Growing Up Chinese-Canadian, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bao
Chef Nick Liu of Toronto's Dai Lo gives us the down low on rediscovering his culinary roots through Big Macs.
All photos by Luis Mora.
Folding dumplings and watching The Young and the Restless—that was my first introduction to Chinese food.
When I was a kid, my parents were working a lot, so my brother and I would stay with my grandparents during the summer. From a very young age, we were making dumplings and noodles with them, for the sole reason that me and my brother were fucking awful—we wanted to kill each other, and this was a way for my grandparents to keep us busy.
Because I started so young, I took it for granted for most of my life, until I actually studied cooking. But when I began working at French restaurants, someone would request a dumpling for a canapé, and chefs would be like, "You're Chinese. Why don't you make the dumplings?" To have my chef, who's my mentor and had 20-years-plus experience on me, be like, "Fuck! This is fucking good!" was crazy. It had been such a part of my daily life that I didn't realize this technique was super valuable.
For me, it was peasant food or just home cooking. I was almost embarrassed about it. In my mind, I was learning how to cook French food: real cuisine! And that's a feeling that stems from grade school. Everyone's bringing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and your mom packs you a fucking beef stew with melon. Kids would say, "No, I don't wanna trade with you," or "That stinks!" Or I'd be bringing a big bao bun, and they'd say, "I don't wanna eat that!" Eventually, you just go to your mom and you say, "Mom, can you just make me some peanut butter and jelly?" because you want to fit in.
You want to brush it aside and integrate properly; because I'm Canadian, but when I would bring this food, I was Chinese. When I grew up in Scarborough, I never knew that I was different, or even Asian. Then, I moved to Markham, and all of the sudden, I was "an Asian kid." Sometimes, you just become a product of your environment.
Now, at Dai Lo, I take my inspiration from classic dishes and I rearrange them and treat them sort of like a collage; I take different textures and flavors and combine them together.
Authenticity is a concept that's a little bit different now. The General Tso's sweetbread dish that we do is a cool example of an ingredient that's typically used in French cuisine but can be used to riff on a Chinese-Canadian classic. It's crispy on the outside, but it's so creamy on the inside, and then you get that sweet and sour to balance that richness.
Same with our fried winter melon salad; it's really based off my dad's winter melon soup, but I've completely deconstructed it. All the flavors are there, but it's done in salad form instead of a soup. Every Chinese household does winter melon soup in their own way—it's always winter melon, some type of cured pork, and Chinese mushrooms in a really light, aromatic winter melon broth. It's really, really basic, but it gives you that warm hug inside.
The idea of authenticity is not something I feel bound by, but it's definitely something that I seek. Dai Lo is not a Chinese restaurant per se; I call it New Asian cuisine. I'd feel like an asshole if I said, "This is Chinese food," or "This is Singaporean food," or whatever. I'm creating New Asian food.
The biggest misconception about Chinese food is that it's all General Tso's chicken and sweet and sour sauces. My parents would be like, "That's not Chinese food." They'll eat it and they'll enjoy it, but to them it's not Chinese food. But for people of my generation, that's what we ate as Chinese food.
You create what you are. You create your experiences. If you're not using your experiences, then what are you doing? The things that I create at Dai Lo are the things that I know, the things that I was brought up with, and the things that I love. All the flavors that I put on a plate and put on a menu are what I want to eat. Basically, I take Canadian ingredients and I create Asian food.
I feel like I neglected my identity, my culture, my heritage for a long time while I was growing up, because I wanted to be Canadian. I think I started doing the cuisine at Dai Lo partly to re-find my culture. It actually brings me back and gives me an understanding of it. I first started learning how to cook again from my grandmother and getting all her recipes and learning how to use the ingredients. My parents are even on the payroll here—they make a lot of dumplings for us.
We do a lot of creative takes on classics. We do Big Mac bao, which is a steamed bun, but it tastes exactly like a Big Mac. For years, Big Macs reminded me of something, even though it had nothing to do with Chinese food. I couldn't pinpoint it. Then, all of a sudden, the connection came: The Big Mac bun reminded me of steamed bao buns.
One of my fondest memories of my grandfather is when he used to pick me up from lunch and he would always take me to McDonald's. It was the only time that I was allowed to have a Big Mac. For me, it was such a nostalgic thing. I love McDonald's even though I don't eat it anymore, but I also know that if I'm feeling this way about fast food, other people are feeling this way, too, so if I can create something from my nostalgic point of view, others are going to respond the same way.
Now, I would tell Asian kids to eat their parents' food at school with pride. I've got a nephew who takes red pork belly to school almost every day because it's his favorite thing. There's so much multiculturalism and everything has changed from the time when I went to school. I think that now, people who are Asian appreciate their culture and they don't even understand why; it's just accepted. It was a different time when I was growing up.
When I was young, being born Canadian-Chinese was like being stuck in the middle. You weren't accepted by the Caucasian Canadians, and you weren't accepted by the Asians that were coming in mass floods from Hong Kong and trying to maintain their culture.
But I make food that can link the two. It's kind of like a "Fuck off" to everybody. I'm doing it my way.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. As told to Nick Rose.