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Painting a picture: introducing Mukta Das and Andrew Wong’s series on the history and culture of Chinese cooking

Painting a picture: introducing Mukta Das and Andrew Wong’s series on the history and culture of Chinese cooking

by Mukta Das 08 July 2019

China’s culinary history is one of the oldest in the world, and the huge country is home to a vast variety of ingredients, dishes and food-related stories. See how anthropologist Mukta Das and Michelin-starred chef Andrew Wong work together to bring China’s rich traditions and food cultures to life through a series of recipes.

No other chef explores the regional, historical cooking of China in the UK like Andrew Wong. His restaurant A Wong in London serves contemporary dishes that open your eyes to just how incredibly diverse and surprising the country’s cuisine can be. Cheese, truffles, bananas, rhubarb – these aren’t ingredients most of us associate with Chinese cuisine, but in certain regions they’re a prominent part of the local diet. On top of that, there’s the thousands of years of history and tradition that have shaped Chinese food, meaning many dishes, ingredients and techniques have a story behind them too.

Rather than attempting to recreate dishes exactly how they would have been presented in the past, Andrew interprets information from texts and research and uses it to influence his own dishes. He does this with the help of Mukta Das, a food anthropologist specialising in Chinese cuisine. Together they research and develop dishes for the menu at A Wong in a bid to discover, champion and spread awareness of China’s rich culinary history.

This series by Mukta and Andrew is the result of years of collaboration. With Mukta focusing on the context and research into Chinese food and Andrew making what she finds tangible through a series of recipes, the two of them pay homage to everything that makes Chinese food great. Written as a dialogue between Mukta and Andrew, each article is accompanied by a recipe which brings what they’re talking about into the real world.

Read on for an idea of how Andrew and Mukta work together, then take a look at the features and recipes focusing on a range of topics. We’ll be updating this page with new columns and recipes every month.

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Andrew Wong: A Wong has been open for seven years. A lot of the dishes I put on in the beginning were celebrations of other people's dishes from across China. They've run their course now, and I’m a firm believer that you have to do something which keeps your own mind interested; something that keeps you moving and evolving. The stuff that we do with Mukta is really relevant, and I think there is a market for it as well. People want to know more about China and I think there's a lot to be said and explored about it.

Mukta Das: I've been studying a Masters and a PhD in the anthropology of food, focusing on China for the last six years. I started tweeting about bits and pieces that I discovered about Chinese food which I thought were a bit surprising. Andrew used to study anthropology a long while back and we got talking about why certain things were surprising – certain ingredients, certain techniques. He just wanted to know more and more, and not just the recipes. He’s interested in how chefs from 2,000 years ago would have approached cooking in elite kitchens in China – the ingredients, methods and kitchen technology at the time.

AW: Because Mukta is very open minded and she understands how chefs are, the way I think is probably no different to the way a chef would have thought 2,000 years ago. We have a certain amount of ingredients and around six cooking methods. Our job as chefs is to do something interesting with them. Whether it's for the Emperor or it's for a regular diner, it's just about doing something creative. You've got over 2,500 years’ worth of history to draw from, and it's very easy to lose track of where stuff comes from, you know? But we’ll talk and talk and a story will come out, and then Mukta puts it all into a historical context in a chronological sense, like where everything is placed in a broader kind of picture. The conversation will just flow, and then I'll go away and have a think about certain stuff and at two or three o'clock in the morning I'll text her saying, ‘Well what about this? What about this?’ and she'll send me loads of WhatsApps of texts and stuff that she's found for me.

After that, I’ll start experimenting and cooking and I'll send her photos of a dish and she'll always go, ‘I’d have never thought in a million years it would look like that’. That’s because she comes from a world where the look and the taste of a dish isn’t the only thing that’s important – I think what she finds really interesting is having something tangible to relay that stuff to. Mukta then passes what we’ve come up with on to others at the SOAS Food Studies Centre who have done even more research than her and never actually thought about what these dishes might look and taste like. It snowballs and leads onto another thing, and then another thing after that.

MD: Andrew will talk about how he's put certain ingredients together using certain techniques, or he'll talk about a particular type of ingredient to pair with something that we've discovered in some of the archives or menus. I'll talk about how that's historically grounded, saying things like, ‘Well actually that does make sense because during that time that was grown over there, and it was sort of celebrated in artworks and poetry.’ And so really it's not necessarily a reproduction of one old recipe or something from a menu that we’ve discovered. It's a bit more like a painting a picture that revisits history, to understand it more fully.

AW: It takes time – a lot of time. We can’t do it overnight. But the way that we're doing it feels right. A lot of the stuff that finds itself on the menu are tiny little things which only I and Mukta know about. To the guests it's just an ingredient or taste, but perhaps they get a sense of the part of Chinese history or culture they originated from. We might have added dried rhubarb into a broth, for example, even though you can't really taste it. But we added it because it's a celebration of the fact that rhubarb is therapeutic in traditional Chinese medicine. Only me and Mukta will know about things like that, but slowly our work together has more and more influence on the menu. You modify one dish and you modify another dish and you modify another dish and before you know it every dish has some of our work in.

'Plum in a Golden Vase'

Cheese? Truffles? Not exactly what most of us associate with the Chinese larder, but in certain parts of the country they've been enjoyed for centuries. Read Mukta's piece to discover the inspiration behind Andrew's dish, then take a look at the recipe to see how he's interpreted the cooking techniques of vegetarian Buddhist monks.

Beef preserve with 'rib' of sweetcorn

In Imperial China, the Emperor would hold huge feasts with hundreds in attendance along one long table. Andrew and Mukta have worked together on a dish which both represents these grand occasions and champions the street food of Taiwan.

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