Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Chat with Chef-Educator Robert Danhi, Author of Southeast Asian Flavours

Robert Danhi-making Tom Yum in Thailand

Chef Robert Danhi is going to be in town for a free cooking workshop/demo (March 10, 4-6pm) at Tools of the Trade (ToTT), organised by Sunkist. Chefs are often a passionate lot, but rarely have I seen an American one brimming with such intense love for Southeast Asian cuisine.

Robert, whose career spans 25 years as a chef-educator-author has written
a book, Southeast Asian Flavours, featuring recipes that he researched, and food that he personally cooked, styled, and photographed.

The book won "Best Asian Cuisine Book, USA"and "2nd Best Asian Cuisine Book, World at the 2009 Gourmand Awards made finalist in the James Beard Foundation Book Awards 2009. The website has sample recipes.

I really liked his video on Saigon - his fresh, honest and zippy take on the various dishes and ingredients of Vietnam. I also had the chance to ask him about his fascination with Southeast Asian food. Check it out below.

1. You're doing a PhD on the Gastronomy of Southeast Asia. Why has the cuisine of this region captivated you so?

Upon arriving on my first trip more than two decades ago, I was captivated by the abundance of variety in Malaysia - and that food was the primary topic of conversation at every socio-ecomonic level - not just affluent foodies. Food was an accurate representation of their cultural history, geography, and ethnic diversity. I began to explore. Thailand was next and wow, the attention to the aesthetic aspect of presentation - even at the simplest market in the villages food was artfully presented with such respect and honor.

Robert Danhi-Lemon Grass Intoxication

2. When and where did you first experience Southeast Asian food, and what was it like?

Although I sampled a few things when I was a teenager I really did not experience Southeast Asian food until I was 19 when my then-girlfriend, now wife, brought me to her home Malaysia. The food was so alive and exciting. In one bowl of noodles you experience so many textures, tastes, sensations - truly full sensory experience.

For instance with a Laksa lemak - the first glance and you see bright strips of choy sum, deep red sambal, yellow tinted coconut gravy…and that’s just the beginning of this sensual experience. You slowly lean into the bowl and the scent of lemongrass is intoxicating, the dried shrimp aroma from the rempah wafts up and forces you to reach down for a bite. Then there is the noodles, spicy sambal, crunchy bean sprouts….aiyooo, I was in love!

3. You must love Asian street food. But increasingly we see the threat of it disappearing or declining. What can be done to keep the wonderful legacy going, given that young people these days prefer more comfortable jobs to hawking food on the streets? Training? Government incentives/subsidies? Awards?

Street food is about the street - and once you bring in into an indoor Hawker Center…by definition it is no longer street food - it can be equally satisfying but you lose some elements - the hum of the passing motorbike, the smell of the nearby sidewalk that is stained with years of use, the heat of the sun…

Keeping street food alive? First off - working in restaurants and hotels is really no easier. The more street food hawkers get respected, and yes awards are a great way to increase them being respected, the more young folks will want to be part of that culture. It also would be good to quantify and promote how they can earn more than cooks and chefs. Culinary schools should incorporate the foods in their curriculum and include the operation and financial matters which most have no idea how it works. It is a profession and should be treated as such.

Robert Danhi-Street Side Breakfast

4. How do you feel about adapting or modifying a country's cuisine to suit the tastebuds of foreigners?

I think it’s a HUGE mistake to modify for foreigners that are visiting…that’s why they are here. One of the most common misconceptions about Americans is that we don't like spice - it could not be more opposite - in the US we love spicy chicken wings, salsa for chips, and the Thai sauce Sriracha is in almost everyone’s kitchen and has become a chef’s best friend. When we come here we want the real deal.

Now if you are asking should it be modified when exported - sure SOMETIMES, it depends on concept, location, consumer….. It can be done respectfully and with integrity - that’s actually a majority of what I do with my clients - first help them understand and experience the original, then decide on non-negotiable traits that can't be lost then adapt for their brands.

5. What's the most difficult thing to teach?

Cooking over a high heat with a wok…it’s so fast that it takes a long time to get it.

Robert Danhi-in Saigon Market

6. Who were your most significant teachers, and what inspirations will you always remember from them?

Khun Kobkaew and Khun Ninh of Khao San Cooking school in Thailand. They are historians, cooks, chefs and willing to share everything they know - that’s a real teacher! My wife, Esther, she has taught me so much about cooking and even more about the spirit of cooking - cook with your heart and care about what you are doing - otherwise, it’s not time for you to get in the kitchen.

7. What are your top three favourite dishes?

Too many favorites to narrow to my top three but a few that stand out are:

Malaysian Hokkien Mee - Kuala Lumpur Style, the thick wheat noodles slathers in the pork laden dark soy gravy. I love it with pickled green chilies in addition to the traditional sambal belacan.

Singapore Kaya Toast - and in Singapore Yakun kaya at Far East Plaza since they still cook over charcoal, then split the bread in half exposing the tender center, slather with kaya, a few slabs of salted butter. Then dipping these into the soy sauce doused soft eggs with white pepper and a healthy dash of white pepper - WOW, especially with the deep rich coffee.

Vietnamese Bun Bo Hue - the Imperial Soup that harnesses the flavor of not only pork and beef but also a dollop of shrimp paste. This lemongrass spiked broth is tinted with annatto, garnish with shrimp balls and served with small plates of shaved banana blossoms, cabbage and mint that is added as you devour each bowl.

Robert Danhi-Eating Vietnamese Breakfast

8. Most surprising eating experience? And most terrifying?

Probably when I arrived to a roadside restaurant and found a whole roasted cow spinning of charcoal - that was surprising for sure… and terrifying. A pleasantly surprising experience was red ant larvae curry in central Thailand - actually quite tasty… what I really liked were the deep-fried and grilled rice paddy mice in Vietnams Mekong Delta… I want those again, especially delicious on a hot evening with some chilled beer.

9. How well do Americans know Southeast Asian food, and how do they take to the authentic flavours in your experience?

Southeast Asian food is very well established in the USA - especially Thai Food. Singapore and Malaysia are really on the rise thanks companies like the successful Chipotle chain that just opened Shophouse-Southeast Asian Kitchen - featuring the Foods of Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam. Chain (multi-unit) restaurants really popularize things as do TV shows and they are all featuring Southeast Asia.

10. Does your wife cook? She's a Nyonya from Malacca, which means she's likely serious and fastidious about food. Has she taught you about food or cooking? 

Yes, she is truly one of the best cooks I know - frankly a better cook than I am - I call her my Kitchen Angel as she effortlessly floats around the kitchen creating amazing flavors in such a short time. Also - she is my business partner at Chef Danhi and Co where we are consultants to the food world and has been a major part of writing both of my books - Southeast Asian Flavors and Easy Thai Cooking.

Robert Danhi-On beach in LA

Catch Chef Robert Danhi when he gives a demo at ToTT.

Sunkist Presents Chef Robert Danhi in Singapore

Date: 10 March 2013
Time: 4-6pm
FREE Admission
Venue: ToTT Cooking Studio, 896 Dunearn Road 01-01A, Singapore 589472
Tel: +65 6219-7077

First 80 guests receive a goodie bag!

All photos courtesy of Chef Robert Danhi


  1. amazing read. Great to know when I head to Bangkok next week that I will also be taking cooking classes from Khao San Cooking school! If chef Danhi recommended it then I am over the top excited to go!

    See you sunday!

    - Allen

    1. Lucky you! I wish I could go someday too. See you Sunday!

  2. 9) Thanks Devid! Wonderful creations by everyone and the Educator is excellent.


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