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Wok it out

Chinese, the world’s most popular cuisine, may be changing faster than we realize, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Nov 08, 2008 19:10 IST
Vir Sanghvi

According to estimates, Chinese is the world’s most popular restaurant cuisine. It’s not just that the Chinese themselves – in the mainland, in Taiwan, in Singapore, in Hong Kong and all over East Asia – love eating out, it is also that non-Chinese have taken to their cuisine at all levels.

No matter where in the world you go, you are certain to find a Chinese restaurant. It may not be a fancy place. It could just be a takeaway doing junk Chinese but Chinese restaurants are ubiquitous, all the way from Europe to South America to Africa to Australia.

There are many theories for the popularity of Chinese cuisine. One says that the low cost nature of many of the dishes (little meat, lots of rice, lots of noodles and lots of vegetables) is the key. Another theory has it that Chinese is less a cuisine than a generic term for an umbrella of cuisine. By that, I don’t mean just the obvious schools of Chinese food (Cantonese, Peking, Sichuan etc.) but also the many global variations. Eat Chinese food in middle America and it will all be roughly the same. But it will also be significantly different from Chinese food in say, France.

One of the strengths of global Chinese cuisine is that it adapts itself almost effortlessly to local tastes. We know now that Indian-Chinese food (Sino-Ludhianvi) only uses Chinese as a starting point. Most of the dishes are unknown in China and our style of eating Chinese would horrify most natives: fried rice and noodles with the main meal, everything deep-fried, all sauces to be wet enough to drench the rice etc.

But about a century or so ago, they said that about American Chinese as well. The global popularity of Chinese food is largely a consequence of the emigration of large numbers of Chinese from the mainland to the West Coast of the US. They produced a bastardized version of their cuisine for American palates and popularised many of the dishes (chop suey, for instance) that form the backbone of international Chinese cuisine. Even today you’ll be served something called American Fried Rice in much of Asia. Though the dish (with its use of tomato ketchup and the like) is only nominally Chinese, it is popular enough to turn up on menus at such Chinese cities as Singapore.

Since the late Sixties onwards, a new generation of Chinese restaurateurs have tried to popularise so-called ‘authentic Chinese’ food, making us conscious that the Cantonese cuisine which we once held to be the only ‘real’ Chinese food is just one aspect of the range of cuisine available in China. That battle has largely been won. Most of us now know that Cantonese is to China what say, Tamil food is to India’s: a great cuisine but hardly the only one. And in India at least, it is the spiciness of Sichuan food that we prefer, even if we make our own Punjabified variations.

So what now? Where does Chinese food go from here? When the mainland opened up a decade or so ago, there was a rush to popularise the dishes that were served there (and not in Hong Kong, Taiwan etc.). But even that has now run its course. Most hotels will offer you a taste of mainland China. At the two Hyatt Chinese restaurants (China Kitchen and China House in Delhi and Bombay), the concept is one that was hatched as Made In China at the Hyatt in Beijing and relies on extensive use of chefs from the mainland. At Delhi’s The Chinese, the food is so authentic that you could be eating in China. And most hotels now import chefs from the mainland and not from Hong Kong and Singapore.

Some restaurateurs argue that this phase is now coming to an end. To take a parallel, think of Indian food in England. Till the Seventies, Indian food was represented (or perverted) by cheap Bangladeshi curry houses who served what we could call junk Indian. An early breakthrough was the opening of Gaylord in 1966 and then, the Pakistani Shezan, a few years later. This led to some improvement in the quality and introduced Brits to the real thing but Indian food did not get genuinely trendy till the Taj opened The Bombay Brasserie in 1982 and attracted a new kind of client. Now, even the Bangladeshis are falling over each other to try and open upmarket, authentically Indian restaurants, and chefs from India find it easy to get jobs in England.

Both Chinese and Indian restaurants now need to move on to the next step. In some small way, it is already happening in London with such adventurous restaurants as Amaya and Rasoi’s Vineet Bhatia winning a Michelin star each. Modern Chinese has been popularised by Hakkasan (with a menu that follows no regional direction) and other such restaurants.

But no cuisine can be said to have advanced to the next level unless restaurants serving new style dishes open in its country of birth. The revolution in French cuisine would have been meaningless if it had been restricted to London and New York. Its impact came from the fact that it occurred in France.

In the case of Indian food however, nothing very much has happened to the cuisine in India. But apparently, things are changing in China. And the agents of change are the overseas Chinese.

I met up last week with Andrew Tjioe, the founder of Singapore’s famous Tung Lok group. Andrew’s original claim to fame was a restaurant just off Singapore’s Orchard Road where he served modern Chinese cuisine. He called it Club Chinois. Because he served unusual dishes – a steamed Boston Lobster with preserved Japanese radishes, pickled Chinese chillis and Australian tomato sauce, for example – he came to the attention of the world’s foodies.

Then, he collaborated with Canada’s most famous Chinese chef, Susur Lee who had a firm grasp of the techniques of French cuisines, to open My Humble House, also in Singapore. My Humble House and its current executive chef Sam Leong have been extensively written about because of the restaurant’s many culinary inventions. For instance, wasabi mayonnaise, which is now almost a gastronomic cliché, was invented at My Humble House, as was the now ubiquitous dish of wasabi prawns.

Among My Humble House’s many innovations was a refusal to use the oil that is such an important part of many Chinese dishes and to move away from simple stir-frying to include more of such techniques as baking and roasting, which are not only healthier but also significantly affect the taste and texture of the dish. Moreover, Humble House used non-Chinese ingredients. One of its early successes was a dish which combined a traditional Chinese roast duck salad with slices of crisp Peking Duck skin and a foie gras terrine made with five spice powder.

The Singapore Humble House was an instant success but Andrew knew that the real challenge lay in taking the concept to the mainland.

He says he was nervous when he opened his first Humble House in Beijing but gratified when it took off. He quickly opened a second one and now has four restaurants in China. Obviously the mainland Chinese are willing to have their tastebuds tingled by overseas Chinese chefs. (Made in China is also the brainchild of a Singapore chef Jack Aw Yong – who later opened India’s China House and China Kitchen).

I asked Andrew how customers in the Chinese mainland took to such dishes as Seven Spice Marinated Crisp Foie Gras on Caramelised Watermelon or Wagyu Beef with Green Apple Sesame Reduction. I know that we are a long way from tolerating such experimentation in Indian restaurants. So, were the mainland Chinese more receptive?

Oh yes, he said, they were. The most interesting aspect of China’s current restaurant revolution is how the old style 500-seater emporia are dying out and punters are trading up to smaller restaurants that serve modern Chinese food. A new cuisine, based not on the old regional distinctions, but predicated on innovation is being widely accepted.

If Andrew is right and if the success of his restaurants in China is not an isolated example, then Chinese food may be changing faster than we realize.