Chef Kylie Kwong Discovers A Feast For The Senses

Karen Pakula.

Several generations of poultry have moved in, though they are the only signs of life. The building's mud-brick walls are black with mould and, in the kitchen, a primitive stove is covered in chalky dust. It's been this way for more than a century, since its owner packed up his medicinal brews and bought his passage to Australia in the gold rush.

His name was Kwong Sue Duk. He arrived in Darwin in 1875 and created an instant dynasty of 24 children with four concurrent wives. Now there are 1200 Kwongs, including chef Kylie.

By dint of her trade as a superstar chef, she is one of few famous Chinese Australians. She grew up in North Epping with her brothers Paul and Jamie, unaware of any cultural difference from her friends.

Her father, Maurice, talked like Paul Hogan. The family was outwardly Australian but Chinese at home. Her mother, Pauline, is a superb Cantonese cook. Both parents had 10 siblings. Her two grandmothers lived with them at various times and tried to teach the family Cantonese, although no one was very interested.

Growing up, Kwong didn't think much about having a foot in two cultural camps but as time passed, a niggling identity crisis grew within her. Was she more Kylie or more Kwong? It was the launching point for her new book, My China: A Feast For All the Senses, an account of her travels, revelations and meals (with recipes) during her pilgrimage from her ancestral village in China's south to her adoptive Buddhist heartland of Tibet. ("Yak butter tea, yak dumplings, yak soup. Tibet is not about food," she says.)

There was not just one trip. By the end of 2007, Kwong will have returned 15 times in three years, sometimes as a guide for World Expeditions culinary tours but mostly to work on the book and its spin-off television series, which she is still filming and plans to screen in the new year.

Last year, as she prepared to visit her great-grandfather's village, her father was diagnosed with cancer and given months to live. "It was a great shock. I didn't know what to do, it was so difficult. But he just said, 'You've got to go, don't worry, I'll wait for you,' " Kwong says.

It had taken a contact in China nearly a year to locate the village. Wong Nai Hang (also known as Good Luck and Peace Village) is a microscopic outpost three hours from Guangzhou, where 50 souls tend rice paddies and pigs without running water or electricity. Kwong had already made her first quick sortie with a tour group. "It's very intense, going back to your roots and where you come from, knowing where it all began," she says. She pressed ahead.

Her return visit was met with much greater fanfare. Kwong's fame hasn't quite spread to Guangdong province but the villagers learned she was long-lost kin and prepared a suitable homecoming. A path of white pebbles was laid through the village in her honour.

On the porch of her ancestor's house, a table was saddled with offerings: a white-cooked chicken with its head, neck and feet intact, an unpeeled orange, roasted pork, tomatoes, potatoes, salted radish. In the crowd, she noticed the man she will call Uncle, who looked like her brother, Paul. A "beautiful, serene woman" introduces herself, via an interpreter, as a relative: her grandfather was the brother of Kwong's great-grandfather. "I came out of there that day feeling very happy," she recalls.

Another surprise discovery was that her mother's father's village was only 20 minutes' away. "It was incredible but we realised a lot of people from that area came to Australia."

Later, she found her maternal grandfather's house, also untouched.

But first there was food. Kwong was prepared. She asked Uncle to fire up an almighty wok, unpacked the groceries she picked up earlier at a local market and started frying up yellow garlic chives, crunchy lotus roots, shiny purple eggplants, fish, crabs and chillies. At a lunch at her hotel the following day, her efforts were reciprocated.

"We bought several beautiful big pumpkins from the market to maybe use as props and one of the villagers saw me playing with one and she just sort of grabbed it out of my hand and cut it up and the next thing we know she was saying to me to put it in the wok with some black bean and ginger." Kwong knows a winner and the dish is already on the menu at her restaurant in Surry Hills, Sydney - Billy Kwong.

"I tell you, all we Chinese do is eat," she writes in her book. True to her word, Kwong devoured her way through the republic, from crispy-skin pigeon and braised fish head in Xi'an to "urinating shrimp" crayfish whose juices spurt out on contact with a hot wok in Hong Kong.

Kwong and her companions encountered "strange-flavour chicken", made with a sour, hot and sweet sesame sauce, and "ants climbing a tree", a Szechuan delicacy of vermicelli with pork mince and vegetables. Her sentimental favourites, however, were the stir-fried potatoes and duck sausage made by the women of Wong Nai Hang and neighbouring Toishan.

In Yangshuo, a tourist outpost below treacherous grey mountains beside the scenic Li River, Kwong discovered Cloud 9, owned by Linda, a local cooking teacher, who served a meal of spicy cucumber salad, beer-braised carp and a dish of stir-fried eggplant in a homemade chilli sauce so heavenly that Kwong stashed a bottle in her daypack and solicited the recipe.

In return, Kwong offered to cook for her host the following day. Linda was honoured and arrived in the kitchen as dinner was being prepared with a gift of a live river carp, which she swiftly began to fillet while the sorry creature's heart was still beating. Kwong was stunned into rare silence. She was mortified but didn't want to offend Linda. Collecting herself, she politely picked up a sharp knife, took charge of the fish and demonstrated the time-honoured and apparently painless Japanese technique of a deft stab behind the eyes. No one got hurt, save the fish.

It was a defining moment for the Australian chef. When it comes to gutting live animals, "I'm not Chinese", she says.

"They don't have a romantic notion of food like we do. Food is there to fill the stomach. So there's none of this sustainable seafood or being humane. What Linda was saying was, 'Kylie, you are my great friend, I want to give you the freshest fish; look at it, it's so fresh it's alive'. She wanted to give me the best. And there I am sitting there, this Westerner, quietly in horror."

Settled into a comfortable chair by the window at Billy Kwong, surrounded by beautiful polished timber and juicy bromeliads, Kwong feels the cultural divide strongly. She is an advocate of organic and biodynamic food, which she serves exclusively at her restaurant.

But in China, even if a fish is so fresh it is breathing, its quality is questionable. "Because of the nature of their environment, which is very polluted, as we all know, it's very hard. The rivers are dirty so you can taste the muddiness in the fish. The lettuce, the bok choy, everything is tainted."

She won't even use Chinese soys. "Japanese brands are more refined," she says.

On her trip, while cooking for friends and family, she provocatively excluded MSG. "Ninety per cent of people use MSG in China and Tibet, whether you're in a high-end restaurant or a backstreet in Lhasa," Kwong says.

The rural Kwongs must have thought she was mad. "It's a very sophisticated concept," she says. "They don't think like that. They're just about ploughing the fields each day and feeding their kids."

After three weeks, Kwong returned to Sydney. Her father waited and died two days later. But that gnarly, venerable Kwong family tree continues to take root. At Good Luck and Peace Village, as Kylie is leaving, someone asks, "When are you coming back? This house is yours."
My China: A Feast For All the Senses by Kylie Kwong, Penguin rrp $79.95.

Steamed chicken with hot and sour dressing

INGREDIENTS
400g chicken thigh fillets
For the dressing
2 tbsp finely chopped coriander stems
5cm piece ginger, cut into thin strips
2 tbsp trimmed and finely sliced spring
onions
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 large red chilli, finely sliced
2 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp brown rice vinegar
1 tsp brown sugar
1 tsp sesame oil
2 tbsp peanut oil

METHOD

For the dressing: First, make the dressing. Combine all ingredients except peanut oil in a heatproof bowl. Heat peanut oil in a small heavy-based pan until surface shimmers slightly, then carefully pour over ingredients in bowl. Stir to combine and set aside, uncovered.

For the chicken: Arrange chicken in a single layer on a heatproof plate that will fit inside a steamer basket. Place plate inside steamer, position over a deep saucepan or wok of boiling water and steam, covered, for about 14 minutes or until chicken is just tender.

Remove plate from steamer basket and allow chicken to rest for 5 minutes.

Drain off excess liquid and transfer chicken to a chopping board. Cut chicken on the diagonal into 1cm slices and arrange on a platter. Spoon over dressing and serve at room temperature.

Serves 4-6 as part of a shared meal

Braised eggplant with Sichuan pepper and chilli

INGREDIENTS
3 medium eggplants, peeled
2 tbsp sea salt
4 tbsp peanut oil
5cm piece ginger, finely sliced
3 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tbsp brown sugar
1/2 cup shao hsing wine
1/2 cup water
2 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp brown rice vinegar
1 large red chilli, finely chopped
pinch Sichuan pepper and salt
1 large red chilli, finely sliced on the diagonal (optional)

METHOD

Cut eggplants into 2cm slices, then cut each slice into 2.5cm strips. Sprinkle with salt and place on a tray in a single layer. Set aside for 1 hour. Rinse eggplant in a colander under cold running water, then drain and pat dry with kitchen paper.

Heat oil in a hot wok until surface shimmers slightly. Add ginger, garlic and eggplant and stir-fry for 3 minutes. Add sugar and allow to caramelise for 30 seconds, stirring constantly to prevent eggplant from burning. Add the wine and stir-fry for 1 minute, then add the water and cook for 2 minutes.

Add soy sauce, vinegar and chopped chilli and stir-fry for 2 minutes. Serve immediately, sprinkled with Sichuan pepper and salt, and garnished with sliced chilli, if desired.

Serves 4-6 as part of a shared meal

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