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LAist Interview: Food Writer and TV Chef Jaden Hair of Steamy Kitchen

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Jaden Hair with her new cookbook, the Steamy Kitchen cookbook | Photo by Diane Cu

Jaden Hair with her new cookbook, the Steamy Kitchen cookbook | Photo by Diane Cu
Jaden Hair is a food blogger, television personality, and photographer. She writes for Steamy Kitchen, TLC, and just came out with a new cookbook, The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook: 101 Asian Recipes Simple Enough for Tonight's Dinner . Jaden grew up in Los Angeles and has since become a regular guest on Daytime NBC and a writer for the Tampa Tribune in Florida, where she lives with her family. She recently made an appearance on the Today Show to talk about how to make Korean-style burgers and Kimchi Fried Rice.Jaden makes her triumphal return to LA this week and will teach a cooking class tomorrow night at Sur La Table at the Original Farmer's Market. The class starts at 6:30 PM and space is limited, and you can click here to sign up.

How did you come up with the name for your blog?
Well, when I first started coming up with names for the blog, Steamy Kitchen popped into my head immediately. It pays homage to my mom, who always has something simmering or steaming away in the kitchen. And it also refers to my very fiery, passionate personality.

Was there a particular moment in your life that pushed you towards blogging and blogging about food?
I used to write recipes on little 3 x 5 cards which were prone to being lost, soiled, or chewed on by my then toddlers. Then I started typing them on my computer until three blue screens of death later, they disappeared forever because I was too lazy to back up. So the blog really served as my recipe journal and database.

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You've lived in Hong Kong, Nebraska, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Florida. How has this affected your philosophy on food? Did you notice any major cultural differences in the approach to how they cook/eat food?
It was a tough life growing up in the Midwest in the 70's, especially for my mom who didn't speak any English. We didn't have access to any Chinese ingredients, so it was a six-hour drive every time we wanted to go to an Asian market. We learned to use preserved, canned, dried, frozen Chinese ingredients, and supplement them with regular supermarket fare from down the street.

Then we moved to California, where on practically every street corner we had access to authentic ethnic foods. Life is grand, because for less than five dollars you could get a steaming hot bowl of Vietnamese pho and across the street was the best $3 beef taco that you've ever had.

About seven years ago, my husband and I decided to start a family and moved to an area that we could actually afford, and after weeks of research, we chose a small town in Florida where we could buy three times as much house for half the money. Well, after we moved, I was at a restaurant called Bangkok Tokyo waiting for my to go order when I overheard someone speaking very loudly on her cell phone, "I'm having sushi at a Chinese restaurant."

I just about flipped. not China.

It was at that point that really changed my life. I called a local cooking school and asked if I could start teaching cooking classes, teaching people about the difference between soy sauce and fish sauce....Vietnamese food and Chinese food. And this is how my cooking career started. I started the food blog in order to record a lot of the recipes that I was teaching

Your cookbook just came out. How long did it take for you to write/test/photograph ever recipe? Did writing AND photographing the recipes influence your book in any way?

I put a call out for testers on my blog and had about 200 people respond from all over the world offering to help test the recipes. I set up a private blog and every few days I would post a new recipe ready for testing. It was an amazing process, because the testers really helped me hone and refine the recipes. Many of the recipes didn't even make the final cut because the results were inconsistent or the ingredients were inaccessible from different parts of the world.

I absolutely wanted to photograph the book myself, because this is what I do for the blog. I see too many cookbooks where the food looks way too polished and I've heard stories about how many food stylists and food photographers use funky food styling tricks like Crisco for ice cream. I even had one food stylist tell me that you wouldn't want to eat anything that they've touched, because you'd surely get salmonella from all of the tools that they used to make the food look pretty.

So I started studying what makes food look good, real food. It was food blogs like Matt Armendariz's Matt Bites and Bea's La Tartine Gourmande that really inspired me. Every day that I would do a photoshoot for the cookbook, I had two hungry kids and a husband waiting patiently at the dinner table. As soon as I got my money shot, we would eat that dish.

While most cookbooks have a prop stylist, food stylist, food photographer and writer, I really did this solo (other than the recipe testing) and I think it brings a very personal flair to the cookbook.

How did you decide on 101 recipes?
Well, secretly there are about 120 recipes and about 200 color photographs. I had nothing to do with the catchy "101 Easy Asian Recipes" nor the really silly hot pink "As seen on" sticker that's on the front of the cover.

It's stupid. I know. I cringe every time I see that sticker.

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Who would you recommend this cookbook to?
I created this book keeping in mind some of our struggles of living in a small town in Nebraska with very little access to fresh Asian ingredients. This is why I include lots of different ingredient substitutions. I'd love to say that this book is for anyone and everyone, but I guess if you hate to cook you might not enjoy reading the recipes!

I've also added a modern flair to some of the recipes- Korean style hamburgers, Asian pear frozen yogurt, and grilled lamb chops with Asian pesto. I also wanted to teach some of the things that my mom taught me, like how to make the perfect fried rice.

What would you say is the most ambitious recipe in the cookbook?

The most time-consuming recipe in the book is My Mom's Crispy Egg Rolls. I included it in the book because there are several recipes that, while a little more time consuming to make, freeze exceptionally well and can go from freezer to table in about 15 minutes. Recipes like potstickers and the eggrolls are great for when you have friends over because you can rope them in to helping you wrap the dumplings. It becomes like a social activity for us, with the bowl of ingredients in the middle and each of us around the table filling, wrapping, sealing and chatting throughout. By the end of the hour, we will have wrapped hundreds of dumplings. Some go for that night's dinner and each friend gets to take home a big batch that they can store their freezer.

For egg rolls, just carefully slide the frozen egg rolls into hot oil and they will crisp up perfectly. For potstickers, you can slide the frozen potstickers directly into a simmering broth or you can pan fry first to get the bottom's crispy, then add about 1/4 cup of water and cover. Dinner is ready in about 10 minutes.

The pictures in the cookbook were beautiful. What camera did you use? Any tips?
Oh gosh, I started shooting the cookbook with a Canon Rebel and a $90 lens, the 50mm. In the world of dSLRs, the Rebel is a cheapy. I didn't upgrade to a Canon 40D with 50mm 1.4 lens until about a year ago. Now I'm eyeing the Canon 5D Mark II. Photography is an expensive hobby. But honestly, the Rebel and the cheap lens shot many of the photos in the cookbook.

Which brings me to mention that it's not about the camera. It's having an eye for making food look spectacular.

Where do you usually eat when you're in LA? What do you miss the most?

I still call LA my home. After our Nebraska stint, we lived in Los Angeles where I went to junior high, high school and UCLA. My parents still live here, and I come visit usually 2 to 3 times a year. I miss the dim sum the most and of course my mom's cooking.

An ideal day in LA would include...
Early dim sum to miss the long lines, grocery shopping with mom to pick up ingredients for that evening's dinner -- especially a live fish and crab. I love my mom's cooking and I love watching her cook. We don't really cook together in the kitchen, were both kind of Type A people, which really makes the kitchen very very very small.

Are there any LA-based blogs that you follow?
My very best friends, Diane and Todd of White on Rice Couple live in LA -- sometimes I see them more than I see my own friends in my neighborhood. We're always hanging out, traveling together and goofing off together. One of the best things about food blogging is that I've gotten to create beautiful friendships with other bloggers. Another good friend is Bee of - she's like my blogger-sister!

Is it true that you have almost 50 different types of sea salt? Any favorites right now?

I love salt.


My current favorite is Himalayan salt plate from The Meadow

My friends over at Earthy sent me some Matsutake mushrooms, which I sliced and grilled on a salt plate. Mmmmm. Simple, heavenly, earthy.

What are the essential ingredients/tools in your kitchen?

At last count, I have about 12 different woks at my house. I know it seems like I have a salt and wok problem! It wasn't until I started using Scanpan CTX wok that I knew I found "the one." I even contacted Scanpan to see if we could work together in some way because I was so in love with their product. I love the ease of nonstick, but even more, I love that you can sear in that nonstick and even use metal utensils. Plus it doesn't have all that nasty toxins that most nonstick have. I'm a chaotic cook, so having cookware that I don't have to be so careful around is important.

Even with a drawer-full of fancy knives, I consistently pick up my Shun chef's knife. It fits my hand well.

But I'm a sucker for infomercials, so my pantry and cupboards are piled high with gadgets, gizmos, and doodads. a couple of years ago, I started encroaching in on my husband's garage space. He doesn't like that.

Any favorite chefs?
I've watched Martin Yan for years on television! I love his sing-song accent and his rat-a-tat-tat knife action. Last year, I was lucky enough to meet him in person and he provided me with a lovely endorsement of the cookbook.

Can you give us a sneak peek of what you'll be talking about at your cooking class tomorrow?
At Sur La Table on Tuesday night, I'll be doing a cooking demo of several dishes: Vietnamese Summer Rolls, Firecracker Shrimp, Chinese Sausage Fried Rice, Pan Fried Tofu with Dark Sweet Soy, and Chocolate Wontons.

You can check out her blog at TLC for a chance to win one of 5 cookbooks and check out her tasty recipes. She'll also be going to San Francisco and Seattle, so if you know anyone who might be interested, they can click here for more info. You can also follow her on twitter.