Lara Lee on The Food That Inspires Her

Lara Lee is a ground-breaking chef and recipe writer. Her food is a beautiful blend of her Chinese-Indonesian heritage, and the tapestry of food influences in her childhood home of Sydney - combining Korean, Thai, Korean flavours. Her recipes are bold, vibrant and always exciting to eat.

Here, she tells Sous Chef what inspires her, and shares which ingredients are always at her fingertips.

A Splash of Soy, by Lara Lee is out now, published by Bloomsbury, £22.

What’s the best thing you’ve eaten recently?

I love anything wrapped in a betel leaf, a heart-shaped leaf that is delicate, slightly bitter and peppery. I ate Sweet Prawn Betel Leaves at a gorgeous Asian inspired restaurant called Mumu in Sydney.

Juicy tiger prawns combined with native macadamia nuts, lime, pickled ginger, chilli and lemongrass for an aromatic journey to flavour town, all tossed together with coconut caramel. To die for.

TRY: Lara's recipe for Cheesy Kimchi linguine with Gochujang Butter

As you explain in the intro to your book - soy sauce is the key to so many Asian cuisines - China, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines. What is it about the food from these countries that excites you?

I am very drawn to Asian cuisine. What I appreciate is the love and thought that goes into every aspect of a dish. There is the smoky aroma of the wok, the layers of texture or contrast of temperatures such as crisp ice cold lettuce leaves encasing fragrant and piping hot pork in san choy bau.

There’s the balance of sour, sweet, savoury, salty and bitter flavour profiles, the freshness of Asian herbs, the aroma of the spices and the beauty of its rich tradition and history. Asian food both delights and fascinates me. It’s my favourite type of food to eat.

How has growing up in Australia influenced the food you cook? What are the dishes of your childhood you remember most?

I was surrounded by a strong and inclusive Asian community where I grew up in Sydney, which included access to many Asian foods and cultures. There’s a beautiful bond within the Asian community too, where the strengths of one community is celebrated by the other. I felt that same pride when Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan won the Oscars this year.

The same goes for Asian food; I feel like I am connecting to my Asian identity when I eat it. We loved eating Thai food in Sydney; pad Thai, green curry, massaman curry or larb were on constant rotation. Queuing up for “Sydney’s best banh mi” was a teenage ritual on weekends.

Then there were, of course, the influences of Indonesian cooking from my grandmother and aunties, and the restaurants we ate at. So nasi goreng (fried rice), mie goreng (fried noodles), satay and gado-gado (cooked vegetables with peanut sauce) were childhood favourites.

The availability of authentic Asian cuisines meant that those flavours were familiar, and ultimately informed my preferences and palate in adulthood. It’s these flavours that give me comfort, and a little nostalgia, whatever my emotions or mood that day.

How do you balance tradition and innovation in your cooking?

When it comes to learning a recipe from any cuisine, it’s important to walk before you can run. And what I mean by that, is that you need to learn the origin of the dish and how it is cooked in its traditional form before you can consider adapting it. Learning what elements of the dish are key ensures that the integrity of the dish, and its tradition, is honoured.

It’s also my role to share the culture and tradition of a dish and its ingredients with my audience, so they know the history or story behind a food and the changes I’ve made to make it accessible. This is how I balance both of these. Acknowledging and honour tradition is at the heart of any recipe development I do, and it’s a continual learning process.

What are the components of a great meal for you?

Variety. I crave crunch from a prawn cracker or a peanut, some rich creaminess from the runny yolk of a fried egg, a good level of heat, the peppery kick of white pepper and syrupy umami from kecap manis, soy sauce or oyster sauce. Vegetables shine brightly in a great meal, and I love eating food that not only hits the highest flavour notes, but also nourishes me.

Which recipes in the book do you return to again and again - and why?

I’ll pick 3 favourites, but there are so many more. I love the Miso and Gochujang Butter Roast Chicken; it takes 5 minutes to prepare and requires no marinating time. After roasting in the oven you get this gravy on the bottom of the pan which combines with the juices of the chicken and rendered chicken fat. The gravy is finger licking good. I love it.

TRY: Lara's favourite Miso & Gochujang Butter Roast Chicken

The Pickled Ginger Soba Noodle Salad is full of zing and freshness and it only takes 15 minutes to make; a true emergency meal that just requires some boiled water to make!

I also love the Tamarind Caramel Brownies. It adds a sour element to the brownie which is irresistible, and I have been making this as a gift for friends and family and keep a stash in the freezer for whenever I’m feeling the craving; they defrost beautifully!

Which ingredients will we always find in your store cupboard

Kecap manis,

Kikkoman soy sauce,


Oyster sauce,

Fried shallots,

Kewpie mayonnaise

What new tips, tricks or ideas have you learned while writing the book?

There are certain shortcuts in life that are totally worth it. Microwave rice is brilliant, and you can use it as a rice side or to make instant fried rice without having to think ahead using day old rice. Garlic paste, lemongrass paste and ginger paste make easy work of meal preps. I’ve also become obsessed with instant pastes.

Take tom yum paste for example: you can put it in Bloody Marys, make instant soups, or combine it with a handful of ingredients to make an easy marinade.

TRY: Lara's Tom Yum Roasted Sweet Potato Wedges

How has your style of cooking evolved over the years?

During my time at culinary school I was cooking classical French and Modern British cuisine. After I graduated I immersed myself in every aspect of Indonesian cooking, especially when I was writing my first Indonesian cookbook, Coconut & Sambal. Our house always smelled of rendang or spice pastes, it was heavenly.

I had the time back then to cook for hours on end on the weekends and in the evenings, with endless energy. After my son Jonah came along, my cooking style changed completely. I needed quick and easy meals I could whip up effortlessly. I had that fog of parental fatigue and time was such a precious commodity, I needed big bang for my buck in the kitchen with the limited time I had to cook.

It inspired the premise for my new book, which is all about accessible and simple Asian-inspired food you can cook in anything between 10 to 45 minutes.

What meal are you most looking forward to at the moment and why?

I am obsessed with Tantanmen ramen and anything with karage chicken (Japanese fried chicken) at the moment, and am enjoying visiting Japanese restaurants around Sydney to try different versions of each. Tantanmen has a creamy, pork-based broth that can be incredibly spicy, and I love to take it to the spice max when I eat it.


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