The French had their bistronomy movement. The Spanish went molecular. The Scandinavians made locavorism cool, and America went Californian. The Japanese took everybody's style and did it a lot better; even in Singapore, Gordon Ramsay upped the hip quotient of hawker food. So what is China - and Chinese chefs - doing about its food?
A couple of weeks ago, Nestle Professional organised a symposium, The Way of the Wok, to explore Chinese food trends and the challenges of staying relevant in a culinary scene dominated by celebrity chefs and food media.
One of the symposium's guest speakers, Chen Zhao-lin, is head of a small but influential movement that is shaping Taiwan's food scene. Called Gu Zao Wei or "old flavours", their manifesto is to revive a dining tradition pushed to the fringes in the 1980s when affluence drew diners towards foreign fast food chains and western cuisine.
Masterchef Chen is the fourth generation owner of the renowned Du Hsiaw Uyea Taiwan Seafood Cuisine in Yilan, Taiwan. He has been faithful to the roots of the restaurant which opened in 1969, cooking only with local seasonal produce and anchoring his recipes in history.
Masterchef Chen is supported by Taiwanese gourmands who have in recent years "revolted" against western food and developed a fascination with their culinary roots - which started out as post-WWII "survival" food where impoverished Taiwanese pickled as much bamboo shoot, radish and mustard as they could to stretch their food supplies for as long as possible. With these basics, the Taiwanese made tasty comfort food for their families, spawning a food culture different from that of mainland China.
Fujian and Japan were major influences on Taiwanese culture, and Masterchef Chen's cooking reflects this in the use of red-wine lees, shallot oil and soy sauce (all borrowed from Fujian) as key seasonings. However, in technique and presentation, he takes an eclectic approach, borrowing freely from western and Japanese contemporary ideas, including individual service and wabi-sabi inspired plating. To bite into something avant garde, and encounter the taste of a dimly remembered comfort food, describes Masterchef Chen's aesthetic. While revisiting and reinventing heritage form the heart of the Gu Zao Wei movement in Taiwan, its mainland Chinese counterpart would be the Yi Jing Cai - literally translated as "ambience, landscape, food". This new gastronomic movement is led by a small but influential coterie of Northern chefs who literally do triple duty as poets and artists. Poetry and the beauty of nature are captured through food and presentation, but that's not all. The food, at its best, has to embody colour, scent, taste, visual delight, nutrition, health, and the joy of eating.
That's why a Yi Jing Cai dish is stunning to look at, and sometimes, so are the chefs. Such as Zhang Jinjie, one of the movement's earliest proponents who founded the ultra-chic Green T House in Beijing in 1997 (she was also the muse behind Tung Lok's My Humble House). Chef Zhang is a Beijing-born classical yangqin musician turned tea connoisseur and avant garde restaurateur who turned eating and tea drinking into a new lifestyle ethos known as New China.
Masterchef Qu Hao is principal of the renowned Qu Hao Vocational Cooking School of Beijing (who was also a guest speaker at the symposium) spells out the movement's mission statement: The practitioner must first understand the nation's food history, especially the eight major cuisines of China, because the fusion of flavours and techniques is one of the aims.
The blurring and merging of culinary identity has its critics but advocates of Yi Jing Cai make no apologies. When a chef has solid knowledge of the basics of the eight cuisines, he would have the confidence and courage to create new tastes and new dishes "to move forward while safeguarding the tradition", declares Masterchef Qu.
Fellow proponent of the Yi Jing Cai movement is Beijing-based chef Dong Zhenxiang, who may be better known as the owner of Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant but is considered to be one of China's top culinary avant garde practitioners. His approach to the "vast China concept" (as he calls the Yi Jing Cai movement) is infused with the influence of four major Chinese cuisines, namely Shandong, Sichuan, Huaiyang and Guangdong. Chef Dong is widely seen as being instrumental to Yi Qing Cai's popularity at home, and, through his international appearances, its growing reputation abroad.
Already, in Taiwan and China, other chefs are catching on. The work of Chef Lin Ping-hui, who in 2003 founded Shi Yang Shan Culture in Taipei, is similarly steeped in the cross currents of time, place, and nostalgia. Chef Lin, who was cuisine adviser to the movie Eat Drink Man Woman II, believes that food can be a vehicle for spiritual, even moral, uplift. He bases his dishes on the comfort foods of Fujian, from which a large portion of Taiwanese migrated. His aesthetics are rooted in the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 AD) - the same historical source of Japan's Zen spirituality and art; and this imbues his plating with an austere, meditative and natural quality.
Back in China, the desire to search and preserve drives Chef Shu Mai, 29, a "young gun" shaking up the gastronomic scene in southern China. Chef Shu runs a private kitchen, 102 House, in the city of Foshan in Guangzhou, where he serves dishes dating back to the 1950s and 60s. Chef Shu trained under the venerated specialist of Foshan-style Cantonese food, Masterchef Chen Da Ben, inheriting many of his master's written recipes. He adds to this trove constantly with old documents and out-of-print cookbooks.
Chef Shu faces a unique problem: being too young to have ever tasted some of these recipes, he desperately seeks out tasters who have. "Many of these dishes have disappeared," he laments. "And the people who have eaten them are also becoming fewer by the day - but I need them because only they can help me fine tune these dishes!"
In Singapore, Chef Zhang's original partnership with the Tung Lok group helped to launch the modern Chinese movement, followed by Canadian chef Susur Lee's work with Club Chinois in 1997. Cooking techniques, ingredients and new equipment from all over the world were introduced then; plating and serving styles changed; and French wine was served alongside Chinese tea. Other progressive chefs such as Sam Leong pushed forward with the innovations, although they were not always seen in the best light, especially by purists with a fixed idea of how Chinese food should be presented.
That accounts for why the new movements in Chinese cuisine are still in their infancy. They remain in flux, absorbing influences from everywhere - French fine dining, Spanish molecular, Japanese kaiseki and wabi-sabi aesthetic - but have yet to settle on an identity. But it is clear that on the tables of Chinese gastronomy, things will never be the same. The fuse has already been lit.
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