Donal Skehan on role models, Asian baking, and his newfound love for BreadTalk in Singapore

Donal Skehan on role models, Asian baking, and his newfound love for BreadTalk in Singapore

Ireland meets Asia

Text: Janice Sim

Image: BBC Studios

Donal Skehan might be Irish but he definitely has a soft spot for Asian cuisine

You might have seen food writer/presenter Donal Skehan take over your television screen before in his shows like Grandma's Boy and Junior Masterchef UK. The Irish cook never fails to charm the socks off his viewers (we attribute it to the smile that always touches his eyes), but more importantly, his food escapades have always been pretty enviable. In his ventures through European cities like Budapest, Istanbul and Italy, Skehan has rubbed shoulders with numerous chefs, home cooks and tasted a diverse range of cuisines out there.

With a focus on baking, his most recent television stint on BBC, titled Donal's Asian Baking Adventure flew him out to Asia, mainly cities like Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Macau and Korea; to explore baking and flour-based foods in a continent far away from home.

So what does Skehan think about our city's heartland bakeries and breakfast foods like dim sum and prata? We caught up with the affable chef to compare the varying scenes in Asia and Europe and to find out which made an impression.

What got you interested in cooking?
I love travelling — it's my big passion. Wherever I travel, I always carry a notebook and take down ideas. I always try to develop what I love and I think that started it. It gets quite exciting when it comes to travel because you get the opportunity to try new things. Funnily enough, I'm mostly drawn to Asian food. I get most excited about the speedy, fast-cooking Asian dishes. 

What do you love most about your job?
The fact that I do something different almost every day. I get to try some of the most incredible food in the world and get the opportunity to showcase my love for that through the medium of TV. That's probably one of my favourite parts of the job. 

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Who are your culinary role models?
I come from a family of really good home cooks. My grandmother was my idol. She had the ability to take a few ingredients from the kitchen and turn it into an epic feast. It's the confidence in the kitchen that she gave me, and the idea that you can really cook anything without using so many ingredients.

What would be the proudest moment of your life?
We [my wife and I] had a baby seven months ago, and that was definitely one of the proudest moments of my life.

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With your TV series Donal's Asian Baking Adventure, how has your perception on the culinary scene in Asia changed?
Absolutely, I think our perception on what Asian baking has completely flipped. One of the things that attracted us to doing the series in the first place, was the fact that Asian bakers are winning these world baking championships and all of the French are having to compete much harder. We had an idea of what it was going to be before we went out, but I was blown away by the standard. It was unbelievable to see the breadth of what was available — from high-end pastry shops to home-cooked goods. It was just incredible to see the different sides of what Asian baking is and what it represents. There's the great traditional side of it, but there's also the new.

What are your favourite foods from Singapore that made an impression on you?
One thing that we ate pretty much everywhere we went, were curry buns. I loved that idea of having something that's a little bit of cross-culture and the different influences that created this one dish. I also loved my experience at BreadTalk — this bakery that had a wide spread of buns made out of different combinations of ingredients. It was just a completely different experience. Pork floss is not something that is on any of the pastries back home, so that sort of intrigue was really exciting for me.

Donal Skehan BBC

Having said that, you've covered most of Asia. Where in the world would you travel for food?
India has been on my bucket list for a long time. I'm dying to go to India next.

If there's one thing you would eat for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Tricky one. I love pad thai. It's the perfect combination of salty, sweet, sour and a little bit spicy too!

Having started as a home cook yourself, what's a dish you would recommend for cooking amateurs?
I would say anything slow-cooked because a lot of the preparation is done in advance. Meats that are slow-cooked always turn out wonderfully. The advantages of slow-cooking is that it's pretty hard to get it wrong. 

Catch new episodes of Donal's Asian Baking Adventure on Tuesdays starting at 7.30pm on BBC Lifestyle (Starhub Channel 432). Alternatively, you can head over to BBC player