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Andrew Wong's guide to China

Andrew Wong's guide to China

by Tom Shingler Wednesday, May 11, 2016

From barbecued starfish to a broth so aromatic it makes Buddhists break their vows, the regional dishes of China are among the most diverse in the world – and all but unheard of in the West. Tom Shingler talks to chef Andrew Wong to learn more about the incredibly diverse cuisine and how he’s helped to bring its flavours to the UK.

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Tom Shingler is the features editor at Great British Chefs.

Nowadays, it’s fairly common knowledge that the food we’re served in an average Chinese restaurant is pretty far removed from what’s eaten in China. While many of us (myself included) are partial to some sweet and sour chicken balls or a bowl of luminous-red crispy chilli beef, it’s clear that they’re a very Anglicised interpretation of the real thing. However, there’s one chef in Pimlico, London that’s offering a taste of the real China, drawing inspiration from parts of the country rarely even heard of in Britain.

His name is Andrew Wong, and his restaurant – A Wong – has been visited and praised by chefs such as Pierre Koffmann and Albert Adrià. It’s one of the few places in the country that takes dishes from all over China and serves them in a refined, authentic way in a bid to show diners that there’s so much more to the cuisine than the greasy, MSG-infused dishes of the average takeaway. His tasting menu takes people on a journey all over China, and his front of house team are just as important as the chefs. ‘If our guests leave with a new understanding of a particular region of China, then we’ve done our job,’ says Andrew. ‘We want to create as much interest as possible around regional Chinese cuisine. It’s so important to the whole experience that diners get where we’re coming from.’

Andrew spent six years working on the concept for A Wong – which was originally a typical Cantonese restaurant owned by his parents – and embarked on a six-month journey across China to discover the unknown dishes of the country. China is bigger than the whole of Europe, so it’s hardly fair to assume people eat the same things in the north, south, east and west. ‘I wasn’t able to experience all the different cuisines while I was there, but the ones I did encounter were noticeably unique,’ explains Andrew. ‘It’s like asking someone who works in a French kitchen whether they can tell French and Italian food apart – the ingredients and techniques might be similar, but there’s a very obvious difference between the two.’

A Wong
A Wong is one of London's best Chinese restaurants
Noodle pulling
Andrew spent years learning how to make pulled noodles

Crossing borders

So why has it taken until now for there to be somewhere British diners can experience specific, regional dishes from China? ‘The Communist regime only opened up to the West recently; until a few years ago, only Chinese people from Hong Kong could get a visa to leave the country,’ says Andrew. ‘They would naturally cook the food they were familiar with, which was Cantonese. The recent influx of proper Sichuanese restaurants just wasn’t possible until around until five or six years ago, and it’s only now that food from the other regions is making its way into London.

‘You also have to realise that the culinary arts are not respected in China,’ he continues, ‘so many Chinese chefs coming to the UK will just get a job in an existing restaurant. Most are only half interested in the food they cook – what they’re really concerned about is making a better life for themselves. There’s no such thing as a celebrity chef in China; when I was over there trying to learn about what they were doing, most chefs were incredibly confused as to why I would be interested.’

It’s not just the recently opened borders that have spurred this newfound interest in regional Chinese cooking. Over the past fifteen years China’s economy has rapidly grown, fuelling a new demand for food and drink both at home and abroad. ‘There are massive socio-economic factors which are the driving force behind things like cuisine – people tend to forget that,’ says Andrew. ‘Fifteen years ago, Chengdu was just a collection of dusty roads and noodle shacks. If you go there today there are Lamborghinis and Rolex shops lining the streets. China is now the land of the mega-rich, and they need to be catered for accordingly.’

 
 
Smoking chicken
Andrew's dishes represent the regions of China in a refined, elegant style
Xinjiang
Xinjiang is home to a large Chinese Muslim community in the west of the country

East to west

It’s difficult to wrap your head around just how big China actually is, and it’s impossible to cover every aspect of the country’s cuisine in just one article. We have preconceived notions of what Chinese food is like in the UK, but it’s exactly this that Andrew is trying to address. ‘In many parts of China, pork is king – in fact, the word for meat in Chinese is the same as the word for pork,’ he says. ‘In Cantonese cuisine, it’s used in nearly everything – even flavoured oils and vegetable dishes will contain it in some form. But if you go to the west of the country, to an area called Xinjiang, there’s a massive Islamic community. Being Muslims they obviously don’t eat pork, so there’s a lot of goat and lamb instead. Because of its proximity to the Silk Road, there are also a lot of ingredients not seen in the rest of China, such as pomegranate, cumin and coriander seed. It completely dispels most people’s beliefs about Chinese food.’

Andrew is the first to run a restaurant that offers a wide spectrum of dishes from across China in the UK, and is working as hard as he can to boost awareness of the country’s diverse dishes. It’s not until you’ve tasted his Xinjiang lamb burger, Anhui-style fermented fish belly and Sichuanese aubergines that you realise there’s a whole new world of flavours to explore – most of which haven’t existed outside of China until now.

 
 
image
Making dim sum is one of the most difficult Chinese culinary techniques to master
Sichuanese aubergines
Andrew's Sichuanese aubergines are a typical dish from the region

The eight traditional cuisines of China

‘Traditionally, there were eight different styles of cooking in China which related to eight different areas of the country,’ explains Andrew. ‘But you’re talking about a map that was drawn up a very long time ago. Nowadays there are many more provinces, so these styles represent areas which are much more fragmented today.’ Here, Andrew shares his knowledge on the iconic techniques, ingredients and dishes of each traditional style, but as you’ll see, even after spending six months travelling the country, he still hasn’t been able to experience all of them – a testament to just how rich and diverse China’s regional cuisine can be.

Cantonese

The most common type of Chinese food found outside China. Cantonese food includes dim sum – a cuisine in itself – and inspired many of the Anglo-Chinese dishes found on takeaway menus throughout the UK.

‘If you ask a Sichuanese chef what they think of Cantonese cooking, they’ll tell you it’s very mildly seasoned, and if they were cooking for a Cantonese guest they’d probably use less spices in their food. The Cantonese are famous in China for liking ‘bland’ food, but it’s just because the cooking methods in the region are a lot simpler – there’s lots of steaming and the seasoning is based around light soy sauce, ginger, spring onion and not a lot of chilli. However, it’s also home to roasting – a speciality of Canton – and dim sum, which is technically one of the most difficult things to master in all of Chinese cuisine.’

Sichuan

 
 
If you ask a Sichuanese chef what they think of Cantonese cooking, they’ll tell you it’s very mildly seasoned, and if they were cooking for a Cantonese guest they’d probably use less spices in their food.

Andrew Wong

Famous for its peppercorns, Sichuan is the second most well-known cuisine outside of China. It is spicy and bold, with lots of garlic and chilli.

‘Until relatively recently it was illegal to import Sichuan peppercorns into the UK, and it only became legal in America seven years ago. Apparently people were worried that it was a danger to the horticultural system, and the plants could take over the countryside. Obviously, you can’t open a Sichuanese restaurant without Sichuan peppercorns, so they’re a relatively new thing in the West.

‘The peppercorns are integral to the cuisine but not on their own – what really makes Sichuanese food unique is something called mala, which is a combination of the pepper with chilli. If you bite into a Sichuan peppercorn on its own it will taste like metal, but if you eat it with chilli it creates this sort of numbing sensation, which is what Sichuanese food is famous for. When I was in Sichuan the main thing I noticed was that all their dishes are coated in this very thin glossy red oil, but when you’re eating them they’re not greasy at all. To this day I’m still not entirely sure how that’s possible – it’s very strange and gives the food an almost refreshing taste.

‘One of the most famous pastimes in Sichuan is the hotpot, where ingredients are laid out on the table and people dip them into a boiling broth. It’s a very good way to combat the humidity of the region, so people will often sit around, eating hotpot and drinking beer.’

 
Abalone
Abalone – a type of sea snail – is one of the most prized ingredients in Chinese cooking
A Wong kitchen
The open kitchen at A Wong gets incredibly busy during service

Hunan

Similar to Sichuanese, but more focused on chillies than peppercorns, Hunanese food tends to include more smoked and cured ingredients and is generally oilier.

‘I find the food in Hunan is very similar to Sichuan cuisine. There are apparently some more sweeter notes to the dishes, but I don’t really see a distinctive difference between the two. It might be more of a historical difference – there were some very famous Hunanese chefs who cooked for the Emperor in the Forbidden City.’

Fujian

 
 
The Fujianese also use quite a lot of potato starch as a way to introduce carbs into their diet – they will form little gnocchi-like dumplings out of it and add them to soups and broths.

Andrew Wong

On the east coast of China, Fujian is famous for its shellfish with lots of light dishes and umami-heavy flavours.

‘The most important thing to remember about Fujian is where it is geographically – on the east coast and north of Hong Kong. There are loads of different types of fish balls, various types of clams, lots of stir fries and again their seasoning isn’t particularly strong. They don’t particularly like heavy spice, and will use more soy than chilli in their food. Lots of fish are steamed or braised, with perhaps a little dip of soy vinegar on the side. The Fujianese also use quite a lot of potato starch as a way to introduce carbs into their diet – they will form little gnocchi-like dumplings out of it and add them to soups and broths.

‘The most famous dish is called fó tiào qiáng which translates to ‘The Buddha Jumped Over the Wall’ which, as you can imagine, has a bit of a story behind it. Traditionally Buddhist monks weren’t allowed to leave the monastery until they reached attainment. Someone nearby was cooking this dish, which is basically a broth of all the most expensive ingredients used in Chinese cuisine – dried scallops, abalone, black sea moss and various other seafood – and the delicious aroma travelled over the monastery wall, convincing one monk to try and escape just so he could taste it!’

 
Andrew Wong
Andrew spent six months travelling around China as part of his research into regional Chinese cooking
image
Even the desserts are tied to specific areas of the country

Zheijang

South of Shanghai, Zheijang food is typically fresh, soft and mellow.

‘I only know one or two dishes from the area, as I never got to visit. We used to have one vegetarian dish from Zheijang on the menu here that was a piece of taro carved to look like a fish, which was then deep-fried. Someone then has to laboriously take toasted almonds and apply them in a scale formation across the whole thing. We had it on the menu for a while, but it just didn’t do very well in London. Taro is quite a heavy, starchy food, and because it was on our dim sum menu I don’t think people wanted to eat it at lunchtime.’

Shandong

This coastal province of China, just north of Beijing, is home to steamed buns and pure, simple dishes.

‘This place is really interesting – it’s one of the few parts of China where rice isn’t the staple. It was traditionally a shipping area, so rice wasn’t grown as you can’t take it on long voyages. Instead, they eat a lot of different steamed buns, because they last longer. The cuisine itself is very pure and even blander than Cantonese. Most of the restaurants feature tanks of live fish or seafood, so customers simply pick something – say, a starfish – which the chefs will then either barbecue or steam. Like Fujianese cuisine, there’s a lot of seafood, but it was the only restaurant I went to in China where they didn’t serve rice. It’s one of those areas that really shows how diverse China is, to the point where even the staple carbohydrate is different. The same goes for Lanzhou (a city in northwest China) – there, they have fifty or sixty different types of noodles, which everyone eats instead of rice.’

 
 
Fermented cod belly
The fermented cod belly is an homage to a carp dish Andrew tasted in Anhui
image
The region is also known for candying fruits to preserve them – something unique to Anhui

Anhui

Located in the east of China, Anhui cuisine relies a lot less on frying and stir-frying dishes than other styles. There are plenty of fermented, preserved flavours.

‘Anhui is home to a really strange cuisine. They eat a lot of dishes made with turtle, and there are lots of fermented flavours which I didn’t see anywhere else in China. It was also the only place where I saw candying as a form of preservation – sugar was used to preserve fruits and nuts, which was quite unusual. There’s a lot of seafood which is salted and aged, and they use land snails in their cuisine, too, which is very special to the area.

‘We have a dish on at the moment which is a celebration of Anhui that pays homage to a famous fish dish from that area made from fermented carp. In Anhui, they lightly salt it and leave it to rot for two or three weeks, and when I tried some over there it was pretty pungent, so we don’t do that here. Instead, we try to recreate the same fermented flavours using cod belly.’

Jiangsu

On the eastern border of Anhui lies Jiangsu, a small but prosperous province of China. The food here tends to be similar to that of Anhui, based around fish and shellfish and is often presented in a colourful, attractive way.

‘I’m afraid I haven’t got a clue about Jiangsu cuisine; I haven’t had time to research it and I’ve never been there,’ Andrew concludes. It just goes to show that even a head chef who’s made it his mission to explore regional Chinese food still has a lot to discover. But for now, Andrew is one of the leading experts in the country’s regional food; luckily for us, he’s also able to cook the dishes he knows so much about with finesse – something which will get people talking about it far more than any book ever could.

 
 

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