Andrew Wong has made a name for himself cooking innovative Chinese food at A Wong in London's Victoria. Speaking at our 2017 Restaurant Congress event by Restaurant magazine - held last week ahead of the 2017 Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards - he addressed the crowd to bust some Chinese cooking myths, and highlight how sophisticated some Chinese cooking can be.
"The reception that we've seen from chefs has been amazing, and I think the main reason for that is that chefs are interested in technique," Wong says.
"I understand that Chinese food means different things to different people, but I think there's a lot of be said for the techniques we use, especially the more I learn about them, and all the myths and misconceptions people have about Chinese food."
Top 6 myths
Myth 1. The food in China is ALL amazing
Photo: Provided by A. Wong
"We always get people coming into the restaurant saying 'everything in China is delicious'. That is bullsh*t. You go to Hong Kong, I kid you not, one of the most popular restaurant items is what can only be described as spam, with a fried egg, broth and some more spam.
"The tea often comes with condensed milk to make it extra sweet, and sometimes you even get tea and coffee mixed together. People who travel to China and then say, 'It's ALL amazing'...that's just a misinterpretation of Chinese food."
2. I'm Chinese, so I must know everything about all of Chinese cuisine
Photo: China / Creative Commons
"People come to the restaurant and say, 'You must know everything about ALL of China'. But that would be impossible. China has 14 international countries that border it. A fifth of the land is Muslim and they don't eat any pork. Elsewhere, pork is a staple.
"In other places they don't even eat rice, they eat noodles or buns. People come to me and expect me to know everything, but I can't. I don't. One time I went to a restaurant in Szechuan and I can only describe what came out as a bowl of pond water with a mushroom floating in the middle. Half the things I eat in China I wouldn't or couldn't take anywhere near my restaurant."
3. Chinese food in the UK is totally Westernised
Photo: Chinatown London / Wikipedia
"This is not always true. We are very lucky in the UK that often Chinese food in London's Chinatown is often quite authentic; on a par with China and Hong Kong. The dim sum especially.
"The style of Chinese food in London goes hand in hand with immigration. From the 60s-70s until a few years ago, all the Chinese people in London were from Hong Kong and Guandong. So it was always going to be food from there. Now, we have more people from Szechuan and the north, and we're starting to see more of that regional food coming through."
4. Proper Chinese food is 'authentic' and never changes
Photo: Beef in XO sauce / Creative Commons
"People always think Chinese food is 'one thing', and for the next 100 years it's not allowed to change, and if you try to change it, it's not 'authentic'. But Chinese food is constantly evolving.
"Think of a Chinese hot pot, with chilli. But chilli didn't reach China until the 16th century. So inehrently, the signature dish of the entire era is not authentic, because chillis aren't authentic.
"And take XO sauce. Every menu now has it on, there's a fascination with it. But it's not authentic. It was designed in the 1970s by Hong Kong chefs who wanted to make the most expensive sauce. So it's no more than 35 years old, and now you get it in 'authentic' dishes in London...XO sauce with fermented rabbit's arse or something! Chinese food evolves.
"The Chinese government now is trying to change around 30% of the rice crops to be potato crops, as apparently they require less water. So if China has an influx of potatoes, what are you going to get in 10-15 years' time?! We'll probably get chips. Chips and XO sauce! Nothing is timeless. We always think Chinese cooking doesn't move, but it does."
5. Chinese techniques are straightforward and easy to do 'at home'
(Photo: Pork belly / Creative Commons)
"Unfortunately, I've found that's not always true. Take Peking duck. It's a seriously classic dish - there are etchings from the Hang dynasty that are 4000 years old, showing chefs making this dish. And it's impossible to do it properly at home. You need to have an oven that's big enough to hang a duck vertically, and it takes 24-48 hours to dry after it's been blanched.
"You start cooking it at a low temperature, increasing every five minutes. It starts at 120 degrees and ends at 240.
"The way I make it, the skin is like a laquered piece of glass, and your window for eating it until it starts to get soft again is about 6 to 7 minutes. The skin should be so firm that it will sit there and hold itself under its own weight. Cantonese people make it an incredible art.
"Crispy pork belly too: the secret ingredient is bicarb of soda, not salt. You simmer it all over the top layer of skin, and that begins to break down the protein, which allows you to roast it, and it prevents the really rock-hard layer being created. We also use a hammer to whack it a thousand times, and that makes a thousand tiny holes, and that will prevent the skin from flaring up. It becomes incredible, it's like a biscuit crumb."
6. Dim sum means heavy starches
The custard dim sum is a favourite at A.Wong
"Dim sum is always going to be very cross-cultural and interesting, and it doesn't always mean wheat starch or heavy starch.
"The style of eating is very enjoyable, with lots of small plates that allow sharing and talking between guests and chefs. From a technical point of view, they are also really interesting for chefs, especially in today's age of gluten-free and coeliac awareness. Chinese starch is not centred on wheat, some of it is coeliac friendly and is derived from potato flour, water chestnut flour, rice flour and a whole host of other types. It's very varied."