Much-loved MasterChef NZ winner Sam Low shares his deliciously unique food journey, as well as three moreish recipes from his cool new cookbook Modern Chinese.
Words & recipes Sam Low
I was born in Fiji. My parents owned a noodle factory so I was surrounded by the smell of wheat, wontons and noodles; I loved jumping on sacks of flour, getting covered in the stuff. The workers would pack noodles in little tins and we’d bake them in gigantic ovens. One of my earliest food memories was hassling the workers for a taste of the roti and curry they brought from home for their lunches. My parents kept telling me off but I couldn’t help myself.
I was eight when we moved to New Zealand and my parents bought a dairy in West Auckland that supplied food to the largely Pasifika community. Customers could buy taro, green bananas, cassava, bok choy and kava.
Later, my parents took over a takeaway outlet in the Māngere town centre, Juan’s Polynesian Takeaway. They worked all hours selling Polynesian and Chinese fare, including roasted pigs’ heads, coconut cream and taro leaf.
I helped out from about age 15, the first time I’d cooked in a commercial environment. I worked the wok station, filling up the bain-maries with green beans and lamb belly stir-fries and island-style Chinese chop suey. I loved that what I was eating on a daily basis was so varied, so full of life and spices and flavours. I began to understand flavour balance, and I think this was the first time I really made my parents proud. I have never seen food as having a hierarchy. Every cuisine has something to be celebrated.
Da Lin was a pop-up concept where I’d create things like tofu and century egg purée, salmon roe on steamed salmon, and my version of char siu (Chinese barbecue pork). Using the ingredients available around me, I was drawing on my own experience and influences to assimilate Chinese food into my environment without even knowing it.
I wasn’t creating the sort of dishes you’d see in a Cantonese restaurant – it was different. It felt exciting and new, while still paying homage to my family, and to the cuisine’s place of origin. Ultimately, my food reflects who I am: this mish-mash of everywhere and everything I’ve experienced.
It’s taken me a long time to understand the value of the food I grew up with. Cooking and experimenting with its flavours feels like a retaliation against the negativity I felt about my cultural identity when I was younger; it feels like a political moment where I can go: ‘Hey, this food is worthy of attention.’
My journey of developing as a cook, and approaching Chinese food in an unconventional way (my way), has made me really appreciate the fact that being ‘Chinese’ exists on a spectrum – everyone has their own way of doing it.
MasterChef felt like a way to do what I loved best: telling and celebrating diverse food stories. It was, and remains, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done – physically and mentally.
The show made me a more confident cook, that’s for sure, and pushed me out of my comfort zone more times than not. But, more than anything, it gave me an avenue through which to fully embrace my identity, to cook food that is meaningful to me, and to spread that to others.
CREAMY PEANUT BUTTER NOODLES
This quick and easy flavour-packed creamy noodle dish is one of my guilty-pleasure dishes for one when I’m craving a carb-loaded, high-fat meal. It’s one of those dishes that is often overlooked because of how easy it is to prepare. This flavour combination of soy and nut butters or sesame paste is a common mix known as ‘strange flavour’ in Chinese cooking. When adapted to the great nut butter options available to us, it’s a fun pick-your-own-adventure kinda dish, where you can have infinite combinations like soba with almond butter, or rice noodles with tahini. The world is your noodle and butter choice here! You can get fresh wheat noodles from your local Asian grocer and you can easily increase the amount of ingredients to make as many serves as you want.
200g fresh wheat noodles (or a single serve of your
favourite noodle without the seasoning packet)
60g peanut butter or your favourite nut butter
2 teaspoons sugar
1½ tablespoons light soy sauce
2 teaspoons rice vinegar or white vinegar
1 clove garlic, minced
½ spring onion green, sliced diagonally
1 teaspoon sesame seeds, toasted (optional)
Chilli oil (optional)
Start by boiling a pot of water for your noodles. Follow packet instructions for the ideal chewy, al dente texture. Fresh wheat noodles should take about 3–4 minutes to cook, so make sure to not overcook them.
Reserve about ½ cup of the cooking liquid for the sauce.
Mix together the remaining ingredients. Add the reserved cooking water into the seasoning mix and whisk until a creamy sauce is formed. Taste and adjust if need be.
Strain the cooked noodles and mix into the sauce. Serve in a bowl topped with the garnishes. Chilli oil will give it an extra flavour explosion.
SPICY BLACK BEAN BEEF
Growing up in and around my parents’ Chinese takeaway shop, black bean beef
stir-fries have always been a constant on the menu. For me a great black bean beef is made with tender, juicy beef, minimal vegetables and a touch of chilli amping it to another level. Here’s my rendition of this takeaway classic.
SERVES 2–4 as a protein side with rice
350g beef steak (sirloin, scotch or eye fillet)
3 tablespoons + 1 tablespoon oil
2 tablespoons fermented black bean
1 tablespoon chilli flakes or 1–2 small fresh red chillies, finely chopped
10g fresh ginger, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 capsicum, deseeded and cut into 2cm pieces
1 tablespoon rice wine
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon cornflour
½ teaspoon baking soda (optional)
2 tablespoons water
Thinly slice the beef into 3mm thick strips about 4cm long and place into a bowl. Add in all the marinade ingredients, mix through the beef well and let sit for at least 15 minutes to infuse. The baking soda helps break down the meat protein, allowing it to get even more tender.
Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a wok/large pan over a high heat and stir-fry the beef, separating the strips until they are almost cooked through, about 3–4 minutes. Remove from the wok and set aside.
In the same wok/pan add the 1 tablespoon oil, black bean, chilli, ginger and garlic, and stir-fry over a high heat for 30 seconds until aromatic. Add the capsicum and fry for a further 1 minute. Add the beef back in and fry for a further 30 seconds. Turn off the heat and serve.
500g strawberries or any ripe fresh seasonal fruit of your choice
60ml rum for strawberries (optional)
400 ml fresh cream, super cold
¼ cup icing sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
60 ml rum for cream (optional)
10 slices thick white sandwich bread, Asian milk bread or sliced brioche loaf
Prepare the strawberries first – wash and dry and remove the stems and stalk. Slice the strawberries in half if large. Place in a bowl, add rum if using, and gently mix.
In a mixing bowl, whip the cream with a balloon or electric whisk until it is almost thick (like thick pouring gravy). Add the icing sugar, vanilla and rum, if using, and continue whisking until thick.
Spread a generous amount of cream on five slices of bread and arrange the strawberries on top, being aware of where you’re going to slice the sandwiches. Fill any gaps with more cream. Spread the top slices of the bread with more cream and cover.
Individually cling-film the sandos and mark where you want to slice them. Press them down gently with a flat pan/tray and refrigerate for a minimum of 2 hours.
Unwrap and slice with a clean, sharp knife (a bread knife works well), wiping with a wet tea towel in between slices for a clean cut.
Extracted from Modern Chinese: 70+ easy, everyday recipes from the winner of MasterChef NZ by Sam Low. Recipe photography by Melanie Jenkins (Flash Studios). Published by Allen & Unwin NZ, $49.99.