Recap: Culinary Melting Pots: Global Influences on Chinese Cuisine, 6.23.21
This program was part of China Institute’s Food & Ideas Festival, exploring modern China through food all June!
Culinary Melting Pots: Global Influences on Chinese Cuisine was the final panel program of China Institute’s Food & Ideas Festival, and definitely one to remember! Restauranteurs and food innovators Lucas Sin of Junzi Kitchen and Eric Sze or 886, discussed the role of two of Asia’s culinary capitals, Hong Kong and Taipei, examining the ways in which these two cosmopolitan cities have served as culinary melting pots, to produce some of the world’s most delectable flavors.
Lucas Sin (LS), Chef at Junzi Kitchen 君子食堂 and Nice Day, opened his first restaurant when he was 16, in an abandoned newspaper factory in Hong Kong. Prior to joining Junzi’s founding team, Lucas cooked at Modernist Cuisine in Seattle, Kikunoi Honten in Kyoto, and Michelin-starred kitchens in Hong Kong and New York. Lucas is the winner of Star Chef Rising Stars Innovation Award, Eater Young Guns, and Forbes 30 under 30 class of 2019. With Eric Sze, the chef of Taiwanese restaurant 886, Lucas co-founded SHY*BOYZCLUB, an introverted Asian pop-up collective.
Eric Sze (ES) is a member of the Eater New Guard and the co-owner of 886, a restaurant in Manhattan by Sze and Andy Chuang that aims to fuse their Taiwanese upbringing with American modernization. In 2015, Sze founded Scallion Foods LLC, a Chinese delivery startup inspired by the Slow Food movement. In 2016, Sze opened The Tang, a modern Chinese noodle bar in the East Village, serving classic dishes with popular modern Chinese twists. Two years later, Sze and Chuang opened 886.
Full Video of Culinary Melting Pots:
Selected Quotes from Culinary Melting Pots:
Dinda Elliott (moderator): Tell us about the early days in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Let’s start with Hong Kong: Lucas what was food like in Hong Kong before all the outside influences moved in?
LS: Hong Kong began as a fishing village- it was humble and simple cooking. Here we have a photo of sausage…the sausage making technique dates back to 500 A.D….a lot of this curing technique is carried on to drying of fish and scallops. Preserving has very humble origins.
This is what basic HK cooking looked like before British colonization.
DE: Here we have Taiwanese sausage. It is a bit different.
ES: Taiwanese, it is said, got their sausage stuffing technique from the Spanish and Dutch. This is different from the curing sausage, it’s hung to dry for a day with a lot of moisture contained. The other is cured for weeks with little to no moisture at all.
Taiwan, because of its geographic location off the mainland, it was difficult for Hunan to transfer its meat curing techniques. Hunan is arguably the place in China curing the best meats. It is said to have originated in the farmlands because farmers needed a way to preserve their protein…hands down the best cured and smoked meats are from Hunan.
The most OG Taiwanese cuisine is really from the Hokkien (Hakka) and Fujian people. The first immigrants were from Fujian, and the Hakka people in Fujian, so if you dissect Taiwanese food today many of the core dishes have Fujianese roots- like fermented black beans, ginger, and Thai basil.
DE: Now let’s jump to the colonial era in Hong Kong. The British came in 1842, after the first Opium War, and they brought their food. So what is this strange “banquet”?
LS: This is a photo from the Australia Dairy Company in Hong Kong, perhaps my most favorite restaurant in the world. It is near and dear to my heart, it has nothing to do with Australia. This is a style of cha chaan teng [茶餐厅，or “tea restaurant,” like a diner] in Hong Kong
When the British moved into Hong Kong, it wasn’t like European influence was immediately luxurious and cool. The aspirational aspect of European cooking started with ‘ice houses,’ like European cafes, where your tea would have milk in it. …In the 1970s Hong Kong started to produce its own ice and there was a proliferation of these cafes. This style of eating in the middle of the day and having tea and pastries and buns really started with these ice houses.
As these ice houses developed, they became cha chaan tengs, literally tea-restaurants, serving hybrid style western food. They had woks for braised meats but they also serve breakfast. Ketchup and Spam are popular…ketchup is a big part of this type of Hong Kong cooking!
When cha chaan tengs first opened, an average wage would be $15 a month but a meal in a proper Western restaurant would be $10. So, it was totally unaffordable. But there was an aspirational aspect to Western food, so these little restaurants became the Hong Kong people’s answer to that lifestyle while maintaining some degree of affordability.
DE: Let’s jump to Taiwan, because there you had the Japanese colonization. The Japanese came into Taiwan in 1895 after the Sino-Japanese war, and stayed until 1945. Eric, what culinary influences did they leave behind?
ES: Unlike the British colony of Hong Kong, the Japanese wanted to make Taiwan the cream of the crop of what Japanese can do for their colonized people. So they wanted to put in a…rich agricultural economy and they put in the first railroads. They ran it like it was part of the mainland of Japan…and therefore culinary influences really run deep.
What fascinates me most about Lucas’s example, is that in Hong Kong the income gap [was severe]. But in Taiwan, they just set up Japanese restaurants and had Japanese citizens marrying Taiwanese citizens. So, the cuisine started blending and now you have all these Taiwanese Izakayas [where you get small bites and drink lots of beer]. Izakaya is traditionally where Japanese salarymen would congregate with their bosses and get obliterated before going home.
DE: And these still line the streets of Taipei.
ES: Oh yes, in Taipei, you have this… And you have these pockets which [represent Izakaya] but the bites have deviated from yakitori and small bowls of rice to a more fusion of cuisine that is rooted in Japanese in its form factor but the flavors have become very Taiwanese. [For example,] the chicken yakitori…every Izakaya serves it, but the glaze is not a traditional Japanese glaze.
DE: Let’s now look at a Taiwan oyster omelet. Is there a Japanese influence here?
ES: Yes! If we look at this dish, you cannot see it, but there is a pool of caramelized sweet potato starch that is the constructural base of this entire dish. That starch is done in a very Fujianese style…what is not Fujianese is the sauce. We call it ‘sweet and spicy’ but the basic ingredient and flavor profile doesn’t change; it is sweet from ketchup and spicy from hot sauce, and…a solid core flavor that is not funky but keeps everything intact: and that is miso. Not a lot of people know but miso plays a pretty big role in a lot of local Taiwanese sauces. It is mostly hidden. It is a uniquely Japanese [flavor].
DE: Let’s move to post-1949. Tons of mainlanders come to Taiwan, and it very much influenced Taiwan food. All the great chefs had fled so you had great food from every province of mainland China. What did they bring with them in terms of food?
ES: So, the Kuomintang (Nationalists) were known as the bourgeoisie. They fled to Taiwan after the war, and the banquet hall owners and chefs fled [with them]. The primary example would be Din Tai Fung [restaurant]: they are the shining example of soup dumplings…They initiated the soup dumpling craze. Their signature is that every dumpling has eighteen folds. They are very meticulous about their recipes. They are Shanghainese but started in Taiwan.
This is the motherbox of Taiwanese beef noodle soup. This is a fermented fava bean paste, from Sichuan’s Pixian, which is the district famous for producing this (豆瓣酱 douban jiang). [Ed: Learn more about the preparation of douban jiang and the search for the best soy sauce in the world in this Food & Ideas Festival program.]
DE: How did this stuff get to Taiwan?
ES: Sichuan being one of the military bases, when they moved to Taiwan, one of the Generals—as legend has it—he was so homesick that he made a beef stew out of this douban jiang. He gave it to his friends and started selling it as beef noodle soup. Taiwan wasn’t originally a beef consuming economy, but before the war, the Japanese emperor wanted to ‘beef up his soldiers’ so to speak, so he put down his foot and said ‘everyone eat beef now.’ So, perfect timing!
LS: After the [Chinese] civil war, a lot of chefs are going to Hong Kong after spending their best years in Canton, or Guangzhou. Until 1937, that was the culinary capital of Southern China. So many chefs were getting hardcore Cantonese training, and [that cooking] is known for celebrating bountiful ingredients and wok technique…so most people in my and my parent’s generations who think of Hong Kong Cantonese cooking, it is really Guangzhou Cantonese cooking.
In a similar trajectory to what was happening in Taiwan, you have the meeting of highly skilled chefs and people who are rich and are excited to celebrate specific ingredients, recipes, and tastes. And the big hotels too that opened in Hong Kong [that became a part of a lifestyle] like The Peninsula, they had lots of Shanghainese restaurants.
DE: What are your favorite mash-up dishes?
ES: This is Taro Toast. It’s relatively new, I made it here in the states but I have not had it in Taiwan yet. It is Shokupan, a Japanese milk bread, which is fluffy…and a taro puree and a pork floss. Taiwanese love a sweet and savory dessert that is meaty. This is a snack. It is popping up on the streets and grab and go places.
LS: At cha chaan tengs, there is a category of baked rice- or baked goods. You will have a heavy ceramic dish where you have golden egg-fried rice, over the top there would be like pork chops or chicken filets and on the top would be a tomato-y based ketchup sauce with onions, fresh tomatoes, and lots of ketchup.There is also a Macanese-adjacent rice that is so popular you can get it in KFC: Portuguese Chicken. It doesn’t really have a relationship to Portugal, other than Macao being a former Portuguese colony…it is like coconut-creamy with a little bit of curry and turmeric white sauce with big roasted chunks of chicken. It is really delicious.
This program is part of China Institute’s Food & Ideas Festival, a month-long exploration of modern China through food, happening all June!
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