How Foshan's 102 House Is Reframing Cantonese Cuisine

Journeys

December 3, 2018 | BY Janice Leung Hayes

In the heart of Foshan, one off-the-beaten-track restaurant is quietly reviving ancient Cantonese culinary traditions and almost-forgotten dishes

In 2006, when Xu Jingye and Yao Min started 102 House, a one-table private kitchen focusing on Cantonese cuisine in the city of Foshan, about an hour west of Guangzhou, they looked to Hong Kong for knowledge and inspiration. They decided to claim their venture as “fusion”—an experiment in blending Guangdong’s traditions with those of their plusher neighbour. “It was so-called creative cuisine,” recalls Xu, “but customers weren’t returning. We knew that what we were doing wasn’t right.”

Looking to hone the recipes they were playing with, Xu found a sifu, or mentor—a man whose name Xu wouldn’t disclose, who has been a veteran of high-end Cantonese kitchens for decades. Under his guidance, the chef and his partner Yao, both in their 30s, began shifting their attention to Cantonese cuisine in its purest, oldest form.

See also: Are They Going To Save Cantonese Cuisine?

“Neither of us was born in the age when Cantonese cuisine was at its most glorious,” Xu says. “We never experienced it, so our knowledge and understanding of Cantonese classics was the same as most other people, in that we didn’t know much about them. My sifu had worked in grand hotels in the 1960s and cooked dishes that I’d never seen or tasted before. He suggested that I start again and learn the fundamentals of Cantonese cuisine.”

So Xu did. He started digging up old recipes and cookbooks and began to try his hand at reproducing them, from tiny coins of chicken minced by hand on top of pig skin to incorporate a little of the fattiness, designed to float in a milky, slow-cooked tonic soup of black chicken and almonds, to pigeon breast steamed with shiitake that had been allowed to grow past their prime.

“I would go straight to my sifu if there was something I didn’t understand and he would teach me, step by step. He taught me how the dish should taste, what its true point of difference is and how to achieve it. In those early days, we really relied on him to help us find our bearings,” Xu says. “He made me understand what Cantonese food is really about. Cantonese food is clean, umami, crunchy, tender, smooth (‘qing, xian, shuang, nen, hua’), and you should achieve these qualities using the vegetables that nature provides through the seasons. When you fully understand these concepts, you’ll understand Cantonese food.”

One of the eight main traditions of Chinese cuisine, Cantonese gastronomy is perhaps the country’s most internationally recognised, given the high number of Cantonese emigrants the world over. Its style of cooking favours braising, stewing and sautéing over the flash-frying method used in other Chinese regions, and incorporates sauces that tend to be sweet and thick, such as hoisin, plum and oyster.

It relies heavily on indigenous ingredients—spring onions, sugar, salt, cornflour—whose flavours tend to be kept intact, as well as animals (or parts of them) that might sound unappetising to some but are tied to the times of hardship Cantonese people often endured in their history, and their ability to make art out of necessity: snakes, goose webs, cockerel testicles, cow innards, pig shanks.

See also: Chinese Master Chef Leung Fai Hung Celebrates 40 Years In The Kitchen

Xu and Yao embraced all this almost to the letter, starting with the location of 102 House. By 2009, the pair had moved their private kitchen into an old residence in Foshan, in a quiet neighbourhood tucked behind hectic main thoroughfares.

Like many Chinese cities, Foshan’s roads are choked with traffic and exploding with LED signage. But in this slim, three-storey house, automatic glass doors make way for a rustic wooden doorway, and the sound of cars honking is replaced by the gentle trickling from the water feature in the petite courtyard. “We hope that people who come here can slow down, take a breath and truly appreciate what we have to offer,” says Yao.

Although they started with one table, these days they can accommodate three parties at once, although Xu is hesitant to expand beyond that. “When you have to serve too many tables, it’s very hard to keep the quality high and to do things in such detail. I like dishes that have a lot of finer aspects, so I’d rather serve fewer tables but keep fine-tuning the details,” he says. 

Those details are indeed what makes 102 House remarkable. Xu and Yao source all their ingredients seasonally. In many instances, they have spent months researching them through old Chinese cookbooks. Rather than acquiring products by way of wet markets or online suppliers, they have built close relationships with the makers and traders of specific items they use in their dishes, tracking them down and slowly building their trust. “More than once we took up their excess stock just to show that we really wanted to work with them,” says Yao, mentioning as an example their regular fishmonger, who provides them with the best possible seafood.

To Xu and Yao, sourcing locally is a no-brainer. When Xu says, “the shiitake are from the north,” he means the northern border of Guangdong province. The story of Guangdong as a place is what they’re trying to communicate, which, apart from historical context, also means showcasing the produce in the correct season.

“When people talk about seasonality [in China] they often think about Japanese cuisine, but Chinese food is very seasonal—be it in Guangdong, Suzhou and Zhejiang, Beijing or Shandong. You wouldn’t get the same ingredients throughout the year, and you wouldn’t use the same flavours all year round; nor would you serve the same dishes.”

In Hong Kong, while we’re lucky enough to have the world’s best ingredients shipped and flown to us, the flavours of our own region have fallen by the wayside. “How I see it,” says Xu, “is that if you’re cooking Cantonese food, then you need Cantonese flavours, which would naturally come from Cantonese ingredients. I try my best to find things grown and made here. Of course, even in the past Cantonese food has used ingredients from abroad, and if these are things that have a history of working well in Cantonese cuisine, I’m happy to use them.”

Most meals at 102 House are 11 to 13 courses, which change according to what Xu finds at his suppliers. On a summer menu, four out of 11 courses are soups of some description. In Western cuisines, soups, apart from cold ones, are seen as winter foods, but to the Cantonese soups are for all seasons, and liquids are particularly favoured for being less taxing on the body in the intense summer heat. Gourds such as winter melon are classic summer vegetables, and at 102 House they’re made into a soup that uses similar ingredients to the imposing carved winter melon soup often seen at banquets.

However, these individual dishes have a sense of majesty of their own, served in a bowl lined dramatically with a large lotus leaf, making it look like a Medici collar. The winter melon is roughly puréed and combined with crab, chicken and lotus seeds as well as two flowers—lily and cowslip creeper (a native Chinese plant whose flowers are also called yexianghua, or “night fragrance flowers”).

“My food is definitely rooted in tradition but I sometimes add my own ideas,” says Xu. “One of the things my sifu taught me is to think for myself and not blindly follow recipes. Just because you follow a recipe to a T doesn’t mean it’s right. Sometimes I change things to create more complexity of flavour; other times it might be a matter of aesthetics. Aesthetics change with time, and the reference books I read came from a different time, so you can’t always follow them exactly.”

Also featured in the summer is a deceptively simple-looking dish of a few pearlescent orbs with few adornments except a branch laid elegantly on top. It turns out they are sautéed lychees stuffed with a smear of minced shrimp and fatty pork. Each mouthful bursts with the sweet juices of the fruit, which is almost too much until it’s tempered by the little core of umami.

From crunchy summer bamboo poached in stock to caramelised pineapple in the signature Foshan-style sweet-and-sour pork, and the cold lychee red tea served as dessert, every bite is designed to give the diner a taste of summer.  

“In Cantonese cuisine, seasonality is especially important. It affects the order the dishes come during a banquet, which ingredients you choose and how you change your balance of flavours—these are all aspects of eating that few people remember any more,” Xu says.

“If you’ve ever been to a Cantonese-style wedding banquet, you’ll know that there is a certain order that dishes are expected in—cold appetisers to start followed by roast meats, soup, meat and vegetables in the middle, seafood towards the end, and carbohydrate-based plates of rice and noodles to round off the savoury dishes before dessert. We take this order for granted, and even at 102 House things fall into the same pattern, but it’s not out of habit,” he continues. “In Cantonese fine dining, the order in which the dishes are presented should reflect the ingredients, the changes in the seasons and the balance of flavours.”

“In Cantonese cuisine, seasonality is especially important. It affects the order the dishes come during a banquet, which ingredients you choose and how you change your balance of flavours—these are all aspects of eating that few people remember any more,” Xu says.

“If you’ve ever been to a Cantonese-style wedding banquet, you’ll know that there is a certain order that dishes are expected in—cold appetisers to start followed by roast meats, soup, meat and vegetables in the middle, seafood towards the end, and carbohydrate-based plates of rice and noodles to round off the savoury dishes before dessert. We take this order for granted, and even at 102 House things fall into the same pattern, but it’s not out of habit,” he continues. “In Cantonese fine dining, the order in which the dishes are presented should reflect the ingredients, the changes in the seasons and the balance of flavours.”

On a winter evening, richer dishes like baked conch and roe from local amphibious crabs could be followed by a thick bird’s nest and chicken soup, which is a shift towards a lighter, palate-cleansing flavour, but the viscosity of the soup and choice of ingredients (chicken and bird’s nest are both seen as nourishing foods in Chinese medicine) mean that the heartiness required of winter sustenance is not forgotten. 

It is an approach to dining that can be compared to the concept of slow food in the West. And it is drawing crowds: 102 House has become a mecca of sorts among food enthusiasts in the region, and Xu and Yao, hailed as rising hot shots in the reviving of old Cantonese culinary traditions, have been asked to host pop-up dinners both in Hong Kong and Singapore.

Ultimately, it’s reviving those traditions, more than flaunting their venture, that these young chefs are really interested in. “We knew we’d be doing [this project] for a while,” says Yao. “But we don’t have a goal for how long the restaurant should be around,” adds Xu. “Our main hope is that 102 House can help diners rediscover the allure of Cantonese food.”

102 House is located at Guicheng Shi Ken, Huanghe Fang, Yi Xiang Yi Hao, Foshan, Guangzhou. To book, call +86 132 8843 2145

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