Think of Chinese takeaway and what is the first dish that enters your head? Chicken curry with chips? Crispy aromatic duck?
Well, think again, because a new local takeaway is on a mission to introduce Jersey residents to the taste of authentic Chinese street food. Situated on Hill Street, Wok Fusion – which opened in October of last year – is owned and run by Jennifer Chan and offers customers over 40 different meat, vegetarian and vegan dishes, all of which are created using only traditional ‘street food’ ingredients as recognised by the Association of South East Asia National Street Food, or ASEAN (see box).
Malaysia-born Chong Yee Loong Low is head chef at Wok Fusion and hopes the St Helier takeaway will demonstrate to Islanders how Chinese food should be prepared and how it should taste.
‘You are only ever here once in your lifetime, so why not try everything?’ he says. ‘A chef will not be offended if you try a dish and you don’t like it, but he will respect you for having tried something new.’
The Chinese, of course, are famous for their healthy diets and, not surprisingly, many of the dishes on the Wok Fusion menu are labelled as vegan and/or gluten-free, such as the selection of ASEAN rice boxes and ASEAN noodle boxes.
In addition, there are 20 different dim sum dishes (steamed or baked/fried cuisine), including loh mai gai (sticky rice lotus leaf wraps) and char sin yau (crispy squid with panko breadcrumbs), as well as a selection of ASEAN ‘noodle cups’ (broth-boiled noodles with fish balls, king prawns, chicken and various flavourings).
‘You say “chicken” to people of a certain age and they automatically think “chicken nuggets”,’ laughs Low. ‘For many people in the West, Chinese food means crispy duck. But this is Anglo-style Chinese food, whereas Wok Fusion is all about the genuine street food that you would find on the streets of China and South East Asia.’
And it isn’t only the menu where Wok Fusion differs from regular Chinese takeaways, with an open-plan kitchen that enables customers to watch as their food is freshly prepared in front of them.
‘Usually when you walk into a Chinese takeaway, all you see is a white wall and a small cubicle, maybe a tiny window leading to the kitchen,’ says Low. ‘Can you believe that there is a Chinese takeaway in London where they have no cooker and 20 microwaves in the kitchen? All of the food they cook comes from a supermarket and they just stick it in the microwave and – ting! There’s your meal. But in London they don’t care, because people walk like they are running and they
just want to grab food and go.’
As readers may know, February is an important month on the Chinese calendar as it marks the arrival of the Chinese New Year, which is, says Low, ‘an annual family reunion festival that lasts 15 days’.
‘Chinese New Year is not like Christmas, where people exchange presents. Instead, a red envelope is given with money inside, but it is only given to those who are unmarried, such as children and teenagers. Once you are married, then you no longer receive an envelope and it is now your turn to give envelopes to others.
‘And the reason Chinese New Year lasts 15 days is because you have to visit all of your friends and relatives. Sometimes you might even have to travel up to 30 miles just to get to a certain family member, but if you miss someone out, oh boy, they will be angry with you.’
As you’d expect, food plays a major role in the Chinese New Year celebrations, with quick-to-prepare stir-fried and pan-fried dishes very much off the menu and home-cooked meals the order of the day.
‘Chinese New Year always take place at home, never in restaurants,’ says Low. ‘It is tradition that the first day’s meal will always be strictly vegetarian and vegan. For this meal there will be food such as long-boiled noodles [zhang miàntiáo], with noodles that are very, very lengthy. But it is considered a bad omen to cut the noodles, so when eating them you often have to stand up in order to swallow them. To do this is considered a sign of longevity as it sounds like “long life”.’
Ah yes, ‘sounds like’. As Low explains, there are two terms that are essential for anyone wanting a better understanding of Chinese food: ‘sounds like’ and ‘looks like’.
‘In China, we often describe food this way,’ he says. ‘For instance, spring rolls “look like” gold bars because of their colour and shape. And steamed rice pudding cakes [niàn kao] “sound like” promotion, and so to eat them during Chinese New Year signifies that you will do well at work.’
Other ‘sounds like’ and ‘looks like’ dishes include:
- Fish (yú) – sounds like ‘excessive surplus’.
- Prawns (duìxia) – sounds like ‘full of laughter’.
- Groundnut (huasheng) – sounds like ‘full of growth’.
- Red melon seed (hóng guazi) – sounds like ‘beautiful children’.
- Dumpling (jiao) – looks like ‘gold or silver ingots’.
- Yam abacus seed (shanyào suànpán zhongzi) with mince meat – looks like ‘calculative profit’.
Another Chinese New Year tradition is that meals are cooked with ingredients that wouldn’t typically be used in restaurants, such as ‘black moss’ (fat choy), which is a type of photosynthetic fungus and which is often served in a stew-like dish with sun-dried oysters.
‘Black moss has the appearance of strands of black hair – it is even known as a “hair vegetable” – and anyone unfamiliar with it would likely see it on their plate and think: “wow, what the hell is that?”. But it tastes really delicious.’
The second day of the Chinese New Year, meanwhile, is when the travelling begins, as families journey to visit their relatives in order to exchange various fruits and seeds, such as tangerines, red apples, red melon seeds and ground nuts.
‘Whatever you give your relatives symbolises what you hope lies in store for them in the new year,’ says Low. ‘For instance, I might give someone red apples, which symbolise peace, and in return they might give me some tangerines, which means gold, or pomegranates, which means lots of siblings and full of prosperity and growth.’
It is also Chinese New Year tradition that livestock is cooked and served with all body parts intact: heads, feet, tails – the lot.
‘If you cut something off then the animal or fish is no longer unified and so you have broken the superstitious ceremony. Obviously, with fish you have to clean out the guts, but you must keep the head and the tail, because it is seen as a bad omen if they are not on the plate. If you cut the head off, people would look at it and think: “Wow, where has the head gone?” For Chinese people, it is common sense to leave the head on.’
As for dessert, this will often be a colourful ball of boiled rice pudding with sugary syrup, which is served in a bowl and known as tang yên.
Perhaps the most popular dish, however, is saved until the 15th and final day of the festival: prosperity toss salad, or yee sang.
‘Yee sang is a salad, often with smoked salmon and crispy garlic and onion, which is served in a big dish in the middle of a round table. Everyone then uses their chopsticks to toss the salad, before adding sesame oil and plum sauce. In China, this dish sounds like “great promotion”, so it is well worth waiting for.’
Another popular dish is ‘hot pot’ (huoguo) – or ‘steamboat’ as it is known in South East Asia – which sees various fish and red and white meats served raw, with diners then having to cook the food themselves in a large pot in the centre of the table.
‘Hot pot stays true to the traditional Chinese way of eating,’ says Low. ‘It’s not like in the West, where everyone orders what they want and then eats it by themselves. Instead there is lots of food and everyone shares, so you don’t have to sit there looking at someone else’s dish and thinking: “Ahh, that’s look really good, I wish I’d had that”. In China, everybody shares.’
There is one dish, however, that you will never find on the menu during Chinese New Year: stir-fried squid.
‘When you cook squid, it curls up, and this looks like someone rolling up a duvet or blanket, as if they are packing up and preparing to leave a job. So squid is seen as a sign that you are going to be sacked. Chow yau yu [squid] sounds like “job termination” and, as such, it is not eaten at Chinese New Year.’
The superstitions extend from the dining table to the kitchen, with those preparing the food required to say a prayer before cooking any fish or animal over a certain age.
‘It is also considered a bad omen for pregnant women to kill poultry and so they have to get a friend or relative to do it for them.’
Sadly, neither Low nor Jennifer will be able to return home for Chinese New Year as they are so preoccupied with running Wok Fusion, which has thus far proven a hit with Islanders.
‘Chinese street food is ideal for breakfast, lunch, dinner, supper – whenever. That is why we are open all day, so that people can enjoy this food any time they want.’
It is this hard work ethic and sense of geniality that has enabled the Chinese to make their home anywhere in the world, says Low.
‘Wherever you go in the world, you will almost always find a Chinatown. You know, if you go to India, you don’t find Englandtown, and you don’t find Americatown in France, or Francetown in Germany. But there is always a Chinatown.’
Wok Fusion is located at 43 Hill Street, St Helier. For more details visit food.je/wokfusion/ or the Wok Fusion page on Facebook.