Megan Zhang: Senior Culture Editor, Saveur

 

Angela Tuell  00:05

Welcome to media in minutes. This is your host Angela Tuell. This podcast features in-depth interviews with those reports on the world around us. They share everything from their favorite stories to what happened behind the lens and give us a glimpse into their world. From our studio here at Communications Redefined This is media in minutes. Today we are talking with culture journalist and food writer Megan Zeng. Megan is the senior culture editor at Sava, where she regularly reports long-form features, writes a weekly newsletter called Relish, and a breakfast-themed travel column called Rise and Dine over her career. She has also written for BBC, CNN, and many others. She has developed recipes for today’s Food 52, and Kitchen and was the On-Air presenter of a TV docuseries about traveling across China. Hi, Megan. I’m so excited to talk with you today.

 

Megan Zhang 01:03

Hi, Angela, thank you so much for having me.

 

Angela Tuell  01:06

I noticed that we have something in common. You started your career as a TV journalist as well, right?

 

Megan Zhang 01:14

Yeah, yeah, I did. Good old go-to local TV news. Yeah.

 

Angela Tuell  01:19

How was that? For you?

 

Megan Zhang 01:22

It was great. I mean, it was my first job out of college, I think I was just really grateful to have an on-air job right out of college. And I was a video journalist. So as I’m sure you know, we were essentially all like a one-person band. So we’d go out with our own tripod, and do our own interviews, shoot our own B roll, and even do our own live shots sometimes. But it really just kind of threw me into the industry and taught me so much about all the different aspects of video production, from the behind-the-scenes side to the on-camera side. And yeah, I’m just so grateful that I had that opportunity.

 

Angela Tuell  02:01

was. I don’t know if it’s lucky or not. But I didn’t have to do the one-man band thing. But I’m a little bit older. And we didn’t quite have that yet. But I think you did learn more doing that it is so that’s awesome. At one point, you even relocated to Beijing and was in were the host of a travelogue, an English-language travel docuseries, introducing Chinese culture, cuisine, and history to a global audience. How did that come about?

 

Megan Zhang 02:28

Well, my family and my parents are originally from China. And throughout my life, I’ve visited with them a number of times, and most of our families are actually still in China. But I’d never actually lived in China for an extended period of time. So when I found out about this role, I decided to apply. And it turned out to be just such an incredible experience. I think I got to learn about my heritage and be immersed in it with this level of immediacy that I don’t think I’ve ever had throughout my life. So it was it was incredible

 

Angela Tuell  03:05

opportunity. And it was a couple of years long, right?

 

Megan Zhang 03:09

Yes, I was based there for about a year and a half. Not quite, because then the pandemic happened. And we were all grounded. Of course.

 

Angela Tuell  03:18

Yes. You were able to get out of there before you knew that. What was how big it really was?

 

Megan Zhang 03:25

Yeah, it ended up being It was a total coincidence, I happened to return to California to spend the Lunar New Year holiday, which is a two-week-long break in China to visit my parents, and ended up just, you know, there was a lot of uncertainty. And so I decided I would just stay a little bit longer and never ended up returning to China since then. Which is definitely sad. I miss a lot about the country. But I think it also kind of set me on a different life path in a way. Yeah,

 

Angela Tuell  03:58

yes. What were you surprised to learn about dirt? You know, being Chinese? I’m sure you’re familiar with a lot of cultures. But what were you surprised to learn during your travels and work there?

 

Megan Zhang 04:07

Oh, so many things. I think the biggest takeaway is just I was so mind blown by how diverse Chinese culture is. It’s often described as sort of a monolith. And I think there was definitely part of me that inherently saw it that way, too, just because I grew up in America and so far away from China. But it’s such an enormous country, and geographically and also climatically, it’s just really wide-ranging. And so that’s resulted in a lot of different ingredients and culinary styles from region to region. So for example, when I was traveling in northern China, there were a lot more dairy products and lamb products than you’d find in most places in the country. And that’s partly due to the traditional Mongolian culture that’s influenced that part of the country. Whereas if you go to like Central China, where Sichuan province and Hunan province are, as you are probably familiar, there’s a lot of spicy food that comes out of that region. And that actually relates to the humidity of the weather, because it’s believed that when you eat spicier food and you sweat, that helps to kind of combat the humidity. So it was just really interesting to learn about just how diverse the country and the food are

 

Angela Tuell  05:27

What’s the most interesting thing you ate? The one that always

 

Megan Zhang 05:31

The one that always sticks out to me is this dish called Harry tofu, which I know doesn’t sound the most appetizing, but it’s actually a delicacy, especially in Anway Province, which is in eastern China. So the tofu goes through this fermentation process, which causes this sort of fuzz to grow on them. It’s a really painstaking process to make and involves a lot of different steps, soaking and pressing, and filtering the tofu. And what results is this really, really complex flavor. It’s a little pungent, a little earthy, kind of cheesy. It reminds me a little bit of blue cheese, actually. And I think it tastes really great with just a plain bowl of rice and some clean vegetables on the side. But it’s just it’s a really memorable dish. I haven’t had it since I went to a province that one time,

 

Angela Tuell  06:24

I was gonna say, are you able to find it in the US at all?

 

Megan Zhang 06:27

I haven’t really tried. But I imagine you probably could. And maybe a restaurant or an Eastern Chinese-style restaurant. But I haven’t seen any menus yet. So if anybody listening knows where to find it, I would be curious to know

 

Angela Tuell  06:43

Yes, let you know. So what drew you away from TV, is that role in TV as well as into print writing,

 

Megan Zhang 06:51

The pandemic definitely kind of kicks things off, I was quarantining with my parents back home in California. And with all the uncertainty of what was happening in China, at the time, I was just, you know, just thought I would stay on in California for a little bit longer. At that time, working on the travel show in China had sort of already opened my eyes to food as so much more than just sustenance, but something that really tells a story of a place and of the people who live in that place. So in many ways, I feel like for me, the pandemic ended up bringing about the space and time to, I guess think about that more deeply. Another contributing factor was definitely the fact that I was living at home with my parents for the first time in my adult life. And we were eating all three meals together every day, we were cooking more than we ever had together. And a lot of the cooking we were doing was traditional Chinese dishes that we maybe had never attempted at home before. And we talked about our experiences eating those dishes in China. And so I think all of those things sort of just created the conditions for me to start writing and reporting on food in a more intentional way, I guess.

 

Angela Tuell  08:10

Yeah. Isn’t it amazing what God has come from some of the things we had to go through as well? I mean, that experience you would have never had with your parents to and in the cooking there with them, you know?

 

Megan Zhang 08:23

Yeah, I think it really is just like shook up our daily existence. Right? It just shook up the reality of what we’ve become accustomed to. And yeah, it’s, it really put me on a different life path, I think, in a way.

 

Angela Tuell  08:38

Yes. In the path. You are currently the senior culture editor for Savar. Please tell us more about that role.

 

Megan Zhang 08:46

Yeah, I do a lot of writing for the culture vertical, which is mostly, um, long-form features, exploring the different ways in which food intersects with other aspects of society like environment and identity and history. And we also commission, some lovely freelance writers on occasion to contribute stories as well. I know you

 

Angela Tuell  09:09

launched a travel column for them called Rise and dine that hops around the globe exploring the history and culture surrounding breakfast traditions. What have been some of your adventures with this?

 

Megan Zhang 09:20

I think breakfast is often the best meal of the day. But I don’t always prioritize it as much as I wish I did. But I feel like when you start your day on a nourished note, you’re kind of setting yourself up for success, right? At least that’s how I try to think about it. Through my travels, I just became fascinated by how much you can learn about a culture based on what breakfasts are popular because the range of possibilities for breakfast tends to be a little smaller than a meal like lunch or dinner, because breakfast is often about convenience, right and quickness, and that can look different depending on where you are in the world. So somewhere like Singapore or Malaysia convenience might be The Kaya Toast which I wrote about for the column. It’s this really fragrant and super decadent coconut spread that basically gets smeared on toasted bread in Senegal, which I had the chance to travel to recently, there’s a really popular street food breakfast called in Bombay, which is a black IP stew. It originated as a humble dinner dish until street vendors started offering it on baguettes as a grab-and-go portable breakfast. But that, of course, reflects Senegal’s history as a French colony. And so anywhere I travel now I’m just always looking to experience as much of the breakfast culture as I can because there’s so there’s so many cool dishes to try.

 

Angela Tuell  10:44

Yes, I love that. And that’s not the only newsletter you do for Savar. Right?

 

Megan Zhang 10:49

Yeah, so that’s the column I write that appears on the site. But I also write a newsletter called With Relish, which goes out every Monday. And that kind of sums up our latest stories from the culture vertical, our latest and greatest feature stories, and just kind of keeps our readers abreast of what we’re most proud of, and the new stories that we’re putting out,

 

Angela Tuell  11:12

We’ll make sure to include a link so our listeners can sign up to make sure they’re receiving that. I love how Savar isn’t just about food, it really combines food with culture, as you had mentioned, and the stories of culinary traditions. What do you like most about the publication?

 

Megan Zhang 11:29

I really agree with that. I love that server, contextualizes this food, our writers around the world, , through their reporting really elucidate not just what different cultures and countries eat, but also why the people cook it that way, and how the dish evolved to be that way. And oftentimes how it’s still evolving. And I really appreciate the respect that subvert tries to give different cultures. I think as a publication, we really want to give the microphone and the platform to the local people who are sustaining these traditions. And we as a journalist are sort of just the ones shining the light on it. But I really appreciate that about the server.

 

Angela Tuell  12:14

Yes, what are some of the most interesting or creative stories you’ve done? I’m not sure how

 

Megan Zhang 12:19

creative it is necessarily, but I wrote an essay for Risin Dyne, a few months back about why in and out often ends up being breakfast for me just tying it into the breakfast theme, because I grew up in California. And so I feel like I have this kind of nostalgic attachment in and out. And I wrote an essay about how just over the course of my college years and early adulthood, in and out became more and more entrenched in my mind as this symbol of home. So that was a really fun one to write. Recently, I also wrote about a new wine shop in Manhattan that’s built around this really strong ethos of inclusivity and accessibility. And that translates into the diversity of the inventory, the makers behind the inventory, and also the physical accessibility of the brick-and-mortar shop, which is in midtown Manhattan. And I just thought it was so interesting how the shop is really trying to raise the standard for what inclusivity can and should mean in the hospitality space, specifically in wine. And it was a real privilege to be able to report on that one. I really enjoyed it.

 

Angela Tuell  13:30

Oh, I love that I have to read that. Anything you’ve learned that you’ve taken back to your personal kitchen?

 

Megan Zhang 13:37

Oh, definitely so many things. I think lately, something I’ve been thinking about a lot is how a lot of the chefs I’ve interviewed lately, really encourage and adopt this mentality of cooking food that reflects all the different sides of you. I wrote about this new yoshoku restaurant in New York City recently. So yoshoku refers to a Western-influenced category of Japanese cuisine. And the chef behind it, is half Ukrainian, half Taiwanese, and his grandmother is Japanese. And he lives in New York now. So he created this bacon egg and cheese Okonomiyaki dish, which I thought was so fun, and he really sees the dish as something that honors and celebrates just how multifaceted his cultural background and his family are, which I really enjoyed making the dish based on his recipe and, and writing about it. Another person that comes to mind is Frankie Guy. He’s a cookbook author, who recently released his debut book called First Generation which is just a beautiful, beautiful volume. And he filled it with recipes like rice cake, and Bolognese A, which reflects his Taiwanese heritage, but also his upbringing in the Midwest being inspired by Marcela Hassan and yeah, just totally unexpected, but just a really a really creative recipe. And I think we’ve been lucky enough to have had beautiful and varied cultural influences in our lives that inspire us to create new things, and that should be embraced and expressed in the kitchen. And so that’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot and definitely, a mentality I’m trying to embody a little bit more.

 

Angela Tuell  15:22

Yes, it takes it to a whole other level when you know, the history and what’s going into the food, you know, the culture and the love and, and all of that to bring it together, it puts a whole other level into, you know, enjoying a meal. Definitely, absolutely,

 

Megan Zhang 15:38

Yeah, and food is constantly evolving and changing alongside the people who are making it. And I think that’s one of the things about food that just is like endlessly fascinating to me just how it shifts, you know, and evolves over time.

 

Angela Tuell  15:54

You’re also a contributing journalist for many other top-tier outlets. Who are you currently writing for?

 

Megan Zhang 15:59

I recently contributed a feature to the cut, it was about the potential for psychedelic therapy, particularly psilocybin or magic mushrooms to help treat eating disorders. And this is an area of research that’s definitely still really nascent in its very early stages. But it means a lot to me and really captured my interest, and I wanted to explore it further. And I wound up meeting, a young teenager who had found a lot of healing through psilocybin to help her eating disorder. So I ended up telling that story through her lens. And it was just really, really fascinating to dive into that emerging area of research. I’m also in the midst of working on a couple of stories for BBC Travel, the editors, they’re always just so lovely to work with, I always learn so much from them. And I’m a really, really a big fan of the stories they produce. I think they just really transport you to different parts of the world and educate you on so many unexpected aspects of the intersection of food and culture. So I really love BBC Travel and read them constantly,

 

Angela Tuell  17:07

You are so fascinating to listen to. The story is I mean, the way the angles from the culinary aspect are just fascinating, and makes me want to jump in and start reading all of them. I have to ask before we go, I’d love to know what is your favorite food or types of food, and any advice you’d like to give when it comes to culinary traditions or experiences. Hmm, I would say

 

Megan Zhang 17:33

that a theme that seems to emerge and my favorite dishes is that they’re really saucy. I really like saucy dishes. So any stew braise or curry is definitely up my alley. I think my most recent favorite might be a dish called ma fe, which is a peanut-based stew that is commonly made in Senegal. And I enjoyed that dish so much when I was traveling there recently. And then I found a recipe from the chef Pierre CEMB. And I tried recreating it in my own kitchen and I think it came out okay, I’ll let Pierre be the judge. But it was just it was so delicious. So that’s definitely something I’m going to be adding to my regular rotation. I also really appreciate desserts. I definitely have a sweet tooth and I love a good fudgy cake. I think I tend to gravitate more toward decadent desserts than fluffy or, or airy things. Although there’s definitely a place for that too. And of appreciation for those as well. Yeah, I would say when it comes to culinary experiences, I would just say to try everything you know, be curious about the food traditions of cultures you might not be familiar with, and know that it’s okay to ask questions and to want to learn. Food is just super approachable and accessible. And I think it’s a really great way to get to know different cultures a little bit better. And it’s meant to be shared and meant to be enjoyed and talked about. So anywhere you travel or any restaurant you might go to just go in with a really open mind and hopefully a curious palate.

 

Angela Tuell  19:17

That is excellent advice. how can listeners connect with you online?

 

Megan Zhang 19:22

I’m in all the usual places, mostly Instagram and LinkedIn. But I dabble in Twitter and Facebook as well. And I try to keep my online portfolio up to date. So any of those places I’d love to connect with people.

 

Angela Tuell  19:35

Wonderful. Thank you so much, Megan.

 

Megan Zhang 19:37

Oh, of course. Thank you so much for having me. Angelo. So nice to talk to you.

 

Angela Tuell  19:42

That’s all for this episode of Medium Minutes, a podcast by Communications Redefined. Please take a moment to rate review and subscribe to our show. We’d love to hear what you think. You can find more at communications redefined.com/podcast I’m your host, Angela Tuell. Talk to you next time.

Listen as Megan shares how a coincidental trip to California to visit for the Lunar New Year holiday right before the pandemic led to extended time at home with family sharing cultural cuisine.  This time stoked the flame of an insatiable curiosity to explore the connections between culture, identity and cuisine.  Listen as Megan explores how food is more than sustenance and her intrigue with breakfasts worldwide.   

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