Ugly Food & Co. - A moment with Sarah Gan
We are doing something a little different for this blog post. Normally we send out a list of questions for our producers to answer at their leisure and in their own time. They each have tight schedules, and we don’t want to get in the way of their busy lives.
However, Sarah Gan, of Ugly Food & Co. was less interested in this style of interview and instead asked if I could conduct it in person. Considering she makes the world’s best crunchy chilli oil, I thought it prudent to acquiesce.
Consider this more of an essay on food, family and Sarah rather than an interview. I hope you enjoy!
I’ve loved food for as long as I can remember. One of my first cherished food memories is when my Mother would make my brothers and I what she called a ‘Platter’. It was essentially her clearing out the fridge of all the food that was soon to be binned. She would pile my plate with little bits of everything – cheese, fruit, ham, yoghurt, biscuits, and whatever else was lying around. I saw this kaleidoscope of food as pure joy. To my young mind the bevvy of choice was a food freedom that I didn’t often get at other meals. If I got bored of eating the pieces of apple, I could attack the cheese. When the ham didn’t interest me, I could get distracted with a biscuit or two. Pure joy!
Everyone has a fond food memory from childhood like this, a cherished moment that can never be replicated. A moment that nostalgia deems as pivotal in your life. For Sarah Gan, those pivotal moments were cooking with her grandmother in Singapore as a young girl. Her grandmother, an instinctive and experienced cook, passed on her love and knowledge of Malay/Chinese cuisine to a tender aged Sarah. It was these interactions that cemented the love of food and family in her heart.
Sarah left Singapore at age 13, moving to Colorado where she attended high school. Following this she headed west to California with the intention of becoming a professional pianist. After a few years of tinkling the ivories, her Singaporean husband and her were blessed with their first child. Playing piano just didn't seem all that important anymore. She drifted away from music to focus on her small but growing family. They eventually moved to Australia to be closer to her husbands family business back in Singapore.
When I met Sarah at her little shop in Ashgrove to conduct this interview the first topic we touched were her kids. Sarah loves being a mum. Her four children are her entire world. She loves them fiercely, and confessed to me that she would have happily had even more kids. While we sat and chatted away her daughter snuck in the back door and began preparing ingredients for Sarah to later turn into her delicious products. Cooking was clearly a skill the whole family had adopted.
Sarah recounted that her first serious foray into cooking began with feeding her growing family. Always hunting down a new recipe to wow them with, she would soon turn to baking in order to impress them. Her baking became so renowned amongst her friends (and their children) that she was inspired to turn her skills into a fully fledged business. It all started in 2014 with cinnamon buns, a clear nod to her time spent in the US, but soon expanded into elaborate Birthday cookies and cakes. If you take a stroll through Sarah's (and Ugly Food & Co.'s) incredible Instagram page you can enjoy a delicious history of her journey.
It wouldn't take long until the moments spent with her Grandmother in Singapore would begin creeping into her baking business. She set up residence at West End's now sadly defunct wandering cooks kitchen and expanded her offering to include the savoury treats from her childhood. Handmade Bao, Hainese Chicken, Beef Rendang, Chinese Beef Ribs and dumplings are just a few of the delicious treats she wowed West End and the local markets with.
Sarah's renown was growing across Brisbane, and she was soon approached by urban beekeeper Jack Stone of local honey business Bee One Third. He was after twenty litres of chilli oil for a project he was running, and though Sarah had never made it before, she said yes. Jack got his chilli oil and Sarah was left with all of the discarded ingredients she had strained out of the oil. As it would happen this crunchy mess of a by-product was not only delicious, but a texturally incredible, and would soon be featured as an accompaniment to her dumplings. This was the beginning of Ugly Food & Co's (and Mumbleberry's) most loved product - Crunchy Chilli Oil.
When Covid hit in 2020 Sarah's business needed to take a left turn in order to survive lockdowns and an uncertain future. She began bottling her homemade curry pastes, sambals, relishes and of course her famous crunchy chilli oil much to the delight of her regular customers. Today you can find Sarah's amazing products all along the east coast of Australia, just waiting for the next lucky foodie to discover them. We here at Mumbleberry consider ourselves very lucky to be able to support Sarah and share her beautiful creations.
Sarah loves food as much as I do, perhaps even more. Most importantly, food is what brings her family together. She is passionate about this point, and it is infectious. One of her sons had cooked a gorgeous duck dinner the previous night that the whole family had sat down for.
These moments with family are incredibly precious, and those of us blessed to have them must not take them for granted. If more people were like Sarah, and took as much joy from family and food as she does, the world be a mighty better place for it.