Chinese Food - back to basics

by AFP/Chris Wright, Feb 1, 2007 | Destinations: Singapore / China / Beijing

With Chinese cuisine headlining the fifth Madrid Fusion gastronomic summit, one of Asia's top chefs pushed his drive for a back-to-basics approach that respects tradition and quality.

Singapore-born Martin Aw Yong, who won the accolade of Best Chief Chef in Asia in 2003, told AFP that while fancy new advances in gastronomic technology touted at foodie summits were all well and good, it was not for him.

"I think the most important thing is to respect and keep to the basics," he said.

The 40-year-old chief was one of the top names at the annual bash last week that aims to showcase the hottest cooking talent from around the globe.

He took centre stage -- along with Beijing Hyatt Hotel restaurant managers Kang Jingpeng and Jing Qiang -- to show how to make perfect Peking duck and melt-in-your-mouth noodles.

"In Chinese cooking today, we are out to preserve traditions while improving the overall product," said Aw Yong, who was joined in the Spanish capital by two other big names in contemporary Chinese cuisine, Dong Zhenxiang and Bin Wang.

Aw Yong trained in the Singapore Hyatt Hotel and has supervised the output of Beijing Hyatt's Made in China and Noble Court eateries -- the first known for blending modernity with reverence for culinary tradition and the second said to serve some of the best in Cantonese cuisine.

For Aw Yong, these two restaurants embrace his philosophy of shunning over-complication in the kitchen.

"I think if you try to overdo the different influences there is a danger you will confuse the issue. A mixture and a mishmash of styles is not what you, or the customer, want.

"I think producing the basics well is very important."

That's not to say that he isn't open to global gastronomic influences.

Asked if top Asian exponents of his art were unsure whether to proceed down the fusion or avant-garde routes so prized by many participants at Madrid Fusion, Aw Yong suggested no cuisine existed in its own world.

"I do welcome change and renovation," he said.

He dismissed the often-heard comment that in Europe, France has slipped into an overly-conservative groove compared with the Spanish modernism that earned three Michelin stars for Martin Berasategui, Juan Mari Arkak, Ferran Adria, Santi Santamaria and Carme Ruscalled.

"Spain is exploring new avenues. But I think the French have that basic foundation. That's where you really start out from."

In an off-the-cuff remark, he further insisted that "all cuisine is more or less related."

During an hour-long master class, Aw Yong explained how to produce the perfect crispy duck, as well as chicken marinated in Xiaoxing wine, wrapped in a lotus leaf and rice paper, then smothered in an earthen mixture to seal in the flavour during cooking.

But he warned fans of Chinese cooking that patience is a virtue.

"Chinese cooking is a bit complicated. It's a slow process and takes a long time."

When it comes to glazing a duck, it can mean some four hours preparation and then, after blanching in boiling water and blow-drying until the skin is dry and firm, another 12-hour wait while the bird hangs.

In response to a Western view that traditional Chinese dishes might make overly liberal use of salt and fat, Aw Yong said there was now a move towards greater refinement.

But as China modernises and looks increasingly outwards, Aw Yong insisted that its culinary culture, with "millennial traditions," will never forget where it came from.

"It's passing down from generation to generation. Chinese cuisine doesn't change that much over the years.

"It's a case of preserve what is good, keep original flavours," he said.

A leading exponent of delicacies such shark fin, abalone and sea cucumber, Aw Yong's reputation has been bolstered by his renowned version of a popular Chinese stew from Fujian province.

Known as "Buddha who jumps over the wall," the dish contains the aforementioned elements along with mushrooms.

It is so scrumptious, the legend goes, that Buddha himself would leap over the monastery wall for a taste -- despite being a vegetarian.

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