Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Mission Chinese Food Event in Shenzhen

I seldom write about one-off events, as I try to make this blog as useful as possible, but this one-night-only pop-up event in Shenzhen by Mission Chinese Food triggered some pretty interesting things that made me think more about where modern Asian/Chinese food is going.

If you're a foodlover from the States, or are kind of crazy and read about food way too much, you've probably already heard of MCF, or even been. They went from Mission Street Food to Mission Chinese Food, doing fusion-y Asian American within an actual Chinese American restaurant in the Mission district of San Francisco. I'd never eaten there, but from what I could gather from the interwebs it's boldly flavoured, nouveau soul Asian - which I would really have liked to eat at this event in Shenzhen, but at the same time I thought it might be a little odd - bringing soul-Asian back to Asia*.

Aside from the food itself, I want to talk about what this meal by Mission Chinese Food (hereafter MCF because I'm lazy) meant to me.

I didn't really know what to expect, but luckily there are adventurous folks like Gary and HK Epicurus, who were more than willing to come along, so across the border we went.

Clam/geoduck sashimi/carpaccio

The first thing that came out were slices of giant clam (though I think it was geoduck) on vinegared(?) melon in tomato essence, dotted with parsley oil and shiso. It was a clean, elegantly presented dish served to us in individual portions - so we pretty much knew for sure we weren't going family style.

This set the tone for the rest of the meal. Modern food with a definite Asian bent. Not entirely Chinese, as there were clear Japanese influences, and an openness that only being away from the country of inspiration can create.

Chawanmushi with chrysanthemum and scallop

Without having found out more from them, I can't comment on MCF's philosophy behind this meal, so this is just what I felt. I didn't do much research about the chefs' (Danny and Anthony) backgrounds, so I am only going on the assumption that, like myself, they are of Asian heritage - how far back it goes, I'm not sure, but one thing that seemed clear to me is that these combinations of flavours can only come from people who are fairly familiar with the flavour 'patterns' of Asian food.

Manager (and chef) Anthony making salt-baked prawns

Prawns baking in hot salt

For me, as an eater, the familiarity of the components provided a certain comfort, but the way that they were put together - fused, juxtaposed, processed etc. - is the result of having also been submerged in other cultures. That's where I get the feeling of openness from.

Salt-baked prawns

razor clams served along with the prawns

At the risk of sounding horribly cliched, in the discussions that ensued on our way back home, we talked about immigrant cultures and what has become of it - and in my opinion, very little (I beg you to read on before you flame me). In countries like America and Australia, that are almost entirely made up of immigrants, we're still looking at things from a very us/them perspective, viewing the habits of our 'foreign' next door neighbour with just as much exoticism as colonialists first viewed other countries. But what food from MCF is telling me is, things - people, practices - can come together and end up being more than the sum of their parts, but it takes exposure. Just like a pidgin becoming a creole when it becomes the native language of the second generation, cuisines can also merge and develop its own life cycle that is independent of its first-generation parentage, while referencing it all the time.

Duck three ways - the little shards are crispy duck tongue
duck confit inside the 'money bag'

In my mind, it's different from places like Bo Innovation, where the chef's ideas are influenced by solely by personal/internal curiosity rather than the wider world, and is simply trying to use old ingredients and flavour combos in different forms, which is about as exciting as freezing water into ice (well, I suppose that was interesting at some point in time).

Ginseng soup with barley, with fish (flake I think?) roulade with chicken liver

And after all that rambling, I would say the meal is a clear reflection of a kind of development, or evolution perhaps (because not all the combos worked - the ginseng soup with barley was really good in my opinion, though I found the duck 'money bag' had too much meat, for example), not so much just of MCF, but modern Chinese in general, and I'm so glad to have been able to try it.

Chrysanthemum sauternes with mangosteen

Holding the event in Shenzhen, rather than say, Hong Kong, has its challenges. Ingredients are a big influence. In Mainland China, it is relatively difficult to get imports of the ingredients you're used to working with, especially on short notice (and in small quantities). Local ingredients, from fresh produce to condiments, actually also take a while to understand - the language and cultural barriers make it quite a challenge. I really appreciate MCF for adapting and taking inspiration from their travels - such as the use of chrysanthemum in several dishes - and if they can come up with food as interesting as this after such a short time in the country, imagine what they could do with some more time in the region? They're very committed to the Bay Area, but I'm sincerely hoping they'll come back and bring more of their innovation (next time to Hong Kong!). China, and even "multi-cultural" Hong Kong (I wish I could inject more irony...), are tough nuts to crack, but I think if anyone can do it, it might be guys like MCF.

For more about the food, do head over to Gary and HK Epicurus's blogs.

*Hong Kong veterans might remember a Chinese American diner around Star Street a few years back called Dining Wok, which fizzled rather quickly.

The event was held on 12 June, 2011, at Capistrano restaurant in Shenzhen, China.


  1. Thanks, Janice! This is a really great post. Very thoughtful and thought-provoking.
    Let us know if you are ever in SF!

  2. Thanks! It was great to meet you all!