While other children had sandwiches or meat pies for lunch, Ethan’s grandma packed him elaborate home-cooked lunches in million little containers. He would trade it away or hurriedly eat it in a corner before other kids could comment. He was an Asian kid in Australia, wanting to fit in. But after graduating from high school, his own culture became of interest to him — be it its rich history or delectable food. However, time stands stills for no one and his grandmother who had urged him to reconnect with his roots, an amazing cook in her own right, had passed away.
Like Malaysian chef Nazlina, Ethan’s grandmother practiced the traditional, slow style of cooking. His family hails from Taiwan and Singapore, and he also has friends and family living in Malaysia – so Malaysian cuisine was no stranger to his household. It bothered him that he never learnt how to cook it or write those recipes down. While at university, he spent a year abroad in China. He loved going to wet markets to pick fresh food for cooking. Since then, he’s been yearning to know more. How timely it is that he stumbled upon a vacation with chef Nazlina on VAWAA when he was working on a start-up dealing with Asian food and spices. “I thought it was the universe telling me to take a crack at it,” he says.
What drew you to VAWAA?
So many times while travelling I'd dream of learning a local craft and experiencing something unique and endemic to the city or country I'm in; a craft, skill or experience that I can take home with me, rather than just taking in the touristy sights. I was drawn to the idea of being in some far flung place doing something completely different to my day-to-day life, and how it could unlock another part of my brain creatively.
Tell us about what you do in your daily life.
I work as a graphic designer for Landor Associates in Sydney specialising in corporate branding, motion graphics and UX/UI design. When I'm not sitting in front of my computer at work, I'm probably sitting in front of my computer at home, and if by some chance I've wandered away from a dark room in front of a screen, I enjoy making small talk about issues that keep me up at night -- like the fact that there are international space laws and treaties that govern activities in outer space which means that somewhere out in society there are a bunch of dudes and gals who are space lawyers.
Someone I really admire once described herself as 'professionally curious, personally puzzled' which I really dig, and I think describes me as well. I have big dreams about all sorts of things and love hearing about those of others; I’m trying to figure out how they all fit together, and spend a lot of my time working on a bunch of different start-ups.
In Penang, you spent your vacation with Nazlina. What did you guys get up to?
Everyday was different, which is why I loved it the most. Some days it was a visit to the food or spice markets, other days it was a visit to local fishing villages or taking a historical walk through the town. But every day, we'd cook and use our hands to create something out of nothing. At the beginning I was hurriedly trying to write things down, but Naz kept telling me to watch, smell and from that I'd learn and remember it, and that she'd send me the recipes later. Asian food requires a lot of prepping, it takes time and a lot of loving to make it all come together.
What has been your fondest experience?
Nazlina is like this encyclopedia of knowledge when it comes to food and ingredients. She has this strong understanding of history and traditional use of plants and spices -- from where the foodstuff originated from and how it's used for both taste and medicinal purposes. So there were countless instances we'd just be walking down the street and she'd just point at a plant or tree and go into huge detail of how it's used and what it's used for. One time, we stole branches of a curry tree overgrowing onto the footpath from a police station in the middle of the city; another time we were walking on a beach beside this military base and found the strangest fruit called mengkudu/noni that apparently has countless health benefits. So we stole some too.
What is something new you learnt from Nazlina?
Oh wow where do I start? I think the biggest thing I learnt was probably how to trust your gut and learn from failure. From the perspective of a guy who could barely cook anything that didn't require boiling hot water and pouring it into an instant noodle cup, or milk into a bowl, I always tended to follow a recipe that was given to me or found online when it came to cooking. Getting the proportions perfect, thinking I misread something when it didn't turn out right, rather than stepping back and looking on how to improve on things. Naz really encouraged experimenting, tinkering, trusting your instincts on 'what seemed like it would work' and making a blunder to rethink what went wrong and how you can improve the taste and the outcome.
Which delicacies were your favorite?
Definitely the sambal dishes, samosas and naan! They take a bit of time to prep but are pretty versatile in what you can eat them with so that you don't ever really get bored! We made them with a lot of big flavours but they can be paired back and made subtler for a different palate.
What is your favorite thing about Penang?
It's an absolutely beautiful city. You get so many different lifestyles in one small island. There's big-forested mountains, beaches, old colonial architecture, urban malls, Indian, Chinese and Malay cultures all combining together and working to make a really different and unique place. The sights, sounds and smells are truly mesmerising.
How does Penang differ from Sydney, where you’re from?
Penang has three really big cultures defining a lot of what it has to offer in Indian, Chinese and Malay customs and traditions. They sort of interplay and feed off one another to create a different way of life. The cuisine reflects how they fuse and interact with one another.
Sydney has a mix of a lot of different heritages and cultures but in a more urbanised sense, a lot less raw than in Penang. Parts of Penang have quite an old timey feel to things -- of a time gone by as things just kind of slowed down on the island. And it's also bloody humid.
With all that you’ve gathered from Nazlina, how has that changed your outlook towards cooking?
Work can get you caught up in a cycle and I used to just cook a big batch of food over the weekend or every so often on evenings throughout the week. Now, I try to make a more concerted effort to balance things a bit better and cook more often. It's really about patience and experimenting, getting your hands dirty and doing something that is really subjective to everyone. Where Picasso is perfection to some, others wonder why the dude’s eyes are so lopsided -- and the same goes with food and cooking.