Popular Singaporean cook and television food host Sarah Benjamin has a Master’s degree in Sociology and Politics. Yet one wonders why she chose to be a television cooking show host.
“It’s a misconception that when you study politics, you want to be a politician. It’s about understanding the world. I never wanted to be a politican,” she said, in an interview with Star2.
Actually, she studied sociology because her parents are sociologists. She began her career in television when opportunity knocked on her door.
“Both my parents (her father Geoffrey Benjamin is British, and her mother Vivian Wee is Chinese Peranakan) are sociologists and I grew up following them on field trips. My father studied about the orang asli in Kelantan and my mother’s field work was based in Riau, Indonesia,” said Benjamin, 29, who speaks fluent English, Malay, Mandarin and Cantonese.
“I was exposed to different cultures when I was about three or four years old and it was an immersive experience. I come from a multicultural background, and it’s very interesting to see the interaction between different cultures. Food is the result of cultural interactions,” she said.
After she graduated from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, she returned to Singapore at the end of 2013. She joined Lo & Behold Group (a restaurant group) doing marketing and public relations.
In August 2014, a friend encouraged her to join the first Food Hero competition by Asian Food Channel (AFC) and Food Network Asia that was looking for a new food show host.
She was reluctant initially as she had never been in front of the cameras before. A day before the competition deadline, she asked a friend to produce an audition video, which she submitted the very next day. As it turned out, she was one of the four finalists, and went on to win the competition.
“I didn’t expect my life to take this turn,” Benjamin said.
She has been involved in television for four years now. Her first show, Must Try Asia, saw her travelling around Asia, eating and interacting with locals. The 30-day shoot in six cities was “fun but pretty tiring”, she said.
Some of her cooking shows include Cooking For Love, Simply Special With Sarah Benjamin, Yummy Desserts, Must Try Asia, GR848, Fresh Off Japan! and Best Of Portugal.
Benjamin is an adventurous foodie. She enjoys different cuisines and likes to try new foods. Her comfort foods are noodles, whether it’s Asian style or Western pasta.
“At home, I cook something complicated or new if friends come over. Otherwise, the day-to-day fare is simple and nutritious.”
She was in Kuala Lumpur recently to celebrate World Food Day with Mission Foods, one of the world’s largest producers of tortilla, flatbread and corn flour, and to be part of the #ZeroWaste movement.
Together with Mission Foods, she kicked off the Foldover Your Leftovers campaign which was about using leftover foods and repurposing them into healthy and nutritious meals using Asian products.
Leftovers develop their flavours the longer they are kept, she said. Instead of discarding them, “new meals” could be made with the leftovers, and this could help to curb food waste, she said, adding that Malaysia generates over 15,000 tonnes of food waste daily.
Benjamin’s 12 recipes using leftovers, such as Chicken Curry, Rendang and Ayam Masak Merah – which she considered “a remix of leftover dishes” – were compiled into a cookbook which will be published later this month.
Publishing a cookbook has been one of her dreams. She is currently also working on her own cookbook, which takes inspiration from different cuisines. She hopes to finish the cookbook by next year.
During her university days, she learnt to cook when she could not find many options for Asian food. She said she felt empowered when her first dish, Hainanese chicken rice, turned out well. She substituted ingredients she could not get, like Italian anchovies for belacan and salted fish.
“I’m more about food tasting good. Food does not need to stick to the rules. One needs to cook from the heart, something that tastes good.”
When she was about nine or 10 years old, she asked her Filipino nanny to buy her a balut (boiled egg with a developing bird embryo), back in the Philippines. She ate it but didn’t finish it. She wants to try balut again if she goes to the Philippines at the end of the year.
“I’ve not tried fried crickets or grasshoppers. I would be open to try them but I would never, ever eat cockroaches.”
She said: “I’m very close to my parents. Growing up as the only child, you’re allowed to do more things. I was allowed to cook when I was about seven or eight. With assistance from my father, I once cooked a three-course meal.”
Her father, a good cook, would sometimes prepare roast lamb, devilled kidneys and roast potatoes. Her mother cooks a few dishes well, including the Hokkien dish, Kong Bak (braised pork belly).
Benjamin has two female cats – named after foods, no less – Porridge and Sambal. They were adopted when they were kittens two years ago.
From her open-plan kitchen, Benjamin gets that feeling that her cats would watch her cook from the sofa.
“My cats meow for their food but they eat very well. They’re very picky with food. For some reason, they don’t like fish but are meat lovers. Sambal loves chicken, and her dinner is free-range cooked chicken breast. She eats better than us,” she quipped.
Nowadays, Benjamin does TV food show hosting on a part-time basis. “I’m AFC’s in-house chef. They only call me when there’s a show to be filmed,” she said.
She keeps herself busy with other jobs such as emceeing at food-related events. She is also an avid food photographer, blogger and Instagram-mer. She said she has no regrets putting her PhD studies on hold. Perhaps some day, she might do her PhD – in sociology.