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Updated: June 20, 2012 19:06 IST

Essence of China

Nita Sathyendran
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Chef Jovi Cheng Kay Yan. Photo: S. Gopakumar
Chef Jovi Cheng Kay Yan. Photo: S. Gopakumar

Chef Jovi Cheng Kay Yan, who is at The Leela, Kovalam, talks about the regional cuisines of China, some of which he has introduced to The Tides restaurant’s a la carte menu

Chef Jovi Cheng Kay Yan whips out his mobile phone and starts showing me a slideshow of him making lamein (hand-pulled noodles) from scratch. It really is like watching a slideshow of culinary artistry as photo after photo shows chef Jovi kneading the dough from centre out, stretching it, pulling it, folding it and twisting it until, voila!, he gets a perfect skein of noodles. I wish I could have seen that live!

“Food always tastes best if it is handmade. The real essence of Chinese cuisine lies in the skill of a chef’s hands,” says chef Jovi in a heavily-accented English (which I’m struggling to understand), and uses his hands to imitate cooking gestures. “The more skilled with the hand you are the better the cook you are,” he says.

I’m at The Leela, Kovalam’s beachside restaurant, The Tides, to catch up chef Jovi, a native of Hong Kong, and resident Chinese cuisine expert at The Leela, Chennai. He’s in town to revamp The Tides’ a la carte Chinese menu.

“Chinese cuisine, like the country, is vast, and like Indian cuisine it varies from region to region,” says chef Jovi, as he commandeers my notepad to draw a rough outline of China pointing out: “Here’s Cantonese, Szechwan, Shandong, Chengdu...The cuisine is roughly based on geographical locations. No two cooking styles are the same and even the ingredients vary, depending on the local agriculture and climate. In the South-East, where I am from, for example, we’ve got relatively warm weather. That’s why in Cantonese cooking (the style of Guangdong province) we don’t use too much of chilli and use many types of sauces instead. Cantonese cooking generally involves a lot of stir-frying, steaming, and roasting. Whereas, the North and the Western parts of the country have hot, dry summers and freezing winters. Here, in cooking styles such as Szechwan and Yunnan, it’s all about chilli – garlic with chilli, soya sauce with chilli... Hot! Hot!” says chef Jovi, with a laugh.

The familiar and the exotic

Chef Jovi’s menu seems to be peppered with a range of cooking styles, from the familiar wonton soup and Cantonese braised chicken to the more exotic ‘wok-fried chicken with chilli paste’, cooked Chengdu style, and the Taiwan-style duo of fried vermicelli braised seafood with creamy pumpkin sauce. “I’ve been a chef for more than 15 years, and have worked in top hotels in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Macao, Hanoi… So I’m familiar with many of the regional styles of cooking and try and combine flavours in my culinary creations,” says chef Jovi.

In this part of India at least, we don’t often come across some of the cooking styles mentioned in the menu. The Hunan style King fish smothered in finely chopped fresh chilli paste, for example… “Ah! Wu Nan... Actually, it’s spicier than the more popular Szechwan. The spiciness of Wu Nan comes from the use of fresh chillies, seeds, and all, whereas Szechwan uses a lot of fermented chilli paste,” explains chef Jovi as he places a few gorgeous-looking dishes in front of me. “Give it a go,” he tells me, heaping my plate with samplings, and accompaniments (peanuts, pickled cucumber and kimchi salad).

Right away I notice that all three of the dishes, be it ‘fried grouper fillet with Chinese sesame and black vinegar sauce, cooked in Shanghai style, ‘sautéed lamb with cumin, ginger and spring onion’ (the lamb is as tender as fish!), or ‘fried tiger prawn with chilli peanut sauce’ (“The prawn is part of this morning’s catch from Kovalam,” he says), all seem to be authentically Chinese, with not even a trace of Indian Chinese…? “That’s probably because I’m new to India and am yet to be influenced by Indian flavours!” says chef Jovi. “However, I’ve created the menu – the appetisers, the soups, the main courses, and the desserts – all out of local produce. That’s why you won’t find pok choi (Chinese cabbage) and other difficult to source produce on the menu. We want to keep it fresh,” he adds.

Check out chef Jovi’s a la carte menu, which has plenty of choices for both vegetarians and non-vegetarians, at The Tides. Prices range from Rs.350 to 840 (plus taxes). Contact: 0471-3051234.

Keywords: Chinese cuisine

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