Opening minds – and tastebuds
IF YOU want to rile restaurateur Emma Chen, order sweet ’n sour pork. “There’s just so much more to try,” says Chen, the culinary force behind Johannesburg restaurants Red Chamber and Pron (People’s Republic of Noodles).
Chen has seen how South Africans have moved from sticking to three or four Chinese dishes, to slowly accepting new culinary norms.
“Growing up in Taiwan, I also had one idea of Western food.” Now Chinese foods like pi daan (100-year-old eggs) are quite ordinary for some South Africans.
The availability of more varied Chinese produce and ingredients mirrors the changed demographic of the Chinese in South Africa.
In the mid-1950s the Chinese in South Africa were regarded as second-class citizens, while apartheid quotas restricted arrivals.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the apartheid-era Nationalist Party looked to other world outcasts for trade. Taiwan, the breakaway island nation, proved attractive, leading to a wave of migration here.
In the late 1980s Chen, born in Taiwan arrived in South Africa.
Throughout her studies she waitressed at Chinese restaurants. As she finished a Master’s in business leadership through Unisa, the foodie bug bit hard, and by 1989 Chen had her first restaurant.
Food is an entry point to culture; a bridge for conversation and connection, she says. The Chinese footprint is growing on the continent, and in South Africa.
It’s also about the prominence of China on the global stage.
“It’s political, too,” Chen says, using chopsticks to slice the gelatinous wobble of a preserved duck’s egg.
It’s not really 100 years old, but after preservation for months in clay, ash, salt, lime and rice husks, it turns into a brown-black jelly, with its yolk a creamy mush.
Chen says as the dragon has stirred in the past two decades, the world has had to take notice of it – and its food.
In 1998, South Africa severed its diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favour of closer bonds with the People’s Republic of China.
China is now South Africa’s largest trading partner. There are thought to be between 200 000 and 300 000 Chinese in the country.
Chen prepares a “weird but wonderful” ingredients list: duck eggs, tofu, fresh bamboo shoots, wood ear fungus, seaweed, and mung bean glass noodles – as adventurous and as open as your taste buds and mind are willing to be.