Those with a sweet tooth cannot fail to recognise Helen Goh’s name — or at least own a copy of Sweet, her bestselling baking and desserts cookbook co-authored with friend and long-time collaborator and culinary superstar Yotam Ottolenghi. Malaysian-born but Melbourne-raised, Goh now resides in London’s Shepherd’s Bush, where she shares a beautiful home with her husband and two boys.
“I’ve been here 16 years already and people somehow still think I’m based in Australia,” she laughs. An accidental baking sensation, Goh’s education and career path included a psychology degree and doctorate as well as a stint as a pharmaceutical sales rep before the culinary clarion call proved infinitely stronger. “I grew up all too aware of the sacrifices my parents made, moving to Australia for our education and all. It was never explicitly said how I had to be a lawyer, doctor or engineer but I felt keenly that I wanted to make them proud and feel their sacrifices had been worth it.”
It was after moving to London to be with her husband, and while waiting for her British registration so she could continue her psychology practice, that Goh chanced upon Ottolenghi’s eponymous deli — his original flagship in Notting Hill, to be precise. “It was my husband who told me to go there, saying they have really nice things. And when I stepped in, I loved how it had an Aladdin’s Cave of treats feel, which I was very attracted to. So I wrote in, wanting to maybe just work part-time and learn how to make their incredible salads. Literally just under an hour later, Yotam himself rings me. We met for a coffee, hit it off and somehow never stopped talking.”
Talking soon led to writing and Sweet would go on to be Ottolenghi’s seventh — and Goh’s debut — successful cookbook. She is currently in the midst of another literary collaboration — this time, with a more savoury slant, focusing on the foods that give her comfort. “There will be a lot of Asian flavours in it as the focus will be on dishes inspired by the food my mum cooked at home for us. But of course, because it’s an Ottolenghi cookbook, all the recipes will feature a twist, an innovation. Take the steamed eggs recipe. My childhood version always had mince in it but we decided to experiment using brown shrimp, with a drizzle of soy and vinegar ... and it works! The challenge for me lies in generally not wanting to meddle about with the flavours I grew up with, all of which are evocative of the country of my birth, my childhood memories.” Her legion of fans will, sadly, have to wait for this as publication is only scheduled for 2024.
Until then, a holiday to Malaysia is on the cards, Langkawi in particular. “You know, soon after we met, I brought Yotam to Malaysia with me and completely inducted him. It was his first visit and he loved it all, especially the street food. Now, you make me want to have Malaysian food for dinner, talking about food like this,” she laughs. For those curious to know where Goh might head to for said dinner, she generously shares Putera Puteri’s name as her go-to restaurant. “It’s in Queensway, which is convenient. Sambal Shiok Laksa Bar is good too and I really like [its founder] Mandy Yin, but it’s just a little far for me.”
And when asked what sparked the immediate chemistry that led to Goh’s long-term professional and personal partnership with the iconic chef-restaurateur — Ottolenghi is practically chosen family now and also godfather to her sons — she mulls for a moment before answering: “Yotam is very guided by truth. Also, neither of us likes the idea of frou-frou ... or the pretence of buttercreams and the kind of food that seduces you with its looks but disappoints from the first bite. We like and want real food; food that is good, simple and honest.” Sounds just like them too, wouldn’t you say?
This article first appeared in The Edge's London special issue on Oct 10, 2022.