History and food come together in A. Wong's Five Movements menu
Two-Michelin-starred chef Andrew Wong has been working with food historian and anthropologist Mukta Das for almost a decade. The new Five Movements menu at A. Wong is the culmination of their work looking at the historical banquets of China
Food, at its core, is woven with stories. Whether that’s tales of the movement of people, the establishment of cultural norms or the changing of climates, over centuries of human existence, plates of food have come to mean so much more than simply a collection of ingredients. To dine is not simply to fill space in your stomach, but to engage with a culture and participate – even unwittingly – in culinary history.
London as a city is home to a multitude of distinct food cultures. There are few other places in the world where you can walk down one stretch of road and experience so many different cuisines: Turkish rolling into Italian, a few English cafés thrown in for good measure, before stumbling upon one of the city’s best Indian restaurants – all without leaving your postcode. Each restaurant tells a story: one of migration, of gentrification, of community and exploration. To track the history of food is to track the history of people.
This connection is no more apparent than when I speak to Andrew Wong , chef and owner of two Michelin starred A. Wong and Mukta Das, food historian and anthropologist, about their work connecting food and history at A. Wong and attempting to redefine how Chinese food is perceived. “How has it become this accepted norm that people address and use words like balance of flavour, in the same way that they refer to Western food, where everything is on a single plate,” Wong says. “whereas you can’t eat Chinese food like that. I think that the vocabulary needs to be addressed and the ideology needs to be changed. Our banqueting menu was, for me anyway, not only about celebrating those past, epic extravaganzas, but also fundamentally about trying to get people to understand that at banquets there were a lot of dishes, but there’s a reason for that. It’s not purely for show or for opulence – it’s because Chinese food is fundamentally meant to be eaten as collections, as movements and larger themes.”
While this has manifested itself into its own standalone menu – Five Movements – the pair’s partnership has been woven into the A. Wong menu for more than eight years now. “He’s been using our conversations to adjust, refine and introduce new dishes to the menu throughout our time working together,” says Das. “I think that lead up has allowed Andrew to make the risky but innovative decision to transform the menu.”
Andrew and Mukta met – as many collaborators do these days – over Twitter. “It’s a professional relationship that, first and foremost, is built around friendship,” says Wong. “I think I enjoy Mukta’s company more than she enjoys mine,” he laughs. “At the beginning of 2014 I was doing my PHD in Chinese food,” says Das – “Yes, there is such a thing!” she adds – “I had been tweeting, and Andrew, who is always on the hunt for new ideas, tweeted me. I was nervous at the beginning, putting my professional hat on and thinking this could be a potential client. But Andrew’s not that kind of collaborator so he ended up being a friend more than anything else. He’s got that kind of warm personality, really open to asking questions, so it was such a pleasure to talk to him, and we’ve developed such a special way of working together.”
Chinese food is fundamentally meant to be eaten as collections, as movements and larger themes
It’s clear the two of them are very in sync about the topic, despite coming at it from vastly different angles. “Everything is just based around wanting to learn from each other,” says Wong. “I like to think I can offer a slightly different perspective to her and her peers, not necessarily purely through an academic point of view, but one where it's about whether or not something is delicious and how dishes come together through the eyes of practicality.” For Wong, this means an interpretation of Das’s work through the modern-day palate and approach to eating.
Their work together isn’t simply about rebuilding these banquets of the past, but about applying the guiding principles of these meals into a menu that functions in A. Wong in the present day. “I never wanted it to be a case where I would go 'Here’s a recipe, let’s recreate it.' It’s always been about larger questions and bigger themes," says Wong. "Some people may say ‘Oh, that sounds a bit wishy washy,' but I don’t think it is, because for me as a chef, I think it’s those overarching questions which are so much more important to me than saying this existed at the time, or this dish existed at the time. And I think with the banqueting menu, one of the biggest things besides trying to find a way to bring all of our conversations together was about addressing the issue, especially in the UK, in a Western world, of how people eat Chinese food and regional Chinese food.”
I ask whether this historical anchoring is important for engaging the modern day diner and Das immediately jumps in. “Nobody in the world does what Andrew does,” she says. “I’ve had a lot of feedback from chefs and members of scholarly circles and they all dine at A. Wong and say Andrew is something else. So it's really difficult to put him into an envelope and say okay, we're drawing from history and we're doing this, but we are making it contemporary because actually a lot of chefs are doing that and it’s easy to understand that as a trend. But actually he’s not even just doing that. He’s doing something beyond it.”
While A. Wong has been largely lauded by the mainstream food world, and quite rightly highly decorated by the traditionally quite Western-leaning, Francophile Michelin awards, they still experience issues communicating this way of eating. “When we talk about balance of flavour, balance of texture, balance of spice, that doesn’t always have to come from a singular dish,” says Wong. “Sometimes it can come from the fact that you are eating something with a soup on the side, or there’s a side dish with piquant notes, and another bit with textural notes and another dish that has kind of glutinous texture and another which has crispness to it. It’s a big issue, which outside of China really needs to be addressed in getting people to really break down this misconception before they can really begin to enjoy Chinese food the right way.
“I think for this particular menu, on a daily basis when we serve it, you’d be surprised by the number of guests who still find it really hard to grapple with this idea of eating food as a collection,” he continues. “The number of objections that we get sometimes, ‘Why are all these fishes coming out together? Why are they not being served one by one, like a Western tasting menu?’ And when you explain it, even then, it’s hard for people to understand.”
This can be seen throughout the menu. Certain dishes arrive like a procession. Take, for example, the noodles, which arrive in a delicate, interwoven bed, topped with a smattering of white crab meat. We are advised to dip them into the accompanying bowl of truffle-infused broth. On their own, each component is lovely, but together they come alive. This, to me, was is personification of Wong and Das’s work. The meal is, at its core, full of incredible food. But presented like this, with such thought and investigation into the menu, it's so much more than just lovely mouthfuls. It’s intuitive – the culmination of years of hard work, creativity and dedication.