In London, a Taiwanese Feast With Fortune-Telling Buns

In London, a Taiwanese Feast With Fortune-Telling Buns

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Shing Tat Chung and Erchen Chang, the husband-and-wife duo behind London’s beloved Bao restaurants, as well as Xu Teahouse & Restaurant, met while studying at London’s Slade School of Fine Art. And when Chang briefly returned to her home country of Taiwan after graduation, Chung and his sister, Wai Ting Chung, now the couple’s business partner, who’d both grown up in Nottingham ­— went along. A food-fueled road trip ensued, with the trio taking in Taipei and Yilan in the north, and Kaohsiung, Tainan and Pingtung in the south. They ate everything from braised beef tendon to pig’s blood cake — a kind of lollipop made from steamed pork blood and sticky rice coated in peanut powder — and, somewhere along the way, the idea for the Bao brand was born. It takes inspiration from their childhoods, Shing and Wai Ting’s spent partly at their parents’ Cantonese restaurants, and from the couple’s respective artistic sensibilities. Chang studied sculpture and Chung painting, though they both veered toward performance before finishing their degrees. Perhaps that, more than anything else, explains their proclivity for making and presenting food with theatrical flair.

For Bao’s debut in 2013, they hosted a pop-up at the cult Hackney record store Pacific Social Club, inviting key members of the city’s food scene and serving them — with the help of a camping stove — their now signature pork bao, which features braised pork, peanut powder, coriander and fermented mustard greens cooked in lard, all stuffed into a perfectly puffy bun that it took the three partners six months to create (“We’re cooks, not chefs,” says Erchen). More recently, to usher in the Year of the Pig in 2019, the couple designed the menu for a dinner co-hosted by the fashion designer Simone Rocha, who is of Chinese and Irish descent, and MatchesFashion, and held in the e-commerce site’s Mayfair townhouse. Following a feast of mushroom dumplings, crispy pork belly, prawn corn dogs (a battered and deep-fried bonbon of minced prawn) and tofu spring rolls, the finale appeared: a giant peach-shaped bao, spray-painted pink with beet juice, and decorated with large ribbed leaves of dyed-green dough along the sides. When it was cut open, a party of miniature pink buns, these ones filled with sweet red bean paste, was revealed.

“In the Bao world, proportions are cute,” says Chang. “Everything is superreduced or enlarged or cartoonized.” In the newly opened Bao Noodle Shop in Shoreditch, for instance, the red leather stools are plump and low to the ground, almost as though they are emoji versions of themselves, and the white ceramic wall tiles are ever so slightly oversize, which gives visitors the impression that they’ve entered an alternate realm à la “Alice in Wonderland.” The couple also favor rich colors, as with the tall caramel leather bar stools that sit beside the space’s stainless steel kitchen counter and the orange glow of the Douglas fir wood cladding, which the pair like for its ultraminimal grain, used throughout, and a sort of cinematographic orderliness, as with the neat rows of green glass bottles of the house sake behind the bar. Each restaurant or event that the couple do is an extension of their artistic practices, and a thorough one at that. “We design everything,” says Chang, “the dishes, the aprons, the menus, the flat-pack furniture.”

The private dinners she and Chung throw at their Victorian terraced home in Forest Gate in East London, whether a Taiwanese banquet or a grill-your-own yakitori barbecue, are just as considered. Earlier this month, they invited four close friends of theirs — the artist and ceramist Anna Hodgson; Harry Darby, the designer and founder of the cocktail and cordial company Gimlet Bar; and Kenjiro and Emete Kirton of the independent publisher Hato Press — over for an intimate gathering. “We’ve all worked together online in some way, so in my head they’d already met,” says Chang. The evening began with animated conversation, with the guests delightedly discovering they had mutual friends and overlapping histories, in the living area of the house’s open-plan downstairs, which is also appointed with Douglas fir, as well as a pair of voluptuous Akari light sculptures by Isamu Noguchi (Erchen calls the large floor lamp the Snowman) and a trio of chairs — the LC2, LC3 and LC7 — by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand.

Throughout the house, these sorts of iconic design pieces are interspersed with art and objects by the couple themselves. When the guests moved into the dining area, for instance, they were greeted by an oil painting of three rounded bellies by Chung that hangs above the table. On the table itself were squishy-looking bao-shaped candles that Chang designed during one of London’s lockdowns, along with a set of hand-painted Kraak dishes that are near-exact copies of Ming and Qing period Chinese designs, rustic scallop shells that were used as dipping bowls, dark wooden chopsticks and, in the center, a raised dish filled with pork and cabbage dumplings swimming in a vivid jade sauce made from stock, shaved broccoli, parsley and aged white soy. There were also individual dishes of raw scallops, steamed lobster and boiled langoustines with a deep yellow mayonnaise for dipping.

For the second course, the couple served deep-fried crispy egg noodles accompanied by 58-day-aged côtes de boeuf topped with a black pepper sauce. And, as in the past, dessert had a performative bent. The evening closed with a tea ceremony complete with bright blue, pebble-shaped baos filled with cherries and molten chocolate or red bean paste and white chocolate. When turned over, each bun revealed the outline of a face that was smiley, sad or pouty, which prompted Chang to deliver verbal fortunes. “Harry, you’ve had a bad week,” she said with a faux-serious tone. “You must eat a bao to expel the terrible luck.”

“You’ve had a long year” would likely have rung true for just about any recipient. Indeed, after London’s strict lockdowns, which forced the Bao restaurants to close for a time, the couple were grateful to welcome people back into their home, even if they were a little out of practice. “I felt quite anxious wondering, ‘How do we party now?’” says Chang. “But not only was it so good to introduce these great friends, finally, it’s set into motion new dinners, new invitations. It felt like a new beginning in a way.”

Here, the pair share their tips on throwing your own reset dinner, one that your guests are sure to remember warmly.

Taste is more important than looks when it comes to food, of course, but a truly memorable meal tends to also be a beautiful one. Thus, the couple opted, for instance, for the “the most steak-looking steak” they could find, says Chang. The two-inch-thick slabs of marbled beef, which she and Chung sourced from Philip Warren & Son in Cornwall and flash-fried one at a time, before leaving them to sit in a low oven, appeared like cartoon renderings of rib steaks, almost too perfect to eat.

The couple often recruit their creative friends as helpers. Darby created the vivid blue cocktail — a mix of sirop de menthe, J. Bally Rhum Blanc from Martinique and lots of fresh lime juice — that Chang named the paradise, and that opened the evening. Hodgson, who has made crockery for Bao since its early days, when it was just a stall at Hackney’s Netil Market, and who moonlights as the manager of the much-loved bar at 40 Maltby Street in Bermondsey, created a wine list that included an orange Jacquère from Savoie and a lightly effervescent red, called Onde Gravitazionali, from the small-batch Piedmontese winemaker Fabio Gea. And Darby and Hodgson collaborated on a playlist, filled with the soft compositions of the composer Henry Mancini and the jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby — that helped set the mood. “Guests don’t actually like feeling useless while you flap about,” says Chang. “When you enlist their help, they feel like they’ve played an important part in the evening.”

Running six restaurants inevitably makes Chang and Chung experts when it comes to produce, and carefully selecting the highest quality ingredients means they can keep dishes elegantly pared back. “As I tell my chefs, if you source the best product, 60 percent of your job is done,” says Chang. A 450-day aged white soy from Pingtung, where Chang’s mother and maternal grandparents lived for a time, features in dishes at each of the couple’s establishments. At their recent dinner, they served the light, sweet but deep sauce mixed with an olive oil from Pacina, Italy, that has a rich and grassy flavor, for guests to dip their shellfish into. Similarly, all the shellfish on the evening’s menu came from Henderson to Home, a small Scottish producer, and was so fresh it could be served in its simplest incarnation — the scallops were left raw and the langoustines were simply boiled, while the lobster was steamed and served with wasabi and white soy.

Decide on the meal’s overall aesthetic direction ahead of time. In advance of this dinner, Chang had a vision of herself pouring black sauce all over two giant steaks beside huge piles of noodles, “and then everyone slurping and splashing it onto their beautiful dresses,” she says. With this in mind, she asked Kenjiro and Emete to create comic-strip-style bibs to prevent anyone from actually ruining their clothes. Upon arrival, the pair sat and cut paper napkins into cloud shapes or gave them jagged-edged rectangles. Before the mains were served, the guests each chose their favorite design and then helped one another tie them around their necks with ribbons, an activity that brought some humor to the meal between courses.

While Bao dishes are painstakingly researched and prepared, the overall feel of a home-cooked meal should be playful, not precious. “I’ll always remember a Chinese New Year party Shing and I threw where we made really silly ancient-style Chinese paper hats, just playing around. We looked like we were in a Chinese period drama,” says Chang. For this dinner, in addition to blue cocktails and fanciful bibs, the couple relied on the food to provide some entertainment. While the pair sliced the lobster-tail meat and served it in ready-to-eat morsels, the crustaceans’ empty shells also made an appearance on the table, their bright red bodies positioned upright and their legs outstretched, as if they were waving.

To keep things dynamic and mark the transition into the final portion of the night, the couple served the tea ceremony in the living room. Guests gathered around the low coffee table there, sitting on the large cream Moroccan rug or on the toffee-colored velvet sofa, and Chang brought in a bottle of Taiwanese Kavalan single malt whiskey with small cut glasses, and a rich amber oolong tea (the plant is nibbled on by leafhoppers whose saliva gives it a sweet, honeyed flavor). “Oolong tea requires you to pour water over the tea until the teapot flows over, so it really heats up the pot and the leaves continue to brew,” she explains. “It’s very soothing to watch.” She used a clay tea boat made by Hodgson and designed to hold both the pot and the extra water to keep the pot warm. “I always watched my grandpa do this for friends, neighbors, anyone who came over,” says Chang. “It’s the perfect end to an evening — the heat from the tea and the whiskey relaxes you and washes down all that greasy food. Everyone will go home and sleep very well.”



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