This text is part of the special Plaisirs booklet
When you arrive as a child from a country with a radically different culture, everything you discover takes on a special connotation. Language, snow, groceries, schools, socializing and, of course, the holidays that punctuate the year are new realities to face. This is what Anita Feng experienced when she landed in Quebec at the age of 10 with her parents and sister. Born in Panama, but of Chinese origin, Anita adopted the customs of her adopted country while remaining faithful to her ancestral culture.
We discovered her in 2015, when she was opening as a family, in the Villeray district, the Trilogie restaurant, where you could savor delicious dumplings. Then we followed her to I have Feng, a pandemic Asian grocery-catering project that has finally been established since the end of October on rue Beaubien, in the heart of Little Italy. It was there, between a dish of crushed cucumber salad and a pot of Szechuan fermented radish, that we challenged him to cook up a Christmas meal his way. A challenge that she took up brilliantly and whose secrets she explains to us today!
Anita, did our proposal surprise you?
Many ! In my family, we do not celebrate Christmas, but rather the Chinese New Year. So this holiday has never been associated with traditions for me, and even less with a special meal. I even envied my friends at school a bit when I was little, because they were so excited this time of year. I remember once my parents, who surprisingly decorate the house a bit in December, bought a tree. So I said to myself: “Oh yes, we’re going to celebrate Christmas! But no, the following December 24, there had been no feast or gifts, and I had been very disappointed. So today I find that The duty gives me a real gift by offering to imagine the Chinese meal I would have dreamed of eating for Christmas.
Since you grew up here, is your menu typically Chinese?
I wouldn’t say that what I’m cooking up is perfectly authentic, but it’s definitely not fusion. My cuisine is decidedly Chinese, although I have tried others. It’s the one I know best and always wanted to do. I feel very attached to this culture thanks to my parents, but also because I spent all my summers in China, in the Canton region, when I was a teenager. I also went solo for six months to study Szechuan cuisine, because I love spices. So I use seasonal products from Quebec in my recipes, but my techniques and my way of thinking about my dishes are really Chinese.
How do you design a Chinese Christmas menu when this principle does not exist?
By drawing inspiration from both Quebec culture and Chinese culture. For me, even if I don’t celebrate it, Christmas evokes a warm and family celebration, a joyful, luminous and almost poetic moment. And on the other hand, I took into account my Chinese origins to build a festive menu that integrates four important elements in my culture: symbolism, order, health and balance. Symbolism alone is essential, as much in the way of conceiving a dish as in that of presenting it. For example, on New Year’s Eve, we usually offer an apple (pingwo) to our loved ones to wish them a smooth transition evening. So I chose to create an entry referring to this date (pinganye), by incorporating apples in the soup to recall the symbol, as well as for the fruity and sweet side they bring to the recipe. I must also add that at home, every evening, we always start and end our meals with a herbal soup. And if I don’t drink it, I get really bickered!
Did the same approach guide you in developing the other two dishes on the menu?
Yes quite. For the bundles, I chose a green vegetable and a red sauce to visually evoke Christmas, but also to think of the menu as we would in China, that is to say taking into account the health aspect and the balance of the meal. This explains why this dish is vegetarian, after the soup containing a protein, and why I choose to use certain herbs over others in my recipes, because they are all associated with specific health benefits. As for the Szechuan sauce, it is a nod to the Szechuan fish sauce… which does not contain any!
Inspiring! And what about the central dish of steamed fish?
Well, first of all you have to know that it is impossible in China to think of a festive menu without fish, because it is an important symbol of life. Normally, I should have poached it in broth, but instead I chose to steam it to present it in the shape of a crown, once again with mustard leaves, as well as strips of pepper and leek. to remember Christmas. I nevertheless kept the head and the tail of the fish, which we are used to presenting whole in my culture.
What do you think will be the reaction of people, of Chinese origin or not, who discover your menu?
I believe that Asian people like me who immigrated here are going to be happy to see their culinary culture associated with a holiday that they usually see celebrated by others. As for Quebecers, if I trust my experience, I notice that they are more and more curious to discover Chinese cuisine, even at Christmas. Finally, personally, I think it’s still a very nice menu, ha ha!
In closing, what do you recommend we drink with this meal?
That is a trick question! In China, we traditionally drink more strong alcohol than wine. We even have the habit of toasting each time we have a new glass in hand… before drinking it all at once! So, we are quickly drunk, obviously, even if our glasses are smaller. But more seriously, I might advise you to accompany this menu with a riesling type white wine, a sparkling wine or cider, a light red wine or a dry sake. Cheers, ganbe !