EARLIER THIS MONTH, Moonlynn Tsai, co-owner and operator of the Malaysian cafe Kopitiam, in Manhattan’s Chinatown, achieved a major milestone. The Heart of Dinner #LovingChinatown initiative that she launched with her romantic partner, Yin Chang, at the beginning of April exceeded its goal of donating 20,000 meals a week to homebound Chinese seniors across three boroughs of New York City.
Ms. Tsai spends her day off at the organization’s temporary headquarters. The rest of the week, you’ll find her nearby, at the restaurant or prepping for clients who hire her as a private chef. This has become her schedule since the pandemic hit; it’s kept her busier than ever and leaves her without time to cook at home every night as she did before. “I’ve actually never ordered delivery as much as I do now,” she said when we caught up with her over the phone. She somehow found the time to talk about what went on in her kitchen B.C. (Before Covid) and her stash of ingredients that make everything taste better.
My cooking mentors are: my mom and my grandma. My mom’s so great about using the minimum of ingredients to come up with a very, very aromatic, flavorful dish. She makes her own variations on a lot of very traditional Taiwanese meals. Also she is very much into traditional Chinese medicine, so I learned a lot about that from her. Then my grandma is hands-down the best cook I’ve ever met. The market plays a really big part in her cooking. She lives across the street from an open-air market in Taiwan, so when we used to visit her for months at a time she would go to the market for every single meal and see which stall had the best pork, best eggs and whatnot. Each meal was, like, nine courses, but she was so fast.
The most important piece of kitchen wisdom I ever received was: from my mom. She said, “You don’t have to use 10,000 ingredients for a dish.” You can let the produce shine, the meat shine, using the least amount to make that happen. It’s really carried on through my cooking style.
My refrigerator is always stocked with: natto (Japanese fermented soybeans). Have you heard of NYrture New York Natto? It’s amazing, and I like that it’s not frozen and it’s handmade in Brooklyn. I’m obsessed with yuzu too. I have this yuzu kosho [condiment] and also a straight-up yuzu juice I love drizzling in everything. And lotus bulbs: It’s a very neutral flavor, but this ingredient is very good for diabetes and insomnia. The bulbs usually come dehydrated, so you just rehydrate them and sauté with a little bit of garlic. Right now, in my freezer I have 6 pints of the Oolong Milk Tea ice cream, my collaboration with [plant-based ice cream brand] Eclipse. It’s a fairly new company, doing a limited-edition series for charity, and they heard about Heart of Dinner. They asked me if I would like to collaborate with their ice cream maker in San Francisco. It’s so good it makes me forget it’s not real ice cream.