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I am what I eat: Daney Hsu

Categories: Behind the stalls

Food, perhaps more than anything, gives us a sense of who we are. In this series, regular blogger Victoria Brown interviews traders about the foods that are important to them, and how their experiences of food have shaped their identity. This month: Daney Hsu from Richard Haward’s Oysters

Words: Victoria Brown

In every culture, eating is a communal experience—whether that centres on the family or extends to a wider community of friends, neighbours or even complete strangers. Historically, it made sense for humans to eat together; it is efficient and convenient to procure and prepare food in groups, rather than individually.

Today, ‘procurement’ for most means popping down to the supermarket and ‘preparation’ can mean anything from cooking, to reheating something prepared earlier (often by someone else), yet most people still prefer to eat with others. Eating together can bring us warmth, enjoyment and a sense of community. It is so much more than a bare necessity.

All the Borough Market traders that I have interviewed so far for this series have highlighted that sharing food is important to them. Meal times are a chance to catch up with friends and family, to not only share food, but stories, laughter, frustrations and reflections.

For Daney Hsu, trader at Richard Haward’s Oysters, this has become particularly important, with his family living far away in China and Taiwan. “We share happiness, sometimes sadness. They’re not just friends, they’re kind of family.”

The community of Borough Market
Daney and his friends from Borough Market often celebrate people’s birthdays and other special occasions by all pitching in and cooking a meal for them. But even just day-to-day, catching up over food and drinks is an important part of life at the Market. “We support each other. That’s the reason I love the community of Borough Market.”

No wonder Daney feels at home here. Food is a central aspect of community life in Kinmen, the small island in Taiwan where he grew up. On special occasions, such as weddings, births and at Chinese New Year, “all the neighbours have a big celebration,” he says. Tables, each fitting up to 10 people, fill the street “for a big supper” featuring dishes such as whole roast pig and chicken, served “Chinese-style” with Chinese five-spice, soy sauce and mayonnaise.

Once again I am struck by the visceral and sensual aspect of cooking and eating. Peering into the kitchen he could “see the people waving big knives, the flame of stir fries—the sounds, the smells. You see the smoke and think wow, it’s almost here.”

Daney Hsu

Sense of anticipation
For several of the traders I have interviewed, this sense of anticipation—both for the person cooking and the hungry recipient—is something that underlies their love of food. Sharing food is a chance to hone culinary skills and impress friends, family and customers with delicious creations.

For Daney, it is the immediacy of this interaction and the basic enjoyment it gives both him and the consumer that makes it satisfying. “Even just a small portion of food can make people happy. When you’re cooking or serving, that impact is right in front of you.”

He loves to experiment in the kitchen and the range of food that he likes to cook reflects this: oyster omelette, cheesecake, Thai seafood salad, tempura oysters, stews, curries, rice, noodles, gelato, roast pork, sponge cake, barbecue chicken with chilli tomato sauce—it’s clear that his taste has been strongly influenced by the multicultural foodscape that he was exposed to growing up—in Taiwan, the food culture is a “mixed bag” of different influences, ranging from Chinese, Japanese and Korean, to American and European—and more recently at Borough Market, from which he takes much inspiration.

Collecting oysters
Like many people, though, his first cooking experience was gleaned watching and assisting his mother in the kitchen. He remembers summer holidays spent collecting oysters with his grandma and “other old ladies” on the beach, with which they would make tempura oysters and oyster omelette, one of his favourite dishes.

Listening to Daney, I am reminded of the power food has to bring people together—of the opportunity it offers to build relationships and community, of the comfort that meal times can bring to different people for different reasons, whether it is the contentment that comes from feeling full and satiated, or from nurturing and nourishing others. “I think that’s the reason I love cooking: sometimes, it just touches my heart.”

Read grandma Hsu's recipe for oyster omelette here