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By Shimron Singh | March 20th, 2023

A Little Background

Susan Jung is the author of Kung Pao & Beyond: Fried Chicken Recipes from East and Southeast Asia. She is the food columnist for Vogue Hong Kong, and the Academy Chair for the Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau region of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. Until 2022, Susan was the food and drinks editor for the South China Morning Post, a position she held for nearly 25 years.

Susan Jung
Kung Pao & Beyond – Chicken poppers with instant noodle coating

How did you come to write a book about fried chicken?

“I really love fried chicken – I eat it at fast food shops and I cook it at home. Whenever I wrote a fried chicken recipe for my column in the SCMP, the recipe would get a lot of clicks online. One of my colleagues noticed this and jokingly said, “Why don’t you write a book about fried chicken?” and that planted the seed in my mind. I did a little research and found that there weren’t any cookbooks that focused on fried chicken from East and Southeast Asia – the other books tended to be centered around Southern fried chicken. I pitched the idea to Quadrille, a publisher based in London, and they accepted it. The day I signed the contract to write the book, I resigned from the SCMP.

The book has 60 recipes from East and Southeast Asia – dishes that include shrimp paste chicken wings, chicken karaage, wings stuffed with mentaiko and shiso, Korean fried chicken, Taiwanese night market chicken, chicken poppers with instant noodle coating, sweet and sour chicken, and of course, kung pao chicken. I also gave a few recipes for side dishes to eat with fried chicken.”

Susan Jung
Kung Pao & Beyond – Chicken Karaage

Where did you get your love for food and cooking?

“From my family! We all love to eat, and we talk about what we’re planning to have for dinner while we are still eating lunch. Both my parents are good cooks, and my Ah-ma – my paternal grandmother – was an exceptional cook. She cooked for at least 15 people every Saturday night and Sunday lunch, and because I expressed interest in what they were doing, I got roped into helping my grandmother and my father prepare the meals in her large kitchen, which had a professional-grade wok and a couple of burners. Although the kitchen was basic, she cooked feasts. I learned a lot from her and my Dad by helping out, watching them, and asking a lot of questions.

It was the same thing with my mother. On rainy days I would beg her to help me bake something, so we’d make cookies and cakes. I always did my homework at the table in the kitchen, and I’d ask questions as she cooked dinner – how long do you steam a fish, how do you know when steamed egg custard is ready – things like that.

I really wish I had learned more from my uncle Gene – my mother’s eldest brother. He’d traveled the world and had an amazing palate – he could taste something and figure out how to make it. He introduced our family to bisteeya – Moroccan pigeon or chicken pie that was seasoned with cinnamon and icing sugar, and pâté en croûte – dishes that were very exotic to us at the time.”

You took a rather circuitous career path – can you tell us about that?

“I graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in English literature, and I planned to go to journalism school eventually – I had my eyes set on Columbia University. But I wanted to take a break from studying, so after UC Berkeley, I took some easy jobs where I didn’t have to expend a lot of mental energy. I’d relax by cooking for friends. One of my friends said, “If you like to cook so much, why don’t you become a chef?” I hadn’t ever thought of that, but it was such a great idea! I knew I didn’t want to go home at the end of a workday smelling of garlic so I decided to specialize in pastry. I did a two-year pastry apprenticeship at the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco. It was better than going to culinary school for several reasons, not least of which I got paid for my work, instead of having to pay to learn. Also, my training was almost entirely hands-on – I’d work five days a week, then on one of my days off, I’d go to school to learn about the technical and scientific stuff about baking. After finishing that program, I transferred to the Grand Hyatt in New York, then moved on to the Peninsula in New York.

One day, I heard that a restaurant called The American Pie, in Hong Kong, was looking for a pastry chef. I asked my Hong Kong friends about the restaurant and they said good things about it so I applied and was hired. I hadn’t ever been to Hong Kong before then, although I have relatives here.

After four years of being a pastry chef in Hong Kong – at the American Pie and other restaurants, I began to get burned out. Being a chef is hard work everywhere, but in Hong Kong, it meant very long hours and six-day work weeks. I was trying to think of ways to get into journalism and even considered applying to Columbia. My boyfriend back then knew a journalist named Hedley Thomas, who, at the time, was deputy features editor at the SCMP. Hedley told my boyfriend that he’d be happy to talk to me and give me career advice. We met for coffee and at the end of our meeting, Hedley said that the only thing he could offer me was a position as an office assistant for the features desk, but he added that this would give me the chance to write for the SCMP. I took the job, even though it paid only HK$8,000 a month. But I got paid for the articles I wrote, and within a few months, I was getting more for my writing than for my position as an office assistant. Six months after I started, Hedley and Charles Anderson, the features editor, took me out for lunch and said, “The food editor has just resigned. Would you like to be the new food editor?” I was shocked because there were so many other writers to choose from. But I was the only one with this odd background of an English lit degree plus being a chef. So it all worked out – I did become a journalist – finally!”

What do you like to do in your spare time?

“I love to travel! One of the main advantages of being underemployed is that there’s so much more freedom! When I was with the SCMP, if I wanted to take a holiday I’d have to plan all my columns in advance, so there was something to run on my pages while I was away. If I wanted a three-week holiday, I’d write three weeks’ worth of recipe columns, all my cookbook columns, and my restaurant review before I left, and I’d try to get in all the features and other columns from the freelancers so I could edit them and file them. It was a lot of work, and often I’d be up until 4 am the day before I left, just trying to finish everything. Now, I don’t have to worry about any of that – I can go away for as long as I like! I took a six-week holiday to London last year, so I could be there when they were doing the photographs for the recipes in Kung Pao & Beyond, and I didn’t have to worry about unfinished work.

I take every holiday as a chance to eat delicious things. My most recent trip was to Tokyo, and I ate everything from convenience store onigiri and fried chicken – I’m especially partial to Famichiki, from Family Mart – to top restaurants such as Sézanne, Sushi Saito, Matsukawa, Narisawa, Den and Été. I even took an extra suitcase for all the food I knew I was going to buy – I came back with 16 bags of potato chips that I can find only in Japan, plus really good cup noodles from 7-Eleven.

I’m also really into bonsai. I started off a few years ago with one bonsai, and it was a cheap one – only HK$25 – because I was worried I would kill it – everyone kills their first bonsai because it takes practice to figure out how much to water them. Much to my surprise, I didn’t kill it, so I slowly started to buy more. Now I have more than 40 bonsai. Several of them have died over the years – almost always when I go away and have someone else take care of them. I get very sad when that happens because although I love all of them, it’s always my favorite bonsai that end up dying”

Susan Jung
“I came back with 16 bags of potato chips that I can find only in Japan”

Do you cook a lot at home? What do you make?

“I love to cook at home, especially lunches because it’s just for me. If I cook for me and my husband, I cook what he likes, because there are a lot of foods he won’t eat, whereas I eat almost anything. For my lunches, I often make noodles – sometimes instant noodles fancied up with ingredients from my pantry or freezer, or I make pasta with canned sardines or with taba ng talangka – crab fat, which my Filipino friends bring me. I love to cook Korean chigae – brothy stews, which I serve with homemade kimchi and other banchan. Sometimes I make grilled cheese sandwiches on homemade sourdough. I have very strong opinions about grilled cheese sandwiches. The bread has to be buttered and toasted in the skillet on both sides of each slice, and you must use at least two types of cheese, although three is better. My favorite combination is some type of soft goat cheese, some type of blue cheese, and hard cheese, like aged comté. If I want the sandwich to be even more pungent, I add chopped, drained kimchi. People think that’s a weird combination but it’s not – they eat grilled cheese sandwiches with dill pickles, right? Kimchi is like dill pickles, only with a different vegetable and more flavor. I love to eat a grilled cheese sandwich with potato chips and a coke. I love coke – it’s a cure for everything – when food is too spicy, too greasy, or if there’s too much MSG.

If I cook for my husband, he’s happiest with pizza. He bought me the best present a couple of years ago – an Ooni pizza machine, which heats up to 450 degrees Celsius. For months after he bought it for me, I was testing dough recipes, using different amounts of hydration or different flours – so sometimes my pizza would be fantastic, other times it would be a total flop. Finally, on YouTube, I found a recipe that works for me: look up Vito Locopelli’s How to Make Next Level Pizza Dough – Double Fermented Poolish. It’s the perfect recipe for now – until I find something even better.”

Read more Hot Seat profiles here.