Brendan Pang is feeling good.
The 27-year-old Perth chef is feeling good about his strong showing on the current season of Masterchef (his eighth-place finish in this season is one better than his ninth-place finish the first time he appeared in 2018).
He’s feeling good about reopening Bumplings, his Mauritian-Chinese food van at Fremantle’s The Sunshine Harvester Works. In the three weeks since reopening the specialist dumpling kitchen after the Covid-19 lockdown, he and his team have handmade and sold more than 10,000 wontons.
And he’s also feeling good about his debut cookbook, This Is a Book About Dumplings, due for release in August. But most of all, he’s feeling good about discovering his identity as a cook.
“Since being on the show, I’ve developed a strong sense of self in the kitchen and the kind of food I’d like to be known for,” he says. “I’m most excited about sharing the food I grew up eating. I describe it as food where there’s nothing to hide behind. It’s just very honest and homely.”
Just like on the show, the self-taught cook is softly spoken in real life. He chooses his words carefully and his sentences are measured and thoughtful. The 18 months he spent in 2016 doing social work with Indigenous communities in Broome were, he says, formative. In the foreword to his cookbook, he describes his time with the Yawuru people – one of the Indigenous groups in the Kimberley – as a “true cultural experience”. These experiences, plus those gleaned from a childhood surrounded by a food-obsessed family in Perth and Mauritius, have given Pang a unique perspective on Australian flavours.
On Mauritian cuisine:
Mauritian food is a mix of Indian, Chinese, Creole and French cuisine. We eat a lot of things with baguettes and there’s also a Mauritian-style bahn mi which we call a lunch roll or baguette roll. It’s similar to a Vietnamese-style filled roll and has pickles, meat, herbs and either a homemade mayonnaise, or butter, but doesn’t have pate in it. They’re typically filled with Mauritian roast beef, mayonnaise and lettuce. Sometimes we’ll serve roast beef with a Mauritian-style potato salad which isn’t a creamy salad with lots of mayo, but tossed through a vinaigrette with pickled red onion and carrots. It’s a lot like German-style potato salads and very typical of Mauritian cuisine.
On growing up with Mauritian food:
I actually wasn’t fond of the food I grew up with – I always thought it wasn’t very pretty. It’s like ugly delicious. It’s been a bit of a love story for me. I’ve fallen in love with it over the years and come to appreciate all the flavours that make up Mauritius. I guarantee once you try it, it’s really tasty. It just needs a little bit of tidying up to be presentable to people that haven’t tried it before.
Being on the show a second time isn’t easier, but it’s a lot more fun because you know what to expect. The first time around you’re very caught up in trying to show technique and learning stuff like sous-vide cooking, smoking and blowing sugar bowls that I’d never do in a home kitchen. I went back on the show this time around and said to myself I really want to portray and cook food I’d cook at home. Maybe refine it a little bit and a clean it up a bit, but stay true to that Mauritian style.
On his restaurant:
Bumplings started last year as a pop-up to test a couple of ideas of mine. The guys at The Sunshine Harvester Works helped me out and gave me the space, the kitchen and the Airstream. It’s kind of turned into a bit more than that now and is a permanent pop-up each weekend. It’s open Thursday, Friday and Saturday night. Soon my auntie is going to do a lunch takeover on Sundays. We’re going to call it Sunday bun day and she’s going to bao buns and Mauritian style banh mi. When I opened Bumplings, it was more of a dumpling kitchen, but turned into a studio for me to test out ideas.
On his forthcoming cookbook:
I taught myself how to make dumplings from scratch over the past five years. That’s where my obsession and interest in my Chinese heritage kind of came into play. Growing up, my grandmother and my mum made very simple wontons and that’s about it. We’d go out to Northbridge for dim sum nearly every Sunday, but none of my family knew how to make a lot of those dishes, even though we have a Chinese background. The cookbook is all about how to make dumplings from scratch. I run through a few different kinds of doughs and fillings, how to fold them and heaps of sauces. There’re heaps of sides, plus some rice and noodle dishes too. It took me about a year to write and it was great that I did it all locally. We shot everything in mum’s kitchen.
On dim sum:
At the moment, I’m really loving Canton Bay on Roe Street, but my partner has introduced me to Pinn’s Palace in Cannington which I feel is a secret in Perth at the moment – not many people know about it. I always order the radish cake when I get dim sum and the lacy, fried taro puffs filled with meat [woo gok].
On Yawuru food:
The Yawuru people took me in as family. Because of the interaction with Malaysian, Chinese and Japanese people, a lot of Aboriginal people in Broome have mixed backgrounds. So having come from an Asian background, it was kind of easier for them to take me in. I lived with a Malaysian-Aboriginal family when I was up there on placement and they took me up to their community on the Dampier Peninsula. We went out fishing in their dinghy and they took me out hunting for turtles and sting rays, which was a very special experience. I remember going back after fishing and they’d cook everything and have everything with rice and soya sauce. They’d pickle the skippy [silver trevally] with lemon juice, onion, soy and chilli and eat it just like that and then made satay with the turtle. I was like, whoa, this is insane. I’m up in a very rural community that not many people live in and the first people of Australia were cooking food that I grew up with. I felt really connected to the people there after my experience.
This is a Book About Dumplings (Page Street Publishing, $36.99) is out in August.