Shanghai Express – Asian Bay Celebrates Regional Cooking
As we barrel ahead into the 21st century, the world shrinks, figuratively, to the size of my childhood tin globe. It sat on my dresser and intrigued me as I spun it around and around, wondering what all those multicolored countries were – and what they ate in them. World cuisines were once defined by gross generalizations. “Continental Cuisine” was touted to the gastronomically challenged American public as elegance nonpareil. Then Julia Child, Marcella Hazan et al taught us that the “continent” was in fact comprised of many different countries each of which, in turn, featured regional styles of cooking. What a revelation – Generic Italian flowered into Sicilian, Bolognese. French was no longer a single concept but encompassed Provençal, Lyonnais, Alsatian. This diversity also applies to Asia, Africa and Latin America but it has taken the world longer to realize this. Here in Mexico those of us with an international following do our best to teach the world that our cooking is diverse. It’s an uphill battle. I recently found a product, while perusing a U.S. supermarket shelf, that proudly proclaimed itself “Mexican flavor.” I wondered what they thought that was. American corporate culture is happy to reduce and stereotype people and things which boils down to Mr. Trump and co.’s view of Latin Americans as unvarying unities. Asians are seen the same way. While the world is happy to embrace culinary diversity on some levels and around a few cultures, a dark, stifling cloud remains over others.
In New York, we started to learn that “Chinese Food” was not singular, back in the ‘70’s with the arrival of restaurants labeled Szechuan, Hunan, Yunnan and the like. Not that we knew more than that these places prepared dishes that differed from the bland Americanized Cantonese that had been proffered since the early 20th century. We slowly awakened from a ‘50’s stupor and smelled the hot sauce.
Mexico, long privy to this same adapted Chinese cooking, is just starting to rub its eyes and get out of its bed of chow mein and egg foo young. Chinese cooking faithful to old country traditions arrived at Asian Bay in 2011 (see my previous review). And it’s all thanks to the efforts of one young ambitious yet affable chef. Luis Chiu, 27, who was born into a Mexican family of Chinese descent, runs the only Sino-fine dining spot in town. He has taken it upon himself to educate his public. He speaks softly but carries a big chopstick. And the public is eating it up.
On July 21st, the chef prepared the second in a series of four, one-night-only regional Chinese dinners. The first, which celebrated the cooking of Szechuan, was a smashing success - he recreated dishes from a recent expedition to the area’s capital, Chengdu, sponsored by www.foodiehub.tv. I had been honored to accompany him on this jaunt and could report that his interpretations were faithful to the originals. This time Shanghai’s cuisine was examined. Shanghai cooking emphasises the quality of raw ingredients augmented by simple sauces often featuring rice wine, black rice vinegar, star anise, ginger, soy and rock sugar. Chiu knows that city well, having both attended high school and studied cooking there. He takes these dinners seriously, presenting a brief didactic video and explaining the history of the area’s food and the context of each dish. Declaiming to a full house, we were told that any Chinese person not of Shanghai, when asked about its food, will decry that “it’s very sweet.” This is an evaluation this author, who has visited the city several times, would not argue against. But every dish that sailed out of Asian Bay’s kitchen the other night was well balanced – sweetness never dominated. Guests were seated, Chinese family style, at large round tables fitted with lazy susans. Several classic dim sum plates started the proceedings – Poofy steamed pork bao melted in the mouth like clouds, revealing a payload of fragrant lightly seasoned stuffing. Radish cakes were enveloped in flaky, buttery dough. Emblematic xiao long bao - steamed Shanghai dumplings - looked jewel-like in their bamboo steamer but were a bit on the dry side – the chef explained to me that it is impossible to procure the correct flour for their wrappings in Mexico and textural balance is therefore blown off course. But flavor was spot on.
Heavier platters to share followed, whirling around the table until they vanished. Tender pork ribs were marinated then stewed in the aforementioned soy, star anise, black rice vinegar and sugar - a perfect balance of briny, sweet, fragrant and umami.
Ruby red langostinos arrived in the shell in an atypically spicy sauce perked by a hint of Sichuan pepper – they were labor intensive to eat but worth the effort. The chef explained that Shanghai's culinary culture is influenced by people from around the country.
Steamed crabs, which don’t arrive in our metropolis alive and kicking as they are required to do in Asia, were never the less delicate, their gingery broth a nice respite from the weightier dishes.
The crowning glory was an enormous skin-on chamorro ( pork knuckle), slow cooked, its juices reduced; it was carved with aplomb by the chef himself. The meat was falling apart tender like a good barbacoa, but bathed in a poetically complex of flavors.
Fried rice seasoned with salt pork was perfectly chewy and just past al dente.
All in all, this feast surpassed all expectations. Guests left edified and satisfied and had fun. But I see this as important work. The knowledge and appreciation of regional cooking around the world is a great entrée into the understanding and acceptance of the threatening ‘other’. Food and the love of it is common to all of us. So the more we know, the less we fear. Thanks chef Chiu. Let’s eat.
See this portrait of chef Luis Chiu: Roots: Mexican Chef Embraces His Chinese Ancestry