A Cantonese Chef Is Remixing the Flavours of His Heritage for New Yorkers – Think Fusion Cocktails, Char Siu McRibs

Venus Wong wrote . . . . . . . . .

In many ways, Bonnie’s is just like any typical New York eatery having its moment in the spotlight: a trendy location in Brooklyn, reservations virtually impossible to get and a well-curated drinks list featuring espresso martinis – everyone’s current cocktail of choice.

But there are few things that will stand out to anyone from Hong Kong upon closer examination: retro green tiles that would not look out of place at a cha chaan teng; the phrase “have you eaten yet?” – a common greeting in Southern China – on the branding of the in-house beer.

Cantonese kitchen staples such as canned dace fish and fermented bean curd make appearances on the menu, and yuen yeung – a coffee and milk tea drink popular in Hong Kong – is the star ingredient of the aforementioned espresso martinis.
The restaurant is the brainchild of 28-year-old Calvin Eng, a Cantonese-American chef determined to introduce food from his culture to Western palates.

Eng cut his teeth working in the kitchens of Nom Wah Nolita and Win Son, both trendy Manhattan establishments with a uniquely American take on East Asian food.

The success of Bonnie’s has turned Eng into a culinary media darling, with accolades from the likes of US food magazine Bon Appétit and The New York Times.

He is one of very few Cantonese chefs to garner this level of attention in the United States – in September, Eng was named one of Food & Wine magazine’s best new chefs for 2022.

It is not hard to see why.

Eng’s food remixes flavours of his heritage – based on cooking by his mother, an immigrant from Hong Kong who the restaurant was named after – and updates them with an American approach to experimentation and presentation.

The result is an iconoclastic version of Cantonese-American food that is utterly exciting and bears zero resemblance to traditional dim sum or Americanised Chinese takeaway.

Take the char siu McRibs, one of his signature dishes, as an example: Eng pays homage to the classic McDonald’s sandwich but adds a filling of slow-cooked Cantonese roast pork marinated in a char siu glaze, maltose and fermented red tofu.

The bun is sourced from an old-school Chinatown bakery, a favourite haunt of Eng’s mother. The whole thing is served with a knife through the middle, to indicate it is meant to be consumed family-style.

One might be surprised, given his masterful interpretation of Cantonese ingredients, to find out that Eng has only learned to appreciate the cuisine of his heritage in recent years.

He grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, a historically Italian-American neighbourhood where he was one of the very few Chinese children in school. Weekends were spent at his grandparents’ flat in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

“Growing up, I always tried to be as white as possible,” he says. “My friends didn’t look like me, they didn’t eat the food that I ate, or had to go to Chinatown every weekend – I just wanted to be like them.”

This all changed during the Covid-19 pandemic. After witnessing countless Chinatown businesses shuttering thanks to lockdowns and a rise in anti-Asian sentiment, Eng felt like he had to do something.

“There weren’t many people like myself, who were trained professionally to cook but also were Cantonese-American,” he says. “I felt like it was my responsibility to dive deeper into the food of my culture that I didn’t care for when I was growing up.”
Bringing Cantonese ingredients that are more of an acquired taste to a wider population became Eng’s mission when building out Bonnie’s menu in 2021.

“It was important for me to find ways to utilise them in approachable applications that weren’t too overwhelming,” he says. “It’s kind of like [Cantonese food] on training wheels.”

You can see that approach in his rendition of cacio e pepe, a classic cheese-and-pepper pasta dish from Rome. Eng tosses the pasta with a compound butter made from garlic and fuyu (fermented bean curd), an Asian condiment renowned for its pungent smell.

It results in a taste that makes you marvel at his imagination: the umami from the fermented tofu harmonises with the black pepper and brings out another dimension of richness, with no acidity.

The same salty butter forms the bedrock of the dau gok (Chinese long beans), another fan-favourite dish. Additional texture is brought on by bits of yau zha gwai, a deep-fried cruller typically served with congee.

MSG, or monosodium glutamate, a seasoning associated with Chinese takeaway food, has pride of place in Eng’s version of a martini, and is used as a garnish in place of salt.

The condiment has long been stigmatised thanks to unsubstantiated claims it causes symptoms like headaches, sweating and palpitations. Eng refuses to shy away from it.

“I didn’t use MSG to prove a point. I use it because I love it,” he says. “I put it in desserts, drinks and savoury dishes – because it makes the food taste good.” He even has the word tattooed on his arm.

It is exactly that spirit of irreverence – and his unique point of view from not having trained in traditional Chinese cooking – that has so many coming back for more.

“I try to make a hard distinction between Cantonese-American and American-Cantonese,” he says.

He references the Westernised Chinese dishes, such as chop suey – created for American palates when the first wave of railroad workers came from Canton to America more than a century ago. The type of Cantonese food he is creating now feels markedly different.

“Here, the flavours, ideas and the philosophy behind everything will always be like Cantonese first.”

Looking to the future, the chef plans to launch a weekend brunch menu, put his own stamp on the classic Chinese fried rice and bring back his mother’s favourite egg custard recipe for the winter.

What does his mother think of his unconventional journey to bring the tastes of Hong Kong to the mainstream? Surely she must be very proud?

“She’s been here a couple of times, and she thinks the food is super interesting,” Eng says with a mischievous laugh. “But at the end of the day, she’s still a Chinese parent – they are not proud.”

Source: SCMP

 

 

 

 

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My Food: One-plate Lunch

 

 

 

 

Mandarin Stewed Chicken

Ingredients

1 whole chicken, about 800 g
200 g lean pork
50 g bean curd sheet
5 black mushroom
50 g bamboo shoot
8 small onion
4 cloves garlic
2 sprigs spring onion
4 slices ginger
1 stalk coriander
1/2 Egg

Method

  1. Clean and chop chicken into pieces. Rub chicken with 1 tbsp light soya sauce, 1 tsp dark soya sauce and 1/2 tsp five-spice powder. Set aside to marinate for about 30 minutes.
  2. Cut pork into pieces (each about 15 g), add 1/3 tsp salt, 1/2 egg, and 2 tbsp cornstarch. Stir well and set aside.
  3. Cut bean curd sheet into short lengths. Soften and cut mushrooms into slices. Cut bamboo shoots into small slices. Remove skin of onion and garlic.
  4. Add 5 cups stock or fresh water to a bowl, mix in 1/2 tsp salt, 1 tsp chicken broth mix, 1 tsp sugar, 2 tsp light soy sauce, 2 tsp oyster sauce, 1 tsp dark soy sauce, 1 tsp sesame oil, and some ground white pepper. Stir thoroughly to make up the sauce. Mix 1 tbsp cornstarch with 1 tbsp water into the thickening.
  5. Blanch the chicken in hot oil till golden brown and remove. Also blanch pork, bean curd stick, small onion and garlic in hot oil. Remove and drain.
  6. Leaving 2 tbsp oil 2 in the wok, add in bamboo shoots and ginger to stir-fry briefly. Add spring onion, mushrooms, 1/2 tbsp Chinese wine and sauce. Stir well.
  7. Place chicken, all other ingredients and the sauce into a clay-pot. Cover and simmer for about 45 minutes over low heat till cooked and about one cup of sauce is left. Adjust the flavour of the sauce. Add thickening to thicken the sauce.
  8. Sprinkle the coriander on top before serving.

Source: Hong Kong Master Chef


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