What do you get when two Portuguese, a Chinese, a Hong Konger, and a Canadian work together in a kitchen?
An epic, eclectic, slightly "fusion" version of a nine-course Chinese New Year feast. Well, that's if Ta Ta Eatery's one-off celebration dinner is anything to go by.
It's no joke. Chinese New Year is a meal steeped in tradition—a big reunion dinner that sees family get together to say goodbye to the old and welcome in the new with dishes that are as symbolic as they are delicious.
With this in mind, Ta Ta Eatery chefs Zijun Meng and Ana Gonçalves decided to bring their London food family together to mark the start of the Year of the Rooster. They invited Antonio Galapito from nearby Portuguese restaurant Taberna do Mercado, Henry Chung from Hong Kong-inspired noodle bar BossLady, and Edgar Wallace from Koya Bar in Soho to take part in a huge cook-off at their Hackney restaurant.
Sitting around the table with the chefs as they work out their plan of action for dinner, the chat is littered with sibling-esque teasing and wisecracks.
"We've all worked together," says Meng. "Ana, myself, Antonio, and Edgar all met under the same roof working with Nuno Mendes."
"I'm the odd one out," says Chung, who met Meng when they were both running street food stalls at south London's Druid Street Market two years ago. "We'll have had to see whether I get kicked out or if I'm welcomed into the family!"
"When we had the idea for doing a Chinese New Year feast, we immediately thought of Edgar," says Gonçalves. "Though he's the whitest 'Chinese person' I know … "
"I just like doing Chinese food," Wallace shrugs. Two years ago, his love of the cuisine led him to quit his chef job and take up a pot-washing role at a Szechuan restaurant in Golders Green. "I was a bit of a nerd about learning about it and so I found out how to make it by eating it, visiting places in Chinatown, and learning to read the Chinese language menus. But Henry is the guy to got to for noodles, and Antonio is … "
"Nothing related," Galapito chips in.
But for all the banter, these chefs and friends have one enduring commonality: a deep love for Chinese food. And listening to them run through their menu, it's clear that they're all excited about the variety of dishes with which they'll be seeing in the Year of the Rooster.
"Chinese food and Chinese New Year means something different to each of us," Wallace adds. "So, we're all making things that have struck us as particularly interesting."
Rice cakes, hot pots of stew for dipping, dumplings, noodles, chicken, and fish are all significant elements of the meal, which is celebrated by a fifth of the world's population.
"Everything we're serving is either meaningful for Chinese people," explains Meng. "Or a twist on a traditional Chinese dish."
In other words, you probably wouldn't get a Chinese New Year dinner anything like this in China. Wallace's two dishes, for example, originate from Chengdu in northern China—different cuts of cold sliced beef including oxtail, shin, and a tripe known as "Old Couple's Beef" with a spicy sauce, as well as poached fish with pickled vegetables.
Chung, meanwhile, is bringing recipes from his childhood in Hong Kong to the table.
"I haven't celebrated Chinese New Year properly since I was 14, so it's great to get back to it," he says. "Last time I was there, I spent two weeks practising one of the dishes I'm making to make sure I got it just right—fried Chinese chicken. It's really popular in Hong Kong during Chinese New Year. And then obviously I'm doing noodles."
At his BossLady pop-up, Chung makes all his noodles from scratch by hand. And you can't have Chinese New Year without noodles, explains Meng, because "noodles symbolise long life."
"Ana and I are also going to do dumplings, because you have to have dumplings," he adds. Usually the whole family gets involved in making the dumplings, and their round shape represents reunion.
"In northern regions of China, you get different dumpling fillings like dates or even coins," Meng continues. "Most of them are filled with pork, but if you get a sweet one that means you're going to have a sweet new year. Or if you get a coin, it means you're coming into money. We decided not to do 'surprise' dumplings though, in case people freak out, and have just stuck to a more traditional mixture: high quality Iberico pork, cabbage, and leek."
Meng and Gonçalves' other dish is from yet another part of China: Qingdao.
"It's a veggie soup," he explains. "Where I come from, meat is always used as a garnish, so the broth will be a pork broth, but there'll be no pork in it, just vegetables. You get the depth of the flavour as well as the nutrition."
Galapito's offering is less conventional: a "mapu" pig's brain.
"Mapu is actually a way of cooking tofu," says Meng. "But tofu and brains have a similar texture, so it's a riff on that idea. Tofu also represents luck. When we serve mapu tofu at Chinese New Year, often the word tofu is written backwards to mean 'luck is coming.' Imagine 'fu' means 'lucky' and 'to' means 'coming.'"
Wallace's poached fish is also a variation on something very traditional.
"In China, we'd cook a fish on the day we have dinner, but no one eats it," explains Meng. "It just sits on the table and everyone looks at it, but eats everything else. Then you eat the fish the next day."
A little like having money left in your bank account to carry forward at the end of the month, the idea is to retain something from the previous year to carry into the new.
Of course, Wallace's fish dish is there to be eaten on the night, but I guess doggy bags for leftovers could carry on some of the tradition—in principle at least.
Impressively, the chefs planned their dishes for Saturday's Chinese New Year feast separately, but have managed to come up with a menu that has a huge variety of offerings.
"We were afraid that we might end up doing an entirely pork-based menu," says Wallace. "But together we've made a kind of a European-Chinese-Japanese-Asian-flux."
"We're a proper 'fusion,'" says Galapito.
Just like a real family, each chef has a love for the food in common, yet is different enough to bring something unique to the table. As far as fresh starts go, five Chinese food lovers of different nationalities getting together to create an extraordinary feast is hard to beat.
Chopsticks at the ready and bring on the Year of the Rooster.