Verna Gao Asks, 'Have You Eaten?'

Verna Gao lives in London, and grew up in Shanghai. When she first arrived in the UK she spoke very little English and used cooking as a way to feel more connected to her Chinese heritage.

She soon built a following among friends for her delicious food - leading impromptu cooking classes at her college.

This following has since grown well beyond the school gates: she now has over 200k followers on Instagram @vernahungrybanana.

Her book is a beautiful collection of recipes you want to cook again and again.


[Have You Eaten?: Deliciously Simple Asian Cooking for Every Mood by Verna Gao is published by DK, £20.  Photo credit: Lizzie Mayson]

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

I was in Chicago for a trip with Disney+ and we visited a restaurant that was featured on The Bear - Avec. There was a dish of medjool dates stuffed with chorizo and wrapped in bacon with a spicy tomato sauce. It was unbelievable and I’ve been meaning to replicate it.

What’s the one dish that will make anyone fall in love with your food?

There are so many I think, but one of my favourites that I make for other people is my kimchi udon noodles. It’s so easy to make and packs so much flavour. I’ve made it countless times for myself and others and nobody turned it down.

TRY: Verna's recipe for Creamy Peanut Noodles

Creamy peanut instant noodles

What is it about cooking and food that makes you really happy?

Food has always been a really big part of my life, and I think that’s a lot to do with the Chinese and Asian culture that I'm surrounded by.

Everywhere I go, if that’s travelling or just day to day, I always want to know if there’s good food nearby.

So when I learned to cook it was a given that I’d have to make the best meals for myself, because that’s how I show myself, and others love - by dedicating time to cooking and making delicious food.

I love it especially when I feed my loved ones, and they smile back because they really liked what I cooked for them.

It makes me feel accomplished and happy that I was able to do that for them as well as knowing that my food has made them happy too.

What are the components of a good meal for you?

I’m a very visual person so I love dishes that are well presented with some colours.

I love adding greens to everything I cook, even if it’s just some spring onions scattered on top.

VERNA'S RECIPE: Matcha Burnt Basque Cheesecake

What is one kitchen tip everyone should know?

You can easily debone chicken thighs with some kitchen scissors! I never buy deboned thighs at a premium with this.

What dish do you turn to most often?

Hainanese chicken rice - because I can cook enough for 3-4 meals with one whole chicken, and the chicken stock can then be used to make chicken pho for another few meals.

It’s perfect when I’m having a busy week and won’t have time to think too much about what to eat.

What’s your favourite ingredient to cook with right now?

I love leeks and I think they’re so underrated. They’re so fragrant when cooked and they have a sweetness that I love.

They also cook really quickly and compliment a lot of dishes easily.

MORE: Try Verna's recipe for Pork & Leek Shen Jiang Bao Buns

What makes a great comfort dish for you?

Something warm, soothing, preferably with slurpy noodles.

Where do you find inspiration?

A lot of times I get ideas from travelling where I get to experience food from different cultures.

I also like to eat out when I’m not cooking, and a lot of times I get inspired by dishes I’ve had in a restaurant that was really good, and I think - I have to replicate this in some way when I get home.

What ingredients are always stocked in your pantry?

Soy sauce, sesame oil, gochujang paste, chilli oil and oyster sauce. Does sugar and salt count as well? Haha!

Navarrico Judion Large Butter Beans, 700g

What ingredients have you recently discovered that you are excited about?

Butter beans!! I keep seeing vegan chefs cook with it and they’re so creamy and easy to cook.

I tried them once and they were really good. It definitely made me more interested in learning more about the possibilities with beans.

What is a lesser-known recipe you would love to see more people try?

Fried milk! It’s such a cool concept and it was really cool to make it during the cookbook shoots for everyone there on the day and see how much they liked it as it’s a pretty new concept for many.

How do you source your ingredients and what do you look for when selecting them?

I usually focus on seasonality as I like to make the most of produce grown in season as it’s always more in abundance and better quality.

Price is also important as I want to make recipes that are budget friendly and meal-prep friendly as many people who use these recipes also live busy lives and have minimal time to cook.
How do you stay current with food trends and incorporate them into your menu?
I actually don’t (haha!) since I like to go with what I enjoy and try not to be influenced by short lived trends.

I also do this with fashion and I’m not too fussed about fashion trends so maybe I’m just not a trend follower!

How do you balance tradition and innovation in your cooking?

I think it’s important to pay tribute to tradition while being realistic and working with what’s available.

As I’m not living in Asia, where lots of my recipes are inspired from, I had to make peace with the fact that living away from Asia means sometimes it’s hard to find certain ingredients (though being in London means it’s quite good for this).

My original reason for starting this content creation journey was to create recipes that inspire people who may not have tried these recipes to want to try something new, so I like to think that my recipes are more inclusive to everyone given that it’s more geared towards the average kitchen pantry than ones filled with exotic ingredients.

That way, as long as the reader finds a way to include something new and exciting into their usual recipe rotation, and then maybe fall in love with it and want to learn something about another culture, that’s my purpose served.

Products linked above:

Light Soy Sauce

Lee Kum Kee Pure Sesame Oil, 207ml

Gochujang Hot Pepper Paste

LGM Crispy Chilli in Oil


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