How exactly does a chef decide their favourite ingredient? I asked some of the country’s top chefs one of the most difficult questions they could ever face in their careers. Cruel, I know – get ready for a few surprises.
The chef and host of SBS Food’s The Cook Up With Adam Liaw can’t get enough of tofu. “I think if you eat something at least once a week, you got to think it’s almost one of your favourite ingredients,” says Adam Liaw.
One of Liaw’s favourite tofu dishes is what he calls ‘cong you tofu’ which means ‘onion, oil and tofu’ in Mandarin.
He slices the cold tofu into thin, almost noodle-like pieces and makes a warm dressing of oil, soy and spring onion to weave the noodles through, making a speedy yet substantial dish.
Coriander leaves are contentious, but coriander roots have a different flavour. Sutinee Suntivatana, chef-owner of Melbourne CBD’s cult cafe Humble Rays, loves the aroma of coriander roots
“I’m originally from Bangkok. In Thai food we use a lot of coriander roots,” says Suntivatana.
“It’s a real staple in our kitchen. From soup, curry paste, marinades to chilli relish. It’s fragrant, pungent and peppery, [which] gives the complexity found in Thai cuisine.”
Mark Tagnipez, chef at Melbourne institution Supernormal, says Hiramasa kingfish is his ingredient of choice.
“I really like that while it’s a premium product, it’s accessible to anyone,” Tagnipez tells SBS Food. “You can find it at your local seafood supplier and you can see it on the menu of some of the best restaurants in Australia.”
“It also lends itself well to different cooking applications. I can bread and deep-fry the collar, use the top shoulder loin for sashimi, grill the middle section as bone-in steaks, and make a delicious fish broth from the bones.”
Tagnipez also uses Hiramasa kingfish to make a coconut ceviche, with shallots, tomatoes and fermented green chilli oil.
Jacqui Challinor, executive chef at contemporary diner Nomad in Sydney, believes olive oil doesn’t get the praise it deserves.
“I love it. I mean, I’ve grown up on it. It’s such an incredible flavour, but I don’t think it gets as much love as it needs. It’s often just treated as a condiment and not necessarily an ingredient in its own right.”
One of Challinor’s signature desserts is a no-churn, olive oil ice cream with figs and honeycomb.
Shane Delia, chef and host of SBS Food program A Middle East Feast, is obsessed with umami, and furikake (Japanese rice seasoning) is full of it.
“At the moment I am looking for maximum flavour that has to be easy with very little calories,” says Delia. “I’m trying to get rid of a few of the extra Covid calories I seem to have found while in lockdown.”
The Japanese seasoning makes everything instantly delicious.
“One of my meals that are in my regime right now is a rice, poached chicken, ginger, corn and mushroom dish. Topped with a poached egg and a furikake, it doesn’t even feel like I’m watching what I’m eating.”
“If I have to choose one ingredient it probably would be garlic,” says head chef at Melbourne’s Bodriggy Brewing Co., Johny Dominguez.
“Fresh Australian garlic is absolutely delicious in many ways and if you cook it the right way can up-level any other ingredient. From a Sunday roast, a creamy pasta, a fresh salad, a piece of bread with butter or a nice savoury granola,” he says.
Dave Verheul, chef and co-owner of Melbourne wine bar Embla, is “going through a bit of an egg phase at home”.
“When you think about what an egg brings to the culinary world it really is quite an incredible ingredient,” says Verheul.
“Most sweet baked goods, almost the whole weekend breakfast category and a carbonara just would not be anything without the humble egg.”
Head chef at Cutler & Co., Tana Rattananikom, is enjoying cooking with turnip this winter.
“At Cutler & Co., we like to use ingredients that are the best and brightest of the season. In all honesty, the farmers do all the hard work, and that means we are able to let the ingredients speak for themselves.”
Rattananikom says the turnip is “unique” and when prepared well and served with the right accompanying ingredients “can really make a hero dish”.
Cutler & Co. is currently serving turnips alongside wagyu, smoked eggplant and native pepper.
Lead image: cong you tofu, courtesy of SBS Food.