Cuisine Focus: Chinese
Caterer speaks to regional chefs about Chinese cuisine's challenges and popularity
How popular is Chinese cuisine in the region?
Chunlin Xu, executive Chinese chef, Shang Palace: Chinese cuisine is very popular in the region. There are hundreds of Chinese restaurants in Dubai, with more planned to open in 2018. The family sharing style is a traditional concept and we are finding that more and more guests are looking for an authentic experience. Most of our guests enjoy the dim sum that Shang Palace offers.
Andy Toh Chee Siong, head chef, Hakkasan Dubai: Since we opened our first restaurant in the region, Hakkasan Abu Dhabi in 2010, the appetite for Chinese food has grown along with the UAE’s burgeoning food scene. We followed with Hakkasan Dubai in 2011. Both venues were packed from the beginning and still enjoy a loyal band of regulars as well as newcomers and tourists.
Bisu Barman, unit chef, Magic Wok: Chinese food is very popular here in the region and this is due to the vast range of nationalities that reside here as well as the food being easily adaptable to every palate.
Da Yi Nong, head chef, Royal China: Chinese cuisine in this region has not always been as popular as it is today. We can observe that our customer base comprises a diverse range of nationalities. I personally believe that this is due to Chinese cuisine having become popular worldwide and patrons being more open to trying new cultures and cuisines.
David Pang, chef de cuisine at Yuan, Atlantis, The Palm: Chinese food is incredibly popular all around the world, and Dubai is no exception. Not only are we catering to the thousands of Chinese expats living here, but also appealing to the increasing number of Chinese tourists seeking homely comfort food. That said, it is not only Chinese guests that we see here in Yuan; we appeal to the hundreds of nationalities that visit and live in Dubai.
Have you noticed any trends in Chinese cuisine?
Xu: There are actually eight distinct cuisines in the Chinese cuisine. Over the past few years, Cantonese cuisine has been popular however, recently we have seen that guests are looking for the rich, heavy and spicy flavours in Sichuan cuisine.
Siong: As with the UAE food scene in general, many restaurants and chefs are looking to take traditional dishes and add a contemporary twist. This is something that Hakkasan has been known for across the world since the brand was established in London in 2001, and we continue the tradition here in the Middle East. Something we are particularly proud of is our ‘Only At’ menu. Totally unique to each restaurant, we create one-off dishes and cocktails celebrating the local culture and cuisine, using seasonal ingredients whilst still embracing Hakkasan’s modern Chinese cooking techniques.
Barman: We are witnessing a lot of movement towards bowl-based dishes, such as rice and noodle bowls, with some meats and fish added, which makes the meal quick but also complete and satisfying. It seems to be a matter of wanting good food on the go.
Nong: In our restaurant we have noticed that the majority of guests appreciate simple authenticity and fresh ingredients whilst a global trend towards healthy food is also very visible. Hence, we aim to keep a segment of our offering as healthy as possible by using organic and gluten-free items.
Pang: Between 10 and 20 years ago, people’s view on Chinese food, everywhere but in China, generally consisted of hodgepodge versions of our cuisine; sweet-and-sour pork, egg-fried rice and spring rolls. Now however, things are very different. Authentic dishes are no longer hidden away, and the authentic Chinese flavours and styles of cooking are now taking centre stage. People are taking an active interest in Chinese culture, and have more of an understanding of the four great regional cuisines, with dishes relating to the four corners of our country. Within the four regional cuisines, you have the eight great cuisines, corresponding to the culinary traditions of the most influential provinces. As a Chinese chef, here in Dubai, I find this increase in people’s knowledge incredibly refreshing and I am constantly impressed by people’s expanding knowledge of these areas.
What are some challenges you face when it comes to Chinese cuisine?
Xu: It can be a challenge to source Chinese seasonal produce such as the crayfish and Mitten crab (also known as hairy crab) which are very popular in the summer and winter season. We find that it can be a challenge to get these ingredients in Dubai.
Siong: At Hakkasan, it is vital that every element of the restaurants meet the standard set across the world. In terms of the cuisine, the challenge is making sure every dish we send out is perfect. To achieve this, all the elements must come together from sourcing the finest produce to employing and training the best chefs. Striving for perfection, while constantly looking for new ways to add innovations to the Hakkasan menu, is a great challenge to have though.
Barman: Due to the fact that the food is so easily adaptable, there are a lot of variations available, such as American style Chinese or Indian-Chinese and even Filipino-Chinese food. Staying true to authenticity can be a challenge when researching and developing dishes that would suit our concept.
Nong: We have an extensive menu with many options, hence ensuring fresh produce and ingredients for all these dishes can be challenging sometimes. Ultimately, we have to be flexible and change our offering according to the seasonal produce available on the market.
Pang: Whilst many guests are extremely familiar with authentic Chinese cuisine, we still have many visitors that have never used chopsticks before or know what dim sum is. Every staff member who works at Yuan (both front- and back-of-house) is Chinese and extremely well trained in guiding our guests through the experience.
Is it easy to source the ingredients that you need?
Xu: As mentioned above, it can be difficult to source certain ingredients. However with the increase of Chinese restaurants in the region and the addition of a Chinese farm in Dubai, we can generally find fresh and traditional ingredients. Some Chinese dishes, such as pork dishes, require an additional licence but we are able to source alternatives which are also authentic and tasty.
Siong: The challenge with sourcing right produce is maintaining quality, which is not always easy — particularly with the Hakkasan menu. Because most of our recipes call for specific Chinese ingredients, and many luxury items, most of the time we have to import them. Our chefs tend to spend months before a new menu launches sourcing the right produce for each dish. We have to ensure that certain ingredients are readily available and, even more important, that the quality is of a consistently high standard.
Barman: Being based in this region makes Asian ingredients very easy to source.
Nong: Sourcing ingredients in this part of the world is never easy. However, we work with very reliable suppliers who remain consistent when it comes to freshness. Often times we source locally grown produce to support regional farmers, whilst our seafood is delivered on a daily basis from local suppliers as well.
Pang: Like anywhere in the world many local speciality ingredients, which are ones that I am used to cooking with, are unavailable outside China. In Dubai, I’ve had to learn how to work with substitutes for ingredients such as rice wine, etc. That said, there is an excellent Chinese supermarket in International City and every time I go there I find 99% of the ingredients I am looking for, which is great. I have really enjoyed embracing the challenges here and have learnt to use ingredients such as camel milk, which is something I would have never even considered cooking with before.