When it comes to vegan food, Malaysian representation on an international level is close to zilch. Standing as a shining beacon right next to zilch though, is an unassuming woman making sure that Malaysian cuisine receives a fair share of the global meat-free culinary spotlight.
Chia WoonHeng grew up in Kuala Lumpur, is happily married with two children and is now based in Texas, USA. Her social media presence began almost exactly two years ago, having been egged on by friends who loved the idea of her recipes being shared with the world. Indeed, the world responded with gusto, and WoonHeng’s legion of fans, amounting to the hundreds of thousands, now await new recipes posted regularly on one of the most beautifully curated Asian-inspired food accounts on Instagram.
During Malaysia’s first partial lockdown, I was keeping the local community motivated by interviewing Malaysian vegan personalities on IG Live. At some point I thought… is any chance on earth that someone like WoonHeng would be interested? I sent her a DM with a proposal. No harm in trying. She responded soon after, I did a fangirl dance that noone saw, and after a short exchange, we agreed on a feature for my Vegan Vantage series. Thank you for taking the time, WoonHeng!
It is with utmost pleasure that I present to you this interview. Look out for a recipe contribution from WoonHeng too, coming soon!
What was your health and outlook on life like before going vegan?
My goal has been the same, which is to inspire and encourage non-vegans or non-vegetarians to try a meatless dish a day, one meal at a time, and slowly ease into the lifestyle with less difficulties.
What was the strongest motivation for you to try out a plant-based diet, and the breakthrough moment when you realized it was benefiting you?
I started my meatless lifestyle when I was a teenager and I need to thank my best friend for the influence. At that age, health probably was not my main reason. I wanted to go meatless because I believe in compassionate living. In addition, I was very impressed with how delicious food tasted even without meat. As time passed, I noticed that I had fewer menstrual cramps and other symptoms, which motivated me further to continue with my meatless journey.
It’s safe to say that you’re the Queen of Dumplings in the IG world! With modern culture putting so much emphasis on efficiency and convenience, what are your thoughts on the tradition of making dumplings, lovingly by hand and from scratch, existing in a fast-paced world… Do you feel such home practices will stand the test of time?
Aww, I feel so humbled with this title, I really appreciate that. 🙂 I learn everyday from my readers who make my recipes and offer feedback, so it’s safe to say that we are all dumpling lovers! That’s a great question – I think we should do what we can to pass down the tradition. I want to share as much as I know, and I hope my kids will understand and carry this culture on. I agree that in today’s fast-paced world, many have opted for more ready-made food. I do that too, but simultaneously include an element of ‘homemade’. For example, I can use ready-made store-bought dumpling wrappers and add my own twist to it. Although it’s not fully from scratch, it still features a touch of home. I do think the home practices will stand the test of time if we continue the tradition, starting with our own families.
Generations of Malaysians have passed down family recipes through the method of agak-agak, a cooking style free of measurements, and relies more on experience and intuition. I reckon every country has their own word for it! Do you have a memorable agak-agak moment… maybe trying to learn a recipe from an older chef, or trying something out on your own without a reference?
Oh my, this is totally relatable! In my family, we love to gauge and use experience to judge if a dish is ready. That’s the fun part of cooking, isn’t it? Go with how you feel and how you would like it to taste that day. I have agak-agak moments all the time! Like when I’m not creating recipes for my blog or Instagram. When sharing a recipe, I do think it’s better to share the measurements, especially when I’m trying to promote a dish that’s only known to me but not to others. But once that person knows the taste, he/she can adjust accordingly. Something to take note of: The agak agak approach probably wouldn’t work too well with baking. 🙂
Where you stand today as a food influencer today is phenomenal. What is your recipe for social media success?
You are too kind! I still have lots to learn from other amazing influencers, and I am happy and humbled to have this opportunity to help others. Hmm… Recipe for social media success? I think passion, high-quality content, and consistent engagement with the community are key values. What I find to be just as important, is the ability to comfortably express oneself. I always remind myself of the initial goal and intention of creating my platform. The support of my family, especially my hubby, also plays a big role in my social media success.
One of the main reasons you began an online recipe catalogue was for your daughter, who wants to refer to your recipes once she starts living on her own. Which recipe/s of yours are you most excited about her possibly presenting to her own future family?
Yes, without her ‘push’, I probably wouldn’t think of using social media, specifically Instagram, to record my recipes. I hope she will share some of her favorite tofu dishes or dumplings with her future family.
An American friend of mine living in Malaysia has observed that when it comes to eating habits, Malaysia seems like ‘the USA of Asia’. Being creatures of culinary comfort is at the expense of our health, with alarming rates of heart disease, diabetes, colorectal cancer, and winning the ‘award’ for being the fattest country in the region. What kind of unique comforts does Asian-inspired plant-based food bring to your household, and what advice would you offer for Malaysians who want to be healthier but are afraid of adapting to new tastes and textures?
Ah, it’s probably too hard to control the appetite when Malaysia is known as a foodie haven! I believe in balance and moderation. I personally love savory food, and am not a big fan of fried food or anything too greasy. I do indulge in them once in a while, but in moderation and with good exercise habits. There is an abundance of Malaysian food that I miss and have been re-creating them here in the States, such as nasi lemak, roti canai, noodle soup, and kuih muih. Luckily, my kids can handle the spice and the taste of the food that I grew up with, which makes it easier for me to cook at home. There are a lot of healthy alternatives, for instance, using beans, a variety of mushrooms, banana blossoms, heart of palms and root vegetables.
For those who are determined to give the plant-based lifestyle a try but still endure meat cravings, there are great companies like Beyond Meat, Impossible Burger and Omnimeat who are doing an excellent job in imitating familiar ‘meaty’ textures. So for those who miss such textures as they are transitioning, they can try out these kinds of products. Good luck!