“I started cooking because I missed home so much. I was trying to search for the memories through the tip of my tongue.” Yvonne Yuen tells Ajeng G. Anindita about her journey from Shanghai to Hong Kong and then Indonesia.
Yvonne Yuen is no stranger in Jakarta’s high-society circles. Known for her elegant and graceful demeanour, this soft-spoken lady has an enormous passion for cooking. To her friends, she is a chef. But Yvonne is adamant that she’s a home cook. Nevertheless, her love of cooking is very pronounced, especially when she talks about her favourite Shanghainese food.
Both the city and its food have a special meaning for her. Born in Shanghai 51 years ago, she moved to Hong Kong when she was 12. At the age of 19, she moved to Indonesia after getting married. Her grandmother is a prominent figure in her life, especially when it comes to food, as she was the one who introduced her to so many Shanghainese specialties.
“My grandmother has influenced me so much in terms of food,” Yvonne says. “She taught me how to make dumplings, which I still do in her way today. But growing up, I didn’t really have to cook, as we had a very good maid who cooked, and food was kind of laid there on table when it was time to eat.”
Yvonne taught herself to cook after moving to Indonesia. The differences in culture and food here made her miss home, and she tried to overcome that by learning how to cook the dishes that had been her favourites when she was a little girl in Shanghai.
“I was very unfamiliar with Indonesian food at that time,” she recalls. “So I searched for cook books and recipes, and I even brought out my grandmother’s recipe book – it was all torn and flaky! And I would call her if I had any questions about the recipes. Another reason I started cooking was because I missed home so much. I was trying to search for the memories through the tip of my tongue.”
Yvonne likes to cook for her family daily and even more so on special occasions, such as Chinese New Year. After some years, her friends finally found out about her passion for cooking and they became very interested in knowing more about Shanghainese food. But Yvonne was hesitant at first: “To be honest, I didn’t really want to teach cooking at the beginning. I wasn’t confident about it. I also had this thought that ‘this is my thing’. There was a bit of selfishness right there.”
But once she tried to teach, she fell in love with it. “When you can share your knowledge with other people, share what you like and they appreciate it – I feel really fulfilled. My friends appreciate what I’m doing and they enjoy my cooking, and that makes me really happy. So I thought: ‘OK, I’m going to continue to do it from now on.’
Yvonne teaches Shanghainese cooking at Culinaria Modena at Jl. Suryo, South Jakarta. Last December, she had her breakthrough in the culinary world when she started YY Private Dining. She and her team of six cook for private dining events and parties at their clients’ home.
“It was sort of a revelation, the idea of the private dining,” Yvonne says. “I knew I wanted to do something with cooking, but I just didn’t know how to start. I was teaching cooking, but what was next? I consulted some of the experts, family and friends, but God is my counselor who directed and open doors for me.”
At the moment, YY Private Dining accepts bookings through Yvonne herself, and the cuisines they serve are authentic Chinese ones, including Szechuan, Shanghainese and Cantonese. Speaking of the feedback she has received, Yvonne says: “My friends commended me for it, and I’m really thankful. Of course, I still have a lot to improve, but I’m really enjoying it.”
Is she someone who likes to experiment in the kitchen? “I like to eat and when I taste something good, I would love to try to make it,” Yvonne replies. “For example when I was in Holland, I went to a restaurant and tried this really good fried tofu. It was so delicious that I tried to replicate it when I got back home.”
She explains of her style of cooking: “I like tried and tested traditional dishes. But I like to try and taste every now and then. For example, at Emilie Restaurant (in Senopati), we made braised abalone in French pastry, and everyone liked it! But most of the time I stick to authentic food.”
Talking about authetic food, Yvonne admits that she misses the Shanghainese food she ate when she grew up. “I miss Sheng Jian Bao (pan-fried pork buns) from Shanghai, a dish that, to this day is so difficult for me to master. There’s nothing fancy about, but I love it because that’s the dish I grew up with in Shanghai. But the bun is really hard to make. It looks really simple, but it’s actually quite hard to do. It’s the simplest thing sometimes that are the hardest to make.
“One of my favourite foods is called Lion’s Head. It’s a dish of minced pork meatballs. Sometimes they braise it, and sometimes they steam it. It has a savoury taste and is a comfort food. It’s not easy to make actually, I have tried and tried to make for over 20 years and I still need to perfect it. I’m still learning, but I think I’m quite good at it now!
“I find a lot of different cuisines interesting, but the ones that I’m very interested in beside my beloved Shanghainese are French, Italian, Japanese and, of course, Indonesian. I like travelling. Each country has its own uniqueness. I like Japanese food, Italian food.”
One routine that she follows all the time when travelling is discovering local favourites. “Either it’s on the streets or in old restaurants. I like to search for old recipes. I’ve seen a lot of modern dishes and cooking that’s very complex and technical. But what attracts me the most are the old recipes that people don’t really know about anymore.”
What’s the most challenging part of cooking? “Putting them in a recipe!” Yvonne laughs. “Because when I cook, I don’t really write it down on a piece of paper. How many teaspoons, how much salt do we need, how long should we leave it? I don’t know sometimes! I use my feelings, my instincts and tongue to cook. So it’s quite hard for me to make a recipe. Baking, on the other hand, you have to know for sure, because it’s very precise. If you don’t follow the rules, the cake is not happening.”
Every good cook exerts his or her own influence on a dish, Yvonne points out. “When I’m teaching, for example, everybody in the class will have the same ingredients in the same amounts, use similar utensils. But in each case the final dish would be different. There’s this saying, ‘different hand, different taste’, and I think it’s so true when it comes to cooking.”
What would be Yvonne’s advice for someone who is just starting out as a home cook? “Well, first and foremost, you have to like eating! Another thing is to just keep on trying, even if you fail in the beginning. A lot of young people like to experiment with new cuisines and techniques and I commend them for being so creative. Even if my passion is the traditional food, I think I need to learn to do that as well, combining the old and the new.”
So what’s next for Yvonne Yuen? Has she ever thought of writing a cook book or opening a restaurant? “I never say never, honestly,” she replies. “I have thought about writing a cook book. But when it comes to opening a restaurant, I’m not sure. It’s such a big commitment. It’s like marriage! I’m travelling a lot now and the private dining service is such a perfect thing to do at this time in my. So, let’s say maybe in the future.”