What is “authentic” Chinese cuisine? These Toronto chefs challenge the concept



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Inside the Alma de Bloordale restaurant on a recent Friday night, the special is a hand-cut pappardelle with wok-fried pickled mustard greens and red braised beef tripe – a Chinese stew technique using a combination of gravy. of black soy, rock sugar and spices such as star anise, which gives anything he touches a deep amber hue.

The tripe is cooked with a fork and is reminiscent of a morel in butter, and the ribbons of pasta soak up every bit of the sauce that strikes the perfect balance between sweet, salty and spicy. It is the dish to eat on a rainy November evening.

“At home you usually eat (braised tripe) with rice, but I thought why not use egg noodles and make it a pasta dish. The noodles will absorb the braising juice, and I already had a rice dish on the menu, ”said Anna Chen, chef and co-owner of the three-year-old restaurant.

There’s also the pan-seared radish cake, known more widely as turnip cake in English, but Chen insisted on using the more precise name, as the cake is actually grated daikon. It usually contains minced lap cheong, a salty and slightly sweet Chinese sausage, but Chen omitted it because she wanted to emphasize the flavors of the daikon. Instead of the sausage’s umami punch, she serves the crispy cakes with a homemade plum sauce.

Widely known as "turnip cakes" in English, these steamed and pan-fried cakes are actually made from grated daikon so in Alma, chef Anna Chen calls them by the fairest "radish cake."

Chen, 36, often draws on his Hakka-Chinese background and upbringing in Calcutta, as well as time spent cooking at French and Italian restaurants like Figo and Scaramouche.

“I love pasta and noodles. You can call them pappardelle or thick hand cut noodles, the same goes for me.

Chen’s cuisine is part of a gastronomic shift in the city, as cooks continue to challenge outdated stereotypes about what Chinese food should be. For Chen’s cohort of millennial cooks who straddle the culture of their parents and the culture they cultivated in the digital age, authenticity is a relative term.

“I think being authentic means being true to yourself and doing it well,” said Chen, who once put a Black Forest cake on the menu as a memento of the birthday cake she would ask her. mother to buy him in a bakery in Kolkata. . “What is genuine to you and where you grew up is different from me, so who can say what is genuine? “

The rise of travel and gastronomy ideas shared on the Internet has changed menus more than ever.  In Alma, chef Anna Chen makes tapioca parmesan fritters, a Brazilian dish she says she's seen on her travels.

Eva Chin is the co-founder of The Soy Luck Club, a dinner series that explores the regional cuisine of Chinese banquet halls and what authenticity means to someone of Asian descent growing up in North America versus China.

“Our generation understands that we cook out of nostalgia and isolate different feelings and memories… Right now, my generation of cooks and chefs is reiterating their version of Chinese cuisine, and people are starting to understand that immigrant food is more than food. Food courts and street food, and it’s time to learn what this cuisine represents, ”said Chin, who is also the chef of The Avling Kitchen and Brewery in Leslieville.

Part of this learning comes from chefs who share more cooking techniques and origins of Chinese cuisine to try to prevent diners who did not grow up with Chinese cuisine from underestimating or misunderstanding cooking and, by extension, its inhabitants.

“The pandemic has exposed the injustice that is already happening in the world, and it (was) caught on social media because for a while social media was the only window you had, ”Chin said. “A lot of (Asian) seniors have been attacked, and even though my grandmother passed away, that was the first thing I thought about. It made me cook Chinese food to educate more people about it. It was all I could do.

Avling chef Eva Chin created The Soy Luck Club dining club to explore her Asian-American identity by cooking her versions of regional Chinese dishes.

For Chin, who is in her mid-30s, teaching others about her heritage food first required finding out what being Asian means to her – as someone born in Hawaii to a Samoan mother. -Hawaiian and a Singaporean-Chinese father, spent his teenage years in New York City and then moved to Toronto.

“I was 18 when I decided I had to learn to write my own name (in Chinese). My only regret was that I didn’t learn it early enough, ”said Chin, who learned to speak Mandarin and Cantonese fluently on her own before taking a year to backpack through China. “Being able to communicate with the elderly in their dialect taught me to honor their cooking before instilling my way of cooking.

For the first installment of her Soy Luck Club dinner series, which launched in October, she stood up in front of a small group of diners to explain her use of Loong Kong chicken, a special breed known for its thinness and common yellow color in the South-East. Chinese cuisine that lends itself well to poaching. “It’s a very specific chicken, for this specific dish,” she told the audience, while holding the dish.

The change in what is considered modern Chinese cuisine continues to evolve. Previously, it was popularized by chef Susur Lee and restaurants like downtown Lai Wah Heen that added foie gras to dumplings.

After that wave, there were chefs like Nick Liu, who opened DaiLo in 2014 on College Street, combining his Hakka-Chinese heritage with experience working in European restaurants and living abroad. Liu says the new generation of chefs refer to traditional dishes and flavors more often, compared to when he first launched DaiLo as a pop-up and incorporated family recipes into French-style dishes.

“One of our first vegetarian dishes was Brussels sprouts with fermented black beans and chili peppers and we had a lot of people who said they didn’t understand the flavors,” said Liu, 45. “But since (then) we’ve made dishes with mapo sauce, black bean-chili sauces that show a depth of flavor, fatty peppers that more people now understand. It just opens the floodgates of what we are capable of doing. Now we are playing with buffalo mozzarella and burrata to use in tofu dishes.

He says that over the years more and more diners have become familiar with regional Chinese cuisine and become familiar with the fermented and spicy flavors that he initially retreated to.

“Right now it’s amazing because there is no fear of anything. Diners will find the food breathtaking or interesting, but they will never say to themselves, “I don’t like this”. Maybe they’ll say, “I have to try several times” instead. “

Liu also recalls that one of the biggest challenges when he first opened the restaurant was to explain why the cost of eating in his restaurant is over $ 10 for char siu and rice at a butcher. Chinese.

“If you keep expecting to pay $ 10 for a bowl of hand-cooked noodles or the best barbecue you’ve ever had, we’re going to lose all that talent because the people they want to pass their know-how to aren’t. will not. do it because they are not going to make any money, ”Liu said.

“The idea that Chinese should be cheap will keep cooking from moving forward in a positive way… If you love to come here, but complain when the prices go up and these places close around you, how can you support these places ? “

He hopes diners’ preconceptions of what the costs should be will change as more chefs continue to talk about the history and significance of their versions of Chinese cuisine.

Chin of the Soy Luck Club, for her part, plans to continue telling these stories. Her next dinner will be a Lunar New Year’s menu at Avling, where she also plans to host dumpling and nian gao-making workshops for the holidays.

“I feel more emboldened at (talking about my food), not because (people) want to hear it, but because I don’t care whether they take it or not,” Chin said. “By telling these stories, it takes up space. We just need to do it more often. We do it because we can.

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