Hungarian ambassador of Asian gastronomy
Hungarians became aware of Li Mengyi’s name thanks to a highly watched show on one of the country’s leading television channels. The young Chinese lady completed the tasks with a skill that put experienced chefs to shame, finishing the televised competition in second place.
Hungarian ambassador of Asian gastronomy
Culture and Innovation

Hungarian ambassador of Asian gastronomy

Photo: András Éberling
György Szalma 20/03/2023 15:00

Hungarians became aware of Li Mengyi’s name thanks to a highly watched show on one of the country’s leading television channels. The young Chinese lady completed the tasks with a skill that put experienced chefs to shame, finishing the televised competition in second place. However, Li Mengyi’s story is much more exciting and twisty than what viewers have come to know so far. We asked her personally: how did a child of Chinese immigrants become a successful businesswoman and then a nationally renowned gourmet guru?

- Tell us about your family! Why did you choose Hungary as your home?

- My father came to Hungary in the early nineties, and started working as a cook in the Chinese restaurant of a friend in Tata. He had originally planned to return to China after a year or two. In the meantime, he started to trade here, and as time went by, he felt he had found his place in the world, so they decided with my mother that the family will follow him to Hungary. I was nine years old at the time.

- How did you experience the move?

- Back then, a Chinese family was still a curiosity in Hungary, especially in a small-sized town like Tata. Sometimes they pointed fingers or said hurtful things to us. But even then, the majority of people were already loving towards us. When we arrived in Hungary, it was a summer break at school. My parents immediately hired a private tutor and I started learning Hungarian. And what a wonderful mind a child has, in September I was in the first class, but by the second semester I was in the third class because I already understood everything. I was doing so well that by the end of the fourth year I was an A student. In fact, I finished every year from fourth grade onwards with an A. I loved Hungarian grammar and literature so much that I regularly took part in school recitation and grammar competitions from the fifth grade onwards, and I also took part in the “Our Sweet Mother Tongue” competition, I loved it.

Building a career

- Somewhere I heard that Chinese parents who emigrate are trying to get their children to move up a level. What direction did the parental advice take you?

- My parents did not want me to be a trader, they wanted me to get a degree and build a career. However, this was not an imposition. I grew up in a loving atmosphere. My parents supported me in everything, as a child I had nothing to do but study. My dream was to get into Cambridge University or some other big institution so that my parents would be proud of me. This was one of the reasons why I decided to go to secondary school in England when I was sixteen.

- Still almost as a child, alone abroad, was it not difficult to break away from a supportive parental environment?

- I spent a month at a family in England, but I felt self-conscious, so I moved out to a rented flat instead. That’s when I really became independent. I cooked for myself and started working while I was at school. I kept it a secret from my parents, but I wanted to lighten their load. I used to tell them I was going to my friends’ house to study or play on weekends, but I was actually working as a cashier in a supermarket. I tried to save money, spending no more than £20 a week. If I got a good grade, I would treat myself to a fish and chips. I studied hard and after a year I was giving private Chinese lessons. Then the mother of one of my students offered me a job at a private school to teach Chinese to 12-year-olds in the afternoons. It gave me a huge boost that I saw I could build a career. The high school years passed like this. After graduation, I was accepted at Cardiff University. The Times magazine ranked it as the university with the strongest architecture faculty at the time. Although I received a scholarship, I worked all the time. In the course of my work, I sold TVs, software, face cream, sushi, or even gave people flyers while dressed in manga costume. I also did my Masters in Cardiff and spent my internship year in China. I got a job in a Chinese architectural firm, but I realised that I didn’t want to be an architect. I felt that it was not for me to work in an office all day, for tens of hours, while I was fulfilling someone else’s dream.

A desire to create

- You spent most of your life in Europe. What was it like to live in China again?

- It was not easy, in China there is much more competition, much more complex social stratification. As a student returning from Europe with a free mentality and free will, I found it difficult to fit in. I felt naive, I had to learn that many words have double meanings. I understood that, when a Chinese nods and says yes, when it means a real yes and when it means a polite no. I learned a lot in a year, and not just about architecture. In hindsight, I feel that I found my Chinese self.

- What brought you back to Hungary?

- An unexpected turn of events. At the age of twenty-three, I was offered a job as the director of the China section of the Hungarian National Trading House. I enjoyed the job very much, I was part of state delegations, we helped Hungarian companies to enter the Asian market. After a year, the whole of Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea became my territory. This was a great honour and a huge challenge. I worked hard, but sometimes I felt like I was not taken seriously. I was too young, I felt that I was considered pretty and smart, but I was not considered an equal partner. So after a while I started to consciously shape how I wanted myself to be seen. I communicated with my dress, my tone of voice, my body language. As my knowledge deepened, I felt respected by my colleagues in the Trading House and by my colleagues in the Foreign Office for always speaking my mind in a straightforward and firm manner. I was eccentric in a way, because I often did not follow the rules of the bureaucratic system. I wanted to create. In fact, this is the driving force of my life. I do not just want to coast along, I want to create something. I also left the Hungarian National Trading House because I felt that doing the job had become a routine. I was looking for a new challenge, so I started my own company. We are present in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Hong Kong, covering almost the whole of China. We help European companies to overcome intercultural difficulties, set up Chinese companies, manage their accounting, represent companies and find subcontractors for our clients.

Photo: András Éberling

The search for a challenge

- After such a rich career, the question is: why did you enter the television competition?

- My application for the show coincided with the birth of my daughter. I was going through a very sharp change in my life, from a very hectic lifestyle to one of complete calm. For my brain it was a huge stop. All day I was feeding, changing diapers and suffering from sleeplessness. When the opportunity came up, I decided to apply for the show. Of course, I talked to my family first, I did not want to do it without their support, but they know me well and saw that I needed the challenge.

- In the end, you came second, which is a huge achievement for someone who has suddenly jumped into this environment. Are you satisfied?

- It seemed like an interesting and exciting detour, I was in a competitive spirit, I wanted to win. I believe that all our tasks must be taken seriously. Despite this, I did not stress out, I was myself. I used the spices much more boldly than others. I heard back later that when they saw me in the audition from the gallery, how bravely I used the five spice, curry, red pepper, saffron, they didn’t think that my performance would end well. But I decided at the beginning of the competition that I would stick to my own style. And then at the end you wonder, did I really deserve this recognition? There’s a Chinese saying that goes something like this in English: you are surrounded by so much love and appreciation that your joy is mixed with a little fear. Do so many people really love me? I also felt the social burden of setting an example for others. There are too many superficial examples on social media nowadays, I want to convey my own values.

- Am I right in assuming that you actually founded your cooking skills during your school years in England?

- Yes, in high school I had to cook if I did not want to live on frozen food, it was the best way to save money. My parents opened a restaurant in Komárom. Before I went to England, my father taught me the basic techniques, the use of spices. Over time I further developed this knowledge, I loved experimenting with spices. And as a representative of the Hungarian National Trading House, I travelled South Asia several times, learning a lot about spices and gastronomy in general. I have been to 37 countries in my life, and wherever I have gone, I have tasted the local food, looked up the local spices and specialities. It has become something of a passion.

The art of cooking is mainly improvisation

- Mother of a family, businesswoman, chef. In which role are you most like yourself?

- My family comes first. I understand this role not only as a mother, but as a member of the family. I do everything for my family, so this cannot be put on an equal footing with my other roles, because those are only there to make things good for my family. And by my family I do not just mean my daughter and my husband, but also my parents and my husband’s parents.

- A Chinese friend of mine told me that in Chinese cuisine, it is not the recipe that is important, it is the Chinese way of preparing the food. Do you agree?

- There is truth in that. I never cook from a recipe. In fact, I also find it difficult to give the exact quantities when explaining a recipe. I cook by instinct, adding what and how much I think is appropriate at the time. After tasting, I decide whether or not I need to add anything else to the dish. It is a slight exaggeration to say that there is no fixed recipe in Chinese cuisine. China is a huge country, there are many ways to prepare all kinds of food and they are all great. The flavours are much stronger in the north, much softer in the south, and in Sichuan everything is terribly spicy. Of course, you need a guideline to show you what ingredients are needed for a particular dish, but I think that to a certain extent, cooking is mostly improvisation. Yet in a Chinese restaurant, the chef measures out the ingredients to the gram, but the home-style cooking is based on improvisation.

In a circle around the table

- Somewhere I read that gastronomy plays a very important role in Chinese culture. What does this mean in everyday life?

- In China, when two people meet, they ask each other, “Have you already eaten?” This is the Chinese equivalent of “how are you”. Gatherings of family or friends are not about drinking, but about gathering around a circular table to eat and drink together. When I was a child, my father always rewarded me by cooking something special. When I introduced my husband to him, he welcomed him by cooking him a full table of food.

- There are several Chinese restaurants in Budapest that serve authentic Chinese food. How do you see these restaurants, how much do they reflect the flavours of real Chinese cuisine?

- There are many great Chinese restaurants in Budapest, especially around Chinatown. My family and I regularly visit some of these restaurants. Hungarian people are also increasingly open to Asian cuisine. I am proud to be an ambassador of Asian cuisine. Since my TV appearance, I’ve also been cooking regularly on Street Kitchen’s YouTube channel, which is aimed at the general public. I use a lot of special spices in my dishes and I find that people like to try them. However, the fact that many ingredients are difficult to obtain undoubtedly complicates matters. In other words, it is easy to get them in the capital, a bit harder in the countryside. So I often recommend alternatives. However, there is no substitute for star anise. Chinese cooking wine is easier to substitute, beer or dry white wine will also do.

- Hungarian–Chinese fusion cuisine. Does it exist?

- I see similarities in many foods. The use of hot paprika is also a common point, and the texture of a Hungarian stew is almost exactly the same as a Chinese dish, just as pig’s ears are no stranger to the tastes of either nation. You can easily make Chinese-Hungarian fusion dishes. What I miss is that Hungarian households use few spices, and there is more than just salt and pepper. I also really like Hungarian food, my favourites are tripe stew, fish soup and layered potato. But at home I cook mainly Asian food, which is what also my husband prefers.

The author is a journalist

This article was originally published in our Hungarian-language magazine Eurázsia in 2022

Sichuan boiled fish (Shui Zhu Yu)

Sichuan boiled fish gets undeservedly little attention because it is supressed by the best-known Sichuan dishes - Mapo tofu, Kong Pao chicken and minced pork with garlic sauce. However, anyone who tries this spicy, hot speciality is sure to be impressed. However, it is worth knowing that it is one of the spiciest Chinese dishes, and its ’power’ comes from the combination of dried chilli, Sichuan chilli bean paste and chilli powder. For the best taste experience, fresh fish fillets are the most recommended.


  • 250 g skinless, boneless fish fillet (catfish, cod, sea bass, pangasius can all be used),
  • 1 pinch salt, 1 pinch white pepper,
  • 1 teaspoon Shaoxing rice wine,
  • 1 teaspoon corn starch,
  • ½ teaspoon cooking oil,
  • 15 dried chilli,
  • 2 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorn,
  • 1 teaspoon cooking oil,
  • 250 g celery, cut into thin strips – or bean sprouts,
  • 2 teaspoon cooking oil,
  • 2 clove garlic – minced,
  • 1 teaspoon ginger – minced,
  • 1 stalk spring onions – chopped,
  • 1.5 tablespoon Sichuan chilli bean paste,
  • 1 teaspoon chilli powder,
  • 400 ml hot water,
  • use chopped coriander for garnishing.



Slice the fish fillet diagonally. Marinate with salt, white pepper, rice wine and corn starch. In a wok (or a deep frying pan), fry dried chilli and Sichuan pepper in oil over a low heat until fragrant (do not burn them). Chop coarsely when cooled. Set aside. In the same wok, heat up oil over a medium heat, stir in celery. After about 1.5 minutes of stirring, the celery can be removed and set aside for a while.

Then heat up oil in the wok again and fry the garlic, ginger and spring onion. Add Sichuan chilli bean paste and chilli powder. Pour in water. Bring it to a full boil. Once the water is boiled, gently place the fish slices into the wok. When cooked, pour the fish and the soup onto the vegetable. It's quite simple.

Top the dish with fried spices and coriander. Serve immediately with plain rice.

Photo: iStock

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