It’s been two transformative years for chef Rosheen Kaul.

Now leading the kitchen at Melbourne restaurant Etta, the food she serves is edge-of-your-seat exciting, by national standards. But while Kaul forges forward at pace, her latest project builds on one from her past.

In lockdown, she – along with friend and artist Joanna Hu – self-published The Isol(Asian) Cookbook, a delightfully illustrated 40-page collection of simple, flavoursome recipes.

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Now, it’s evolved – into the 223-page Chinese-ish: Home Cooking, Not Quite Authentic, 100% Delicious, published by Murdoch Books and debuting today. But it’s more than just a cookbook. It’s a glimpse into what it’s like to grow up straddling two or more cultures (Kaul also has Filipino and Kashmiri heritage), reflected not only in recipes, but in anecdotes, author portraits and Hu’s quirkily splendid illustrations.

“In writing Chinese-ish, it was actually incredibly helpful to have a body of work to pull from and inevitably flesh out to make a more complete cookbook,” Kaul tells Broadsheet.

“The intention of the first [cookbook] was to teach basic Chinese cooking techniques using pantry ingredients, with a couple of recipes that featured a Chinese soul but more Australian expression. People responded well to those cheeky Australian-Chinese recipes, and so this second book became a glorious mishmash featuring more unusual but traditional Chinese recipes.”

The book is “halfway towards Chinese and halfway towards Australia”, Hu adds. “We anchored it to our experience of feeling ‘Chinese-ish’: rejecting our heritage when we were younger because we wanted to fit in with the kids at school, and then coming back round.”

When Kaul and Hu were approached by Murdoch Books about the possibility of creating a cookbook, they knew the stock standard entrees-mains-desserts formula wouldn’t cut it. Instead, they used each section to tell a part of their story as Asian Australians.

The book starts with basic techniques (like how to cook rice without a rice cooker) and dishes representing their childhoods overseas. Then it moves to the teenage-rebellion phase via “Chinese-ish” dishes (including “snacks that feel kinda wrong” – like a Sichuan sausage sanga that, admittedly, would be at home at any backyard barbie). Finally, it goes full circle with the dishes that speak most to their identity and family history.

“I never thought I’d write something like that to share with the world,” says Hu. “But I did most of my writing one morning at 4am. I woke up and needed to get it out. It was very cathartic. When I went back and edited it, I hadn’t realised how many thoughts there were [that] I hadn’t had a chance to share yet. I hope that people who have had similar experiences might see something of themselves in it. It felt very natural.”

The perspectives Hu shares throughout – particularly in essay form – tug on Kaul’s heartstrings “because of how real and poignant they are”. “She writes of her experience moving to Australia as part of a traditional Chinese family unit, on expressing affection, on language,” Kaul says. “Her stories [tell] of the experience that many immigrant kids share growing up in a Western country. Something that has always bothered me is the sheer number of ethnic cookbooks written by white authors with this fixation of always making it ‘easy’. ‘Japanese made easy.’ ‘Noodles made easy.’ And so on. Cookbooks written by people of colour have a heart and soul to them, a story to tell, whether their recipes are traditional or adapted with realities of time and place.

“Sometimes, the stories we want to tell of our lives are too long to be spoken, but they’re easily eaten.”

Recipe-wise, Kaul was in the driver’s seat. “The only consideration for me was that every recipe in the book had to have a connection to either my life or Jo’s,” she says. “Every recipe in that book connects me to a time and place in my life.”

For Hu, who says she’s never had dumplings in a restaurant that are nicer than the ones her mum makes at home, including a recipe for those was a no-brainer. But it was somewhat of an ordeal. “I don’t know if you have ever tried to write down a family recipe, but working out measurements was tricky,” she says. Another recipe she campaigned for was the savoury egg custard, which holds a special place in her heart: “I love eggs, and when I was a child it was my ultimate comfort dish over white rice”.

Recipes such as roast duck noodle soup (with its descriptions of “glistening roast meats” and “breathtaking duck bone broth”) and billionaire fried rice (which promises “golden shreds of scallop peeking through glossy rice grains”) – plus techniques for making iconic condiments and simple stocks – are conversational and totally doable for the home cook. With gentle explainers, it feels as though Kaul is coaching you through.

The recipes and stories are all bound together by Hu’s illustrations, a skill she’s been perfecting for decades. “I have always loved drawing, since I was a child,” she says. “My parents struggled when we first came to Australia … We didn’t have a lot of money and we didn’t have a lot of toys. But I remember having a stack of copy paper and markers, and I could amuse myself for hours with that. I always doodled throughout school.”

Chinese-ish is filled with intricate drawings of ingredients and dishes, and rich Chinoiserie-style section breaks: lavish floral wallpaper dotted with Australian and Chinese flora and fauna. If you look closely enough, you can spot a little monkey and dragon, which represent Kaul and Hu respectively.

You’ll also be struck by the glorious author portraits. The pair worked with photographer Armelle Habib and stylist Lee Blaylock to produce images that captured their fun, playful glamour, says Kaul. Shot on a Monday at 10am, Kaul and Hu look a million bucks posing in the aisles of an Asian grocer in Footscray. “The four of us would go through the shots at the end of each shoot day,” says Kaul, “and we would say, ‘Wow, this is like a fashion editorial! We should submit this to Vogue.’”

Chinese-ish, published by Murdoch Books, is available online for $39.99.

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