Oct 07, 2013

    Fried rice is a test of a chef's skills

    Master chef Peter Tsang, who began his career in Hong Kong in the 1970s, has headed the kitchens of established restaurants and hotels around the region.

    The 58-year-old also oversaw state banquets for world leaders, including Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej and former Chinese president Jiang Zemin, as well as former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's 80th-birthday banquet.

    Mr Tsang, who was here for The Way of the Wok Symposium last month, speaks to My Paper about how Chinese cuisine has evolved over the years.

    Has the cooking styles of Cantonese cuisine changed at all?

    Essentially, the cooking technique and style will not change because steaming, braising and stir-frying form the fundamental of Chinese cooking.

    However, Chinese cuisine has definitely evolved with a modern twist to keep up with the times.

    Chefs are paying greater attention to the garnishing used, chinaware and presentation to enhance the visual appeal of a dish.

    Individual plating is increasingly popular in Chinese restaurants today, especially the high-end ones, as compared to the past when a dish is presented in one large serving.

    Chefs today also have access to more exquisite and diverse ingredients, such as truffles, foie gras and caviar, which are incorporated into traditional Chinese dishes, resulting in what we call fusion dishes.

    Cantonese cuisine is the most prominent type of Chinese food around the world. Why do you think this is so?

    This is subjective because every chef has a different take and will proclaim that their own cuisine is the most prominent.

    But Cantonese cuisine is indeed unique and different from the rest due to the cooking technique.

    As a rule of thumb, Cantonese dishes have to be cooked in a seasoned wok over high heat to achieve "wok-hei" which imparts the fragrance and flavour to Cantonese favourites like sweet-and-sour pork, fried rice or noodles.

    How is Cantonese food out of Hong Kong different?

    There is definitely a difference in Cantonese food in Hong Kong, compared to Cantonese food in Singapore or Malaysia, because chefs will try to make changes to suit the taste of the local people. Regardless of how chefs may innovate in different countries, the emphasis is never to alter the traditional flavour of Cantonese dishes.

    The key sweet sauces and spices traditionally used to prepare barbecued pork, or char siew, should never be replaced but we can be creative with plating style and garnishing.

    What are some traditional food-preparation techniques that are losing their roots?

    Traditional food-preparation techniques such as slaughtering poultry, removing the innards and proper cleaning are no longer necessary skills for young chefs today because these ingredients arrive in the kitchen ready-to-use.

    They say a good Chinese chef must first learn how to make fried rice. Is this true?

    Yes, it is absolutely true.

    Fried rice may sound simple but to achieve the right consistency in taste and texture of the rice is a test of the chef's skill.

    I've seen chefs who may be able to perfect a dish of stewed abalone or sea cucumber but their fried rice may not make the cut.

    This is why: a good plate of fried rice is not just the determinant of a chef's skill but is also a reflection of his attitude towards honing his culinary skill.

    Coincidentally, the first dish I learnt was fried rice.