HT Brunch Cover Story: Dim sum doctor
Edgy. Academic. Affable. These three adjectives best describe Michelin-starred chef Andrew Wong, 38, says my preliminary research. I learn this is true when I meet the London-based chef in Delhi. As he gives the final touches to his signature green-hued edamame dumplings, which he wants to use for the HT Brunch shoot, he cracks a joke with his near-panicked team in the kitchen (it’s almost dinner time), and they burst into laughter. Clearly, this ain’t no Hell’s Kitchen.
Born to a family of restaurateurs in London, chef Wong was always academically inclined. After studying chemistry at Oxford University, he went on to do anthropology at the London School of Economics before returning home to help with his family’s four restaurants. It was there that he realised his calling, which led him to travel through China to research its regional cuisines and, in 2012, open A. Wong with his wife Nathalie. This became the first Chinese restaurant to have won two Michelin stars outside Asia.
Is the popular opinion in India about Chinese food being very non-vegetarian-centric a myth or a reality, I ask, and the father of two is taken by surprise.
“I didn’t know that!” he smiles. “Buddhism arrived in China from India in 1 AD, so there’s a lot of vegetarian food and even in non-vegetarian restaurants in China, there’s normally a very substantial amount of veg food. I can’t comment on Asian food, but on Chinese I can, and vegetarian Chinese is probably one of the most delicious cuisines because we use so many fermented and salted products, umami-carrying condiments. It’s very much about just finding the good restaurants.”
Chef Wong asserts that he doesn’t create vegetarian dishes any differently than the non-vegetarian ones. The thought process is much the same. “While the deliciousness, texture, spice, mouthfeel is all there, at the heart of it is a story we want to tell, whether it’s historically-based or about a particular part of China,” he explains. “That kind of ends up allowing a dish to blossom into what it might end up being.”
There are a lot of steamed and stir-fried vegetables, but tofu, says Wong, is a massive part of the Chinese culinary infrastructure. “We have different types of tofu and it would probably be the core of what makes Chinese vegetarianism really interesting in comparison to other cuisines,” he says.
Are the sauces purely vegetarian too? Absolutely, says Wong. Broad bean paste, sweet bean paste, different fermented bean curds – those are the basis of the umami-carrying condiments and they are 100 per cent vegetarian.
Plus, Asian flavours work well with vegetarian food. “I think fermented bean curd goes really well with vegetables because it is very strong and very umami-heavy. It’s got a similar kind of hit that Parmesan has, but is a little bit more fermented. Then, yellow bean sauce is quite a natural sweet condiment and works wonderfully with vegetables. When talking about vegetables you must include a whole variety of preserved vegetables, on top of that there are nuts and pulses, and add grains so you are talking about an entire cuisine.”
Wong has been visiting India three or four times a year since 2017, as mentor chef at The Oberoi hotel’s Baoshuan restaurant, which offers food from 14 regions of China. But he candidly says that he doesn’t know enough about Indian food to be able to compare it to Asian vegetarian food.
However, he is a fan of the food made by chefs Vineet Bhatia and Manish Mehrotra in London. The first Indian dish I had was a curry of some sort with bread,” he recalls, and shares how, as a chef, he has always been fascinated by Indian breads.
His favourite Indian vegetarian dish is dal makhani. “It is slow-cooked and super rich and flavoursome. I’m still getting to the day when I can finish a whole portion by myself,” he jokes.
India and China have much in common in the way they create vegetarian food, Wong muses. “It is so comforting, so flavoursome and so meaty in a completely vegetarian way,” he observes. “We eat in very similar ways and the way families are organised and the role of food in the household is also very similar, apart from the fact that every calendar event or festival is normally focused around food. I think those are the common traits to both cultures.”
So, would he cook an Indian veggie the Chinese way? “Name a vegetable,” he says. Okra (bhindi), I say. “There’s a Chinese dish that’s made with it.” Snake gourd? I ask. “Most of these ingredients you find in China. Remember, India borders China, so there’s a lot of connectivity there,” he says.
Would he reimagine a dish with paneer? “I’m open to paneer as an ingredient. It’s a misconception that we don’t use dairy in Chinese food. The process you go through creating paneer is very similar to the process in Yunnan in the southern part of China where they use yak milk to create a curd which is very similar to paneer. I’m not shy to use these ingredients at all as long as I can honestly say to myself we are doing it respectfully,” he smiles.
Plus, he says, vegetarianism is completely global. “Before we changed the menu, we had a collection of Buddhist vegetables, salads and pickles, which was always very popular, and we’ve got a very extensive dim sum vegetarian menu here because there’s a higher demand for vegetarian food in Delhi than in London,” Wong says. “And even in London, Chinese food is very flexible in the sense that unami-carrying condiments are always there in our kitchen, so if guests have a certain requirement, it’s not that much trouble.”
Mentoring and Michelins
The most challenging part of mentoring a restaurant like Baoshuan in India is the same as launching a restaurant anywhere in the world: learning about the local palate and demands. “In India, in certain dishes we have a little extra chilli, more vegetarian options and a few extra chicken dishes that replace those where meats aren’t available or allowed,” he says.
Clearly, Wong is not a purist, and more interestingly, he doesn’t perceive the Michelin star as an award. “I think of it as a loan, as a gift that someone gives you and your job is to look after and nurture it in the hope that next year they will let you continue to look after it,” he says. “If you become complacent and your standard drops, they ask us not to look after it anymore. If you look at it like that, it seems less of a stress and more like a privilege,” he says.
In 2021, being a chef is a mixture of craft, management, people skills, communication, study and dexterity, says Wong, and he is every ounce an umami-heavy mix at that!
Follow @HTBrunch on Twitter and Instagram