Uncle Roger, YouTube’s culinary avenger for Asian food

One of the internet’s most-watched food critics isn’t a real person. He’s a character: Uncle Roger, a cantankerous avenger of culinary crimes, excoriating celebrity chefs who make Asian dishes incorrectly.

Uncle Roger is the creation of Nigel Ng, a Malaysian Chinese comedian who now lives in London. His YouTube channel has nearly half of a billion views. This success is largely owed to Uncle Roger’s comically unsparing words toward dishes like Jamie Oliver’s egg-fried rice or Rachel Ray’s phở. He addresses crimes of commission (frying rice in olive oil) and omission (failure to add MSG).

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The World’s Patrick Winn spoke with Nigel Ng about foodies, cultural appropriation and the universality of the grumpy uncle. Ng is currently on a stand-up comedy world tour in which he performs as Uncle Roger.

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Patrick Winn: Tell me about the role of food in your upbringing.

Nigel Ng: I grew up as a typical Malaysian. I didn’t go to international school or anything. I grew up middle class. In any Asian country, we have a pride about food. Every street corner, there’s a stall, a truck, hawker center, all hours of the day. Most are really good quality, meaning they actually taste good. We all have opinions about food, more so than people growing up in the West. I think in the West, going out to eat feels like an occasion, whereas going out to eat in Malaysia means going to some guy who set up an umbrella under a tree with a plastic table. We do it so much and develop strong opinions about food.

Who made your comfort food?

Grandma, but she passed away when I was quite young. My mom mostly. I think in most Asian households, mom is the queen of cooking. She made dinner most weeknights.

What is mom’s greatest hit?

Steamed fish. I miss that so much, man. With a little sauce, a plate of rice. And this other dish: bitter melon, bitter gourd, with some scrambled eggs. It’s so delicious and reminds me of home every time.

Why did you have this Uncle Roger character focus so heavily on food?

It was a coincidence. The first food review video Uncle Roger did was the BBC egg-fried rice video. That was sent by a fan of my old podcast. And I thought, holy cow, this is horrifically and hilariously wrong. It’ll make a great video. I already had the Uncle Roger character bubbling around. I thought, why don’t I combine this character with this YouTubey format: reaction videos. The moment that video went viral, I got sent so many other videos of people messing up fried rice. So, it became a thing. I couldn’t keep reviewing fried rice so I started branching out to other foods. I started looking at Thai green curry, ramen, basically any Western media organizations messing up Asian food.

Does Nigel share the opinions of Uncle Roger?

Yeah! Someone sent me Gordon Ramsey doing ramen, and I was watching it while doing a sketch show that I’m in. I was just watching it on lunch break, by myself, and other people could hear me going, “What? What?! Holy s***, what’s he doing?” So, I do share opinions with Uncle Roger. He packages up those opinions and makes it comical. But the core of it is true to what I think.

I want to ask about foodie culture in which non-Asian chefs often spotlight foods they might not understand, pulling them into the Western mainstream. When did you become aware of this?

When I left Malaysia, I came to the US for university. I realized a lot of dishes had this weird, Westernized rendition — all these tweaks and modifications that made it feel really foreign: bit sweeter, too much sauce, a lot of sugar, like, what’s happening here? It wasn’t until I was sent the BBC egg-fried rice video that I realized, oh, this is endemic in society. My fans kept sending other videos, other travesties.​​​ ​​In the West, making Asian in the “authentic” way — authentic in air quotes because that’s a loaded term — it’s just very hard to make it the way we make it in Asia. You’re not going to get ingredients like galangal at Walgreens. Chefs in the West, when they write cookbooks, the way to sell them is by making them accessible. They really have no incentive to make it authentic. You’d sell fewer cookbooks. People will open the book at Barnes and Noble and say, “Oh, I can’t find these ingredients. Screw this, I’ll buy something that’s simpler, made with ingredients at the grocery store in Chicago or London or wherever.” This is the reason there are so many abominations of Asian food. The economic structure gives no incentive towards making it traditional.

How knowledgeable are you about food?

Look, I’m not a chef. I’m a comedian. But I will first sit down with a chef over Zoom [before roasting a celebrity chef’s rendition of an Asian dish]. I’ll buy an hour of their time to talk about the dish with people who not only know the right ingredients but know the XYZ behind that ingredient. When you can substitute things, when you can’t. There’s a way to modify it for local tastes while still respecting the origination of it. Again, I specify that I’m a comedian. So please, just watch my videos for the entertainment factor. I’ll try my best to get the details right. I don’t have a whole team of researchers. But if I can get most of the details right, and I’m just one guy booking time with other chefs, then Jamie Oliver has no excuse.

I want to ask about this phrase “cultural appropriation.” Does that resonate with you at all? Or, as a comedian, does it feel too preachy?

Yeah, it’s too preachy. It just turns people off. Like, ugh, here we go again, another lecture.

But are you smuggling in these concepts through Uncle Roger?

Yeah, that’s what a good comic should do, right? Otherwise, it’s like getting up there and going, “Let’s talk about capitalism!” People will turn off. They’ll close the YouTube window. People don’t want a lecture, they want a good laugh. But of course, Uncle Roger touches on it. Every time Jamie Oliver makes a dish, Uncle Roger touches on cultural appropriation. To do it in a funny way, that takes skill. Anyone can write a blog or a tweet saying cultural appropriation is wrong. A lot of food “journalists” — again, air quotes on journalist — do this kind of thing. Very social justicey, buzzwordy. But to make it funny, that takes skill.

I hate to dissect your jokes, but what is the root thing about Jamie Oliver screwing up a dish that makes it so funny? Is it the overconfidence?

His overconfidence! His showiness. It’s so funny how wrong he is, just twirling the pan around like a circus performer. And so Western. He made a Thai green curry with three chilies. He made a Thai red curry with one chili. Everyone knows, the green comes from the chili. It’s supposed to be spicy. Using three is ridiculous, so misguided. The mistake is so extreme that it becomes funny.

The core audience at your stand-up shows, has it changed because of Uncle Roger?

Well, it’s bigger. Before Uncle Roger blew up, I was getting mostly Asians. Now, it’s a mix. Asian people, white people, Black people. That’s the nature of YouTube. The algorithm just pushes things out to everyone. I think it’s mostly people with an interest in Asian food. That’s everyone really. Everyone eats Thai food. Everyone eats fried rice.

Do you think there’s a universal quality to Uncle Roger that makes him click with everyone — from Korean fans to Indian fans to Nigerian fans?

Sure. Don’t you have an uncle like this? Big attitude, a bit condescending, know-it-all type? I think most families have the annoying uncle who thinks he knows better than everyone. Uncle Roger is an Asian-accented uncle, but I think every family has this character: grumpy, opinionated, stuck in his ways, but also somewhat charming. Sometimes these cantankerous uncles, the way they s*** on people is funny.

Do you actually have an uncle like this?

I do have an uncle who is like this to some extent. Not as extreme, not as grumpy. It’s really a combination of my uncles, my dad, the middle-aged uncles at the local coffee shop, loudmouthed types with their leg up on the chair. It’s a pastiche of all these people. If you grew up in Asia, you’ve definitely interacted with someone like this.

If you grow up in Malaysia, you’ll notice subtleties in how I phrase things, how the English is broken. That’s how I grew up speaking English. How I repeat certain phrases, the slang words. But if not, that’s fine. If my comedy only appeals to Malaysians, I’ll have a tiny career. Uncle Roger is relatable through jokes, through an attitude that translates across cultures.

Do you cook?

I usually eat out, man. I rarely cook myself. It takes so much prep. More people should stop cooking. I’ve seen how they cook. If I’m in London, I’m always at restaurants with friends, people I work with, dates. Tonight, I’m going to get Korean barbecue at K-Town in Manhattan.

How’s the US tour going?

The shows have been great. It’s a dream to tour globally. I did Gramercy Theater in New York, and to see my name in the marquee, that’s a good feeling. A dream-come-true kind of feeling.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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