Pillow Talk: Sarah Huang Benjamin

You most likely know Sarah Huang Benjamin from her many shows on Asian Food Network. Down-to-earth and genuinely affable, Sarah is a multi-hyphenate who does it all — she hosts, writes, produces, directs, and somehow even has time to handle research work for the National Heritage Board.

While we’re big, big fans of her work, we must admit we’re bigger fans of her beautiful cats, Sambal and Porridge, who often make cameos on Instagram. So we asked to hang out with Sarah and her cats in her cosy home as she got us up to speed with what she’s been up to, her Chinese New Year traditions, and the benefits of living with cats.

 

Sarah showing us one of her favourite cookbooks by Charmaine Solomon.

 

We read you named your first food blog, Kitchenhoarder, because you were hoarding kitchen equipment and cookbooks during your university days. Do you still have the tools and books you got from that time?

That’s so long ago! [laughs] I upgraded a lot of my kitchen stuff. I was in the UK then so I didn’t bring back most of them. I kept a few plates and glasses that I got from thrifting though… I’m quite sentimental about stuff like that. I like mismatched cups and plates and whenever I come across something special, I just buy them and get really attached to them.

As you guys can see, I really have a lot of cookbooks. One of my favourite cookbooks, “The Complete Asian Cookbook Series: Indonesia, Malaysia, & Singapore” by Charmaine Solomon, was given to me by my parents. She’s a very old-school writer and wrote the book for a western audience, so that made the recipes accessible to me as I was able to easily get the ingredients in the UK.

 

 

From winning Food Hero to becoming the Asian Food Network Ambassador and starting your own YouTube channel, how’s the journey been like for you?

Really unexpected. I never had any ambition to become a host; I wanted to be a writer. What I’ve always loved is food writing. Ever since I was a kid, I have loved a lot of the British food writers like Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson.

I’m quite shy actually. As an only child, I’m used to being on my own so I like to think that the life of a writer would suit me: spending a lot of time alone, making a cup of tea, and being lost in my own thoughts.

After university, I was one of those people who didn’t want to go back [to Singapore]. I spent another year in the UK and even in the States after graduation. But I came to realise that it really doesn’t matter where you are, it’s the people you’re with that matter. I’d rather be where my family and friends are, which is why I moved back home.

I was working in PR and marketing for a restaurant, and about to quit my job when my friend told me about Food Hero and encouraged me to apply. I saw that as an opportunity for me to eventually have my own cookbook — still hasn’t happened actually [laughs] — but I really didn’t think it was going to lead to anything.

 

 

I filmed this really terrible audition video in my parent’s kitchen. I didn’t even bother to tidy up. I wanted to do it so I could tell myself that I tried and if it didn’t happen, I could cross it off my list. I wasn’t thinking that far. When I won, my life path definitely changed. I thought it was going this way and it just went — [gestures in opposite direction]

I started making my own content because there were a lot more things I wanted to explore. Because of Food Hero, I now also have the opportunity to produce and direct content for Asian Food Network and do other exciting projects. I’m quite a type-A person so being in a producer role really suits me. Plus, I’ve always seen directors as storytellers and it’s great to be able to shape how you want the story to be told.

 

We love your latest video with your mom! Was she the person who first introduced you to the joy of cooking?

[laughs] Definitely not. My mum is not a good cook. She always tells everyone about her famous Kong Bak [braised belly pork], but it’s famous because she doesn’t ever cook anything else! She’s a 100% workaholic and not a home-based mum at all.


My parents are book people so when they found out I love food, they gave me books. My mum loves food and I definitely got my love for eating from her. My dad’s a good cook though! [On weekends when I was growing up], he would cook recipes I was interested in from the books he got me.

I grew up in a house with my parents, my yi poh (grandaunt), and my jiejie, our helper from the Philippines. Since both of my parents work, it was mostly just my yi poh and jiejie. The cooking, helping out in the kitchen — those were the things I got from them.

 

A picture of Sarah and her yi poh, grandaunt.

 

What is the best memory you have of cooking with them?

During Chinese New Year, my yi poh always made Hakka Abacus Beads. We had to make them a week before Chinese New Year and I would often join them by rolling the yam paste and peeling ginko nuts. It’s such a strong memory because my yi poh knew everything about Chinese New Year. She always knew what food to eat and who’s who in the family — she was like the guardian of our family knowledge. She was blind since she was 4 years old, but she could really cook. She made Hakka rice wine and knew her way around the kitchen.

 

 

You’ve developed some really interesting recipes over the years! What’s your take on food having to be authentic?

I hate the idea that food has to be authentic. [This idea] is very prevalent in Singapore because we are a young country and we don’t know who we are. So, things that mark us as Singaporeans like chicken rice, chili crab, laksa… we cling to them. But a lot of the dishes that we think of as traditional are not in fact traditional — they are actually fusion dishes.

Especially for me, I never knew where I belonged growing up. I’m mixed so I’m always told I don’t look Singaporean. People are always confused that I look like this but I can speak Mandarin. This irks me. People have such strict ideas of how a Singaporean should look like and what makes something Singaporean. This same idea applies to food. Oh, food can only be authentic if it’s Chinese, Malay, Indian… and I’m like, why? I work with the National Heritage Board as well as on different research projects, and while I think it’s important to preserve our heritage and traditions, it doesn’t mean we cannot progress.

 

Sarah in her favourite place, her kitchen.

 

Besides hosting and writing, you also keep active on social media. Do you ever get social media fatigue?

All the time. To be completely honest, if it wasn’t for my job, I wouldn’t be on social media. I think of social media as a means to an end. If more people follow you, then more people would see the content I make. In general though, my experience with my social media has been really good and positive. Maybe it’s because I’m in the food space.

But social media is tiring because everyone’s attention span is so short. There’s that expectation that you have to post a lot. Even if I just posted something yesterday, I often am asked why I haven’t posted today. Instead of the quality of the content, the frequency has become the priority.

I know people also say not to read comments, but I can’t help it. If people leave dumb things like, “You look fat”, it doesn’t bother me. But when it’s a comment about my work, then that can really affect me. I don’t care what people think, but I take pride in my work.

Just recently, I saw a comment by a chef on the Kong Bak video I made with my mum. It was something like “Why would she act so ah lian when she talks in Hokkien? She’s degrading her own dialect group. Pathetic!” It obviously was a comedic video and I wasn’t even trying to act like an ah lian — my Hokkien is just really bad. But also, what’s wrong with being an ah lian? That really bothered me… I responded by saying thank you and letting him know I wasn’t trying to degrade any ethnic group.

 

You adopted Sambal and Porridge. Can you tell us a little more about them?

We actually got Sambal first. A friend of a friend found Sambal in the drain. She was rescued and first cared for by this Nyonya neighbour, which is why we named her Sambal. We adopted Porridge from another friend.

Sambal is a lot shyer and Porridge loves attention, but they love each other a lot! When they were kitties, they used to sleep and cuddle together.

 

Porridge and Sambal. Image courtesy of Sarah Huang Benjamin.

 

Would you say hanging out with Sambal and Porridge is your favourite activity to do after a long day?

Yeah! Having pets help you to get out of your own head. I can get really anxious. I’m a perfectionist and I put a lot of pressure on myself. When I’m having a tough moment and I catch them doing their cat things, it reminds me that life isn’t complicated and I shouldn’t overthink things. I would seriously be less sane without cats.

 

 

How do you make time for yourself?

By cooking. [laughs] I really enjoy cooking things that I want to eat. So, when I cook for myself, I consider that my me-time because it’s just for me. Nothing satisfies me more than if I can watch a show and eat something that is relevant to the show. I cannot watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi and eat bread. Let’s say I’m eating pasta — if I watch Chef’s Table, it has to be the episode where they’re featuring Italian food and making pasta. When what you’re eating and what you’re seeing goes together — that’s the best feeling ever.

 

Last question. If you were to plan your dream Sunday brunch, what would you make and who would be on your guest list?

An alfresco brunch — like in a British garden — and I would invite my family and friends and my grandfathers from both sides, because I’ve never met them. I would also invite David Attenborough, Nigella Lawson, and Anthony Bourdain. They say never invite your heroes, but I would love to meet and chat with them.

I would make a Jewish-Japanese fusion brunch. My dad is Jewish and I love Japanese food. So the menu would probably be smoked fish, pastrami, platters of fresh seafood — not kosher at all — oysters, lobsters, sea urchin, ikura. I just really love seafood! For drinks, I’d serve Aperol Spritz, Bloody Mary, and G & T.

 


Pillow Talk is an interview series done in collaboration with Public Culture, an editorial experience studio that believes in connection over communication. This feature was photographed by Christopher Wong for Sunday Bedding and Public Culture.


While you're here, check out our sheets:

Movement

Movement Sunday Sheet Set in bamboo sateen.

Dusty Plum Pillowcase Pair in French linen.

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