Chef Andrew Wong does not dodge uncomfortable questions. “I am not politically tone deaf,” he tells me on a call from London, where his much-vaunted Pimlico restaurant, A Wong, has just won a second Michelin star, becoming the only Chinese restaurant outside China with two stars.
We are talking about the backlash against the Chinese community and its culture in our pandemic-hit world, and whether restaurants such as his are affected. Wong says that initially diners in London did drop off. “But when restaurants reopened after the second lockdown, people came back. I realised how strongly Chinese cuisine is integrated into the mainstream in the UK, as it is in India. The history of Chinese immigration and diaspora is very long in both countries,” he adds. Nevertheless, because he realises that “no one else in the whole world [other than the Chinese] will be celebrating the New Year of the Ox [starts on February 12] this year”, he is doing his own bit of reaching out and building bridges.
Even as I write this, the restaurant A Wong is being wrapped in a vinyl mural created by multimedia artist Gordon Cheung. The installation, titled ‘The Year of the Ox’, is an outcome of an exchange between the chef and the artist on their knowledge and nostalgia about their shared heritage — “so that even people passing by can partake of it”. (An interactive app helps bring the work to life: flowers grow, an ox glistens and transforms, symbolic of how our world can too in the new year.)
A legacy of dim sum
Before he turned to his family business of restaurants, transforming the traditional Cantonese eatery his parents ran, catering to London’s fixation with orange-sauced stereotypes, Wong studied anthropology at the London School of Economics. It is perhaps this background that roots his inventiveness in the past. This approach to food is most visible in how he has transformed the classical dim sum.
In New Delhi, at the terrace of The Oberoi, Baoshaun, sister to A Wong and a restaurant of which he is designated “chef-patron”, faces the salubrious greens of the Delhi Golf Club. Once upon a time, this space, then Taipan, had tried to replicate a traditional tea house with yum cha trolleys and endless helpings of traditional dumplings. Glitzy Delhi society had turned it into a power brunch of sorts. When Wong was invited to conceive a fresh restaurant here in 2018, he undid the former trappings of power and glory.
The dim sum at Boashuan’s newly-introduced Infinity Brunch (₹3,250++, per head) have a zingy freshness only faintly reminiscent of the classical. Among the hot new entrants are a hedgehog bao, and a runny 63 degree egg, baked with a pot-sticker (as also some of A Wong’s most celebrated innovations), all of which come individually plated but in a service style that seems to have got much lighter than in the restaurant’s initial days, perhaps in keeping with 2021’s casual-is-in sensibilities.
Wong’s signature reworking of the classics is evident in the Shanghai dumpling, injected with an acidic burst of ginger-vinegar, and topped with pickled tapioca. “It took me 10 years to perfect this dim sum,” Wong says. The hargao , supposed to be a test of any dim sum chef’s skill, is transformed with a foam of vinegar. At A Wong in London, this is the dish that original foam creators, Ferran and Albert Adria (of El Bulli) came to eat. Now, dumpling enthusiasts in India can sample it. Honey roast cheung fun is texturally very different from the classic, while elements like crackling elevate other varieties.
“Historically, there were around 2,000-3,000 dim sum, though the world is fixated on just 50 items on every menu,” says Wong, who travelled through China researching its regional traditions. Dim sum were not just dumplings, but any small plates, including pickles and soups, and many references to their incredible variety are found in classical poetry and art.
It is this tradition of inventiveness that he follows at his restaurants in London and New Delhi; a tradition that will evolve in the Year of the Ox, “not in terms of actual deliciousness perhaps but because eating dim sum is about sharing and friendships”. In a new year as the world puts behind its isolation, newer ways to connect will emerge. Through food, art, or food as art.