With plentiful horror stories about fake eggs, tainted milk powder and other food scams, it’s easy to think Chef Leung nuts for waxing lyrical about everything from rose petals, bullet head peppers and even termite fungus that he gets from his adopted homeland and serves at the recently opened Yì by Jereme Leung at Raffles Hotel.
But he is just one of many chefs who are looking to China for ingredients, as the influx of food products in recent years opens Singapore’s eyes to the repertoire of gourmet delicacies that the world’s most populous country can offer.
Contrary to popular opinion that standards are lacking, Chef Leung thinks China has the most stringent rules regarding food safety regulations compared to anywhere else in the world.
”In general, it would be safe to say that if food ingredients are purchased in China’s first tier cities, it would have gone through very stringent checks.”
He would know, being one of the earliest chefs from Asia to set foot in China to search for ingredients, cooking techniques and food flavours. Chef Leung moved to China in 2002, and describes his dining encounters there as nothing short of ”fascinating”.
“When I first discovered a salted sundried lettuce with minced pork pancake (梅干菜烧饼) in Wuzhen (乌镇), I was pleasantly surprised to find that such wafer thin pancakes cooked quickly in a tandoor-like brick oven could be so delicious and so simple compared to a similar Hakka dish that takes hours to prepare.”
Among the ingredients he sources are rose petals from Dali in Yunnan province, which is used in ice cream as well as savoury dishes such as roast duck with a rose and fermented bean sauce. The petals are hand pressed into an extract before being added to the bean sauce.
And while Yunnan termite fungus might send squeamish chills up your spine, it’s actually similar to the more familiar black or white fungus, but which are found near termite nests in the forests. “The fungus won’t survive if the termite nests are destroyed or moved, so they co-exist in a special symbiotic relationship.” In the restaurant, he serves the fungus with honey glazed walnuts and highland vegetables. Another dish – brined duck breast with beef tripe and ox tongue – is seasoned with bullet head peppers (二荆条 辣椒) specially sourced from Sichuan.
China – The next gastronomic destination?
Tim Lam, executive Chinese chef of the one Michelin-starred Jiang-Nan Chun in the Four Seasons Hotel, would agree.
”Increased spending power and demands for higher standards, along with advancements in agricultural methods, have spurred China to higher standards when it comes to food safety,” he says.
Macau-born Chef Lam, who has worked in the kitchen since he was 14, has been combing Guangdong, Shanghai, Beijing and Qingdao, among others, in search of premium ingredients. “Here’s where you will find an abundance of high quality seasonal produce. Confucius famously said bu shi bu shi (不时不食), so if something is not in season, do not eat it. In China, markets come alive in all seasons, so it is inspiring for chefs to see so much variety.” Besides live eel and other freshwater seafood he used to serve in Macah, Chef Lam says China is brimming with organic produce and wild vegetables, with over 300 varieties that are still largely unexplored.
One of his favourites is Da Liang Niu Ru (milk) from Guandong. ”Known as the cheese of the East, with a history dating back to the Ming Dynasty, I discovered this in Da Liang in Shunde. Made from buffalo’s milk, it is traditionally used to cook porridge to relieve heatiness andto improve appetite. But no one really mentions this now, and production has become so small it is on the brink of extinction.”
China has earned a reputation for producing top quality – and less expensive – caviar, and this is not lost on French chefs like Vianney Massot of his one Michelin-starred eponymous restaurant. ”I’ve tried Kairos Caviar which sources from Yunnan, and they have one of the highest quality caviar in the market.”
Chef Massot is no stranger to Chinese produce. He used to live in Macau and travelled to Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Zhuhai in his spare time. He notes that there is no shortage of manpower in China, which means there are enough farmers to grow quality produce. ”As they can offer ingredients at a lower cost compared to other countries, it naturally increases the allure of China to big food producers.”
Besides caviar, Chef Massot is also puting Shanghai hairy crabs on his Autumn menu for the second year. ”With French cooking, we normally use only crab meat. However, Shanghai hairy crab from Taihu has sweet crab meat and buttery golden roe. So we stuff piles of sweet crab meat and soft-cooked egg yolk in a timbale of macaroni, and serve it with crab roe and white truffles in a creamy sauce made with the shell of male crabs.”
When Chinese F&B chain Yunhaiyao opened its first overseas outlet YUN NANS at Jewel Changi Airport, it also introduced a menu filled with ingredients sourced from its home province.
Featured on the menu are mushrooms of all kinds – wild black truffles (November to March) from Nujiang; wild porcini (May to October) from Chuxiong; and red mushroom (May to August) from Pu’er in southern Yunnan.
Eaten in Yunnan only during celebrations or special occasions, the price of red mushrooms can hit US$400 per kg, but Reuben Chua, CEO of YUN NANS, doesn’t bat an eyelid.
”To showcase the authenticity of Yunnan cuisine, we need to use the most premium ingredients, which is why we spend so much time understanding the import regulations for such produce.”
The restaurant chain works with farmers in Yunnan to harvest ingredients from big leaf parsley, rose rutabaga, fresh green peppercorns and lanxangia tsaoko from Lin Cang, a type of cardamom with a slightly smoky character. Its rice noodles are made from Honghe rice, a region which has been nominated for World Heritage Site status.
”Ingredients like these spark curiosity,” says Mr Chua, ”Diners are excited to try and we have received great feedback.”
It’s heartening for him, given the difficulties in importing the produce in the first place. ”There’s often a degree of spoilage when ingredients ripenduring shipping, or there are changes in temperature. We once lost a shipment because it was left outdoors. The storage details were in Chinese and the customs officer here didn’t understand the instructions.”
For its part, PUTIEN has been importing produce from Fujian since it opened its first outlet in Kitchener Road in 2000.
In August, live eels were introduced and prepared three ways – chilled, boiled in mineral water or pan-fried. It has also been importing Duotou clams – regarded as the king of clams – from the coastal village of Duotou in Putian, which has a 600-year history of breeding the best clams in China.
As the business grew, founder Fong Chi Chung set up processing factories in Putian and a development team to source unique ingredients. One of them is the red mushroom from Fujian’s Mount Wuyi which grows at an altitude of 1000m to 1500m, harvested by veteran pickers who tread treacherous routes. The mushrooms are prepared in double boiled chicken soup, braised with bean curd skin or made into a tea.
Organic goji berries, adzuki beans, soybeans and mung beans from northeast China are just some of the products that Tai Sent Yee, executive director of Zenxin, has been diligently sourcing to fill supermarket shelves in Singapore. Apart from discovering the goji berry in Inner Mongolia, he also discovered mushrooms in Qingyuan County in Fujian that wowed him.
”Qingyuan county is the birth place of the mushroom, when farmers started growing them for the emperor 800 years ago. They are grown in natural forests rather than in temperature controlled mushroom houses.” Besides shiitake, maitake, and monkey head mushrooms, Mr Tai also found the only EU organic certification for white fungus grown in Qingyuan.
”China has become very stringent with its food exports. Processes put in place to export organic products have become stricter than the US, EU or Australia. Produce has to be lab-tested for pesticides and weedicides before issuing organic certification.”
Fun fact for fans of artisanal mooncakes made by Empire food artisans – the ‘three inch’ white lotus seeds used for its paste are sourced from Xiangtan County in Hunan province, which were once used as a tribute to the Imperial court. It gets its name from its size, as three lotus seeds add up to a length of one inch. Besides the lotus paste, unbleached organic flour and Acqua Panna water are used for the pastry, which adds to the premium price of these seasonal treats.
The price of the lotus seeds has been on an uptrend for the last 10 years and Empire pre-pays to secure the best quality. ”It can come up to a princely sum if supply is tight,” says its spokesman. ”We’re told that we are probably the only brand in Asia to use Xiangtang lotus seeds and a significant buyer during mooncake season.”
As Zenxin’s Mr Tai puts it, made-in-China is no longer something to avoid. ”A lot of products are reviewed online and those with no credibility won’t make it to the marketplace. On the other hand, we have seen a lot of caring producers who love their food, these are the game-changers.”
This article was originally published in The Business Times.