Michelle Tam grew up a hardcore foodie in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her mother was a great home cook and her sister is a trained chef. “There’s an adjective in Cantonese — wai sik — that people often use to describe me,” she says. “It means that I live to eat. It means you don’t eat because you’re hungry; it’s just that you have an extra stomach because everything looks really good.”
Though she enjoyed feasting, the author of the award-winning Nom Nom Paleo blog, app, and best-selling cookbook series was a reluctant cook. “Even now, I don’t necessarily love cooking,” she notes. “If I’d discovered paleo now, when there are paleo restaurants and ready-to-eat options, I probably wouldn’t be where I am. But I started back when you had to make your own mayonnaise, so I had to learn how to cook.”
The 44-year-old nutrition scientist and former clinical pharmacist started cooking when she switched to a paleo diet in 2010, after seeing its positive impact on her husband and collaborator, Henry Fong.
“When Henry first told me about it I was like, ‘Wow, this sounds insane and unhealthy,’” she remembers. Forgoing grains and eating red meats and fats contradicted everything Tam had learned in her food-science training.
“But then he tried it and kept telling me how much more energy he had, while I felt tired all the time despite working out a lot and counting calories. So I eventually decided to give it a try.”
Tam is a paleo enthusiast, but she encourages everyone to cook — regardless of dietary preferences. “No matter what you eat, cooking your own food will keep you well-nourished and healthier,” she says. “What you eat really is how you feel.”
Experience Life | What was the impetus for starting the Nom Nom Paleo blog?
Michelle Tam | When I first found paleo — like a lot of people who find a lifestyle change that works for them — I became this crazy evangelist telling everyone I knew about it. One day my sister just said, “You know, you’re being super annoying about this paleo thing, and I’m saying this in a loving way, but you need to quit it.”
So I considered putting my thoughts on the internet because I couldn’t find the exact blog that catered to my taste. My husband, who had already been blogging about his workouts and parenting for a while, asked me what I’d call a food blog if I had one.
I said, “Nom Nom Paleo,” because “nom nom nom nom” is a way of saying something is delicious while you’re eating it and “paleo” because that’s the food I was cooking. So we bought the URL and started a Tumblr account.
I didn’t expect anyone to read what I was writing. In fact, I used to swear on the blog all the time; it was pretty uncensored. I had two young kids, and it was my only outlet for being an adult. To this day, I think it’s a little weird that people read it.
When I began, I essentially shared what I would eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, because I thought it might be helpful for people trying to figure out how to eat paleo. I was working as an overnight pharmacist at the time, and I think I actually stayed at that job longer than I would have otherwise, because I felt better and had more energy after I switched to eating paleo.
EL | One of your favorite cooking tools is the Instant Pot. What do you like about it?
MT | I’m all about value and thrift, and finding shortcuts to deliciousness. That’s why I love the Instant Pot — it’s a pressure cooker you can use to quickly and easily cook cheaper cuts of meat, like short ribs, oxtails, chuck roast, or pork shoulder.
Plus, since it’s a pressure cooker, everything you make in it tastes better than if you use a slow cooker. It’s the same kind of thing where you plop everything in, and when you come home you’ll have a meal ready for you, but it’s not like watery, dry, stringy stew. That always made me sad when I used a slow cooker, because I was like, “Shoot, I have five days of this to eat.”
EL | What are some of your other simple tricks for making food taste good?
MT | I’m always trying to teach people about umami boosters. If you just know certain ingredients that are high in umami — such as fish sauce, mushrooms, or tomato paste — these ingredients really do make things just taste so much better. They’re kind of like natural MSG.
So many cultures have already known about all this stuff, and that’s why these classic dishes in all cultures have ingredients that are high in umami. So, yeah, give it a try! Just add some fish sauce — just a little; if you can taste it you’ve put in too much — or some dried mushrooms, and you’ll be amazed at how good your food tastes. (For more tips on unlocking umami, read “Umami: The Secret Flavor.”)
EL | What do you tell people who say that eating a paleo diet is expensive? What can someone do to minimize costs?
MT | I think it’s important to get high-quality protein that’s been raised properly, but that can be super expensive, so I almost never buy steaks. I typically buy ground meats, braising cuts, a whole chicken, or skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs. Boneless, skinless chicken breast is tasteless, in my opinion, and it’s really expensive when you compare per pound.
You can also eat seasonally as much as possible. Vegetables in their pure form are fresher and cheaper than convenience items like spiralized veggies and packaged cauliflower rice. So learning some easy food prep and storage techniques can help you save money.
When people tell me that eating this way is expensive, I always explain that it can be, but spending money on good ingredients contributes to your overall health. When making a decision about what to buy, it’s typically based on what you value. Do you need a new car, a fancy wardrobe, a Starbucks drink every day, or the latest iPhone upgrade every year? For me, I think if you feel better, sleep well, and have more energy from eating healthier food, it’s worth the money because it improves your whole life.