Food & Culture

Ronny Chieng: how I eat

The Daily Show comedian on strange gigs, Crazy Rich Asians and where to eat in Singapore.

By Lee Tran Lam
What memories of food do you have from your childhood in Malaysia?
At that age, you think food is food. You don't realise that people make dishes in different ways. I would see my aunts, uncles and grandmothers do versions of the same dishes. When my aunt cooks the stuff that she used to cook when I was younger, it brings back the same memories. There's a certain way she cooked chicken and potatoes, there's a certain way she cooked spinach. Right now, it's making me hungry.
You moved to Melbourne to study law, which inspired your sitcom Ronny Chieng: International Student. What did you eat on campus?
My palate was much more simple. We were eating such crap, everything was "good". It was all about carbs. Anything that had halfway decent carbs in it, we'd eat it. We'd eat at the end of the day, when takeaway places were about to throw food out, and it would be cheaper. Pizza, fried rice: you can get it for $3 if you buy it just before closing.
Your website has a section on where to dine in Melbourne. Is that because travelling comedians kept asking you where to eat?
When people would come to visit, I would send them an email saying, "these are the good places to eat in Melbourne". Actually, it goes even further back than that. In university, I wasn't a very picky eater. Then my girlfriend broke up with me and I was pretty upset about it – to work myself out of the hole, I decided to explore the city.
Where did you go?
Bars and restaurants, hole-in-the-wall places. I did that for a few months, and I really started to get into that food-exploring culture. I wrote a local guide to Melbourne. Otherwise you're just eating at a chain restaurant, right?
You once did a stand-up routine for a fast-food company. Was that the weirdest gig you've done?
I did a one-hour show to one person once. I've been booed off stage at a musical festival near Perth. I basically had a fight with a racist person at a festival in Parramatta once – this guy threatened to kidnap me after a show.
One of your most talked-about segments on The Daily Show was your fiery response to a racist Fox News clip filmed in Chinatown during the 2016 US election. What drove your reaction?
Usually when people make fun of Asian people, no one really speaks up for them. It was just a clear case of needing to say something about it.
What was it like returning to Singapore to film* Crazy Rich Asians?
It was super fun. My parents still live there; I grew up there. It was all the highlights of Singapore for one month. The food is killer there, you know that.
After shoots, you and co-star Henry Golding would direct the cast on where to eat, right?
I don't like to waste calories, so everything we ate had to be the best version of that dish in Singapore. So there's Tong Ah Eating House, a congee place, Ah Chiang's Porridge. There was an out-of-control dim sum place called Swee Choon Tim Sum. Mount Faber Nasi Lemak was pretty fun.
There were high hopes for Crazy Rich Asians; it was the first Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast in 25 years. Were you nervous about how it would be received?
Before it came out, there was no real way of knowing how it would go, but a couple of things made me extremely optimistic. On set, there was something special going on. You could feel it.
Ronny Chieng appears on The Daily Show, Ronny Chieng: International Student and tours Australia in July. Visit ronnychieng.com
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