Tiniest Thai Talks To // Shaun Naen

Chef Shaun Naen (known as 'Happy Chef') now lives and works in Gloucestershire - one of the prettiest counties in the UK - but trained in Paris and is originally from Borneo, where he was born in Kuching, Sarawak to a Bidahya (Land Dayak) father and a Chinese mother.

This combination of global influences plus of course his amazing-looking food intrigued me when I started following him around social media (you coudn't expect me to resist photos of that food!) - and I'm so pleased he agreed to this Q&A so I could find out more ...

And not only did he agree to answer my questions, but shared a recipe too, and here it is - Shaun's mother's recipe for Borneo Coconut Chicken Curry. To be honest the combination of those words had me salivating before I'd even read - let alone cooked, or eaten - the recipe.  

I'd asked him to share a recipe for a dish that had special meaning for him, and the one he chose is the dish his mother cooked for special occasions.

Since I left home, I miss my mother and her cooking very much. When I first cooked this it reminded me so much of home I felt quite overwhelmed’
— Shaun Naen

I'm really grateful to him for sharing this recipe; it's a privilege to have people share food that means so much to them.  I made it yesterday for the first time - and it's going to become a special occasion dish in this house too.  Do try it - and I'd love to know what you think.

But for now ... let's get straight into the Q's and - more importantly - the A's ...

(And here's a map showing the island of Borneo - the third largest island in the world - in case anyone else is as bad at geography as me).


What's the staple diet in Borneo - what are the everyday foods? 

Rice is our staple food!  

Meals consist of vegetables, seafood and meat (poultry and pork). In my younger days, my mum would take us out into the forest foraging for wild vegetables, such as wild fern and bamboo shoots. There is such a variety of wild vegetables - you really have to be there to appreciate it. 

What would a typical day's eating look like?

For breakfast, sometimes we have fried rice with fried crispy anchovies and spicy sambal or rice congee. 

Lunch would be steamed rice, some kind of soup (spicy seafood, wild vegetable or sometime non-spicy meat, depending on my mum’s moodJ), fried whole fish, including the head, and sautéed wild vegetable with sambal. 

Dinner is similar to lunch, maybe an additional meat dish, like chicken curry, stir fried pork with soya sauce and ginger or pot roast whole duck in five spices, and depending on the occasion or celebration.

What's a really traditional Borneo speciality? 

Laksa is the most famous dish in Borneo.

Borneo laksa - Shaun Naen

What are the common ingredients used that are harder to get here?

Screw pine leaves (pandan), galangal, blachan (shrimp paste) - and don’t forget the must-have chillies!

from borneo to gloucestershire ... how did that happen?

I just love travelling and Confucius said the world is your oyster so I went!

Gloucestershire is similar to my home town, lots of green, quiet and open space! 

(Note: I'm not sure about this at all ... but I definitely want to visit Borneo and now have it in mind that it'll be like Gloucestershire!).

 I see you trained in Paris. What was that experience like?

I went to L'ecole Lenotre in Paris, one of the best cookery schools in Europe.  I was awarded a scholarship through work.  I did the Pastry course - it was very challenging for me, and my French wasn’t that good, but I got by.

have you always been interested in food & cooking - Did you always want to be a chef?  

YES! I love my job, food, eating ... and cooking.    

What is it you like most about cooking?

Cooking and food is how I can be close to my mum and the memory of my grandmother.

 What sort of food do you cook where you work now? 

I cook oriental food but at work European currently comes first, because of my job (teaching) at Gloucestershire College.

 What are your favourite ingredients to use?

Garlic, shallots, ginger, chillies, sambal and garlangal.

Garlic - Shaun Naen

 What sort of things do you like to cook for yourself?

That depends on my mood, I am very adventurous with food. 

But I could cook and eat Laksa every day! 

What's the best meal you've ever had?

I am stuck with this question! I just love food. Oh yes, I remember! 

I was away in Borneo for six weeks last year and even though the food in Borneo was as amazing as always, I was missing all my traditional British foods. 

When I came back I went straight to a fish and chip shop to get a large portion of cod & chips with lots of salt, vinegar and my home-made chilli and lime sauce.

fish and chips Shaun Naen

 What are you working on next?

My dream would be to eat all around the world!

(Yep, mine too!)

 what are a few of your favourite things? 

I love a good gathering and have a good cookout with my family and friends.

Noodles Shaun Naem
Honeycomb cake Shaun Naen

All these gorgeous photos are from Shaun's FB page.  So if you want to see more of his delicious food, you can connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

And if he's not completely sick of my asking questions ... I really want to make an authentic sambal now so am going to be asking him for a recipe! 

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