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Sam Low’s new cookbook Modern Chinese. Image: Tina Tiller
Sam Low’s new cookbook Modern Chinese. Image: Tina Tiller

KaiOctober 7, 2023

What does it mean to cook ‘modern Chinese’?

Sam Low’s new cookbook Modern Chinese. Image: Tina Tiller
Sam Low’s new cookbook Modern Chinese. Image: Tina Tiller

Masterchef winner Sam Low’s new cookbook was published this week – and it’s a pioneering moment in our local food history.

This is an excerpt from our weekly food newsletter, The Boil Up.

Despite New Zealand’s long history of Chinese immigration and the Chinese people’s immense influence on how we eat in this country, Sam Low’s is only one of very few Chinese New Zealand cookbook ever released. Published this week, Modern Chinese mixes the nostalgic and traditional with a contemporary hand, all while expanding on what it means to cook Chinese food in 2023. With matter-of-fact recipe titles like “juicy prawn toast” and “spicy saucy tofu”, the book doesn’t attempt to be a definite compendium of Chinese food, but rather an expression of what Chinese food, and identity, can mean in contemporary Aotearoa.

I had a chat with Low about what it means to make modern Chinese food, the politics behind food photography and the power of cookbooks.

CML: There seems to be a real self-awareness around how you’ve approached the connection between identity and food within the book, was that on purpose?

SL: I thought about how this book could inject all parts of me, and what I stand for, which is largely community. That’s why I got so many incredible artists and makers [involved]. I have two of the most profound Chinese Kiwi poets, Nathan Joe and Chris Tse, writing poems in the book. The majority of the ceramics were made by a queer Chinese Malaysian friend, and Jean Teng was my writing mentor. I had so many people in my community help out with this giant project. When I was writing, I didn’t realise that it was going to be the second Chinese cookbook to ever be published out of New Zealand – which is stupid when you think about it. The Chinese population has been here since the 1840s, I don’t know why there hasn’t been more. I wanted to make sure that it had elements of everything that I think food could be or the way it should be reanalysed moving forward within food media spaces.

You write in the book about the relationship between food and being queer. What influence has that had on the decisions you made when writing Modern Chinese?

For me, being queer allowed me to rethink the way that I was told how to be growing up. So then, when given these opportunities, and understanding that the way I exist is outside of the societal box, I was able to break out and be a little bit louder and own that I am different. I learnt that you can still respect tradition, but allow for new. If I wasn’t queer I don’t think I’d be able to even scratch that topic.

The look of the book is really distinctive – how much thought went into imagery?

Even with the photography in the book, I wanted to balance masculinity and femininity. Books that are being released now either lean into hyper-feminine, such as salads, pastels and pretty flowers, or lean into the hyper-masculine of hunted fish and cooking on open fire by the batch. There’s no real in between. But I am neither masculine or feminine so the photography needed to reflect that too. On top of that idea of gendered food, I wanted to stay away from Orientalism. If you look at a lot of the Chinese cookbooks that come out overseas, they will put things like Mahjong tiles and chopsticks everywhere. It’s like, we get it, it’s Chinese, but you don’t have to remind us in every single photo.

I really wanted the studio shots of me because I was over those shots where the cooks are leaning down smelling coriander in the soil – who actually does that? I wanted to be aware of the camera. I didn’t want a photo of me pretending to shop. I wrote about this in the book, but back in the day, a lot of the queer men who wrote cookbooks never had their name or face attached, because it might be detrimental to sales and I wanted to take ownership of that, and say “no, this is very me; very queer and very Chinese, and I created this cookbook”. I didn’t want to detach my food from the person.

How have you approached the diverse nature of regional and diaspora Chinese food in the cookbook? 

First and foremost, it needed to include a lot of recipes that were nostalgic to me personally. Growing up in a Cantonese household meant that I anchored the book around Cantonese eating. And then I thought about the earlier introduced Chinese dishes to New Zealand that was survival food. By survival food I mean food that was adapted to suit western tastes so people would spend money in Chinese businesses so that immigrants could survive. That’s dishes like sweet corn soup, black bean beef, and my version of mapo tofu.

That’s since evolved to an understanding in New Zealand that there’s so much regional variety. I have a few dishes in the book that are Sichuan flavour profiles, and Shanghainese, as well as northern Chinese, because these have started to become popular in the local dining scene. I felt it was important to give a brief summary of where dishes are from and how vast Chinese gastronomy is. That’s a big reason no one else has done a cookbook that summarises Chinese food and that’s why I didn’t have the heart, or for lack of a better word, the balls to do a book that’s called Chinese food. I had to call it Modern Chinese, because I could only speak from what I know of Chinese food.

Considering the relative absence of Chinese cookbooks in Aotearoa, what are your thoughts on the significance or power of cookbooks?

When you have monuments or placements where cultural significance is documented and presented, it allows the public to be reminded of the progress of cultural movements within a place. When you have that it gets rid of xenophobia and also the idea of a monolithic culture. The lack of Chinese presence in New Zealand, within media or art, means that you can forget that there was this larger history of Chinese diaspora here. There’s a lot of room now, especially in today’s climate, for new voices to come up to push forward culture and allow room for delicious and new. That seeps into everything else.

Keep going!