It is just before the start of a busy Saturday at Westgate’s Yun Nans outlet. Seated in front of the camera is veteran actor Li Nanxing, who introduces himself with a booming voice and boasts a larger-than-life presence you can’t ignore. Affectionately known as the Ah Ge (or ‘big brother’) of Caldecott Hill, it’s perhaps surprising to hear what he has been up to during the pandemic—cooking in the kitchen and coming up with recipes.
“Cooking and acting are about the same,” he says cheerily in Mandarin. But how so?
Li Nanxing, a home-cooking connoisseur
In 2020, with his acting projects delayed indefinitely due to COVID-19, he found himself spending more time at home. Given that whipping up meals was always a pastime he enjoyed, it was no surprise that he donned his apron and entered his home kitchen with a mission.
From this, I rediscovered the flavours of my mother’s cooking.
Actor and home chef Li Nanxing, on why he started experimenting in the kitchen during COVID-19
What came out of it was a fragrant hae bee hiam, which was based on his mother’s rendition. A spicy sambal that is loved by many in Singapore and Malaysia, hae bee hiam is often made with sun-dried shrimp. Ah Ge’s version, however, really takes it to the next level. Premium Hokkaido scallops lends a natural sweetness to the condiment. Not to mention the mishmash of Peranakan ingredients, ranging from belachan and prawn paste to turmeric, all of which pay homage to his own Peranakan heritage.
The result is this: an irresistible explosion of flavours that captured his friends’ hearts from the get-go.
And so, what started as a simple condiment that he created for his own meals became an instant hit. His friends encouraged him to start selling it. In fact, they even took it into their own hands to find a supplier that could mass-produce it. Folks, I’d say that that is true friendship.
Cooking vs. acting: not so different after all?
The common thread that ties Li Nanxing’s two great loves, cooking and acting, is that both required what he terms as “chemistry”. Whether it’s the synergy that he shares with fellow actors and crew on a production set, or that between him and his ingredients in the kitchen, it’s where all the magic begins. Making magic happen, though, is never instantaneous.
He recounts that since he entered the world of entertainment at a young age, he had to learn the basics of acting and the industry from scratch. He had to do the same in the kitchen. The process of trying and failing has been, at best, a rollercoaster ride. “Down moods”, as he calls them, were inevitable.
Passion has to be nurtured with time.
Actor and home chef Li Nanxing, on his love for acting and cooking alike
What kept him going was a belief that he can always be even better. Always looking for ways to improve, Ah Ge might be his own harshest critic. But he’s not unnecessarily hard on himself either. “I’ll always give myself the space to grow, and I accept that someone else may cook something that’s even more delicious than mine,” he says with a smile. And despite all the ups and downs, he has managed to find joy in the journey.
Infusing Hae Bee Hiam into Yunnan cuisine
While Nanxing personally loves pairing his hae bee hiam with the basics (think instant noodles, plain rice, and bread), this sambal is great for almost everything you can think of. Yun Nans’ Stir Fried Hae Bee Hiam Clams had a savouriness that lingers pleasantly in your mouth. The deep umami flavours are all thanks to the winning combination of fresh lala and dried shrimp, which is delightful. The dish is included in both Set A ($88) and Set B ($118) of Yun Nans’ collaboration sets.
The YUNNAN Rice Noodles Tossed in Spicy Meat Sauce is inspired by guo qiao mi xian (‘crossing-the-bridge’ noodles), a popular dish that has come to represent the province. Yun Nans’ rendition comes with thick vermicelli noodles, topped with a myriad of vegetables, mushrooms and braised minced meat. A bowl of broth is also served by the side, perfect to sip from or to pour into your bowl of noodles directly. Get your fill of noodles with Set B ($118).
Who knew that hae bee hiam, with its Southeast Asian spices, would work so well with the light ingredients and flavours from the mountains of Yunnan province?
What lies ahead?
Nearing the end of our chat with him, we asked him if finding one’s passion was really important.
“No, not really…” He elaborates that challenging oneself to step out of one’s box, rather than keeping to one’s comfort zone, is even more meaningful. This is clear to see even in his own journey. His story (and jars of delicious hae bee hiam) is proof that he has not boxed himself into acting, but is still constantly on the lookout for new avenues to explore and conquer.
On taking that first shaky step toward the unknown, he does have a heartening phrase of encouragement to offer: to simply try, and never be afraid of failure.
*This collaboration is proudly presented by Li Nanxing, Yun Nans and Oddle Eats. The LNX X Yun Nans Set Menu is available for a limited time only, for dine-in, delivery & takeaway. For more information and to place your orders, head over to https://yunnans.oddle.me.