Meet the restaurateurs bringing truly authentic flavours to New Zealand.
It is the world’s oldest and richest of cultural traditions, but when it comes to its cuisine, Chinese food is still seen by many as being on the lower end of gastronomic offerings.
Images of greasy fried wontons, spring rolls,
History books tell us that the first Chinese food sold in New Zealand was in Dunedin, during the 1860s — mainly to feed Chinese miners during the gold rush era.
The style of cuisine was derived from Cantonese that developed from these early Chinese settlers, and that remained so for many years after.
New Zealand’s Chinese population base was small, and eateries selling Chinese food had no choice but to modify their food to attract European customers.
More liberal immigration rules in recent times have changed that, and today more than 320,000 people identify as Chinese in New Zealand.
The rise of China internationally and its economic boom have also changed its cultural clout and the meaning of Chinese food.
Here in Auckland, two forward-thinking young restaurateurs are challenging the notion of New Zealand Chinese cuisine and have plans to revolutionise Chinese dining for New Zealanders.
Born in China, 35-year-old Kyo Shen moved to New Zealand in 2007 as a student and has been working in hospitality since he was 17.
His first job was as a kitchen hand before becoming a bartender and then an assistant chef.
“When I first came, my impression of New Zealand’s Chinese food was not good,” Kyo says. “It feels like whoever cooked them changed the taste to cater to their Kiwi customers, and it is not real Chinese food.”
Kyo felt also that there weren’t very many skilled Chinese chefs around.
“My dream was to bring truly authentic flavours of China to New Zealand, and also take Chinese food to fine-dining level,” Kyo says. “Yes, we want to reach Western customers, but that can be done by cooking and serving them to a level acceptable for a Western audience and not by altering the taste.”
Kyo says when he first shared his dream with friends, they felt it could never happen.
When an opportunity came in 2016, Kyo opened his first restaurant at SkyCity Metro in the Auckland CBD.
The restaurant, Yang Guo Fu, is the world’s largest Mala Tang chain with over 6000 outlets globally.
Mala Tang is a hot and spicy Sichuan soupy dish of meat and vegetables that started as a common street food in northern parts of China but its popularity spread quickly throughout the country — and now around the world.
Unfortunately, Yang Guo Fu did not survive the Covid-19 pandemic and closed last year.
Kyo has since been involved in several other successful and very profitable Chinese restaurant chains, including Eden Noodles, Biang Biang Noodles and Lao Guang Zhou Hot Pot.
“We are now seeing non-Chinese customers queuing for the food at some of these restaurants, and what it proves is that when a business offers authentic Chinese food, they will not only survive but thrive,” Shen said.
He believes the time is ripe to break the glass ceiling for Chinese food, and for it to be taken to the next level beyond the low- and mid-market.
Next on the plans for the prolific restaurateur is a new upscale Chinese-styled restaurant called Xie Xie, meaning thank you in Mandarin, which he will open early next month (December 2023).
Serving an eclectic blend of Chinese-New Zealand cuisine, diners can find dishes like candied tomato marinated in plum and rosewater syrup served with mint jelly sauce, and sesame-crusted tuna served on panipuri stuffed with coriander salsa and topped with caviar on the menu.
One of Kyo’s personal favourites is the Peking duck breast cooked using the sous vide technique and infused with Chinese herbs and spices.
Many of the dishes he says were inspired by dishes at top hotel restaurants in China, where chefs seamlessly meld different cuisines into one another.
“I believe this will be what New Chinese Cuisine in New Zealand will look like, it is an extension of the culinary globalisation happening across the world. What you will see at Xie Xie are chefs bringing out powerful dishes using Chinese elements that will push the boundaries of gastronomy.”
Xie Xie is designed by Paul Izzard, a man with over two decades of international experience crafting hotels and restaurants in the UK.
Here in New Zealand, Paul has won and served as a judge for The Best Design Awards for the Design Institute of New Zealand and TV3′s The Block NZ and also designed Auckland’s Hilton Hotel.
Over in Albany on Auckland’s North Shore, Guangxi-born Cameron Zhong’s family has opened what is possibly the city’s largest Chinese restaurant Sum Made serving traditional Cantonese food.
The restaurant serves yum cha by day and Cantonese favourites like roast meats, live seafood and Buddha Jumps Over the Wall — a soupy dish that would set you back $998 per bowl.
“Too many chefs are adding local flavours and influences, turning their dishes into fusion food and although this may be the trend, I feel what New Zealand is missing are true Cantonese dishes that taste close to what you get in Guangzhou or Hong Kong,” says Cameron.
“What we aim to do at Sum Made is to bring not just top-notch Cantonese cuisine, but also the whole experience of what it’s like dining in that part of the world.”
Sum Made is sizeable. Built on two levels, the restaurant has its own lift and six private dining suites — one with a table that sits 24 people and a private karaoke corner complete with sofa seats.
Being Cantonese himself, Zhong said he sometimes feels “embarrassed” by some of the Chinese food here that is being passed off as Cantonese cuisine.
“Cantonese food has a long culinary history, it is rich and sophisticated and some have even described it as the French cuisine of the East,” Zhong said. “Much attention is paid to provide for all five senses, and of particular importance to those who appreciate Cantonese cuisine is the freshness of its dishes.”
It is for the very reason of freshness that the restaurant has about a dozen tanks where customers can get to choose live seafood offerings ranging from crayfish, geoducks, clams, blue cod, pāua to king crabs.
Through Sum Made, Cameron plans to push the quality to a level that Chinese cuisine has never been presented before in New Zealand.
Eight chefs have been headhunted from top restaurants across the Guangdong region to help in the direction that Zhong is taking for his restaurant.
One of the special dishes in Sum Made’s elaborate Cantonese menu is a dish called “Hidden Dragon in the Snow”, where a live crayfish from the tank is cooked in two parts; the meat from the tail served with milk from Daliang and the body deep fried with garlic, salt and pepper.
Another signature dish is the “secret recipe” black barbecue pork, where pork belly is cooked using a special roasting method.
“Sum Made is still a work in progress, and we are still working to make our flavours more focused, refined and our plating with greater finesse,” says Cameron.
While Cameron is optimistic about what could happen in the future for Chinese cuisine in New Zealand, he says there is still “a mountain to climb” to meet the challenges of the present.
“For too long, Chinese food has been stuck on the cheap and lower end of culinary offerings,” he said. “But I believe that Chinese cuisine is definitely no lesser than any of the major cuisines, and it’s just a matter of time before we will be seen to be up there with the best.”
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