Sense of identity

Chefs who take ingredients from other cuisines insist they are being true to their upbringing, writes Vicki Williams

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 September, 2012, 12:29am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 September, 2012, 10:46am


With Asian elements in European dishes, and French touches in Cantonese food, chefs increasingly seem to borrow ingredients from cuisines other than those they serve.

Philippe Orrico, executive chef of Hullett House, is one of those using ingredients from around the world, such as soy sauce, coconut milk and Indian spices, in his French cuisine. For Orrico this is a result of having grown up on the island of Réunion, which is home to five main cuisines: French, Indian, Sri Lankan, Cantonese and Creole.

The French chef has only just begun to understand how he has been inspired by his mixed background. He says: "I didn't realise until recently the influence my background had had upon me as a chef, or that for me it is quite natural to use ingredients from around the world in my French cuisine."

The epiphany came at St George, where he was explaining to a diner the dish of roasted French squab, shiitake with piquillos, baby carrot, eggplant and nora paste. "I realised during the explanation how my food has evolved in the past year, and that this dish is me on a plate," Orrico says. "It is a mix of communities, but it tastes French, this is my cuisine."

Included in the dish are the French-Indian spice blend vadouvan that includes cardamom, eggplant confit cooked in a Sicilian style, Moroccan dates, nora and piquillo chillies from Spain, and mushrooms, soy sauce, lemongrass and ginger from Asia. Asian ingredients including jasmine rice, coconut milk and soy sauce, also feature in the Lozère lamb saddle dish.

Often used to add complexity and depth to a dish, the non-French ingredients are mostly undetectable by diners. For example, lemongrass is used in such a way that it adds a fragrant citrus element to a dish without it tasting Thai.

To ensure that his cuisine has a clear French identity, Orrico says it is a matter of ownership. "I don't borrow ingredients from other cuisines, I steal them," he says. "For me to borrow is to copy and this is fake, to steal is to make it your own and this is how my cuisine remains French, which is the only cuisine I know how to cook."

Other chefs prefer to think of it as borrowing, something which is not new in Hong Kong. "Cha chaan teng have long borrowed ingredients from the West, such as ham and macaroni; people like it, and it has been embraced as part of the cuisine served at these places," says Mok Kit-keung, executive Chinese chef of Shang Palace at Kowloon Shangri-La.

However, Mok is adapting Chinese cuisine with Western elements at a more refined level. Take the dish, braised abalone, home-made bean curd and sliced black truffle with oyster sauce. The obvious non-Cantonese ingredient is the truffle from France, which Mok uses in a range of dishes. So that it retains its Cantonese identity, the cooking techniques, aroma and flavour profile stay true to the cuisine's roots.

"One way I ensure that the taste remains true is by only using a limited amount of Western ingredients in any one dish," Mok says. The chef even borrows ways of presenting dishes from western cuisines with some dishes served with a knife and fork. "The dishes remain Cantonese because the basic building blocks are Cantonese."

Mok enjoys adding Western ingredients and plating methods as they allow him to bring a modern sensibility to an ancient cuisine.

Felix chef Yoshiharu Kaji works in a similar way. His cuisine is modern European, yet the dishes often feature ingredients from his native Japan. "All dishes begin with inspiration from traditional European dishes," he says, "then I think about what I will do to the dish and how to make it seasonal and modern, and finally any non-European element comes into play."

Kaji says it is about balance, with the introduced ingredients kept to a minimum and largely playing a seasoning role in the dish more than a core component taste role.

For example, the seaweed in the pot-au-feu-inspired grilled Kurobuta pork belly with lemon-seaweed broth, black beer braised artichoke and mini-fried potato dish, and the soy in the grilled red tuna, braised bell pepper and tomato, caramelised pineapple, soy vinaigrette dish, add a salty, umami note without making the dish taste Japanese.

"I never use Japanese presentation or techniques and I also avoid clichés, such as wasabi, to avoid confusion," Kaji says.

When it is a more distinct element, such as eel in the dish cucumber gazpacho and summer vegetables, eel kabayaki and red tuna tartare, it is done for complementary reasons. "Eel and tuna work together; it is still a Spanish dish with Spanish cooking techniques but with my essence," the chef says.

Kaji is going beyond Japan in the new menu with borrowed ingredients coming from around the world, such as Tunisian harissa.

"The taste balance is important. Lots of tasting takes place when I am developing dishes, so if the dish does not taste European, it is adjusted by adding quintessential ingredients of the cuisine, for example butter," Kaji says.

While all three chefs are adamant that the cuisines they serve are not fusion, Friendly Cheung Sze-fat, owner and executive chef of Fusion 5th Floor and Fusion Gourmet embraces it. He says: "I am proud to call my cuisine fusion."

Cheung's fusion cuisine happened naturally as a result of his past experience cooking Asian and Western dishes. His immersive travels (spending up to three months at a time in places such as Italy), and as his own boss, developed the drive to only use premium seasonal ingredients from around the world.

"I don't want to lock myself into one cuisine type as boundaries block the mind to inspiration," Cheung says.

Cuisine combinations are present in all his dishes, including poached foie gras with soy glaze and foie gras sauce, slow-cooked organic lamb rack with vegetables in a Vietnamese broth, and stir-fried oyster with ginger and green onion risotto.

"My cuisine is a crossover of cooking techniques and understanding the intricacies and characteristics of many cuisines," he says. Stolen, borrowed, fusion, crossover, regardless of the semantics; ultimately the success of the dish comes down to whether it tastes of the cuisine the chef intended.