Open­ing minds – and taste­buds

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - NEWS - UFRIEDA HO

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.

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