Pork belly and root stew is a simple Cantonese dish, yet it is Toronto Star’s food writer Karon Liu’s favourite sentimental food as a Chinese Canadian. His grandmother used to make it all the time in his childhood.
Liu visited Centennial College Story Arts Centre last month to speak with journalism students about his career in food writing. He is a food writer, recipe tester and culture reporter for the Toronto Star.
Liu was born in Hong Kong and moved to Canada with his family when he was just a baby. Now he’s is one of the country’s leading food journalists. His identity allows him to blend the childhood memories of his grandmother’s Cantonese cuisines and his knowledge of local Canadian ingredients and styles of cooking.
“I didn’t eat anything that my grandma made because I thought it was gross,” Liu said.
“It wasn’t until she passed away or when I got older that I reflected on my past and realized I was such a jerk back then. I didn’t appreciate her food when she was still here.”
Watch highlights of the Observer’s interview with Liu:
Liu uses his voice in the cooking world to focus on diversity. He believes that food extends to all areas of culture. His work at the Star has included advocating against xenophobia through food and a way to explore cultural issues throughout the city.
“As someone who is Chinese, a lot of my natural story ideas just came from that perspective, because that’s how I grew up and how I eat,” he said.
As the coronavirus pandemic was intensifying, Liu wrote about Wuhan Noodle 1950 and the closure of Chinese supermarkets T&T, in order to shut down the xenophobia and racism that were revolving around the virus.
“It’s unfortunate in the age of social media that a lot of misinformation [gets] spread and it hurts peope,” Liu said. “It’s quite crushing to me.”
After graduating from Ryerson University’s journalism program, Liu interned at the National Post. However, he felt emotionally drained because of the intense nature of covering news, particularly crime. He later worked as an intern at Toronto Life and raised his hand to write for a new food blog they were planning. He also wrote for the Grid, Food Network Canada and Vice’s Munchies before joining the Star.
Telling interesting tales
Liu had never worked in a professional kitchen before joining the Toronto Star, which is the only daily newsroom with a fully functioning kitchen of its kind in Canada.
“He doesn’t necessarily want to write about the most popular and easiest places,” said Suresh Doss, another food writer in the city. “But he spends time looking for interesting stories that are not told and owned by other outlets, which is what I respect about him.”
Doss, a food journalist at CBC, works on collaborations with Liu a few times a year. Right now, the pair are Liu are contemplating how they can evolve their storytelling in the next few months to help restaurants affected by the city-wide coronavirus lockdown.
“Karon is committed in terms of finding not something that would give him the likes and clicks, but something that he can make a story with,” Doss said.
Work with what you’ve got
One of the principles that Liu values when he’s writing recipes is using ingredients that are widely available in mainstream supermarkets.
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According to Liu, well-known Chinese Canadian cuisines such as General Tso chicken and chop suey were invented by early Chinese immigrants to compromise with the local food cultures and ingredients that are available here.
“If I am going through the effort of developing this recipe and buying the ingredients, then I want people to make it. I am not making a recipe that no one is going to make,” he said.
Diversity in Canadian’s newsrooms continues to be an issue. However, Liu’s presence at the Star has proven that, when you plant seeds in places unknown, the most beautiful lotuses rise to the surface.