Local Tales


Australia’s food culture has been enriched by all the wonderful people who have emigrated. It’s also true that Australia has allowed people of different backgrounds and cultures to grow and develop their love of food in ways only possible here. Karen Chan is both of these things, and we thought we’d share her story.

I’m originally from Malaysia. Almost immediately after our wedding, my husband came to Melbourne to study an MBA. I tagged along for what I thought was a 2-year adventure. That was 19 years ago and I’m still on this adventure.

My love of food started in Malaysia. My mum is a good cook, and as a child I loved pretending to be her in the kitchen. My paternal grandmother, also a good cook, is another important influence in my love for cooking. She made the best nyonya (South Malay) style, thick and rich kaya (coconut jam).

I started cooking when I was very young. I didn’t play with dolls or toys, I played with a mortar and pestle. I’d go to kindergarten in the morning, then my afternoons were spent playing masak-masak (pretending to cook) and pounding grass pretending to make sambal. Every day, my mum gave me a few tablespoons of flour to make ‘gravy’, ‘bread’ and ‘pastries’. I eventually graduated to helping mum make real sambal, tarts, dumplings, and, when she said I was ready, bak chang (rice dumplings).

In high school I studied domestic science as a subject, and that taught me basic cooking techniques and appreciation for nutrients in food and a balanced diet.

What’s your favourite dish to cook, and why?

Charsiew. It’s simple to cook using only 4 ingredients, to make a fragrant and tasty dish. It’s our family’s favourite.
Some of my most vivid memories revolve around food, like Sunday dinners at my eldest uncle’s house. My aunt would cook a banquet of at least 10 dishes to feed a crowd of hungry cousins, and the fight over the prized chicken drumstick was terrifyingly hilarious.

Then there were the celebration dinners with the extended family at our place. My mum would start preparing a week ahead of time, and the banquet would feed over 30 guests. I always knew that when I grew up I wanted to be just like her.

Food is important to me for myriad reasons. For starters, it satisfies hunger, and I’m always hungry! Good food brings smiles. Serving deliciously good food is a reason for friends and family to come visit you, and I love the company of family and friends.

I admire all good cooks. I choose the word ‘admire’ because I appreciate the variety of techniques used, fussiness to ensure the quality of the right ingredient is used, discipline to practice the recipe, and the humility to consider feedback. Good cooks continue to inspire me.

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