IF YOU FOLLOW food trends, you’ll know all about the various cuisines that have captured our imagination – and taste buds – in the past decade or so. Remember the Spanish invasion led by Ferran Adria; Noma’s New Nordic Wave; Gaston Acurio’s Peruvian invasion. Not to mention the Japanese obsession, modern Korean and even Thailand making its presence felt in the high stakes food race.
So why doesn’t Chinese food figure in this equation? Not a single Chinese restaurant has appeared on the World’s 50 Best list, and only four managed to get into the Asia’s 50 Best version. Even the debut of the Guangzhou Michelin Guide was seen as an embarrassment when not a single restaurant was awarded two stars, much less three.
Are Chinese restaurants locked in the stereotype of sweet sour pork? Are the chefs in the kitchen slinging woks and meticulously shaping exquisite dim sum destined to stay anonymous despite the hard years spent honing their skills? Everybody knows why Jiro dreams of sushi and understands the craftsmanship behind a kaiseki meal. Who knows – or even cares – about the knife skills of a chef who can turn silken tofu into a floating chrysanthemum in superior stock, or pleat a xiao long bao in perfectly symmetrical folds, with just the right balance of stock, meat and skin texture?
The issue is that, “the world knows (surprisingly) little about Chinese cuisine,” says Desmond Chang, CEO of Legle Porcelain, who has designed tableware for the likes of Odette, Corner House in Singapore and top Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong, Taiwan and China.
Taking Chinese food out of its traditional banquet setting and shaping it for a wider market is not new (think as far back as Alan Yau’s Hakkasan or Yauatcha) but getting it to a level where it can be seen as an international culinary movement with the same impact as Japanese or Nordic cuisine is yet to be seen.
Its time may come yet. In Asia, several Chinese chefs are already raising the bar to bring their cuisine to the next level. In Beijing for example, famed roast duck eatery Da Dong’s chef-owner Dong Zhengxiang, has already adopted a more artistic approach to his food presentation, while improving the way the duck is served.
Howard Cai, a well-known figure in the still tiny modern Chinese movement, taps on his chemistry background to apply a scientific approach to his Teochew cuisine. And in Shanghai, chef Tony Lu, has taken vegetarian cuisine to a higher level of Zen.
While they’re on the right track, it isn’t something for Chinese chefs to jump in on a whim, says chef Tam Kwok Fung of Wing Lei Palace in Macau’s ritzy Wynn Palace.
“Training the new generation is key,” he says. “It’s crucial to have proper and systematic training for the whole kitchen team, so they know the products and the logic behind every single step.”
Getting the right ingredients is another challenge, as they become increasingly difficult to source. Some dishes are even on the verge of extinction, as it’s almost impossible for a chef to replicate the same recipe he inherited 50 years ago. Adds chef Tam, “We see more modern Chinese restaurants now, making dishes with new ingredients based on traditional cooking methods.”
Recruiting new blood is equally challenging. Most newcomers prefer to work in a western kitchen, which is seen as more glamorous and a ticket to ‘instant’ fame.
Life in a Chinese restaurant is notoriously tough, with traditional dishes requiring long hours of preparation that are daunting to newbies. Says Mr Chang, “The mise-en-place of, say, a Cantonese winter snake soup is arduous; where all ingredients, such as pork tongue, black fungus, fish maw, abalone, chicken meat, bamboo shoot, aged tangerine peel, mushroom and Chinese ham, must be meticulously sliced into equal thinness.” That’s not even including making the soup, traditionally using cobra and other poisonous snakes, cooked and hand shredded. No wonder then, that you’ll be hard put to find anyone that still does this.
The good news is that interest in Chinese food – both traditional and modern – is growing. With a growing number of culinary awards held in Asia, more chefs and food journalists are coming to the region. Says Vicky Cheng, chef of Hong Kong’s VEA: “Whenever my foreign peers are in town, I would take them to restaurants where they can sample authentic traditional Chinese food. Being a trained western chef, I hope to be the bridge between Western and Chinese chefs.”
Chef Cheng describes his cuisine at VEA as “Chinese X French”, which reflects both his cooking techniques as well as the culture he grew up in. All his dishes have a connection to Hong Kong, “which could be an indigenous Chinese ingredient that has yet to meet western cooking techniques, locally sourced produce or simply a distinct childhood memory.”
Similarly, Vicky Lau of Tate Dining & Bar and Asia 50 Best’s Female Chef of 2015, marries French technique and Chinese cuisine while emphasising their fundamental differences: French butter versus Chinese oil; and dairy products against the rice and cornstarch of the Chinese. “So, to combine these two cuisines, I had to overcome many technical issues. And I realised that the key was just to get the sauce right.”
Thanks to her and fellow chefs who continue to push the boundaries of their native cuisine, Chinese restaurants have turned into more refined dining spaces, with an international approach that makes it more attractive to younger talents.
Of course, the caveat remains: given the different styles of cuisine in China – each with its own DNA – anyone taking the modern route has to be well aware of its intricacies or risk destroying its essence.
Says Cheung Siu Kong, chef of Singapore’s Michelin-starred Summer Pavilion: “The chef must have a strong foundation in his cooking. With this knowledge, even if he decides to incorporate new ingredients, such as truffle and caviar, or decides to present his food in a different way, the spirit of that particular cuisine will remain.”
And hopefully soon, the world’s validation will follow.