Leah Mennies is a seasoned food enthusiast and accomplished journalist. Having graced the pages of The Improper Bostonian, The Boston Globe, Blackbookmag.com and NBC’s The Feast website, her quirky charm is now served fresh in Boston Magazine. In this month’s issue, articles such as “How to Eat A Soup Dumpling,” and “Umami Rising” act as an honest and comprehensive guide to Boston’s Asian food scene.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Mennies about food, etiquette, and her recent Greater Boston pan-Asian food guides.
Warning: This interview may increase appetite!
Q: Trying different food can be intimidating, be it mom’s meatloaf or veggie lasagna. What advice/ strategy do you suggest to foodies who are exploring new food groups and market places for the first time?
A: The first thing I would suggest is to try to remove any perceived pressure from the situation—what’s the worst that can happen if you order something unfamiliar? That you won’t like it, and you’ll learn from that. Best case, though, you’ll open your eyes to something fantastic that you otherwise would never have tried. In terms of markets, it can be easier to try and tackle a certain segment at each visit, and don’t over-purchase. Maybe one time you’ll find a couple of interesting teas, or interesting snacks, or maybe types of produce that seem unfamiliar. Over time, you will have broadened your repertoire in small increments.
Q: What dish would you suggest to someone with a food allergy i.e. Gluten, Lactose, etc. who is interested in sampling Asian cuisine?
A: Most Asian cuisine is lactose-free in nature. I would just be careful with dessert items like green tea ice creams, milk-based bubble teas, and anything containing condensed milk (Vietnamese coffee, Thai iced tea, and some Taiwanese-style pastries use this). Gluten-free diners have a more challenging road ahead of them in terms of the more off-the-beaten path type places with language barriers, though I would say sticking to non-battered items and rice dishes would be a smart way to go. In terms of noodles, look out for ones made with rice or sweet potatoes (like Korean jap chae) instead of wheat. One place where you can be sure no matter what? Myers + Chang in the South End, where there’s a clearly delineated gluten-free menu.
Q: Looking at your pictures from the Asian markets and restaurants, it is clear that often times the menu and or packaging is either in a different language or contains unfamiliar ingredients. What is your most memorable experience or “risk” with a totally unfamiliar dish or market bought item?
A: The menus at the restaurants we covered actually were pretty transparent in terms of the ingredients in the dishes that were available—and at Asian markets, the unusual meats and fishes are visible through the packaging. One thing was a surprise each time, though, was the degree of spice to be expected. At Thai restaurant S&I to Go in Allston, for example, we figured that a “two chili pepper” rating (out of five) meant that it would be medium-to-hot, spice-wise. Instead, this level provided an insanely intense level of heat. Just be prepared to sweat if you’re going to ask for spice!
Q: Why did you decide to explore Boston’s Asian food scene?
A: I’d had it in my mind to do a Chinatown Guide for a long time, but I also started noticing over the past couple of years that Asian ingredients and dishes—pork belly buns, potstickers, shishito peppers, ramen—have started showing up on both casual and fine-dining menus all over town. And on a bigger scale, thanks to restaurants like those in David Chang’s Momofuku group and places like Pok Pok and Mission Chinese, we’re collectively becoming more and more hungry for this style of cooking.
Q: How did you discover the restaurants and market places that you discuss in your article? Is there an app that helps people to explore various cuisines and market places in Boston?
A: Old-fashioned research! I interviewed everyone I could find with authority on the matter, and ate at (at least one) different place each night for a couple months. It was an exhausting process but incredibly worth it, and I was fortunate enough to meet some really fascinating, knowledgeable people. No apps that I know of, though I would surely welcome one.
Q:Typically, what is the first thought that comes to mind while you are sampling something for the first time?
A: There’s a difference when I’m dining for research and dining for pleasure. When it’s for research, I take photos of the dishes (stealthily), and jot down anything that stands out on the notes app in my phone. I also do have a pretty photographic food memory, though, which certainly comes in handy.
Q:What is your prediction or understanding of the future of Boston’s Asian food scene?
A: I think that it’s only going to thrive more. I think that restaurateurs and chefs have realized that there are now diners here that are willing to try new things, and that get excited about dishes such as ramen, pork buns, and dumplings, and more unconventional ingredients like tripe or chicken feet. Several Asian restaurants are on the docket this year (Ming Tsai’s Blue Dragon just opened), and I expect to continue to hear about more openings—and additionally expect to see more and more people making the trek to neighborhoods like Allston or Chinatown for fantastic, value-driven eats.
Q:What was your first post-graduate career related job?
A: My first post-graduate job in my field was as Associate Editor for Thrillist Boston, where I was in charge of tracking restaurant openings. I then blogged full time about the Boston restaurant scene for an NBC website called The Feast, which is no longer around.
Q:When did you realize that you wanted to combine your desire to write with your interest in exploring food and culture?
A: I decided that that was the route I wanted to take during my senior year of high school. I have always loved writing, and always loved food and lifestyle topics. When I was filling out college applications, a light bulb went off.
Q:What was the first dish that you wrote about and why?
A: I’d have to do some digging to find *the* first dish, but one of my earliest posts as a young food writer was tracking down the best chocolate chip cookies in the Boston area for Boston University’s website BU Today. That was definitely a fun day of research, and I do consider myself a bit of a chocolate chip cookie connoisseur.
Check out full articles from the February issue of Boston Magazine here.