It’s not always easy to find a good, authentic recipe for traditional Taiwanese recipes, much less recipes with options for substitutions where the authentic ingredients are hard to find. When guest contributor Bettina Chang’s mom didn’t pick up the phone one day, she turned to an Internet search to get a recipe for sticky rice. And lo and behold, there was Jen Che’s award-winning food blog, TinyUrbanKitchen.com, to save the day!
Jen posts reviews and information about local restaurants and markets in Boston, in addition to recipes and beautiful photos. Last year, Tiny Urban Kitchen won Project Food Blog, the first-ever interactive blogging competition hosted by FoodBuzz.com. Jen has also been interviewed and featured in stories for CNN, Time, NPR and Boston.com. We caught up with Jen via phone to chat about her blog, her love of food and her impressive collection of Totoro stuffed animals.
P.S. Check out Jen’s blog post today to see her roundup of delicious Taiwanese dishes!
Q: Hi Jen! Thanks for taking the time to chat. Tell us a little bit about how you started blogging.
A: I was working during the day and going to law school at night, so I had virtually no free time. When I graduated, it was a shock to the system – I had all this free time. So I wanted to do all these hobbies, tons of stuff that I had wanted to try, like painting lessons, acting lessons, capoeira (a type of martial arts dance), and I wanted to start a food blog to try out recipes and stuff. The funny thing about all those things is that I would quit them after a month or so. With the food blog, it kind of stayed. I had like 12 readers, my friends and other people I knew. Then I decided to make it real, that’s when I searched around for names. I wanted to get a dot-com address, and I happen to live in a place with a tiny urban kitchen, so that’s how I made the name. It’s technically still a Blogger blog, but I designed it and signed up with an advertiser. You do have to put a little bit of work into a blog to get it to grow. The way I was doing it before, it was kind of stagnant. But if you put effort in, you reap some things.
Q: So why food?
A: I am a people person – I’m relational. If I’m doing a hobby and it’s just for me – like sewing, capoeira – if there’s no people involved and I get bored of the topic itself, it just dies. Like in capoeira, I didn’t actually know the people in the class, so even though I enjoyed it, without the relationships there, I just stopped going. What’s different about food blogging is, I’m sharing information and thoughts with people. There’s live people on the other end reading it. If I stop now, it’s not like I’m stopping a hobby, I’m kind of breaking up with people! There’s this relational and community aspect with it and it’s the people aspect of it that makes me stay with it. It’s also fun and combines a lot of the things I like. I love food, I like to cook, I really like art in general so from the photography standpoint, I never tire of that aspect. The most tiring part is the writing – I’m not a natural writer, I hated writing all through high school and English classes. (I went to MIT so I didn’t have to take English!) Then I had to go to law school and it was sort of ironic.
Q: Speaking of law school, what’s your day job?
A: I work at a pharmaceutical company in Cambridge as a patent attorney. I worked as a synthetic organic chemist in drug discovery for several years before I went to law school at night. I’m still in the field of chemistry – which is what I studied – and in the same field as before. My work does a lot with serious diseases, which I like, because I get to really help people.
Q: It’s great you can do that both at work and as a blogger. On TinyUrbanKitchen.com, you post Boston restaurant reviews in addition to your recipes. What’s your favorite thing about Boston?
A: I love walking, and Boston is probably one of the most walkable cities. It’s small enough that it’s manageable by foot. It’s pleasant to walk around. It’s a concentrated city where there’s a lot of good stuff all together. Cambridge and Boston are very close together, and it’s a very beautiful walk just crossing the bridges. The environment is very academic and student-driven – I like that about it as well. And of course it’s historic, it’s pretty. It’s got a lot of culture and good food.
Q: Tell me about your tiny urban kitchen. Are there things you don’t like about it?
A: The point of the blog is not to focus on the fact that I have a small kitchen – it’s just a fact about myself, and what you can accomplish despite having a small kitchen. I’m saying that you can make David Chang Momofuku things from his cookbook in a small kitchen. Because I do live in an urban area with a small kitchen, I do eat out more often because it is a pain to cook sometimes. The name is twofold – it describes who I am, but doesn’t limit my blog to just recipes.
Q: What’s your favorite thing about food blogging?
A: Whenever you meet up with another blogger – especially at blogger events – there’s an instant area of connection and something to talk about. What’s cool is, when other blogger visit me when they’re in Boston, and we go out together. Then there’s reciprocity so that when I go to their city, they’ll do the same. I’ve made real friends this way. Like this group of girls at New York: they’ve become more than blogging community friends, they’ve become real friends because I see them a lot now. We get together and go to a restaurant. You’d never be able to do that without having some kind of online way in which to meet everyone. Through Project Food Blog, a bunch of food bloggers were going through challenges together, and I felt like I got to know those people really well because we bonded over those difficult challenges. That’s what’s so neat about it. There’s also a diversity of friendships that you probably wouldn’t have met in day-to-day interaction. Between other bloggers and readers, we’ve got moms, teenage kids, retired people, people all over the world – it’s cool to be talking to someone from Turkey –people in Taiwan, Hong Kong, whatever. It’s pretty neat, I think, to have unique relationships around the world. Sometimes I’ll blog about some food I don’t know that well – and then a reader will write to me and say, “Actually, that’s not how we do it…” I learn a lot this way.
Q: How has your Taiwanese upbringing influenced your blog? What does your family think about it?
A: I realized early on that there’s not that many Taiwanese recipes online – one thing I wanted to explore was Taiwanese cooking, of course, because that’s part of the reason I started putting recipes on the blog. It’s because my mom would give me recipes for dishes and I wouldn’t want to lose them. In the beginning, this was the second reason (after keeping track of restaurants). As I started to blog more and put Taiwanese recipes on there, I realized there were people who would write to me and say, “Oh my gosh, I’ve been looking everywhere for this recipe and I’m glad you’re Taiwanese and cooking Taiwanese stuff!” There’s definitely a subset of people looking for recipes, and you either can’t find it anywhere else or you can’t find it in English. Posting these Taiwanese dishes is something I’ve been hoping to give something back to people who are Taiwanese. I’ve been contacted by book publishers to author a book, and I told them I want to write a Taiwanese book but they say, “No, there’s no interest.”
As for my parents, my mom reads my blog religiously every day. She loves cooking too – I learned form her. My parents were my biggest fans during the Project Food Blog contest, and they told all their friends to vote for me and stuff – it was very sweet and very cute. My dad is more hands off – he really doesn’t care about food too much, but he thinks it’s great. He’s unlike your typical Asian parent. He’s actually very affectionate and affirming – and he’s like, “You’re so great and talented and so smart!” My husband was very very supportive during the contest – he doesn’t like to cook and hates getting his hands dirty, but he helped me so much and supported me. He’s very patient. When I’m taking pictures at a restaurant, he has to wait before he can eat. Especially when I’m doing a blog post, it takes a long time, because I have to plate the food and make it look pretty. He loves the perks, too. When Foodbuzz invited me to Napa Valley for a culinary competition, I took him with me so both of us got to enjoy the VIP treatment – and he likes the wine more than I do.
Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring bloggers?
A: Well, there’s a lot of blogs out there, but I don’t even think half my readers read what I write. In general, the blog reading world has a short attention span – most of them are just looking at RSS feeds quickly, and they don’t want anything that takes too long. Pictures are really good for that. If you hate writing – blogging does take some writing, but it doesn’t have to be everything – it could be photography or video. Now if you don’t like any of those, then maybe you shouldn’t start a blog! But at the end of the day, a blog is a way through which you share ideas and and express yourself. There’s lots of media that you can do that with. People still appreciate good writing – but if your goal is just to express yourself with your friends, then that’s fine.
Q: Last, I just have to ask – are all those Totoros on the table in the photo actually yours?
Yes, I have a lot of stuffed animals – and there’s many more, I just couldn’t fit them all on the table!