Byline: Karon Liu Toronto Star
Inside Bloordale's Alma restaurant on a recent Friday night, the special is a hand-cut pappardelle with wok-fried pickled mustard greens and red braised beef tripe - a Chinese stewing technique using a combination of dark soy sauce, rock sugar and spices such as star anise, which gives everything it touches a deep amber hue.
The tripe is cooked to fork tenderness and is reminiscent of a buttery morel, and the ribbons of pasta soak up every bit of the sauce that brings the ideal balance of sweet, salty and spiciness. It's the dish to eat on a rainy November evening.
"At home you usually eat (the braised tripe) with rice, but I thought why not use egg noodles and make it like a pasta dish. The noodles will absorb the braising juices, and I already had a rice dish on the menu," said Anna Chen, chef and co-owner of the three-year-old restaurant.
There's also the pan-fried radish cake, known more widely as a turnip cake in English, but Chen insisted on using the more accurate name, as the cake is actually made from grated daikon. It usually contains minced lap cheong, a salty and slightly sweet Chinese sausage, but Chen omitted it because she wanted to emphasize the daikon flavours. In lieu of the umami punch of the sausage, she serves the crispy cakes with house-made plum sauce.
Chen, 36, often draws inspiration from her Hakka-Chinese background and upbringing in Kolkata, as well as time cooking at French and Italian restaurants like Figo and Scaramouche.
"I love pasta and noodles. You can call them pappardelle or hand-cut thick noodles, it's the same to me."
Chen's cooking is part of a gastronomical shift in the city, as cooks are continuing to challenge outdated stereotypes on what Chinese food should be. For Chen's cohort of millennial cooks who straddle between their parents' culture and the culture they cultivated in the digital age, authenticity is a relative term.
"I think being authentic means being true to yourself and doing it well," said Chen, who once put a Black Forest cake on the menu as a throwback to the birthday cake she'd ask her mother to get her from a bakery in Kolkata. "What's authentic to you and where you grew up is different from me, so who is to say what is authentic?"
Eva Chin is the co-founder of the Soy Luck Club, a dinner series that explores regional Chinese banquet hall cooking and what authenticity means to someone of Asian descent growing up in North America versus China.
"Our generation understands we cook from nostalgia and isolate different feelings and memories ... Right now, my generation of cooks and chefs are reiterating their version of Chinese food, and people are starting to understand that immigrant food is more than food courts and street food, and it's time to learn what this cuisine represents," said Chin, who is also the chef at the Avling Kitchen and Brewery in Leslieville.
Part of that learning comes from chefs sharing more about culinary techniques and the origins of Chinese food to try and prevent diners who didn't grow up with Chinese food from undervaluing or misunderstanding the cuisine, and by extension, its people.
"The pandemic highlighted the injustice already happening in the world, and it (was)caught on social media because for a while social media was the only window you had," said Chin. "A lot of (Asian) elders were being attacked, and even though my grandmother has passed, that's the first thing I thought of. That made me cook Chinese food to educate more people about it. It was all I knew how to do."
For Chin, who is in her mid-30s, teaching others about the food of her heritage first required finding out what being Asian means to her - as someone who was born in Hawaii to a Samoan-Hawaiian mother and a Singaporean-Chinese father, spent her adolescence in New York, and later moved to Toronto.
"I was 18 when I decided I had to learn how to write my own name (in Chinese). My only regret was not learning it early enough," said Chin, who taught herself to be fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese before taking a year to backpack across China. "To be able to communicate with the older folks in their dialect taught me to honour their cooking before instilling my way of cooking."
For the first instalment of her Soy Luck Club dinner series, which launched in October, she got up in front of a small group of diners to explain her use of Loong Kong chicken, a special breed known for its leanness and yellow colour common in southeastern Chinese cooking that lends itself well to poaching. "It's a very specific chicken, for this specific dish," she told the room, while holding the platter.
The shift in what's considered modern Chinese cooking continues to evolve. Previously it was popularized by the likes of chef Susur Lee and restaurants like downtown's Lai Wah Heen that added foie gras to dumplings.
After that wave, there were chefs like Nick Liu, who opened DaiLo in 2014 on College Street, combining his Hakka-Chinese heritage with experience working in European restaurants and living abroad. Liu says the new generation of chefs reference traditional dishes and flavours more often, compared to when he first started DaiLo as a pop-up and was incorporating family recipes into French-style dishes.
"One of our first vegetarian dishes was Brussels sprouts with fermented black beans and chilies and we had a lot of people who said they didn't understand the flavours," Liu, 45, said.
"But since (then), we've done dishes with mapo sauce, chili-black bean sauces that show a depth of flavours, the oily chilies that more people understand now. It just opens the floodgates of what we're able to do. Now we're playing with buffalo mozzarella and burrata to use in tofu dishes."
He says over the years more diners became knowledgeable in regional Chinese cooking and caught up to the fermented and spicy flavours that he initially pulled back on.
"Right now it's amazing because there's no fear of anything. Diners will find that the food is mind blowing or interesting, but they'll never be like, 'I don't like this.' Maybe they'll say, 'I have to give it a few tries,' instead."
Liu also remembers one of the biggest challenges when he first opened the restaurant was explaining why the cost of eating at his restaurant is more than spending $10 for char siu and rice at a Chinese butcher.
"If you keep expecting to pay $10 for a bowl of hand-pulled noodles or the best barbecue you've had, we're going to lose all this talent because the people they want to pass their craft down to aren't going to do it because they're not going to make money," said Liu.
"The notion that Chinese should be cheap will stop the cuisine from moving forward in a positive way ... If you love coming here, but complain when the prices go up, and these places are closing around you, how will you be able to support these places?"
He is hopeful that diners' pre-conceived notions about what the costs should be will change as more chefs continue to talk about the history and meaning behind their versions of Chinese cooking.
Chin, of the Soy Luck Club, for one, plans to keep telling those stories. Her next dinner will be a Lunar New Year menu at the Avling where she also plans on holding dumpling and nian gao making workshops for the holiday.
"I feel more emboldened to (talk about my food), not because (people) want to hear it, but because I don't care whether or not they accept it," said Chin. "By telling these stories, it's taking up the space. We just need to do it more often. We do it because we can."