Cuisine Focus: Chinese/Cantonese
Five key industry experts explore Chinese and Cantonese dining trends in the Middle East
How popular is Cantonese cuisine in the Middle East?
Paulo Bastos, General Manager, Hakkasan Dubai: Cantonese cuisine is not very popular right now in the Middle East, but I believe it’ll gain its popularity in the future as Dubai is one of the fastest growing cities.
How popular is Chinese cuisine in the Middle East?
Xiao Jun, Head Chef, The Peacock, Sheraton Jumeirah Beach Resort: Chinese is a strong trend here. There are many restaurants opening with different concepts and [styles of] Chinese cuisines.
Xu Chun: Shang Palace, Shangri-La Hotel: The most popular cuisines in here are Chinese, Japanese and Italian, but trends are always changing in Dubai, as it is with a fast paced, dynamic city that is always evolving.
Xian Ming Chen, Restaurant Manager, Yuan, Atlantis The Palm Dubai: Chinese food is well known around the world, especially Cantonese cuisine as it comes from Guangdong province, one of the eight leading regional cuisines in China. Cantonese is the most widely served Chinese cuisine in the world, although what is served abroad now has departed from the authentic cuisine.
What trends are emerging?
Sang Lee, Group Executive Chef, Solutions Leisure: Sharing concepts, which is the traditional way to eat most Asian foods, but many customers may have previously preferred to order individually. We’ve had the dim sum renaissance in recent years. I’ve noticed recently that in our restaurants the best seller is crispy aromatic duck, so it’s back to classics. People also love a healthy stir fry of prawns or chicken.
Chun: Chinese is becoming more creative and modern. The previous cooking and plating style had a family style feel to it. Now, Chinese restaurants are creating individual plates, more sophisticated presentations, and incorporating artistic twists and western elements; it is not uncommon to see Asian-style amuse bouches, sorbets and petit fours, which add a level of intrigue.
Chen: Unlike the Sichuan and Hunan provinces where chilli plays a very important role in cuisine, Cantonese is characterised by the use of very mild spices. Because Middle Eastern locals prefer not too spicy food, this explains the popularity of the cuisine in the region. The trend here is now converting from traditional Cantonese to orient/infusion style that is easily adapted.
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How authentic is Cantonese cuisine in this region?
Bastos: In Hakkasan, 60% of the dishes are the same as Hakkasan worldwide and 40% are based on local preferences and products.
How authentic is Chinese/Cantonese cuisine in this region?
Lee: There are some great restaurants to visit for pure Chinese/Cantonese cuisine. Like in any country, sometimes a cuisine has to play down certain elements and in the malls you have to cater for a large tourist audience. Every culture likes its Chinese in a certain way; in the UK it is very different than in Hong Kong. ‘English’ Chinese uses MSG/glutamate to cater for the local taste.
Chun: We adopt the more artistic and modern techniques, believing in keeping food as authentic as possible, especially in terms of taste.
Chen: Chinese cuisine outside China will not be 100% authentic due to difficulties of sourcing original ingredients. However, with the increasing trend of available imported ingredients from China by local suppliers, recipes are easily adapted.
What challenges are there?
Chun: Sourcing the correct ingredients to create the most authentic experience. The difficulty is always in finding the right balance between creating an authentic menu and finding the best quality, affordable products that your guests can enjoy.
Lee: I don’t see many challenges if your Chinese food is made properly. Keeping to original roots could be a challenge for some, but stick to the real recipe and guests will love [it].
Chen: Cantonese chefs take pride in their cooking; they use the freshest ingredients every day to retain a unique flavour and texture of each dish. Thus the main challenge is sourcing the finest ingredients from China. Another challenge is finding talented Chinese chefs to bring the authentic cuisine over to the Middle East.
Are there advantages of serving this specific market?
Jun: Chinese cuisine involves different spices and flavours, which attracts different expat audiences.
Chen: Middle East people don't usually eat spicy food therefore, with mild spice, Cantonese cuisine is easily accepted. Many Middle Eastern cities are undergoing a transition and lacking great Chinese restaurants, making it the perfect opportunity for Chinese restaurants in the market. Another advantage is that since Cantonese mostly contains vegetables, steamed dishes and has very little salt, it is perfect for a healthy meal, which is ideal for the image-conscious residents of Dubai in particular.
Lee: People in Dubai are receptive to trying new stuff and being a little more adventurous. On the other hand, people here know their food and love their classics.
Do you rely on importing ingredients or use local products?
Bastos: It is hard to source some products in Dubai. Luckily, Dubai ports have a lot freedom when it comes to importing goods. We can easily get imported vegetables and proteins from other countries. Dubai is close to the Gulf Sea, so we have easy access to fresh seafood.
Lee: Because of the authenticity of our dishes we source many products from overseas. A wide range of beautiful ingredients are available locally but the challenge is availability, seasonality and the terrain here. I would love to be an advocate of ‘grow local’ but for the style of our dishes at Asia Asia and Karma Kafé we need to work with seasonality and specialist products. We work to import products with Fresh Express and Tastemasters to get products like oriental dried goods and speciality oriental vegetables.
Chun: It is combination of both. This is our challenge, as we want to ensure the most authentic dining experience. We also have to ensure that our company standards are maintained, such as ensuring that our products have no MSG, whether imported or not. At the end, authenticity is important.
Deep-fried chicken breast with dried chilli and Sichuan pepper
Shang Palace shares its recipe for a classic dish — deep-fried chicken breast with dried chilli and Sichuan pepper.
• 2 celery stalks, outer stems peeled
• 1lb pound boneless chicken, chopped into 1-inch chunks
• 3 pcs scallions, ends trimmed
• ¼ cup peanut oil
• 8 pcs dried hot red chilies (preferably Sichuan chilies)
• 1tsp chilli bean paste
• 1tbsp Shaoxing rice wine or medium-dry sherry
• 1tsp soy sauce
• 2tsp sesame oil
• Salt to taste
Slice celery at into ½-inch slices. Set aside and toss with pinch of salt. Slice scallions at ½-inch slices.
Pour the oil into a large wok set over high heat. When the oil is hot enough, add chicken. Stir-fry the chicken until it looks crispy.
Reduce heat to medium and add chilies and Sichuan pepper. Cook until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Add chilli bean paste and stir well. Cook until the oil looks red, for about 10 seconds. Add rice wine, soy sauce and ¼ teaspoon of salt. Cook, stirring often, for 10 to 15 minutes.
Add celery and scallions and stir-fry for one to two minutes. Turn off heat, pour in sesame oil and season with salt to taste. Stir well and serve with white rice.