What is contemporary Chinese cuisine?
That was the question that I was hoping would be answered when I attended a discussion with Brendan Fong – head chef of Mr Wong – as part of the Celestial Tables Exhibition presented by the Museum of Sydney.
I guess the first step to understanding the question is to first look at the past. Brendan spoke of his childhood, growing up with a Chinese father and a Samoan mother, living in a house constantly filled with food. He spoke of his love of cooking shows – “I love Jamie Oliver because I wanted to look as happy as he did cooking” – and how his father never gave him recipes and insisted that he learnt how to cook by watching and observing.
Brendan has taken the knowledge of Chinese cooking from his father, and has used these concepts and memories to build new experiences at at Mr Wong. Today, he shows us his version of soy sauce chicken – a commonplace dish at many Chinese families’ tables, and something I’ve grown up eating, myself.
Typically, soy sauce chicken involves a whole chicken cooked to utmost succulence in a soy based master stock – one stock to rule them all! – then served at room temperature on rice, with an aromatic ginger and shallot sauce, made by pouring hot oil over a paste made of ginger, shallots and a touch of garlic (in some cases), and seasoned with salt and sugar.
Here, Brendan Fong presents his version of it, using hiramasa kingfish instead. He first begins with a soy cure (marinaded) that echoes the masterstock.
A mix of Chinese dried spices – like licorice root and cassia bark – is steeped in a watered down soy broth, and the fish is steeped in it for at least 24hrs, until it takes on a rich brown that is synonymous with the skin of soy sauce chicken.
He then slices the fillets – which retain their snowy whiteness within, alluding to the contrast of white chicken breast with caramel-coloured skin – and lays it in a pool of soy based dressing, which – for the chicken – would have been made in the master stock. The ginger and shallot dressing then goes over the top of that, with black garlic oil and, in a modern flourish, micro herbs.
He then finishes is with freshly grated horseradish – a subtle nod to the use of wasabi in Japanese cuisine.
And of course, we all want a taste!
At this point, I must quote a description that I heard at the event (although I’m sorry to say that I can’t quite remember who said it 🙁 ) – “It’s like tasting a memory.”
And it’s so true. You taste the echoes of soy sauce chicken – the spices, the broth, the dressing – but if you think about it, the kingfish dominates the palette, and I’d be more likely to place this dish in a modern-Japanese-food basket if I didn’t know about the inspiration and the creation of this.
Besides the canapé, Brendan also discussed the use of social media in the restaurant industry – he understood that there is some impact on the restaurant when it takes longer to turn over a meal, but he is also supportive of the kind of coverage and publicity the restaurant can get out of it – and why he doesn’t cook Samoan food despite having grown up eating it. (The answer? His mother is just so good at it he never felt the need to learn.)
So what is contemporary Chinese cuisine? I guess we don’t have a definitive answer, but I think that it might lie in the increased exposure to other cultures – new techniques and ingredients get introduced to traditional Chinese concepts (like Brendan’s take on the traditional soy sauce chicken, and the use of fresh horseradish to add a dimension and lift that the dish otherwise might not have) and new dishes and directions are created.
What do you think?
If you’d like to learn a little more about Chinese culture in Sydney, the Museum of Sydney is holding the Celestial City: Sydney’s Chinese Story exhibit till October 12th. One of their last activities is to harvest this Chinese Market Garden (pictured above) that they’ve been cultivating all through the colder months! You can find out more information about the exhibition on the Sydney Living Museum website.
Insatiable Munchies attended as a guest of the Museum of Sydney.