I enjoy “Indian Chinese” food. I even enjoy “American Chinese” food. That said, I have often wondered what the good people of China think of perversions like “Gobi Manchurian” and “General Tso’s Chicken”. A random tweet, from Gautam John of Pratham Books, bemoaning the lack of authentic Chinese food in Bangalore, sparked an idea.
Gavin Mak, who belongs to one of Bangalore’s oldest ethnic Chinese families, has been catering at our home for years. While Mak Hospitality, his catering company, dishes out some very good Indian, kinda-European, and desi-Chinese cuisine, Gavin never serves authentic Chinese food, because he believes that “no one will eat or appreciate it”. I made a deal with Gavin: If I could find 10 people who would enjoy the “bland” flavors of true Cantonese cuisine, he would have to come and cook it himself.
Chinese Chinese dinner
And so it came to be. I ended up inviting 15 people (six of whom I had never met before, including Gautam) for Gavin’s “Chinese Chinese dinner”. A motley crew: an architect couple, a restaurant owner, a photographer, a hedge fund expert, a TED-fellow, a lawyer, a marketing professional, a psychology student, a special educator, a homemaker, a marketing communications professional, a business unit head at a technology company, and a couple who have been known to travel to Singapore “just to eat”.
I had told Gavin that I wanted to do things “the way it would be done in a Chinese home”. Taking me quite literally, he politely refused to serve any kind of appetizer. The result was an open bar with no snacks until 9pm, when I gave the signal for dinner to be served. My mistake, because I thought it would take about 15 minutes, the way it usually does when Gavin caters at our home. I had no idea that the man was planning to cook everything – everything – from scratch. His maternal uncle, Peter, who worked with Baba Ling of Nanking fame for 11 long years before setting out on his own, was also present to lend a hand.
It took an hour.
By then, one of my guests was ready to eat the tablecloth, two had walked up to the cooking area and begun stealing food at source, and The Spouse had transmogrified into a particularly annoying nag: “When’s the food going to be served? Is it ready yet? Is it done? Is it done? Can we eat?”
Here’s what was (eventually) served:
- Dumplings of Seer Fish Paste and Dumplings of Minced Pork with Tofu served in a clear broth (Tofu kok, yee tan)
- Steamed Rice
- Cantonese Noodles (Nuah Chiao Chow Mein)
- Fried Chinese Bread (Yau Ja Gwai)
- Pickled Whole Fish (Hong Siu Yee)
- Prawn with Button Mushrooms (Haa Yen Chiao Tun Koo)
- Steamed Chicken with Spring Onion Seasoning (Pak Cham Kai)
- Pork Belly with Five Spice Sauce (Lu Chi Yuk)
- Stir Fried Beef with Chinese Cabbage (Pak Choy Chow Chi Yuk)
- Chicken Wings in Spiced Soy Sauce (Lo Mai Kai)
- Gingered Broccoli (Lok Faa Choi Chiao Keong)
- Diced Vegetables with Cashew Nut in Black Bean Sauce (Chap Choi Ten)
[Note: I will upload a couple of these recipes soon. Arm-wrestled Gavin for ’em. I won. Of course. :)]
Let’s back up a little. The term “Chinese cuisine” is like the term “Indian cuisine” – meaningless unless qualified by a specific region of origin.
Although here in India, the Cantonese, Hunan, and Szechuan styles of cooking are used (and abused) for the most part, there are a total of eight main regional styles of Chinese cuisine (the three mentioned above, plus Fujian, Anhui, Jiangsu, Shanding, and Zhediang) with numerous local sub-variants.
Gavin Mak specializes in Cantonese cuisine. “Canton” refers to Guangzhou, the capital of the Guangdong Province in the south of China. This is a coastal area, so fresh seafood is always available, and because the climate is sub-tropical, it is lush with fresh produce year-round.
Spoilt by the abundant availability of fresh ingredients, the people of Guangdong place a very high emphasis on preserving the natural flavor of their food. Steaming and stir frying are their preferred cooking techniques; as cooking time is short, the flavors and nutritional content of the food is preserved.
Cantonese cuisine, therefore, is typified by its simplicity – no chillies, no herbs, and very little sauce. Instead, clear broths or soups are used to “wet” the food, and are thus consumed throughout the meal, in place of water.
Food, Glorious Food
The tofu kok and yee tan soup was a very simple, plain chicken broth into which delicately flavored steamed dumplings had been dunked. The fish dumplings, in particular, had an interesting texture and mild flavor. We were instructed to dip the deep fried “bread” sticks (yau ja gwai) into the soup. I still can’t figure these out – they are made of flour, baking soda… and food-grade alum. Alum? I didn’t get it. Still don’t. They are delicious nevertheless, and soak up the broth beautifully. Gavin tells me that yau ja gwai are also eaten as a breakfast food across China, served with rice conji.
Although I knew I was supposed to partake of the soup throughout the meal, conditioning is hard to overcome, and I, like everyone else, consumed it as a first course before turning my attention to what really mattered – the meat.
Cantonese cuisine incorporates all edible meats, with the exception of lamb and goat. These are usually a hallmark of the Northern Chinese provinces, where the Mongolian influence and a non-pork-eating Muslim population combine to make them popular.
Contrary to our perception, Cantonese meat dishes are prepared with little or no “sauce” or “gravy”. They are cooked almost dry (remember, the soup is used to moisten the palate) and eaten with plain steamed rice or fried noodles adorned only with beansprouts – no soy sauce, no julienned veggies, zip, nada, nothing to “liven up” the noodles.
I began with a morsel of Pickled Fish. We’d all watched the black pomfret being fried – it was now smothered in sauce. This was by far one of the best dishes on the table. The fish was flaky and almost creamy in texture, and the tangy sauce brought out every nuance of its flavor. The hapless creature was devoured in no time; we picked it clean down to the bone. There was nothing left – or so we thought. Peter and Gavin had the last laugh: they took the carcass home, where they and their friends indulged in “a cat fight” for the head and the bones. Who knew?
Another dish that merits special mention is the Pork Belly in Five Spice Sauce. Five spice powder, an integral part of Cantonese and other regional Chinese cuisines, is made from cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, fennel seeds (badi saunf), and star anise. The piquant, honeyed sauce that glossed the pre-roasted pork was more aroma than flavor, but added succulence and elevated the flavor of the meat from mild to mellow. Needless to say, this dish got wiped out by the hungry hordes too.
I liked the Lo Mai Kai (although from what I know, we were served an adaptation; the Real Thing is served with Lo Mai – sticky rice). The prawn was also excellent, its buttery flesh encased in a wafer-thin crust flavored with salt, pepper, and star anise.
I didn’t try the vegetables (like George Bush, I dislike broccoli, and I had, shall we say, meatier matters on my plate). However, several of my guests insisted that both the Gingered Broccoli and the Chop Choi were delightful – even better, one guest thought, than the pork.
The Pak Cham Kai, perhaps the most traditional dish on the table, provided an insight into why Gavin believes that Bangalore is not ready for authentic Cantonese cuisine. This dish literally translates as “white cut chicken”, and lives up to its name. It is, in essence, salted chicken boiled whole in water, then chopped into tiny pieces. That’s it. Yup, I’m serious. This is served with jīang cōng, a lightly-fried dressing of chopped ginger and scallions, and eaten with plain rice. It was very flavorful, though mild and subtle – but was the only dish on the table that wasn’t polished off.
The evening’s sole disappointment was the beef. In three words: it was tough. Gavin later confessed that the tenderloin he had wanted to use hadn’t been available, so he had substituted another cut of beef in its place. Er, Gavin, honey – beef doesn’t work that way, and you know it.
There was no dessert course, partly because I’d been told that desserts consisted of tong sui – sweet soups usually made of red bean or black sesame seeds. That did not sound like fun to me at all, so I nixed it. My bad, everyone.
Instead, we ended the meal with tiny cups of silver-tip tea from Gavin’s father’s special stash – if Daddy finds out, we’re dead. My guests left with take-home goodie boxes of Char Siu Bao, pork-stuffed buns, to be steamed and eaten at leisure.
Here’s the bottomline: we all agreed that we liked the food, but that there might be too small a segment of customers who would actually be willing to accept this as “Chinese” cuisine. The Spouse and I also felt – and Gavin and Peter backed us up on this – that traditional Cantonese food should be eaten as a shared, sit-down meal rather than a buffet.
Having said that, Gavin Mak will probably open a small restaurant under the Mak Hospitality umbrella wherein he will test-run a dual menu: one, offering standard desi Chinese fare; the other, Cantonese food his father would be proud of. If the Cantonese menu finds enough takers, nothing would please him more than to serve the food he eats at home.
Having tasted what that can be like, nothing would please me more, either.
P.S.: If you’d like to contact Gavin Mak to cater a party, call him on +919845045814, or email email@example.com. The food isn’t fine-dining grade, but it is good. Mak Hospitality does the whole shebang: wait staff, plates, glasses, ice, hot appetizers made on premises. Best thing? They clean up after themselves.