Lenny Dewi of @eats_n_noods Is the Octopus Lady
“A bowl of noodles a day will keep the doctor away”
Lenny Dewi stays very busy to keep herself grounded during the chaos of 2020. When she's not working as a cardiac nurse, she volunteers with the Williamson County COVID-19 call center as part of the emergency reserve corps and runs the popular Instagram account @eats_n_noods, which focuses on Asian food. Before the pandemic, Dewi would feature tiny mom-and-pop restaurants, and while she still does that via takeout, she's also ramped up her home cooking videos and tutorials for all types of Asian cuisines, with a special focus on classic and traditional dishes. And noodles, so many noodles.
Her Instagram highlight reel features how-tos on dishes from her youth in Indonesia and Singapore, like spiced fried duck with sambal dabu dabu or black pepper crab, in addition to dishes from a rainbow of cuisines: Burmese fish noodle soup; Filipino eggplant omelette; Vietnamese savory crepes; Taiwanese popcorn chicken. She shares tips on condiments and tons of info on dumplings, from shumai filling to pan-fried five-spice pork-and-chive dumplings. She's a wealth of insider info, mentioning new places like the upcoming tea room at Xiang Yun Temple, which will feature preorder vegan Chinese food, and the House of Three Gorges, recently added at the Hong Kong supermarket shopping center, serving takeout Sichuan. (And speaking of dumplings, Dewi just collaborated with Austin Food Adventures and Seoulju Korean Kitchen, who just earned Austin Monthly's title of Best Fried Chicken in Austin, to make over 700 handmade dumplings to raise money for Austin Justice Coalition.)
At first, as an avid cook and big fan of dining out in the local scene, her Instagram account (which we awarded with a BOA last year) focused on food in general, but it didn't take long to find her calling: "After a few months, I was like, 'I'm only going out to eat where everybody else goes,' and I was bored. I wanted to eat what I really love, my favorite foods, so I started to just focus on Asian food and it changed [everything]."
Born in Indonesia to a Chinese father and Indonesian mother, trying new foods and sharing meals with loved ones was a cherished part of Dewi's life from the beginning. "My dad loves to eat, and Indonesian food is generally cheap, so we'd eat out pretty often. He loves street food and in Indonesia there is plenty of seafood. I remember my dad cracking open the shells and peeling and giving us the meat – I mean, he has five kids, but he made sure that everybody got to taste. So going out to eat was just part of my family." Dewi explained that there is a lot of Southern Chinese food there, as a result of families fleeing communism, which was her first introduction into the endless possibilities of the large umbrella known as Asian food.
At 8 years old, Dewi and her brother moved to Singapore for school and lived with their grandmother, a common practice at the time. In addition to learning English and Mandarin, Dewi furthered her education on food. "My grandmother actually cooked a lot at home – she's very traditional: 'You need to eat at home; you need to save money,' all those things. So in Singapore I was exposed to a lot of types of food." And at 16, her life changed again when she joined her brother in Iowa, of all places, to finish the one class she needed to finish high school thanks to Singapore's advanced education system.
"He asked me to come here, and I was like, 'The American dream? Of course I want to go!' But when I first came, I was in culture shock! I grew up in a big metropolitan city (almost like New York City), and when I got to Iowa, it was not what I envisioned America to be like. I was thinking there would be hills – like in 90210, which I watched on TV. But [mostly], I really didn't like the food there. I tried! I just wasn't used to a lot of casseroles. I wanted seafood and the only type of seafood was shrimp with cocktail sauce and all the shrimp were already cooked. Even at the grocery store it was hard to find. I didn't even know anybody that ate fish there – it was hard. Maybe it's different now, that was 2001, but there was a lot of pork and casseroles."
The small-town hobbies weren't really her speed either: "I didn't like the snow, and I'm not into baking bread on the weekend like my host family was. I'm not into making jams," she laughed.
Debating on where to move for college, she had her priorities set when she asked her friend living in Austin about the city: "The first thing I asked was, 'Does it snow there?' 'No.' 'Do people eat seafood?' 'Yes.' 'Do they eat rice?' 'Yes.' So I moved here!" And since 2002, she's watched the Asian restaurant scene grow exponentially, branching out from the large Vietnamese community to include more Thai, some Chinese, even Laotian and Filipino food. The word-of-mouth network is a huge source of her local food news and how she's in the know about spots so small they don't even operate a website. That's where @eats_n_noods come in: "I want to show everybody that there are more Asian food places in Austin that you might not know."
Before graduating ACC with her nursing degree, she worked at Coco's Cafe from 2002 to 2007 at all three locations (and she also worked at Wong Fu). "That was the place to go back then, other than 888. We were open 'til 4am and that's where people came after Sixth Street. If you worked at Coco's, you met the whole Asian community in Austin. I'd go out and someone would say, 'You're that Coco's girl,' because at that time, Coco's at Research and Din Ho and the supermarket – that was the hub on Sunday."
It was that envelopment into the larger Asian food scene that brought together the two sides of her background – dining out and home cooking. "I was missing my home food, so I had to cook it. And at that time, there weren't many Asian restaurants, so I had to learn if I wanted to eat it." Dewi's large community has also shaped her growing Instagram account – from her 15-year friendship with Thai Changthong, acclaimed chef at Thai Kun, to her friend Quinn, now a macaron aficionado, who taught her the ropes of Vietnamese fare. "She grew up here and knows the Vietnamese community here, so she's my expert – I'll ask her about something and she says, 'Oh, you can't get that here, but so-and-so's mom makes it.' And she'll explain Northern pho [versus] Southern pho. Or for bánh mì, this pâté is better because northern Vietnam has more French influence. So I get info from friends.
"I'm here to help show people other places to eat. And show people that Asian food is not just fried rice – there's a lot more to it," Dewi said. "Sometimes I post things like blood or pig intestines – I want people to have more exposure and not be disgusted. I hope that the more people see it, the more they think it's pretty normal."
Often that means demonstrating new ways to cook beef shanks or tripe (hint: longer braising time is key) for this mostly self-taught cook, and she's here to help others, even FaceTiming with individual followers to teach them how to make dumplings. And like most lovers of food, one of her favorite pastimes is shopping for ingredients, without a list. "Most of the time, I guess my refrigerator dictates what I make for the day, and that's why my pantry is embarrassingly full.
"Before [the] pandemic I went to all of the Asian stores. It's crazy. It's almost like that's how I spend my time – I don't know if that's a good thing or a sad thing – but on my day off I just love to browse." Dewi mentioned MT Supermarket for Southeast Asian, Thai, and Vietnamese ingredients; Ranch 99 for Chinese; H Mart for Korean and Japanese items. But one of her favorites is the H-E-B near her home around the border of Round Rock and Hutto. "They know me as the octopus lady because I'm the only one who asks for it [behind the counter, frozen]. H-E-B is really good at trying to find things for you. They have the L.A.-style kalbi, the Korean short rib cut, they have chicken feet, quail, duck, intestines to make your own sausage, and more variety of whole fish."
When asked about her main focus, Dewi said it's not so much one type of cuisine over another, but rather, she's trying to fill a gap in Austin's coverage of traditional Asian fare. "I'm definitely not against fusion food, I just want to bring more focus to traditional food because I think Austin is always well known for their Asian fusion, and not so much [for] the classics."
Dewi attributes some of that mentality to the growing population of California and New York transplants who grew up eating in places like San Francisco's famed Chinatown. "They are looking for traditional foods and can't find them because the blogs and websites on where to eat in Austin show them more fusion, and that's not what they're looking for. And I'm not talking about just Asian people, it's even non-Asian people, depending on where they grew up. I think the traditional foods will not survive here without them – like Thai food, you [couldn't] find really spicy Thai food, how it usually tastes when they serve their families – and now you can." (By the way, for traditional Indonesian menus around town, Dewi recommends two spots: Twin Panda on Parmer, but you have to specifically request the Indonesian menu, and Eurasia in Oak Hill.)
Part of it stems from restaurants "Americanizing" dishes just to get people in the door. "Over here, if you don't have something with tacos – if you don't have bulgogi in a taco – nobody is gonna come," she laughed. "So I wanna focus on that and bring back the classic and traditional dishes so more people are aware."
Even more, sharing her love of food and building community on Instagram offers respite in this crazy world. "Food helps me distract myself from everything going on," said Dewi. And thanks to @eats_n_noods, that feeling is more than mutual.
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