SLOW FOOD CAN­TONESE STYLE

In the heart of Foshan, one off-the-beaten-track restau­rant is qui­etly re­viv­ing an­cient Can­tonese culinary tra­di­tions and al­most-for­got­ten dishes. Jan­ice Leung Hayes dis­cov­ers its se­crets

Singapore Tatler - - LIFE | FOOD - Pho­tog­ra­phy PIM YANAPRASART

MAK­ING HIS­TORY

Clock­wise from above left: tra­di­tional Can­tonese teas are served at 102 House; sweet and sour pork with pick­led young gin­ger; chef Xu Jingye; rice steamed in lo­tus leaf. Op­po­site: win­ter melon soup

In 2006, when xu jingye and yao min started 102 House, a one-ta­ble pri­vate kitchen fo­cus­ing on Can­tonese cui­sine in the city of Foshan, about an hour west of Guangzhou, they looked to Hong Kong for knowl­edge and in­spi­ra­tion. They de­cided to claim their venture as “fu­sion”—an ex­per­i­ment to blend Guang­dong’s tra­di­tions with those of their plusher neigh­bour. “It was so-called cre­ative cui­sine,” re­calls Xu. “But cus­tomers weren’t re­turn­ing. We knew that what we were do­ing wasn’t right.” Look­ing to hone the recipes they were play­ing with, Xu found a sifu, or men­tor—a man whose name Xu wouldn’t dis­close, who has been a vet­eran of high-end Can­tonese kitchens for decades. Un­der his guid­ance, he and his part­ner Yao, both in their thir­ties, be­gan shift­ing their at­ten­tion to Can­tonese cui­sine in its purest, old­est form. “Nei­ther of us was born in the age where Can­tonese cui­sine was at its most glo­ri­ous,” Xu says. “We never ex­pe­ri­enced it, so our knowl­edge and un­der­stand­ing of Can­tonese clas­sics was the same as most other peo­ple, in that we didn’t know much about them. My sifu had worked in grand ho­tels in the 1960s and cooked dishes that I’d never seen or tasted be­fore. He sug­gested that I start again and learn the fun­da­men­tals of Can­tonese cui­sine.” Xu started dig­ging up old recipes and cook­books and be­gan to try his hand at re­pro­duc­ing them. He made tiny coins of chicken minced by hand, served on top of pig skin to in­cor­po­rate a lit­tle of the fat­ti­ness, de­signed to float in a milky, slow-cooked tonic soup of black chicken and al­monds. He also steamed pi­geon breast with shi­itake that had been al­lowed to grow past its prime. “I would go straight to my sifu if there was some­thing I didn’t un­der­stand and he would teach me, step by step. He

taught me how the dish should taste, what its true point of dif­fer­ence is and how to achieve it. In those early days, we re­ally re­lied on him to help us find our bear­ings,” Xu says. “He made me un­der­stand what Can­tonese food is re­ally about. Can­tonese food is clean, umami, crunchy, ten­der, smooth (‘qing, xian, shuang, nen, hua’), and you should achieve th­ese qual­i­ties us­ing the veg­eta­bles that na­ture pro­vides through the sea­sons. When you fully un­der­stand th­ese con­cepts, you’ll un­der­stand Can­tonese food.” One of the eight culinary tra­di­tions of Chi­nese cui­sine, Can­tonese gastronomy is per­haps the coun­try’s most in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nised, given the high num­ber of Can­tonese em­i­grants the world over. Its style of cook­ing prefers brais­ing, stew­ing and saute­ing over the flash-fry method used in the cuisines of other Chi­nese re­gions, and in­cor­po­rates sauces that tend to be sweet and thick, such as hoisin, plum and oys­ter sauces. It re­lies heav­ily on in­dige­nous in­gre­di­ents whose flavours are kept in­tact, as well as an­i­mals (or parts of them) that might sound un­ap­petis­ing to some but are tied to the times of hardship Can­tonese peo­ple of­ten en­dured in their his­tory, and their abil­ity to make art out of ne­ces­sity, us­ing snakes, goose webs, cock­erel tes­ti­cles, cow in­nards and pig shanks. Xu and Yao em­braced all this al­most to the let­ter, start­ing with the lo­ca­tion of 102 House. By 2009, the pair had moved their pri­vate kitchen into an old residence in Foshan, in a quiet neigh­bour­hood tucked be­hind hec­tic main thor­ough­fares. Like many Chi­nese cities, Foshan’s roads are choked with traf­fic and ex­plod­ing with LED sig­nage. But in this slim, three-storey house, au­to­matic glass doors make way for a rus­tic wooden door­way, and the sound of honk­ing car horns is re­placed by sooth­ing sounds of gen­tle trick­ling from the wa­ter

fea­ture in the petite court­yard. “We hope that peo­ple who come here can slow down, take a breath and truly ap­pre­ci­ate what we have to of­fer,” says Yao. Al­though they started with one ta­ble, th­ese days they can ac­com­mo­date three par­ties at once, al­though Xu is hes­i­tant to ex­pand beyond that. “When you have to serve too many ta­bles, it’s very hard to keep the quality high and to do things in such de­tail. I like dishes that have a lot of finer as­pects, so I’d rather serve fewer ta­bles but keep fine-tun­ing the de­tails,” he says. Such de­tails are what makes 102 House remarkable. Xu and Yao source all their in­gre­di­ents sea­son­ally. In many in­stances, they would have spent months re­search­ing them through old Chi­nese cook­books. Rather than ac­quir­ing prod­ucts by way of wet mar­kets or on­line sup­pli­ers, they have built close re­la­tion­ships with the mak­ers and traders of spe­cific items they use in their dishes. “More than once, we would take up their ex­cess stock just to show that we re­ally wanted to work with them,” says Yao, men­tion­ing as an ex­am­ple their reg­u­lar fish­mon­ger, who pro­vides them with the best pos­si­ble seafood. To Xu and Yao, sourc­ing lo­cally is a no-brainer. When Xu says, “The shi­itakes are from the north,” he means the north­ern bor­der of Guang­dong province. The story of Guang­dong as a place is what they are try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate, which, apart from his­tor­i­cal con­text, also means show­cas­ing the pro­duce in the cor­rect sea­son. “When peo­ple [in China] talk about sea­son­al­ity, they of­ten think about Ja­pa­nese cui­sine, but Chi­nese food is very sea­sonal—be it in Guang­dong, Suzhou, Zhe­jiang, Bei­jing or Shan­dong. You wouldn’t get the same in­gre­di­ents through­out the year, you wouldn’t use the same flavours all-year round, nor would you serve the same dishes.” He adds that while those in Hong Kong are lucky enough to have the world’s best in­gre­di­ents shipped and flown in, the flavours of the re­gion have fallen by the way­side. Xu says, “How I see it is that if you’re cook­ing Can­tonese food, then you need Can­tonese flavours, which would nat­u­rally come from Can­tonese in­gre­di­ents. I try my best to find things grown and made here. Of course even in the past, Can­tonese food has used in­gre­di­ents from abroad, and if th­ese are things that have a his­tory of work­ing well in Can­tonese cui­sine, I’m happy to use them.” Most meals at 102 House are 11 to 13 cour­ses, which change ac­cord­ing to what Xu is able to get from his sup­pli­ers. On a sum­mer menu, four out of 11 cour­ses are soups. In Western cuisines, soups, apart from cold ones, are seen as win­ter foods, but to the Can­tonese, soups are for all sea­sons, and liq­uids are par­tic­u­larly favoured for be­ing less tax­ing on the body in the in­tense sum­mer heat. Gourds such as win­ter melon are a clas­sic sum­mer veg­etable, and at 102 House, it is made into a soup that uses sim­i­lar in­gre­di­ents to the im­pos­ing carved win­ter melon soup of­ten seen at ban­quets. How­ever, th­ese in­di­vid­ual bowls have a sense of majesty of their own, as each one is lined dra­mat­i­cally with a large lo­tus leaf, mak­ing it look like a Medici col­lar. The win­ter melon is roughly pureed and com­bined with crab, chicken and lo­tus seeds as well as two flowers—lily and cowslip creeper, a na­tive Chi­nese plant whose flowers are also called yex­i­anghua, or “night fra­grance flowers”. “My food is def­i­nitely rooted in tra­di­tion but I some­times add my own ideas,” says Xu. “One of the things my sifu taught me is to think for my­self and not blindly fol­low recipes. Just be­cause you fol­low a recipe to a T doesn’t mean it’s right. Some­times, I change things to cre­ate more com­plex­ity of flavour; other times it might be a mat­ter of aes­thet­ics. Aes­thet­ics change with time, and the ref­er­ence books I read are from a dif­fer­ent time, so you can’t al­ways fol­low them ex­actly.” Also fea­tured in the sum­mer is a de­cep­tively sim­ple-look­ing dish of a few pearles­cent orbs with few adorn­ments in­clud­ing a branch laid el­e­gantly on top. It turns out they are sauteed ly­chees stuffed with a smear of minced shrimp and fatty pork. Each mouth­ful bursts with the sweet juices of the fruit, which is al­most too much un­til it is tem­pered by the lit­tle core of umami. From crunchy sum­mer bam­boo poached in stock to caramelised pineap­ple in their sig­na­ture Foshan-style sweet and sour pork dish, and the cold ly­chee red tea served as dessert, every bite is de­signed to give the diner a taste of sum­mer. “In Can­tonese cui­sine, sea­son­al­ity is es­pe­cially im­por­tant. It af­fects the or­der the dishes come dur­ing a ban­quet, which in­gre­di­ents you choose, and how you change your bal­ance of flavours—th­ese are all as­pects of eat­ing that few peo­ple re­mem­ber,” Xu says. “If you’ve ever been to a Can­tonese-style wed­ding ban­quet, you’d know that there’s a cer­tain or­der that dishes are ex­pected in—cold ap­pe­tis­ers to start fol­lowed by roast meats, soup, meat and veg­eta­bles in the mid­dle, seafood to­wards the end, and plates of rice and noo­dles to round off the savoury dishes be­fore dessert. At 102 House, things fall into the same pat­tern, but it’s not out of habit,” he con­tin­ues. “In Can­tonese fine din­ing, the or­der in which the dishes are pre­sented should re­flect the (choice of ) in­gre­di­ents, the changes in the sea­sons and the bal­ance of flavours.” On a win­ter evening, richer dishes like baked conch and roe from lo­cal crabs could be fol­lowed by a thick bird’s nest and chicken soup, which is a shift to­wards a lighter, palate-cleans­ing flavour. But the vis­cos­ity of the soup and choice of in­gre­di­ents (chicken and bird’s nest are both seen as nour­ish­ing foods in Chi­nese medicine) mean that the hearti­ness re­quired of win­ter sus­te­nance is not for­got­ten. It is an ap­proach to din­ing that can be com­pared to the con­cept of slow food in the West. And it is draw­ing crowds: 102 House has be­come a mecca of sorts among food en­thu­si­asts in the re­gion, and Xu and Yao, hailed as ris­ing hot shots in the re­viv­ing of old Can­tonese culinary tra­di­tions, have been asked to host pop-up din­ners both in Hong Kong and Sin­ga­pore. Ul­ti­mately, it is re­viv­ing those tra­di­tions, more than flaunt­ing their venture, that th­ese young chefs are re­ally in­ter­ested in. “We knew we’d be do­ing [this project] for a while,” says Yao. “But we don’t have a goal for how long the restau­rant should be around,” adds Xu. “Our main hope is that 102 House will help din­ers re­dis­cover the al­lure of Can­tonese food.”

TRA­DI­TIONAL TOUCHES 102 House is tucked away in­side an old residence in Foshan com­plete with tra­di­tional de­tails such as this lamp­shade and an­tique fur­ni­ture (cen­tre). Far right: a dish of crab and egg­plant

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