How cooking East Asian food (kind of) made my dreams come true

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How cooking East Asian food (kind of) made my dreams come true

After her dream trip to Japan fell through, online editor Annzra Naidoo decided to make the food she wanted to eat on her travels. Despite having very little experience in making East Asian food, an unrelenting onslaught of delicious looking food shown in anime, K dramas and social media convinced her try.

I dreamed of turning 30 in Tokyo. I saved up for a year to go on this trip. Everything was planned and I was so excited. But I turned 30 in 2020… *cue sad violin music*. Pandemic = no trip. More pandemic-related stuff happened, and I had to use all the money I saved to survive. My dream trip slipped through my fingers and I was devastated. There were many things I wanted to do (getting something interesting from a vending machine being one of them) but my biggest priority, as with all my travels, was food.

It shouldn’t be surprising that I want to go to Japan because I’m a huge anime fan. There are other motivations, but anime is the biggest one – particularly anime food. If you’ve watched anime, you know how amazing the food looks. Like seriously, it’s enchanting. Don’t believe me? Check out this video:


Cape Town has some amazing restaurants that serve East Asian food. Some of my faves include Downtown Ramen, Tjing Tjing, HeSheng KimChi and Tomo. I also find good options at Asian stores (so many great frozen dumplings!). When the anime food cravings hit, I frequent these places. But there was one dish I couldn’t find anywhere. So I decided to make it.

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It started with a pork cutlet bowl

Whenever I’m feeling some type of way, I watch anime. So naturally, when my trip fell through, that’s what I did. But instead of being comforting, it became a constant reminder of all the food I wouldn’t get to eat. One anime in particular tormented me. Yuri!!! On Ice is about a competitive figure skater who loves pork cutlet bowls and uses them as motivation. As a result, they mention this dish in every single episode. I’ve spoken of my intense food envy before. Seeing pork cutlet bowls in Yuri!!! On Ice was one thing, but they kept popping up in other animes and that pushed me over the edge. I needed to eat one. But I couldn’t find them anywhere in Cape Town.

I am South African Indian, so my cooking fundamentals are rooted in this culture. Thus, the idea of cooking East Asian food was intimidating. I knew that all Asian cooking had similar principles – a set of basic ingredients that are commonly used in most dishes – but East Asian cooking uses 5 ingredients, while Indian cooking uses like 500. My best friend and former roommate Matty spent a year in Thailand and was my first teacher in this area. I watched as she cooked dishes she learned while she lived there, and she took me along to our local Asain market to stock up on ingredients. This, combined with my newly found confidence from cooking social media recipes, gave me the push I needed to make the highly anticipated pork cutlet bowl.

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I researched various recipes and watched many videos. I decided to follow both Marion Grasby’s YouTube video (her left-hand wet hand, right-hand dry hand method for crumbling food changed my life) and Just One Cookbook (which is now my Japanese cooking bible). A pork cutlet bowl (Katsudon), is a golden crumbed pork chop placed in egg, simmered in a sweet and savoury sauce, and served on rice. It’s glorious and I can’t describe how incredibly happy I was when I made it and finally got to eat it. This was the start of my dedication to learning more East Asian recipes.  P.S. Here’s a pic of my pork cutlet bowl next to one from Yuri!!! On Ice:

An exercise in restraint

When I first started trying my hand at East Asian cooking, the urge to add ingredients to the recipes was strong. As I mentioned, I learnt to cook South African Indian style. I was taught to add loads of different spices and to measure with my heart. I use Indian aromatics and spices in virtually everything – even Western dishes. Pasta sauces taste amazing with a little bit of masala thrown into the mix.

One of the reasons I prefer cooking to baking is because I can riff recipes without fear of disaster. But East Asian cooking demanded discipline *cue training montage music*. I’d never tasted the dishes I was making, so I had to follow the recipe to a T. It was the only reference I had to ensure I was making the dishes correctly. I did feel validated when I made onigiri (which I couldn’t find initially) and then tried some at How’s Your Oni (thanks Clem Pedro for putting me on!).  I was definitely on the mark.

While I’m confident enough to change up some dishes (I have made various types of onigiri and have “Indianfied” my version of Korean veggie pancakes with turmeric, chilli and garam masala), I’m still learning. So I still have to restrain myself when making certain dishes, and that discipline has helped shape how I cook now.

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The never-ending sources of inspiration

The reason I talk about East Asian food as a whole rather than just Japanese food is because I’ve started to cook more broadly. Anime is not the only thing that inspires me. K-dramas, social media and food experiences all drive me to learn more about this cuisine. The K-drama Extraordinary Attorney Woo had me obsessed with kimbap, and now it’s one of my favourite things to make. I’ve made both ham and tuna kimpap (from my Korean cooking bible My Korean Kitchen) and am gearing up to try my hand at bulgogi kimbap.

Social media turned me onto mayak eggs (marinated eggs), also known as Korean drug eggs. I can also try all the cool food trends using East Asian ingredients because I have a stocked pantry. Rice paper dumplings, nori sheet “wraps” and all the chilli oil noodles are whipped up almost immediately after seeing them online. Plus, my dipping sauce game is pretty good. My team at TASTE was also kind enough to gift me cookbooks (Bao Family by Céline Chung and Hong Kong Food City by Tony Tan) to help me on this journey.

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The dream continues

A few years ago I was doing a story on Prince Albert’s hot spots. Real Food Company (now Jeremy’s restaurant and wine bar) was on my list and I had the pleasure of interviewing owner Jeremy Freemantle, who told me something I will never forget. He told me that there are many ways to learn about countries and cultures. You can do it through language, history, geography or religion. He prefers to do it through food.

I know that cooking East Asian food is not the same as going to these countries. But by learning about the food, making it and eating it, I feel like I’m exploring these countries in my own way; a way that excites me and (let’s be honest) that I can afford. I’ve been lucky enough to go to Thailand and Hong Kong, and I’m still dreaming about Japan and Korea. But until that day comes, pork cutlet bowls, kimbap, onigiri and all the dishes I still have to learn will tide me over. And for now, that’s enough.

Prawn wontons

Find three recipes from Bao Family here. 

Annzra Denita Article by: Annzra Denita

Annzra Denita is the digital editor of TASTE. Eating good food is her absolute favourite thing and making good food is a close second.

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