Meet Shu Han Lee: turning burnt rice into enterprising dreams

Shu Han Lee‘s path into the world of food can’t be descried in your conventional ‘passionate home cook turned professional’ kind of way – no, it’s quite the alternative discourse. This smart as a tack, creative as all get-out, illustrator/entrepreneur/brand strategist/food writer/stylist, grew up in food-crazed Singapore, but relocated to London to study graphic design at Central Saint Martins. It was only then, and almost by sheer accident, that she slowly shuffled her way into the food industry after a rice-turned-charcoal incident spurred her on to start the blog Mummy, I Can CookNow, knees deep in food-related pursuits, including the recent release of her very own cookbook (and labour of love), Chicken and Rice, Shu can call herself an accomplished foodie. Shu popped by the Khoollect Studio to cook a dish or two and share her exciting plans for the future:

Did you ever imagine you would end up working in food when you embarked on your graphic design studies? 

Not at all, I only realised how much I loved cooking when I came to London for university and found myself having to find my way in the kitchen. The first time I cooked rice it turned out both burnt and undercooked at the same time…but it only made me more curious about cooking. That’s how my blog Mummy, I Can Cook started – I wanted to reassure my mum that I was still alive without eating her excellent food. It was very much a learning journey, and I’m still constantly learning new recipes and techniques.

Your cookbook ‘Chicken and rice’ came out last year. What did you enjoy the most about the process of making and publishing the cookbook? 

The book took more than a year to finish, as opposed to a few months of writing followed by a fortnight-long photoshoot. I was working a full-time job, so that meant I would spend the weeknights researching, testing and writing recipes, and weekends cooking and photographing (with the help of my mates as recipe-testers and kitchen porters). It was difficult, but it was also what I enjoyed the most about the process. Flipping through the finished cookbook with my friends was almost like looking at a scrapbook of the past year of Sunday feasts.

What has your most popular recipe been? And why do you think that is?

The most popular recipe has been khao tom, a rice soup with juicy pork and ginger meatballs, inspired by a Thai street food stall I visited. Gousto featured this recipe as part of a collaboration with Penguin cookbook authors, and people really took to the recipe because it was easy, comforting and delicious. I’ve had people make it again on their own because they really enjoyed it. That always makes my day as an author.

You’ve managed to break into a very competitive market of  working in illustration, food styling and food writing. This requires great determination, self motivation and time management. How did you get your foot in the door? 

They seem like huge achievements when you put it that way, but they were all little steps, and not at all planned out. I had the blog for seven years before a good number of people were reading it – and before my literary agent picked up on it. I hosted supper clubs because I enjoyed seeing food bring random strangers together – and many of my guests are now like-minded friends in the industry.

What does the future hold for Shu?

I’m working on a range of food products, which I’m very excited about. This brings together all my random passions and the skills I’ve picked up in my discursive journey through food, design, strategy and entrepreneurship.

Where do you currently call home? And what inspires you about your city?

London. I love that it’s a real melting pot of cultures – the city is such an exciting and delicious place to live.

I khoollect a few… 

Plates and bowls. I tend to pick up a locally handmade plate or bowl wherever I travel, so the pieces I own are quite an eclectic mix. It drives some people nuts that I own hardly any matching pieces despite having an entire cupboard of kitchenware.

What’s your favourite item in your khoollection? 

A hand-painted ceramic rice bowl that my Grandmother gave to my mother, who then gave it to me. I sadly broke it not too long ago though; it took me a while to get over that!

We are itching to buy a plane ticket. Inspire us with your most incredible holiday memory?

I still remember my trip to Hanoi years ago. It was my first time travelling alone, but the buzz of the city easily erased the uncomfortable silence, and being solo meant I tried all sorts of foods that I normally wouldn’t be able to. My favourite meal was by this petite old lady with a toothy grin and a makeshift stand that appeared as randomly as it went…I was given a bowl of slippery noodles in a tomato broth, topped with omelette, crab pate, sea snails and fried tofu puffs. Everyone helped themselves to a communal basket of Vietnamese mint, basil, and sawtooth coriander. It was absolutely brilliant.

A life lesson that you’d tell your younger self?

This quote from Alice in Wonderland: “If you don’t know where you want to go, then it doesn’t matter which path you take.” And, that I will be going down many different paths in a lifetime.

What’s your secret ingredient or top tip in the kitchen?

My top tip is stolen from my Mum. Shallow-fry sliced shallots slowly in groundnut oil until they turn golden, drain and let them cool. The shallot crisps add a wonderful sweet crunch to all manners of dishes, and the shallot oil can be used to finish everything from noodle soups to salads to steamed fish; they add a wonderful aroma that store-bought fried shallots lack.

Where do you find your motivation? (We’d love to find out where you find your inspiration online, too. Favourite podcast? Favourite blog?)

While I do love reading, and watching and listening to new ideas online, I find the best inspiration comes from the real world. I get most inspired wandering around markets, trying new cafes, talking to other food-loving friends, and messing around in the kitchen.

Follow Shu Han Lee on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest.

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Get some Singaporean inspiration from Shu!

Cook a delicious recipe from Shu’s new cookbook Chicken and Rice.

Read Shu’s foodie guide to Singapore.