What I've Learnt From Running A Food Podcast For BFM
When I tell people I’m a food podcaster, quizzical looks abound. “Podcast? What’s a podcast ah?” family friends and aunties would ask.
Despite the prevalence of podcasts in the US and the Western world—there are over 800,000 podcasts in the world, and the industry as a whole generated over USD $450 million in 2018—in Malaysia, podcasts still seem like a niche, hipster, millennial venture.
“It’s like radio, but online too”, I would summarise to said aunties. “You can find episodes on my blog, junandtonic.com”, I’d follow up, my shameless self-plug ever-ready. (See what I just did there?)
Really though, the definition isn’t as far off from the truth as you might think. While podcasts like Freakonomics and Serial, and even Malaysia’s top podcast, Mamak Sessions, might seem to run as independent entities, many of them had, and many still have, roots in radio. The same can be said for me, as the show I host and produce, Breaking Bread, is run and aired by BFM—Malaysia’s premier businesses radio station (I say this with a tinge of bias).
Essentially, Breaking Bread is a show about food. On it, we explore the history and culture behind classic Malaysian foods like kuih, tempeh, and kelulut honey, learn to cook and eat better from chefs and restaurateurs, and, in line with the BFM mandate, detail the successes of burgeoning food businesses in Malaysia.
In essence—grandiose as it sounds—I tell stories about food, through the medium of audio.
Like the typical millennial tale, I did not start out knowing I’d do this. I’d say it was a combination of two things that sparked off this unconventional (read: crazy) career. First, it was a stint in the food industry—culinary school, a 6-month stage at Blue Hill, sharing kooky recipes on my blog, and writing for online food sites like Food52 and TASTE—that seeded in me a deep curiousity and, clichéd as it might sound, a longing love of food.
But the other, bigger reason was an instant infatuation with the world of podcasts back in 2015. On strolls through Holborn and Seven Dials when I lived in London, then on long commutes to the city on the Hudson Line when I worked in New York, infatuation turned into borderline obsession, as I clocked in over 430 hours of podcast listens in two years. I tuned in to Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley of Gastropod geek out with glee over food anthropology, laughed along with Dan Pashman’s hearty, at-least-10-seconds-long guffaws on The Sporkful, and learnt to feel through food with Francis Lam on The Splendid Table. It was through these food podcasters, these endearing eaters that I knew only by sound not by sight, that I learnt to love podcasts. Food podcasts.
I felt the heart-tugging fulfilment in telling the stories of others.
From my very first listens to these shows, I thought, someone should do this in Malaysia. Turns out, I unwittingly became that someone.
It’s been less than a year since I started podcasting (Breaking Bread turns one in February 2020!), but with each passing episode, I’m learning so much more about our food and cuisine.
From hearing Debbie Teoh, the princess of Peranakan food, wax lyrical about angku kuihs, to Chef Melba Nunis dote on her Kristang heritage, I learnt that there are so many facets to Malaysian food, so many personal stories about what we eat, that have yet to be told. From listening to Joseph & Debbie (from the peanut butter brand Jobbie) tell their tearjerker origin story on air, to hearing the hesitation in Dalia Fahed’s voice (Dalia is a refugee chef from Palestine) as she shared her struggles escaping war-torn Palestine, I felt the heart-tugging fulfilment in telling the stories of others.
From Joycelyn & Andrea from Pitstop Community Café singing soliloquys about soup kitchens and parsing through the politics of food and poverty, I’m ever reminded of the connective power of food, of the importance of food beyond just what we put into our bodies. And from learning about tropical, Malaysian-bred caviar from Shaun and AJ of T’Lur Caviar, and hearing The Langit Collective’s work in bringing up heirloom Sarawakian grains, I learnt that the Malaysian food industry is burgeoning, thriving, more so than I first thought.
It’s all too common to comment on how languid and lacklustre Malaysia’s food industry is, especially compared to our Michelin star-studded neighbours Singapore and Thailand. But really, through this show, through talking with chefs, producers, eaters in Malaysia, it’s given me so much hope for our food, our cuisine, and our country of voracious eaters.
Sure, we eat with our mouth and nose, and sometimes with our eyes, but it’s through the sense of sound, and audio, that I’m continuously learning to engage on a deeper level with food. As Alex Blumberg, CEO of Gimlet Media, puts it, “Audio is best at is creating empathy”. And that’s precisely what it is. Because food is more than just the flavours and textures in our mouths, it’s more than the Instagrammable brunch spots and the burdens on our bellies. Food is also always about people, about how cultures mingle and give birth to cuisines, how dishes came to be, how flavours flourish with different families, how we feel through food, and what it says about us who cook it and eat it.
Audio is best at is creating empathy.
So in the years to come, I’m hoping to delve ever deeper into the world of food, shining a light on (and shoving a Zoom recorder into the faces of) the inspiring people uplifting our cuisine, and tell stories of food, Malaysian food, our food.