Food Curious with Jen Hung

Feb 24, 2020 | by Maia Welbel

Jen Hung illustrated portrait

When Jen Hung first enrolled in culinary school in 2017, she says it was simply to learn more about how to be herself. She has since turned her passion for food into a deeper exploration of where food comes from, cooking as a connection to heritage, and how and why we assign meaning to certain things we eat. 

Jen’s blog, Root Fare, embodies her resolve to not accept something as truth just because a label or tradition says it’s so. And her playful approach to plant-based cooking makes us want to spend the weekend massaging heads of cabbage for homemade kimchi.

We got to hear Jen’s perspective on how dietary choices impact identity, why spending time on an organic family farm led her to go vegan, and how she grapples with eating a plant-based diet as a Taiwanese American woman. 

How did you first get interested in food?

My journey in food began when I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals seven or eight years ago and it made me not want to eat any factory farmed meat. Having that restriction on how I was going to feed myself actually led me to get a lot more interested in food. I started cooking so much that people were asking me why I wasn’t doing it as a side job—friends would want me to do meal prep for them, or offer to pay for me to bake them a cake for an event.

When I moved to New York in 2017, I learned about this plant-based culinary school called the National Gourmet Institute (NGI) and thought I would maybe enroll, but I wasn’t thinking about it as a career switch that I would ever actually make. I also started baking a lot more when I moved to New York as a way to form connections with people. Making food and bringing people into my home was a way foster new relationships, and the more I did that the more I noticed how happy I was in the kitchen. I eventually decided to enroll in NGI to get a culinary education, just to learn more about how to be myself. I figured I would continue in my advertising career and switch over to a food related agency or do food media. But during the program I realized I needed to make the switch—I just feel so much more alive being in a kitchen. 

What was it about Eating Animals that led you to change how you ate?

What really bothered me was the idea of factory farming. A lot of the things we know now about  factory farming still weren’t widely known when that book first came out. I didn’t necessarily care about the animals or environmentalism at the time—it was more selfish like, ‘I don’t want to eat something that has been sitting in its own feces for days.’ At this point I was still in college and I couldn’t afford to shop for non-factory farmed meat, so I just didn’t eat meat at all.

Was it challenging to make that shift?

In choosing to stop eating meat I was scared that I was going to lose my connection with my culture. I’m Taiwanese American, part Hakka, and a lot of our food centers around cooking meat in clay pots. Even though I immigrated when I was five years old, I grew up in the U.S. and I really didn’t know anything about Taiwan. If I was going to stop eating animals I would not have that tie to my culture anymore.

I realized that you can’t produce food without caring for the earth.

Because of those fears I started to think maybe I could eat animals if they were sustainably raised and responsibly sourced. So in the summer of 2013, in order to get to the bottom of that, I went to live on an organic farm through WWOOF. I chose purposely to go to a farm that both grew vegetables and raised animals for meat. I had a great time learning about vegetable production, and I saw how this family of farmers treated their animals with love, but I couldn’t do it. I thought that I would go and see how happy these animals were and it would make me be okay with eating them again, but it didn’t even feel like an option. I couldn’t fathom the idea of being around a happy animal and then killing it later in the year. So that cemented the decision for me to be vegan and continue living that path.

Being on the farm also opened my eyes to the wonders of agriculture, and I realized that you can’t produce food without caring for the earth. I became really interested in environmentalism and conservation, and I kept that in the back of my mind when I went back to the city and started my advertising career.

Tell me about your career transition from advertising into food.

I was working with nonprofits like Conservation International and this food education program that taught people about veganism, and I enjoyed that for a while—I felt like I was doing some good in the world. But the more I worked with nonprofits to tell their stories, the more I felt like I needed to actually have my boots on the ground. The work was heartwarming, but at the end of the day I was creating a commercial. Maybe I wasn’t going to be the one out there literally replanting mangroves to protect shorelines, but if I was able to impact individuals by feeding them a different way, and open their eyes to taking care of themselves and the planet, that felt much more substantial than telling stories for these organizations.

I left my job in May of 2018 and pursued various cooking jobs. I didn’t think that I ultimately wanted to be a chef, but this was midway through culinary school and my instructors convinced me to try interning at a restaurant. I cooked in a couple of kitchens before I knew for sure that it wasn’t for me. I had fun and learned a lot, but I think that my philosophy on feeding people fundamentally contradicts with the idea of working at a place where you’re constantly turning out the same thing, regardless of individuals’ needs.

I cook with what’s in season and what’s in my pantry rather than follow recipes, and I wanted to give others the tools to do that too.

It also physically broke me down, even though, ironically, I was working at a vegetarian restaurant that people think of as healthy. Of course this doesn’t happen to everyone, but I started to develop carpal tunnel, my sleep was terrible, I was never actually cooking for myself, and I gained a ton of weight—that type of lifestyle was not a holistic one for me.

When I left the restaurant I knew I wanted to focus on how I could impact people on a personal level, and that’s when I started the blog. I cook with what’s in season and what’s in my pantry rather than follow recipes, and I wanted to give others the tools to do that too. I know so many people in my life who are scared of precise measurements and I want them to understand that the joy of cooking is that it’s not supposed to be about precision.

I also wanted to get deeper into why I went to that farm—my fear of losing my last touchpoint with this culture that is important to me even though I don’t know much about it. I’m trying to figure out ways that I can continue to participate in and enjoy what it means to be Taiwanese American as a vegan. That’s where the name Root Fare comes from, it’s about my roots.

On your blog, you write about using plant-based ingredients to make Taiwanese dishes, and the tension within that. Can you tell me more about that?

In the summer of 2018 I helped produce an event in New York called Happy Family Night Market, which is a celebration of Asian American food across the diaspora. Working that event was eye-opening because I got to know so much about Filipino food, and Nepalese food, and all sorts of Asian cuisines, and I started to ask myself why we hold onto certain traditions. Is it purely for the sake of being able to say this is something that my culture has done for generations? 

Those are things that I think about a lot—what are we eating, and why do we hold on to certain foods emotionally?

When I think about the dishes of my childhood, there are some things that can’t really be made vegan. For example, a century egg is a fermented whole egg that is preserved so the whites turn into this almost clear brownish color, it’s super salty and really tasty. You could never veganize that. The way that this tradition of the cured egg started was out of necessity, and there’s something beautiful about that, but do we need to hold onto it if we don’t need it anymore? Those are things that I think about a lot—what are we eating, and why do we hold on to certain foods emotionally?

What do you hope readers come away with after going to your blog?

I started writing to share all of these questions I have—to show that even people like myself who seem like they are steadfast vegans can still be constantly questioning. What I want to promote is curiosity around what you put into your body, and caring about how it impacts your community.

It’s wild to me that people will get squeamish at the idea of a chicken being beheaded but then they will eat chicken. I have no problem with people eating animals if they want to. I just think that if you’re going to you should at least be aware of what goes into that process. I want to increase the questioning of what it means to eat what you eat.

Is there a list of foods you want to veganize that are stumping you?

Yes! I have a Google doc with a very long list of all the things that I want to make. I’ll be like, ‘I want to make beef noodle soup.’ And then immediately I’ll be like, ‘Why do I need to make a vegan beef noodle soup? Beef is right there in the name so what’s the point of using seitan?’ But it’s just such an iconic Taiwanese dish.

Who is inspiring your cooking right now?

I love following Pascal Baudar on Instagram. He does fermentation with all sorts of wild things that he forages and finds, and I always want to try what he’s doing.

Can you share a favorite recipe?

One of my favorite things to eat when I’m craving something warming yet simple is a root vegetable stew, which is something I’ve had ever since I was a wee one following after my grandmother to the market. A staple of our weekly meals was a clear broth made by simmering daikon and whatever bones we had together in a stock, with the daikon rendered melt-in-your-mouth-buttery by the time it was ready to eat. Since I no longer consume animal products, I either start with a mirepoix if I want a heartier, western taste, or just water if I want a simpler, more eastern flavor. What’s great about this stew is that I can use the odd ends from when I’m cutting up my vegetables for other dishes – I either refrigerate or freeze the pieces until I have enough, and then I throw it all together in a pot. It’s macrobiotic: balance of yang (tamari, miso) with yin (vegetables, sea vegetables) in a gentle simmer that allows the nutrients of the items to be retained in the soup.

root veggies illustration

Odds and Ends Root Vegetable Stew

Ingredients:
2 lb whatever root vegetables you may have. Daikon, sweet potato, potato, burdock, carrots, taro, rutabaga anything. Really. Just try to mix it up in texture and taste so that you can have a balance of savory and sweet, silky and firm. If you’re starting with a whole vegetable, slice them on a roll cut, or large dice them. Whatever makes you happy.
2-4 oz ginger, sliced (amount depends on how much you like ginger)
2-3 Tbsp traditionally brewed tamari
Enough water, dashi, or vegetable to just cover the vegetables (anywhere from 1 to 3 cups, depending on the vegetables you choose to use) Sometimes I start with water but add dried shiitake and a piece of kombu to the pot, so that I get pretty much the same effect as using dashi.
1 Tbsp gomasio (optional, to finish)
1 Tbsp miso (optional, to finish)

To-do’s:
1. Put all the vegetables in a pot and intersperse ginger throughout. Pour water / stock in so that there is just a thin layer of liquid covering all the ingredients. Add 2 Tbsp tamari.
2. Bring the liquid to a boil uncovered, then lower to a simmer and cover the pot. Cook until the vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes.
3. Let cool a little before tasting, and add remaining tablespoon of tamari if needed, or make a slurry with 1 Tbsp miso and 1/4 cup of the liquid, and add back into stew. Finish with gomasio. Enjoy!

Thank you, Jen!

Find Jen’s words on health supportive cooking, identity, and vegan Taiwanese comfort foods on rootfare.com, and peek into her Brooklyn kitchen on Instagram at @jenhung

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