For Biomedical Engineering graduate Jason Lee, cooking is the ideal bridge between his artsy and technical sides.
“You need to have the technical basics down, and know how something works in order to showcase your creativity,” said the 21-year-old, whose ambitious kitchen experiments, artful plating and strong creative instincts far belie his age.
“In the kitchen, art meets science. I don’t believe in pigeonholing myself, that you must be just artsy or science-y. They both complement each other.”
Currently back in his home town of Tanjung Bungah, Penang, Lee is taking a gap year before going on to do his masters degree in Britain, the United States or Canada.
“I plan to do a Masters in Information Management, which is all about user experience and user interface – it’s the same tech and programming skills, plus design skills,” he said, echoing his sentiments about combining art and science.
Lee will be starting work at a tech firm soon – but this also leaves him plenty of downtime for his kitchen work.
While his love of cooking isn’t genetic – “my mum doesn’t really cook” – it does stretch far back throughout Lee’s own life.
“When I was five, my mum asked me what I wanted for my birthday, and I chose a toy kitchen from the toy catalogue!” he said.
Lee’s kitchen direction is set solely by his own gastronomic leanings – in other words, he cooks it if he wants to eat it, or if an idea captures his imagination.
“When I was 15, I started out really cooking. The first dish I ever made was aglio olio pasta, just because I really liked pasta,” he said.
As matter-of-fact as he is about his cooking, Lee has always been pretty dauntless when it comes to attempting dishes that require a high level of technical skill.
“The first dessert I ever made was a macaron, when I was about 16 or 17,” he said. “I watched YouTube videos on how to make macarons, and they made it look really easy. So I just decided to go to the supermarkets and get ingredients …
“It was a bit too ambitious for me at the time, and the macarons didn’t turn out too well – they came out in different shapes and sizes, I burned my hand…”
But he persevered, and macarons are child’s play to this kitchen wizard nowadays. When he gets an idea into his head, it is then a matter of working out the different elements of the dish, perfecting them and practising the making of till he gets the result he wants.
“I understand the basic structure of a dish, then build it from there, according to taste and structure,” he said.
Beyond just trying out new dishes and techniques, plating has become central to every creation Lee comes up with.
“In the beginning, it was all about cooking for taste and nutrition,” he said. Aesthetics weren’t foremost on his mind.
“And then I watched MasterChef Australia in 2015, and there was this guy that was the same age as me, and he was plating up these amazing desserts … and I thought, hey I can do that too,” he said. He started following photographers and food stylists on Instagram, and honing his techniques.
“For me, it’s not just the plating, but also the meaning and story behind the dish,” he added.
“Take my recipe for belacan chicken gua bao – I feel that the bao in general is a very trendy thing in London right now, there are a lot of bao speciality shops coming up. And I wanted to come up with a dish with a particularly Malaysian vibe. Belacan chicken was my favourite childhood snack, so I was able to draw on my childhood as well.
“For more elaborate, modern things, I like to infuse different food cultures into one dish, as well as making traditional food more modern,” he added.
One of Lee’s standout dishes is his take on that Malaysian classic, nasi lemak, which he came up with when he was 19.
“It was again inspired by me watching MasterChef … I wanted to make a dessert inspired by Malaysian cuisine, and this one was inspired by a contestant’s dish. So I chose nasi lemak, because it’s a national dish, and I thought the coconut flavour would lend itself well to a dessert,” he said.
The result is a dish of coconut, curry leaf and lime parfait, with crispy puffed rice, pickled cucumber and chilli, and a lime caramel.
Lee’s forays into kitchen creation have also fed into his other passion – photography. Having travelled extensively throughout Europe in his three years at university in London, he took many travel and architecture-based photos.
And he is careful to document every dish he creates.
“I photograph all my food, using mostly natural light, and some basic cardboard reflectors,” he said.
The results truly showcase that perfect intersection of art and science, illustrating the wonders that can be achieved with the right balance of each.
Lee is also currently working on putting his kitchen skills to good use, planning an event to help people with special needs.
“I dream of one day being on MasterChef myself, and travelling the world, eating all the food everywhere!”
Follow Lee’s food journey on his Instagram @lefty_cheffie
BELACAN CHICKEN GUA BAO
3 to 4 servings
3 tbsp oyster sauce
4 tbsp cornstarch
2 tbsp belacan (fermented dried shrimp paste), roasted and ground
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp roasted sesame oil
2 tsp soy sauce
2 sprigs curry leaves, stem removed (optional)
2-3 cups peanut oil or canola oil
2 tsp lime juice
4 boneless chicken thighs, cut into pieces
vegetable oil, for deep-frying
2 cups all-purpose flour125ml water or 150ml milk 2 tsp instant yeastpinch of salt2 tbsp sugar 1 tbsp vegetable oil
100ml rice wine vinegar
1/2 tsp salt
handful of shredded carrot, red onion and lettuce
1 tbsp gojuchang
5 tbsp mayonnaise
chopped spring onion
To prepare belacan chicken
Mix all marinade ingredients thoroughly, then place in a ziplock bag with the chicken pieces.
Make sure the chicken pieces are well-coated, then set aside in the fridge overnight.
Remove the chicken from fridge, and allow to come to room temperature.
Place the vegetable oil in a wok over medium-high heat. When it is smoking, add the chicken pieces and fry until golden brown. Remove from oil and drain on paper towels.
To make gua bao
Place all ingredients in a mixing bowl and combine with a dough hook on low speed, for about 10 minutes. You should get a dough that is soft, smooth and elastic.
Shape it into a large ball and cover the bowl with a wet cloth. Set aside and leave it to rise for around 1 hour. You can work on the other elements while the dough is proofing.
When the dough has expanded by 1½ to 2 times its original size, knead it again until smooth. Divide it into 8 portions and knead each portion for 1 to 2 minutes, until smooth.
Using a rolling pin, flatten each portion into an oval. Dust each with flour, and fold the dough in half, leaving a piece of baking parchment in between to prevent it from sticking.
Leave to prove for a further 15 minutes. Place the portions in a steamer, and steam for about 10 minutes. Once cooked, remove from steamer and allow to cool.
To make pickled slaw
Add the vinegar, sugar and salt to a saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Pour over the vegetables in a small bowl, mix well, allow to pickle for about an hour.
To make gojuchang mayo
Mix both ingredients thoroughly in a small bowl. Set aside.
Remove the baking parchment and place a piece of the belacan chicken inside a bao. Add some pickled slaw, and drizzle some gojuchang mayo on the chicken. Garnish with spring onion and ground peanuts and serve immediately.
INTENSE MATCHA WHITE CHOCOLATE GANACHE
3 to 4 servings
1 leaf gelatin
300g double cream
3-5g agar powder
3-4 tbsp matcha powder
215g white chocolate, broken into pieces
1 leaf gelatin
50ml yuzu juice
30g all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
50g white compound chocolate, broken into pieces
raspberries (or other fruit)
To make ganache
Bloom the gelatin leaf by soaking it in cold water.
Bring the cream, glucose, agar powder and matcha powder to a boil in a saucepan over medium heat.
Remove from heat, add chocolate and gelatin, and mix until melted and combined.
Pour into a tin, and set aside in the fridge to set.
To make yuzu jelly
Bloom the gelatin leaf by soaking it in cold water. Bring water and sugar to a boil in a saucepan over high heat. Remove from heat, and add the gelatin and yuzu juice.
Pour into a small container and put in the fridge to set.
To make soil
Preheat the oven to 165°C. Place all ingredients in a ziplock bag, and mix thoroughly with hands until mixture resembles fine crumbs. Transfer to a baking sheet, and bake until golden. Set aside.
To make honeycomb
Place honey, glucose and sugar in a saucepan and set over high heat. Cook until it reaches 166°C on a sugar thermometer, and the mixture is golden in colour.
Remove from heat, add the bicarbonate of soda, and whisk thoroughly. Pour immediately onto a tray lined with baking parchment, and allow to cool and harden. Once hard, break into pieces.
To make chocolate shards
Melt the chocolate slowly in a bowl placed over a saucepan of simmering water. Pour the mixture onto an acetate sheet, and use a spatula to spread the chocolate as evenly and thinly as possible. Leave to cool and harden in the fridge.
Once hardened, break into shards. If not using compound chocolate, you must first temper the chocolate to get it to harden properly.
Use two different-sized circular cookie cutters to cut a ring of the white chocolate ganache. Cut a circle of yuzu jelly, and place it in the middle of the ganache ring. Place some chocolate shards on the ganache, top with honeycomb pieces, and sprinkle soil around the ganache. Dust ganache with matcha powder, and garnish with raspberries or other fruit.
COCONUT CURRY LEAF PARFAIT
3 to 4 servings
coconut curry leaf parfait
1/4 cup sugar
1 lime, zested
6-8 curry leaves
140ml coconut cream
40ml double cream
125ml white vinegar
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cucumber, sliced into ribbons
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup palm sugar
125ml lime juice (from about 4 limes)
125ml double cream
1 tbsp butter, or to taste
1 tsp salt, or to taste
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup water
2 tbsp cooked glutinous rice
1/2 tsp palm sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp desiccated coconut
To make parfait
Place eggs, sugar, lime zest and curry leaves in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water.
Whisk continuously until the mixture thickens.
Fold in the coconut cream and double cream. Leave the curry leaves to infuse for a few more minutes, then remove with a slotted spoon or sieve.
Pour the mixture into a dome mould, and leave to set in the freezer overnight.
To make pickled cucumber
Bring the vinegar and sugar to a boil in a saucepan, then remove and allow to cool. Pour over cucumber in a small bowl and allow to pickle for about an hour.
To make lime caramel
Place sugars and lime juice in a saucepan over high heat. Once the mixture is golden, remove from heat and add the cream. The mixture will boil and splutter. Add butter and salt according to your preference, and set aside to cool.
To make candied chilli
Place the sugar and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Continue to boil until it thickens slightly – it will bubble less vigorously. Add the chilli to the mixture, and let it simmer for about 10 minutes. Remove from the syrup and set aside to cool.
To make puffed rice
Heat vegetable oil in a saucepan over high heat. Add the rice to the oil, and allow it to puff up until golden brown. Remove from oil and drain on paper towels. Transfer to a bowl, and mix with the sugar, salt and coconut.
Place the parfait, cucumber pickle, and candied chilli on a plate. Sprinkle some puffed rice around, and dollop some caramel in between.