu in my head keeps expanding with every interview I’ve conducted about food – I’ve learnt about the Japanese phenomenon of examination ramen (where you eat the noodles in a solitary booth, like you’re taking a test), I’ve been introduced to the Thai name for a dish that means “shit metals curry”, I’ve discovered that an “eggshell crust” is a defining feature of a Cuban sandwich or the fact one champion barista was able to recreate a Pacman scene via a cup of coffee.
I also think of what people give up to run these businesses – like Golden Century’s Eric Wong, who’d nap in his car between shifts to have the energy to close the restaurant at 4am – or the fact some people persisted despite their limitations (Ibrahim Kasif was employed to cook food on a yacht belonging to Australia’s ninth-richest man, despite the chef’s propensity for getting seasick).
I also think about how world economies reveal so much through their food (all the best cuisines are ruled by peasant dishes, through scraps of ingredients that have been transformed through the act of cooking – stale bread becoming panzanella, bouillabaisse as a way of reinventing unsellable fish waste) and I wonder if that’s the reason Australia doesn’t really having a defining cuisine. Has industrial abundance, in a way, limited our creativity? But the landing of Noma in Sydney, last year, inspired everyone to zoom in on the wide-ranging parts of the Australian landscape – and to look closer at the power of indigenous ingredients. And I think there’s a lot to explore there.
Maybe ask a three-year-old, taxi driver and gastroenterologist what they think of all this.
I never expected, when I uploaded my first batch of words about food a decade ago, that any of this would end up changing my life. That I’d end up in a car with Ferran Adria – the chef David Chang said we’d all be talking about a century from now – as we sped from the airport to his hotel, trying to record a podcast because that was the only interview slot that was free. I never thought I’d end up quizzing Dan Barber – or calling him a “wheat nerd” – and having him laugh (instead of take it the wrong way) and offer me to take me on a tour of his farm the next time I went to New York. I never thought a succession of plates by Rene Redzepi and crew would dramatically change the way I’d see Australia. I never thought I’d get a goddamn sandwich named after me! (And, bias aside, it is flat-out delicious.)
But some of the most meaningful moments have been the under-the-radar ones. I still remember, early on, being shocked when more than 20 people had read the blog in one day. I was amazed to hear reports of people turning up to restaurants after reading about it on my blog. Or about the guy who went to buy marshmallows from a shop featured here, only to step on a plane to deliver them to LA, ‘cos someone there had read a particular post. I’m still stunned any time a total stranger says something nice about something I’d written or podcast.
Sometimes I wonder about how much money I would’ve saved if I’d just closed up my wallet and stayed home all these years – but I wouldn’t trade any of those nights out or accidental lessons about food for a better bank balance. I also wouldn’t swap any of those sleep-deprived nights (or mornings, truthfully), where I stayed up ’til 3.30 to proof a post then publish it or stayed near-slumped over my keyboard, trying to upload a podcast at 4am or 5am. (I never pulled an all-nighter during high school or uni, but this year – in my grown-up mid-30s – I have scraped by on several 6am finishes to complete posts for The Unbearable Lightness of Being Hungry.) That’s just the unvarnished truth about how stuff gets done, when you’re not getting a dime for the work, but you pursue it anyway for internal, personal pay-off.
When I started this, I was working as a deputy chief sub-editor at an interiors magazine. I’d always worked as a journalist, but I was not in any way “trained” in food. I just started with curiosity and kept asking questions, eating out and metabolising lots of facts from articles and books – anyone can do it, about any subject, about anything. Just start.
PS I’m non-stop grateful to everyone who has kindly read and supported this blog over the years, plus all the chefs and hospitality workers delivering endlessly great reasons to be hungry (and thirsty!) in Sydney, all the people who’ve commissioned me to write for them since I uploaded my first words here (or anyone who has hired me to moderate an event) and also to Bentley, the ultra-memorable restaurant that inspired me to begin this all 10 years ago. Shout out to Grace Lee for the charming banner and Dan Boud for making the site look actually great (and not like a Blogger relic it would’ve remained if he hadn’t come along to the rescue)! He also kindly answers way more .html-related questions than our friendship requires him to. Above all, thank you to Will, whose unmistakably great company and photographs and appetite also keep The Unbearable Lightness of Being Hungry humming and alive.