Asia can be intimidating even for seasoned travellers. Aside from being the largest continent in the world, it’s full of intriguing complexities and intricacies, from bewildering cultural norms and unfamiliar languages to eye-opening culinary diversity.
This is something Irish food personality Donal Skehan discovered first-hand while filming his new show Donal’s Asian Baking Adventure.
Skehan is a familiar face in Britain, where he is known for his blog Good Food Mood and the cookbook that evolved from it, which won the award for Best Irish-Published Book at the 2010 Irish Book Awards. Skehan was also a co-presenter and judge on Junior Masterchef UK and runs an eponymous YouTube channel with over 700,000 subscribers.
Even though he has hit many milestones at home, Asia proved to be a completely different experience for Skehan, who admits that his previous exposure to the continent had been limited to travels to Thailand and Vietnam.
“I’m obsessed with Asian food; I think that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do the show. But I’d only travelled to Thailand and Vietnam and I hadn’t travelled extensively beyond those destinations. So I had an idea of what I thought Asian food was but when I went to Asia, I was amazed by the complexity of the food and the plethora of different dishes – high end, street food, there’s just so much to it,” he says, in a phone interview with Star2.
In Donal’s Asian Baking Adventure, which stretches across 10 episodes, Skehan travels to Tokyo, Macau, Singapore, Melaka, Hong Kong and Seoul.
In each episode, he connects with a local guide, tries out different Asian baked goods and then comes up with his own recipes, incorporating elements from the dishes he sampled.
Through the show, Skehan came away with an enhanced understanding of the myriad of baked goods available in Asia, both traditional variants like Hong Kong mooncakes and Malaysian kuih as well as modern desserts like egg waffles and European cakes.
“For us, it was about trying to choose places that represented the idea of traditional recipes versus the modern takes, and I think we got a really lovely range by going through all the places that we did,” he says.
Skehan says he was mesmerised by the sheer amount of Asian baked goods he saw throughout his travels, all of which were different from what he knew and understood about baking.
“Whatever I had in my head, I should have just parked them when I checked in my bags at the airport. It was just so, so different from what I thought it was going to be.
“And to be honest, in lots of ways, baking and sweet treats in Asia are far more extensive than what you have at home. You have all these cakes and things but you have all these fantastic gelatinous textures that we just wouldn’t get at home,” he says.
Skehan also took home some unforgettable memories of the people he met in different places around Asia, like Hong Kong celebrity chef Christopher Yang, Singaporean food writer Christopher Tan, Macanese food ambassador Jonathan Phang and South Korean TV chef Wonil Lee. In Melaka, his guide was the effervescent Chef Wan.
“He was quite passionate about showcasing the traditional side of Malaysian desserts.
“We went to this fantastic place called Baba Charlie’s and there was this room filled with women who had been making these desserts for years and years. The desserts were all full of colour and really different with intriguing ingredients. And for me, that’s where the really heartwarming story is in a destination,” he says.
Skehan also says he couldn’t help but have fun filming with the irrepressible chef Wan who left an indelible impression (in more ways than one).
“I think when you film with Chef Wan, there’s always something funny happening. I remember him smacking with a pandan leaf in the middle of filming. It didn’t make it onto the TV show, but it was probably one of the funniest moments and he’s such a character, so we had great fun with him,” he says.
One of the advantages of travelling is making all sorts of new discoveries. For Skehan, this meant getting his hands on new ingredients and subsequently incorporating these ingredients into the recipes he came up with.
“A lot of the ingredients that I took back and created recipes from were probably my takeaway ingredients. Things like gula Melaka – that raw sweetness and rich toffee taste – that you just don’t get with the sugar back home. That’s an ingredient that I knew I needed to make something of. I still have two packets of gula Melaka in my kitchen, which I need to make use of,” he says, laughing.
In coming up with his own recipes for the show, Skehan tried to find a bridge between respecting traditional elements and modernising it with his own twists. So, you’ll discover interesting new recipes on the show like crème brulee tart, bulgogi pizza, matcha green tea eclairs and gula Melaka doughnuts.
“In lots of ways, you have a duty to keep to traditions. But when you bring those flavours and ingredients home, they don’t always translate as well and you still do have to cater to an audience who may not be used to certain ingredients. And that was the challenge when it came to creating recipes for the series,” he says.
Ultimately, Skehan hopes the show will offer a window into the world of Asian baking, highlighting ingredients and techniques from the continent, and showcasing what’s on offer to those intending to visit the region.
“I think a lot of Asians will recognise some of the recipes and I would imagine that they’ll be intrigued by an Irish man trying to cook Asian recipes. And I hope they’ll give me a little bit of slack in that I’ve tried to do my best in creating what I think are Western versions of Asian baking dishes.
“At the core of it, it’s a real celebration of Asian baking. Beyond the recipes, we got a chance to see behind the curtain and get a look at what Asian baking is really about,” he says.
Donal’s Asian Baking Adventure airs on Tuesdays at 7.30pm on BBC Lifestyle HD (HyppTV Ch 512).