by Mike Peters Read on China Daily: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/beijing/2015-01/20/content_19365025.htm
Restaurateur Sue Zhou knows every farmer who supplies her kitchen and visits their fields regularly. Mike Peters reports.
“Chicken soup is really important,” says the petite woman with a big smile, as she serves up what is any wise woman’s remedy for anything that ails you. But this is no Jewish mother coaxing a sniffling child. Circling a table of eager foodies, chef Sue Zhou is handing around little steaming bowls of heaven, broth fragrant with lemongrass, mint, coriander and spring onion, with toasted strings of fried onion “for a little body and crunch”.
If you came to Beijing eager to learn about China’s many regional cuisines, chances are you already know Zhou. She’s been a cooking-school headliner, whipping up the savory foods of Yunnan province at The Hutong center and elsewhere, sharing techniques and recipes on her website (suezhoudoesfood.com), and running a catering business based on her make-it-from-scratch mantra.
Most recently, she and her business partner, Yunnan native Wen Juan, opened Hani Gejui restaurant after a research trip to explore the dishes of one of the province’s many ethnic groups. There is a plethora of good Yunnan eateries in the capital, but Zhou has made her small eatery a local favorite thanks to her artisanal approach on a small scale, and some innate advantages of the southern province’s cuisine, drawn from more than 20 ethnic groups and a biological treasure trove from its mountains to its tropical zones. There’s just too much variety to capture in any single restaurant.
Zhou, 34, has been alive to the possibilities since her childhood.
“I was born in China,” says the Zhejiang native, “but my family moved to the Netherlands when I was just 4.” There, her folks opened an Indonesian restaurant that both drew on their own Chinese palates and embraced the flavors of Southeast Asia. Those flavors were familiar to the Zhous, thanks to nearby Yunnan, and to the Dutch, because Indonesia had once been a Dutch colony and traders had brought back the foodstuffs – and especially the spices – centuries earlier.
Working in her parents’ restaurant kept her grounded in the culture of her close-knit family and stimulated her love of food.
Zhou came back to China to earn a degree at the University of International Business and Economics, then returned to the Netherlands to work for a European food-trading company. The job brought her back to China several times to visit factories and study the food-production process here, but eventually Zhou found that work tedious, and quit to pursue something more creative. That quickly led her from food factories to small kitchens, where she was right at home.
“I like to serve people the same food I would serve my friends or myself,” she says, “so I really take care and take time to source my ingredients.” They are organic and locally sourced whenever possible, including the greenhouse-grown okra currently being served at Hani Gejui. Other items, from all kinds of mushrooms to teas and flowers, come from the Yunnan heartland that inspires her menu. She not only knows every farmer who supplies her kitchen, she visits their fields regularly.
“You can be an amazingly talented chef,” she’s said in earlier interviews, “but if your base is crappy, you can’t be talented. It’s your foundation.”
That commitment to basics is one reason Zhou has teamed up this month with her friend Rob Cunningham. The executive chef at the East Beijing Hotel has launched a Carnivore’s Club series with guest chefs eager to preserve nose-to-tail consumption of farm animals and an appreciation of what we eat. Zhou’s menu for dinner this Saturday night is based on chicken: the broth makes good use of the bird’s heart and gizzard, while a sensational liver pate is topped with clarified butter infused with Sichuan peppercorn. Zhou may have a passion for tradition, but in this collaboration she fearlessly embraces fusion, too.
The centerpiece of the meal – and the favorite at a tasting preview for media last week – is a braised chicken so tender we almost stormed the kitchen to see how the heck she and Cunningham did it. (The fowl is local, organically raised, and slow-cooked in three stages: brined with fish sauce, coriander, palm sugar and mint before being seared and then roasted. There are Yunnan-style potatoes on the side with soy paste and herbs, a dish that comes from the Dai ethnic group. Like in China’s western regions, potatoes are a staple of Yunnan fare.
Tea, from farms to wild-grown, has been at the heart of Yunnan’s agriculture for centuries. Glasses of the fragrant beverage are always at her table, and for the Carnivore’s Club dinner she will use fine Yunnan teas to make three desserts, though such sweets are not really part of the regional cuisine. Green-tea ice cream is nothing exotic for diners these days, but tiny cubes of tea jelly cupped in delicate pastry packed plenty of subtle wow factor.
“I think we have to try out things and find out what we want to do and where our passion lies,” Zhou says.
“In small villages in Yunnan they are still growing produce the old way, eating very seasonal and still using the artisanal way to preserve produce.
Besides,” she says, a gleam of delight suddenly sparkling in her eyes, “how can you not love a place where they have cheese and ham?”
IF YOU GO
Hani Gejui 11 am-10 pm daily. 46 Zhonglouowan Hutong (just east of Beijing’s Bell Tower). 010-6401-3318. Carnivore’s Club dinner 6:30 pm-10 pm, Saturday at Feast restaurant in East Beijing Hotel. 22 Jiuxianqiao Road, Chaoyang district, Beijing. 010-8426-0888