Hello, Happy New Year, and welcome back to What China Wants. In today’s episode we look at what is probably the first aspect of Chinese culture that most people around the world encounter: its food. China’s cuisine is far more than its taste, and is a window on the country’s history and its society - something we explore in this episode.
We are joined by Michelin-starred chef, anthropologist and cultural observer Andrew Wong. Andrew is the head chef of Chinese restaurant A. Wong in London, and incredibly knowledgeable about the deeper side to China’s cuisine.
Here is a summary of our discussion:
Chinese food in the UK and Europe is developing almost into its own style, and has its own regional variations, especially in London.
Like other cultural aspects like movies and clothes, Chinese food is benefiting from an increase in public appreciation, partly driven by second and third generation Chinese living in the West.
A key cultural part of Chinese food is way it is eaten in a shared way, with plates on the table all at once. “The balance of flavour, the balance of texture, the balance of spice is not achieved through a single dish, but through a collection.”
We also discuss some of Andrew’s most popular dishes, and ask him what his last meal on Earth would be…
(In case you’re wondering why there are quite a few references to Christmas, we were meant to put this out a few days after Christmas Day, but our whole team was wiped out by the flu - hence it being a bit late. But better late than never.)
As always please do share, comment, and subscribe. We’ll be back soon with more What China Wants.
Many thanks for listening.
(In the meantime, if you would like more information about the Evenstar Institute and our research, then please email me email@example.com)
Here is the transcript:
Sam Olsen: Hello, and welcome back to What China Wants with me Sam Olsen. Sadly Stewart cannot be with us today because he is on family duty, but he is going to be missing out on a fantastic talk we have got lined up with Andrew Wong. This is part of our new cultural series that we are doing in conjunction to the politics and economics we have been spending the last year on. Andrew, it is incredibly nice to have you on to talk about Chinese cuisine. Welcome along.
Andrew Wong: Hi there, pleasure to be here. Always good to escape from the kitchen.
SO: Thank you. We are just recording this in the week running up to Christmas, which, in retrospect, is quite a busy time for Andrew to take time out of his schedule, so thank you very much for agreeing to be part of this. But if we could just go on to your bio, you are a third generation chef, and you own restaurant A Wong in Pimlico, London. And I think you spent six months travelling around China preparing for that, if I am right?
AW: Yes, I grew up between London and Hong Kong to start with, and obviously a lot of my family are in the industry, and a lot of my distant relatives are also in hospitality in Hong Kong. But yes, the trip primarily was really because I never really planned to be a chef. And so, one thing led to another, and it came to a point where it was very much "well, if you are going to open a Chinese restaurant, you should really go and spend some time with some friends that you have all over China and see what is going on there". So I packed my bags, I was meant to go with someone who pulled out last minute. It was a bit annoying, but it ended up being a blessing actually, because, travelling by yourself, you become really self-reliant, everything becomes very internal and individual as an experience. It was very much about me learning and trying to relate it to what we could possibly do in London, if we were to open a restaurant.
That was six months, but it felt like a lot longer, actually, because while we were out there, I was also building the restaurant while I was there, which made it doubly interesting. So, by the architects, the designers, I was getting sent something like 50 samples of wallpaper each day, 50 samples of possible chairs, at the same time while I was working in these hotels in China. Luckily, because of the time difference, it actually worked out quite well. You know, there is a break in the middle of the day, that is the perfect time for when London starts up again, to check all the emails during that break, then you go back after work. And so, it ended up being this cycle of basically building a restaurant and trying to learn and work in in hotels or restaurants for several months.
SO: Is that the restaurant that you now run in Pimlico that you were building?
AW: Yes. The restaurant that we have in Pimlico, originally, it was my father's restaurant. And then while I was at university, he passed away so we left it for a while, as I was deciding what I wanted to do and worked around London. He died in 2004. It was only in about 2010 did we really think okay, this is what we want to do. Let's try to put a plan together of how to make it happen.
SO: And so your father was also a restauranteur. Was it your grandfather as well?
AW: Yes, my grandfather had a restaurant in Chinatown.
SO: Right, when did he come over to the UK?
AW: So he came over to the UK in the 1970s. So he first had a restaurant in a town in the Midlands called Nuneaton, I do not know if it is familiar to anyone..?
SO: I grew up in in Leicestershire, so I used to go to Nuneaton because my granny lived nearby. So yes, that is not an ideal place to have a Chinese restaurant.
AW: Well, you know, but it's interesting, I mean for me to go back. And when we do, it is quite interesting because you really get to see how something such as 'Chinese cuisine', how it gets expressed in different ways according to different demographics, even within the UK. I do a lot of these interviews, and sometimes we talk about Chinese food across Europe. We talk about the fact that, in Paris, there is a very big Vietnamese community. So therefore, the Chinese food is kind of Vietnamese-slanted in some way. If you go to Holland, there are a lot of people from Suriname and Indonesia who look after the Chinese restaurants, so there is a reinterpretation of the cuisine there. But actually, even within the UK, Chinese food is expressed very, very differently between different regions within the UK.
SO: Yes, so I see it through coming back to live in the UK after a long time living in Asia and spending so much time in China. I was quite interested to go to the local Chinese where I now live for dinner to see what it was like. It was very different. It was Cantonese, theoretically, but very different Cantonese to anything I have ever had in Hong Kong. And then going back up north to see sort of relatives, going to another Chinese restaurant, the dishes were almost entirely different. That was the first time I had realised how different it is, it is almost as if it is evolving into its own food culture.
AW: It is, I think people - I mean, you are an anthropologist so you will probably understand exactly where I am coming from - I think people latch on to definitions and little bit too much, or they like to spend way too much time trying to pigeonhole everything, just for the sake of convenience or mental space. But actually, I always put it like this; the job of a chef primarily, regardless of where they are in the world, is to use their skill, to cook with the ingredients that are available to them, and to cook for the people who are around them. I think if you use that as the kind of the staple definition of what a chef is meant to do, actually authenticity is a very fluid kind of term, dependent on time, dependent on location, and depending on demographic of clientele. And sometimes, people when they experience things such as yourself and go, "Oh, I came back from Hong Kong and the food was so different." I think sometimes they automatically assume the other to be bad and the one in Hong Kong to be good, but I think that is sometimes the wrong way to look at things.
SO: Yes, because obviously, if you have travelled around China a lot, not all the food in China is great. You can have just as dodgy food in Xi'an as you can have great food in Xi'an.
AW: Exactly, and I remember when I when I was travelling, I carried around notebooks and was scribbling down everything that I thought was interesting, things that I saw for inspiration, bits that I had eaten, snacks like soft drinks, even gummy sweets that had very distinct textures, right. And I always say, out of every 50-60 things that I wrote in my notebook, I would probably only ever consider putting one, even possibly on the menu. Because I think we cook for such a different demographic in London, and I think as a restaurant, we are a very particular type of Chinese restaurant. And some of those dishes, they are great when you are in that experience, but that does not mean that they are automatically suitable for a London clientele in 2023.
SO: So, one of the things that I noticed about the Substack you do with Mukta Das (called XO Souced - everyone should check it out) was your discussion on the appropriation of different types of cuisines from around the world. Maybe people would be interested to know where you think that Chinese cooking in the UK is now. Is it much more regionalised in terms of taking inspiration from different parts of China, rather than just the Cantonese food that perhaps we mainly grew up with considering the amount of Hong Kong people that were here? Or do you think it is still kind of stuck in its Cantonese origin?
AW: No, no, I think Chinese food has evolved so much in London. I cannot answer for the whole of the UK because besides London and Nuneaton, I do not eat too much Chinese food in the UK because I do not really get out of London too much these days. But we are very lucky in in London, and I think we are our own worst enemy in London. I think a lot of people are too quick to kind of go "Oh, well this is not right. That is not right." Actually, we are very lucky; if you compare us to North America, you compare us to the whole of Europe, we have an incredible regionality that exists for Chinese food in London.
There are restaurants, as I said, there is Xi'an restaurants, Xinjiang restaurants, Sichuanese hotpot has become like a staple for Chinese food as Cantonese food was in the 1980's, Sichuanese food is now becoming a well-known cuisine within Chinese cuisine. And in talking professionally, never in my career have I had so much interest from peers with regards to Chinese technique, Chinese ingredients, and Chinese gastronomy in general. I think that really goes to show the way that Chinese food has become so widely appreciated within the UK, and I think that is very special, and very unique in comparison to, as I said, the rest of Europe and even North America.
SO: Yes, that is interesting, and I think there will be quite a few people surprised to hear that. We have had a lot of good Chinese food in London, and after many years of living and working in China it is good that the variety exists here. But in terms of the wider side, how do you think that British people are evolving their tastes for Chinese food, and Asian food more generally? Because you just awarded a second Michelin star I think, is that right?
AW: Two years ago.
SO: Two years ago, and the first Chinese restaurant to achieve that outside of Asia?
SO: Very well done. But, do you think that would have happened 5 or 10 years ago? Do you think that the attitude to Chinese food in Europe, and in the UK more specifically, was different then and actually you are kind of riding a crest of a wave of interest in Chinese food, not just with your friendly chefs, but the public as a whole?
AW: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I wish it was the fact that, you know, I am such an amazing chef with so much talent that it is just shining through and Michelin have to... It is really not the case, it is very circumstantial, and we are in a very privileged position, at a very privileged moment in time, where, you know, I think the Chinese community are really making waves within the UK. Everyone, regardless whether it is gastronomy, or it is fine art, or it is acting, or it is politics, there is this big movement and a moment of second generation, and third Chinese generations really - what is that anthropological... ‘heritagisation,’ I think, is the term - really embracing their pasts, and trying to influence their futures using it. I think this is a very modern time, with the ability and the kind of cultural situation that we are in where it is able to flourish. We are very lucky to be in this moment in time and, and I am merely just one of the participants who are using gastronomy as the way of expressing my past to a 2023 curious diner.
SO: So one of the things that you have talked about on your on your Substack and your podcast is the anthropology of food. And I suppose something that sprung to my mind in terms of Chinese food is that when I first properly experienced if it felt a very different experience eating, much more focused on a shared dining experience. Is that something you think that has managed to make its way into Chinese food consumption over in the UK, and in the West? Or do you think that you will never really be able to replicate that traditional Chinese sharing culture outside of a proper Chinese family?
AW: I think that is a really good question. I think it is such an important definition of how people eat. I think the way people eat is sometimes even more important than actually what is on the plate sometimes. And you know, Michelin are a great example of this, because in a Michelin Guide that rewards restaurants, according to what they perceive to be great, or good, whatever it is. But as a guide, they are used to judging French cuisine, which is based around the fact that you get three courses, and each course you judge them, accordingly, as a course. So when you talk about whether a dish is good, or whether it is bad, you are talking about a balance of flavours within a single dish.
I think when you talk about Chinese cuisine, if you then throw into the pot the fact that actually that is not how you eat Chinese food. You eat Chinese food by having a collection of dishes, so that the balance of flavour, the balance of texture, the balance of spice is not achieved through a single dish, necessarily, but it is achieved through a collection. And I think that is a conundrum for guys like Michelin, which I think they are dealing with very well, but one they are dealing with on a daily basis in trying to adapt to this reconstruction of what is a meal.
I think people in the UK for example, they need to understand that the idea of having a three course Chinese meal is a cultural construct that was created in the 1970s. It is completely foreign to anyone in China to have a Chinese in a three course meal. It does not make sense, it has no relevance. And when you go to a banquet or something and they say it is a 11 course banquet, or 12 course banquet, they are not talking about 12 courses coming one by one like this Western construct of what a tasting menu is. When they say 12 courses, normally they are talking about collections, so they might come in fours, they might come in fives, you get a big soup in the middle, you get some big steamed fish.
But it is not the idea that you are getting one dish at a time, it is just all bang in the middle. And then if you are talking about the Han-Manchu banquets in the Qing Dynasty, you are talking about hundreds of dishes all at the same time. Some of them are pickled, some of them are cold, some of them are hot, some of them are cured. That is traditionally, culturally how we eat in China, and I think, when you transpose that onto a Western culture, I think there needs to be a bridge for people to navigate that difference in order to really appreciate the cuisine.
SO: Yes, and you are completely right, but I think it is important to note that the way that we eat in the West now is itself a relatively recent construct. I mean, the evolution of food in the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s was very rapid. For example, in the 1600s in England, you would often eat big slabs of meat, but with meat puddings next to it, and a meat pudding was actually like a sausage. You could have different types of meat but in a skin, and you would have lots of things plonked on the table at once. It was not until the 1700s and 1800s that vegetables started making an appearance, and that was actually a French construct as well. So over the 1700s, especially in the 1800s, we did see this sort of Frenchification (or whatever the word is) of food in England.
That has evolved to what we see today. But for anyone just say that this is the way we have always eaten is mistaken. I am sure that it is the same with Chinese food as well. Even though you have got this same concept around traditional sharing, the types of food would have changed. Because at the end of the day, Chinese food - like any food - is rooted in China's history, right? You must be able to see a lot of the historical stuff that has happened to China through its food.
AW: Well, yes, it would have made it a lot easier if the revolutionists did not burn down the Forbidden City and every bit of archive in there related to the journals of what the Emperors were eating. But from what we have recollected, and what we have managed to dig back up, there was a very, very rich history of Chinese food. Actually, if anything, it is probably more related to traditional Chinese medicine more so than just history. I think when you talk about the historical aspect, you are really talking about availability of ingredients from what I see. But as a gastronomy it is 3,000 years old. When it comes to technique, there are very few techniques that have not been explored within Chinese gastronomy, even purely through trial and error. So yes there is a very deep history of Chinese food that, for me anyway, relates more to TCM and Buddhist origins more than anything.
SO: TCM being 'Traditional Chinese Medicine'?
SO: Yes, that is a very good point. And I think that it is also important to know that Chinese food is always evolving, right? I mean, look at you, you are the embodiment of the evolution of Chinese food. You are serving things that would not have been served in China 20 or 30 years ago, and may not be served widely in China today. But how do you think that Chinese chefs like yourself, are you making an impact on Chinese food back in China do you think? Or is it just a one way street?
AW: You know, I think with the world that we live in now, there is no such thing as a 'one way street' purely because of things like social media. I see many chefs who just for the sake of convenience, they put themselves under headings as being 'modern French' chefs or 'modern British' chefs. But actually, if you look at their cuisines, it is very much world cuisine. Purely for myself, I think our cuisine, you know, we call it Chinese, but that really is just for the sense of convenience. I think more so what we do is that we are trying to celebrate particular parts of Chinese gastronomy, which in turn, celebrate Chinese culture.
So, whether it be celebrating the fact that China borders 14 other countries, and the fact that obviously, with that will come massively diverse gastronomy. Or we are talking about the art of dim sum, and we try to make comparisons between European pastry chefs and dim sum chefs. I am beginning to show the incredible overlay and things that they have in common with two seemingly very different arts when people look at it. Or we are talking about, as you said, the sharing aspect, so effectively in a really horrible kind of way, we are forcing our guests to eat in this collection way by basically removing a la carte menu, and ensuring that all our guests have to embrace this experience when they eat with us. Now, these are all things which I think somewhere along the line have the possibility to basically get people to recalibrate their preconceptions, and their own histories of the way that they have interacted with Chinese food.
SO: Okay so, time to tickle the tastebuds a little bit. Tell us about some of your favourite dishes that we could expect at A. Wong.
AW: So there is a few, I am very proud of certain dishes. Some of them might be very traditional dishes. There are things like the Shanghai dumpling, which is traditionally a soup dumpling where you bite into it, and you basically get a big flood of soup in your mouth. So we slightly modify it, we do something very special with the dough so we laminate the dough about 50 times before we make this dumpling to make it super watertight. And then we increase the amount of soup into it so it has got a real, strong, rich broth inside. And then traditionally, the way that you eat it in the streets of Shanghai is that you get a dip of ginger-infused vinegar to dip your dumplings into. And I remember it used to always annoy me that people used to put way too much vinegar, to the point that you are ruining the chef's work. We changed that slightly, we use a hypodermic needle and we inject the vinegar into the dumpling before we serve it. So when the guests eats it, it is a single explosion in a mouth with the vinegar mixing with the pork broth. And we serve it with a tiny bit of pickled tapioca and some candied ginger on top.
The dish in itself is very, very traditional. But all I can do is basically find ways that I think complement the dish and really get people to go, "Oh, I have never had it like this, I am going to go back and I am going to go and try more Shanghai dumplings from other restaurants and see how I like them and how they are different." And you know, no one Shanghai dumpling is the best or the worst, right? They are just different interpretations of the same dish. And it is very much about, just like wine, the more you try, the more you build up this kind of memory or database of food memories. And then you get to make your own decisions of what you think is a good one, or what you think is a not so good one.
SO: And anyone that has been to Shanghai and has had those dumplings on the back streets and experienced lots of different types, the range is phenomenal. I have had a couple of bad ones, but generally, they are completely amazing and wonderful experiences, especially when you are with local people and they are taking pleasure in showing you their favourite restaurants as well. It is a great experience.
AW: Sure, I always say like, in Shanghai, after a night out or halfway through even, sometimes in the winter, it is pretty cold. You go to some of these the street stores, and the Shanghai dumpling, obviously the dough is quite thick. It is not because the chef does not have the skill to make a thinner dough, they absolutely do. It is the fact that they are catering to that market. You know, when you have had three or four beers or maybe more, you want to have something a little bit more substantial, you want to have more dough along with the soup and a little bit more meat, so that you can really keep going for the rest of the night. It is very much not the fact that Shanghai dumplings have to have really, really thin doughs. It is our choice and my choice as a chef to try to do that. But that is only because it is a culinary choice on my part.
SO: So it is about to be Christmas, and we actually just recorded another podcast about China and Christmas. One of the things we were talking about is the adoption of certain cultural references into China from Western Christmas tradition, but also the fact that many were not. Turkey obviously is not widely used or had on Christmas Day in China, do you do anything in your restaurant to sort of bring the two traditions together, Christmas and China?
AW: Simplest way, no. I think if anything, I like to think that the Christmas spirit that we that we try to bring is very much through interaction and a kind of warmth, and that kind of spirit that the staff can bring when they are serving the food. I am not a big fan of changing a menu according to festivities, because I think some people do not remember, a lot of the dishes that we develop, sometimes they can take years to develop. So it is not the case that we can just go "oh, well, we will just replace that with turkey, or we will just put some brussel sprouts on that or we will put some parsnips on that". They have taken a long time to develop. Any one of our menus in the evening is made up of 18 or 19 courses each time.
If anything is more about celebrating the beauty of commensality, of eating together around a dinner table. And that really is what all these festivities are always about, regardless of whether it is Chinese New Year, it is Mid-Autumn Festival, if it is you know, unfortunately, the festivals of the dead, or it is Christmas or Easter. Ultimately, regardless of culture, they always come back to the fact that normally, you are sitting around a table with your loved ones trying to share experiences together.
SO: I think actually, that is quite good way to end the podcast. Because one of the things that we have tried to do over a number of years we have been doing this now is to is to show that China is different, yes, but actually, there is a huge amount of commonality in everything from politics and economics, to culture and food. And actually, it is far better to look at the ways that we have got in common, rather than trying to look at the differences. And the food I suppose, is one of those things where we can learn from each other, but also really enjoy the different experiences, ingredients and dishes, and so on. And I think the world would be a very poorer place if we did not have that ability to tap into those different traditions.
But on that note, my final question is, you obviously were born and raised in the UK, you spent a lot of time in China, you run a fantastically successful Chinese restaurant. If you have got one last meal on earth, what would it be? Would it be a Chinese meal? Would it be a cheeky pizza?
AW: It would definitely be Chinese food. No matter how many cuisines I eat around the world, there always comes a finite time where I go, "You know what, I would just like to have some really homely Chinese food." Normally something very simple like a steamed sea bass with some white rice with a really beautiful soy dressing. Nothing complicated. I am a massive noodle fan, so I will eat noodles in any capacity whatsoever. Any chef will tell you, the food that we enjoy to eat in private is normally rooted in kind of homely flavours and things that are really heart-warming and hugging.
SO: Brilliant, well thank you so much. So just for everyone, what is the address of your restaurant in Pimlico?
AW: So, we are in a very non-trendy part of Pimlico. It is in between Pimlico and Victoria, it is on Wilton road, about two minutes away from the station.
SO: Great, that is easy for travellers and your Substack is XO Soused, and I wish you a very happy Christmas and a fantastic 2023 Andrew and thank you so much for spending your time. I know you have got to go back into the kitchen now, but it has been really good to talk to you and I look forward to hearing more Michelin stars landing your way.
AW: Thank you, and Merry Christmas to everyone.
SO: Take care, bye!
AW: Take care!