Melissa Leong vividly recalls the thrill she felt every time her favourite soup was dished up for dinner when she was a child.
“It was very simple,” she tells The Weekly.
“A clear purity of beautiful pork broth with the richness of the bones and the marrow. Some simple vegetables – carrots, potatoes, maybe a little onion. And then you would have this beautiful honeycomb tripe in slivers in the bowl as well. It was such a beautiful textural experience.”
One day, she asked her father what tripe was and, “it flipped me for a loop a little bit,” she admits. “When you think about things too much, you can come unstuck.”
It’s this notion which sparked her latest project.
A Taste Adventure is a children’s book designed to inspire even the fussiest of kids to try all six taste sensations: Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami and spicy. For, as Melissa points out, “You don’t have to love all the sensations, but it’s great to try everything because consciously or unconsciously we bank those experiences and it allows us a greater frame of reference as we go into adolescence.”
It’s with this “taste bank” in mind that Melissa selected these recipes from our Test Kitchen, and the kids on our shoot were game to try new flavours with her. From a squeeze of lime on their favourite fruits to salted pretzels chased by a bitter chocolate, they tucked in with enthusiasm. Part of that willingness to try, posits Melissa, is an after-effect of the show that’s seen her beamed into living rooms across the nation.
“When season one of MasterChef Australia happened it started to transform our food IQ,” she says. “Five-year-olds saying, ‘Are you ready to plate up dinner now, Dad?’ Kids these days are so sophisticated in their knowledge about all sorts of things, including food. And the vernacular kids are using is so much more grown up. To contribute to the conversation and bring a little joy and fun and exploration of flavours to this generation is pretty cool.”
Her own upbringing gave her a head start at exploring flavours, admits Melissa. “Asian and Chinese food culture is very much family-style. It’s not individually plated food, it’s something in the middle of the table we all share. It never occurred to me that I had an option not to eat something.
“My parents served the family the same thing. We’d have the chilli on the side and whoever wanted to partake in it, could. That was a function of my parents being migrants. We didn’t have extended family to help so it was the pragmatism of cooking one dish for the family rather than one for the kids and one for the adults.”
WATCH: Melissa Leong interview at the 2022 TV WEEK Logie Awards. Article continues after video
That same policy applied on Christmas Day, albeit with festive abundance.
“It involved every kind of tropical fruit we could get our hands on,” she says of the Leong family’s tradition upon migrating from Singapore to Australia.
“Platters of seafood and Christmas ham. Turkey would become curry the next day and ham would turn into jaffles or pea and ham soup. It was a classic Australian-laden table … with the exception of the sambal oelek by the tartare sauce, and the oysters would have soy and chilli sauce!”
An intrepid traveller, Melissa’s also willing to throw herself into new challenges personally and professionally. “I have the attitude of, ‘We don’t know how long we’re going to be here’,” she explains. “I’d love to bank as many experiences as possible. If the opportunities are there, I’d rather have the experience than not. The great regret for me is not trying.”
That spirit was what led her to first try TV. She studied economics at university, but rather than follow that path spent the next 20 years “wandering about the wilderness” trying her hand at everything from doing make-up on music video shoots to working in advertising and marketing to landing in food journalism.
“I’m a big believer in listening to intuition,” she says. “All the skills I’ve picked up are tantamount to who I am now. Was I great at everything? Absolutely not. I’ve always admired people who are better than me. I’ll always put myself in a room with people who are smarter than me because there’s a capacity to learn. It’s okay not to be great at things at the beginning. In fact, that’s better, it gives you somewhere to grow.”
A Taste Adventure by Melissa Leong (Five Mile Books) is available now. Buy right here.**
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