Bending The Spoon
As Executive Chinese Chef Liang Xiao Qing made an entry to show us his prepared ingredients, there was some sort of hearty jovialness that he carried with him. He had at his tail an assistant as well, one who barely understood the English language, let alone spoke it, but very happily offered nods as his head chef explained the concept of dim sum to us. “This dish we call dim sum can be interpreted in different ways. For instance, if you put four or five pieces in a basket, it is a starter. On the other hand, when you arrange them in a plate with some sauce around them, they can be taken as the main dish. Chinese dim sums are a lot of work and not just about stuffing meat and vegetables in dough or rice.”
The task for both chefs was to take one ingredient from the other’s cuisine and club it with their own for an innovative creation; red rice from South India and bok choy from southeast Asia. On receiving these ingredients for the challenge, Chef Qing effortlessly thought up the idea of dim sums. He tossed sticky rice with red rice so the rice-wall stayed put when steamed with minced chicken and bok choy stuffing in his kitchen at ITC Maratha’s Pan Asian. This he paired with a tangy bok choy sauce. MasterChef K. Kasi wasn’t very concerned about this combination either. “I practiced for two days, added my spices and now you tell me how it turned out,” he beamed as he pushed his own version of bok choy chutney towards us. Surprisingly the dish maintained the vegetable’s bright green colour. “It was easy – I just blanched it.”
Brought up in the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu, Chettinad cuisine is very naturally an inherent specialty for Chef Kasi. Back in the days, his mum was the head cook at the king’s palace in Chettinad. “I used to go with her on Saturdays and Sundays just to watch her cook because of my interest in culinary art. And then under her supervision at home, I used to try my hand at cooking.” Of course, being the MasterChef at ITC Maratha’s Dakshin Coastal, over the years he has become adept at preparing almost all other cuisines from the country’s southern region.
He tries to maintain authenticity in each dish that leaves his kitchen. “In South India, food travels and tastes change. There is a fine difference between them, so automatically a bit of blend is present in my cooking,” he admitted. “At times I try to even create a merger of my own. I fire up an otherwise moderately zesty uppu curry from Tamil Nadu with Andhra Pradesh’s spiciest gundu chili – one of the top 10 hottest chilies in the world – for its distinctive taste.”
Chef Qing on the other hand is all about unique combinations, what with his Chinese biryani prepared only for friends, and a Chinese version of the Japanese teriyaki sauce being one among many on his menu. Yet, he insisted, “Every chef must have very good knowledge in the basics. I can make any fusion from Chinese cuisine. I can make any kind of sauce because my basics are right. Without this knowledge, it is not fusion, but it is confusion.” As he instructed his assistant on the bok choy sauce, he revealed that Beijing or Jing cuisine is his specialty.
Like Chef Kasi, Chef Qing began cooking from a very young age. Earlier in his 35-year career as a chef, he made some exemplary leaps. For starters, seven years into the profession, he was the youngest to win the Super Chef title in China. This was a big deal as it is typically the senior chefs with over 15 years experience who compete. Not from Beijing, a criteria to participate, Chef Qing’s boss forfeited his nomination to his junior; this after his past records ratified his talent. “You have to be very fast at these competitions. The other participants were much older to me. Because of their good status as chefs, they had a face to save. Being young, I was under no such pressure, because I didn’t have a face to save.” Right after that he was sent to win the Best Chef title in China. Everybody was shocked when the young man brought back a gold medal. “We were returning in the same bus and nobody spoke to me. I promised them dinner so they wouldn’t be angry with me for the rest of the ride.”
Just then Chef Kasi lassoed us towards him with whiffs emanating from hot appams and freshly prepared vegetable stew. He added red rice to the batter before spreading it on the pan, lending it some element of health. The food was prepared as gracefully as it was laid out in traditional style. It seems the art of appeasing even the fussiest taste buds is inbred in his family. “My older daughter cooks very well too. So does my sister – she is known at family functions for her concoctions.”
One would imagine that his village would be intimidated by his position as a chef. Perhaps so, but his wife remains unaffected. “Sometimes when I cook, she remarks, ‘how do people at your restaurant enjoy this?’ She does love my fish in Chettinad style though,” he admitted immediately. It is classically cooked in a mud pot on ignited wood, a style reserved for special occasions. All other times normal utensils are employed because of time constraints and added effort.
As he laid out a plate for us, all our senses switched off, except for taste. Observing the delight on our faces, Chef Kasi remarked, “Maybe I will add this chutney to my menu. And the appam can be modified too.” Chef Qing’s dim sums followed soon after, fresh from the steamer. With minimum seasoning, each flavour of the rice and the stuffing was easily distinguishable. We were given a choice between the bok choy sauce and the chilli sauce. Both were complimenting enough – the chilli sauce, delightfully delicious no doubt, is more overpowering in comparison to the mildly tangy bok choy sauce.
With such a spread, there was a buffet of fusions within traditional Asian cuisines, and perhaps a first time play on bok choy in sauces and chutneys.
RED RICE APPAM WITH BOK CHOY CHUTNEY AND KAI STEW
For the kai stew: Vegetable cubes of carrots and French beans, 225 gms; Cauliflower cut into florets, 75 gms; Green peas, 50 gms; Ginger, washed peeled and cut into julienne, 20 gms; Onions, peeled, washed and sliced, 80 gms; Curry leaf, 10 gms; Green chilli (split), 15 gms; Coconut milk, 700 gms; Coconut oil, 20 gms; Cinnamon stick, 2 nos; Black peppercorn, 10 gms; Bayleaf, 4 nos; Salt to taste; A few fried curry leaves for garnish; A 1 inch blade.
For the appam: Red rice, 1 kgs; Dosa rice, 1 kg; Urud dal, 150 gms; Sugar, 10 gms; Coconut milk powder, 150 gms; Salt to taste.
For the bok choy chutney: Bok choy, washed and cleaned, 3 bunches; Urad dal, 3 tsps; Cumin seeds, 2 tsps; Pepper corn, 1 tsp; Garlic
cloves, 50 gms; Green chilly, washed and destemmed, 25 gms; Shallots, cut into four, 100 gms; Turmeric powder, ½ tsp; Fresh coconut, grated, 1 no; Sugar, 10 gms; Tamarind pulp, 10 ml; Salt to taste.
For the seasoning: Curry leaves, deep fried, 2 sprigs; Mustard seeds, splattered in oil, 1 tsp; Urad dal, splattered in oil, 1 tsp; Salt to taste.
For the kai stew: Blanch the vegetables and keep them aside. Heat coconut oil in a pan. Add cinnamon sticks, black peppercorns and bay leaves. Stir for a minute. Add ginger, onions, curry leaves and green chilies. Stir for about two minutes till the onions are translucent. Add coconut milk and mix. Add the blanched vegetables to the pot and cook for three minutes. Adjust seasoning and serve hot. Garnish with fried curry leaves.
For the appam: Soak the red rice, dosa rice, urad dal and fenugreek seeds for one hour. When they soften, grind into a smooth paste. Add sugar, salt, coconut milk powder and mix. Cover the container and let it rest overnight in a cool place. The next day take about 90 ml of batter and spread on a pan. As the appam starts to cook on medium heat, bubbles will form in the centre and the edges will have a lace like finish. Transfer it on to a plate.
For the bok choy chutney: Boil, strain and cool the bok choy. Heat oil on medium heat in a pan. Add urad dal and let it splatter. Add cumin seeds and pepper corn and stir. Add garlic cloves and green chilli. Sauté for two minutes. Add shallots and sauté for a minute. Add turmeric powder, grated coconut and sauté for another two minutes. Remove from flame. Grind this mixture into a thick smooth puree with the boiled bok choy. Add sugar, tamarind pulp and salt and grind once again. Serve in a bowl.
For the seasoning: Garnish with curry leaves, splattered mustard seeds and urad dal.
STEAMED CHICKEN DIM SUM WITH RED RICE AND BOK CHOY
For the dim sum: Chicken mince, 180 gms; Red rice, 150 gms; Sticky rice, 150 gms; Lemon grass, 50 gms; Galangal, 30 gms; Bok choy, 350 gms; Ginger, washed, cleaned and chopped, 10 gms; Spring onion, washed, cleaned and chopped, 15 gms; Soya sauce, 1 tsp; Corn starch, 30 gms; Chili paste, 1 tbsp; Sugar, 30 gms; Vinegar, 1 tsp; Cooking wine, 1 tsp; Sesame oil, 1 tsp; Egg, 1 no; Cooking oil, 50 gms; Salt to taste.
For the bok choy sauce: Bok choy, 50 gms; Garlic, washed, cleaned and chopped, 10 gms; Cooking oil, 50 gms; Salt and pepper to taste.
For the chili sauce: Red chilli paste, 10 gms; Sugar, 20 gms; Tomato sauce, 1 tbsp; Ginger, washed, cleaned and chopped, 10 gms; Garlic, cleaned and chopped, 10 gms; Sesame oil, 1 tsp; Salt to taste.
For the dim sum: Pound lemon grass and galangal to extract the juice. Soak red and sticky rice in the water for about 12 hours. Mix together the minced chicken, ginger, spring onion, soya sauce, corn starch, chili paste, 50 gms chopped bok choy, sugar, vinegar, salt, cooking wine, sesame oil, egg and the lemon grass and galangal extract. Divide the mixture into balls of 30 gms each (should make a total of six balls). Coat each one with the soaked rice mixture. Steam the rice coated chicken balls for 10 minutes. Serve on a plate.
In a wok or a pan heat some oil on medium-high heat and stir fry the remaining 300 gms of bok choy. Arrange them with the chicken dimsums.
For the bok choy sauce: Boil the bok choy for five minutes, strain and then mince it. Stir fry minced garlic and bok choy with salt and pepper.
For the chilli sauce: Stir fry minced garlic, ginger with chili paste together. Add sugar, vinegar and salt to it.
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