Chef Kwanghi Chan: There’s More to Chinese Food than Sweet & Sour Pork
Established since the 1950s, the Chinese community in Ireland has introduced a network of Chinese restaurants across the country that have become a familiar fixture on our high streets. Amending traditional recipes to suit Irish palates, they made things a touch sweeter and added more familiar ingredients and dishes to the menus (Read: Chips), and now, once deemed an exotic dining choice, Chinese food is the nation’s favourite comfort foods.
Yet the Chinese food we have come to know and love is often at best a generalised version of the diverse range of cuisines that come from the vast nation of China – a country that boasts 14 international borders and over 1.4 billion people.
Hoping to ignite Ireland’s demand for authentic Chinese food is chef Kwanghi Chan. Kwanghi has has launched Slaint-Chi, a collaboration with award winning Chinese-American writer Mei Chin which aims to explore Chinese food in Ireland, and bring the true flavours of Chinese food to Irish taste buds.
Born in Hong Kong, in southeastern China, Kwanghi moved to Buncrana County Donegal aged 8, where his family ran two Chinese restaurants. While he agrees that many people will admit their guilty pleasure to be an ‘Irish-style’ Chinese takeaway, he believes there’s an increasing desire from the public to explore more complex Chinese flavors.
“In most of the Chinese restaurants when they have staff tea they cook something completely different to what they serve in the restaurant,” reveals Kwanghi. “There is a big preconception among Chinese chefs that the Irish aren’t into those kind of flavours. But in the past five, ten years, more and more people have travelled to China and are looking for those flavours, but the chefs aren’t recognising this demand and interest,” he explains.
Along with encouraging Irish diners to order more of these authentic and regional Chinese dishes, Slaint-Chi hopes to harness the creativity of Chinese chefs and encourage them to cook more than Chicken Chow Mein and Sweet and Sour Pork.
Kwanghi and Mei will soon have a website up and running, and possibly a book in the future, that will share their Chinese restaurant recommendations, chef profiles and recipes. “We’ve been going down Capel Street and the likes, interviewing Chinese chefs, who you wouldn’t hear about, but are cooking really great food,” says Kwanghi. “I think they kind of get left behind. I want to give them a platform to shine, and to up the Chinese culture in Ireland a bit, so it’s not all just Chinese takeaways with sweet and sour chicken.”
Dublin’s unofficial Chinatown, extends from Parnell down into Capel Street. Among his top picks of Chinese restaurants in Dublin is M & L, a favourite spot among chef’s on Parnell Street that has started serving Northern Chinese food. Kwanghi also recommends Old Town restaurant, for their authentic Sichuan Chinese dishes, Lees Charming Noodles and Hanyang. “Plus, Aobaba, which is technically a pho place but Taiwanese people say it is more Taiwanese.”
A former Head Chef at the 5 star Cliff House Hotel, Kwanghi most recently worked in Scandi Asian hot spot Soder+Ko. When new owners decided to focus on drinks rather than food, Kwanghi decided to go down the line of high-end corporate catering, rather than launch straight into another restaurant. His new role, developing the private dining within independent contract caterer, BaxterStorey, affords Kwanghi something a chef’s lifestyle often doesn’t; family time. “Basically I chose to go this route for my little girl, Lily, who was two-years old at the time, and for my family,” explains Kwanghi.
When not travelling between BaxterStorey’s 94 locations nationwide, bringing his flair for food and the best Irish producers with him, or doing a pop up restaurant, the next being in November with chef Mark Moriarty in an as yet undisclosed location, Kwanghi has been channeling his creative juices into his latest project: ChanChan Hong Kong Street Food Sauce.
His spicy Hong Kong style sauce does exactly what it says on the bottle, and takes inspiration from the sauces served with Hong Kong’s legendary street food. “I go back to Hong Kong every year, and I love the street food. Every piece of street food comes with a sauce, you get to choose between five or six different sauces and I always go for the hot sauce. Over there it is more ketchup based, it’s a lot sweeter. I thought there are enough sweet chilli sauces on the market, so I changed it a little bit.”
With the help of friend and colleague, Sarunas Godovan, who moved with him from Soder+Ko to BaxterStorey, to achieve the rich umami flavour associated with Asian food, Kwanghi first ferments fresh chili pepper with koji for six hours. This is then blended with kombu seaweed and onions, and finished off with kaffir lime leaves, lime juice, and Japanese white miso.
While a smattering of these staple Asian ingredients is essential, the recipe reflects Kwanghi’s Irish heritage too: “I want to use Irish products in it as much as possible, so we are using Mongo Murphy’s seaweed from Galway and local onions.”
Working around his day job, to keep up with demand for the sauce he usually spends his Saturdays in a commercial kitchen in Churchtown, which he rents by the hour. “It’s really taken off,” Kwanghi says, “At the moment I’m holding back! I have a distributor that wants to distribute it as well.”
About to become your new favourite hot sauce, Chan Chan sauce is perfect for BBQs, marinades, stir-fries, dressings and as a dipping sauce. Kwanghi recommends enjoying it in scrambled eggs, chicken wings, a burger, a Bloody Mary, or simply by the spoonful. “I’ve been eating hot sauce on everything for over a year now,” laughs Kwanghi. “Thankfully my wife Michelle loves it too!”
Dublin stockists of the sauce currently include Lotts & Co, Beggars Bush, Asia Market, Drury Street, The Village Butcher, Ranelagh, Get Fresh, Rathfarnham, and Fresh Avenue, Ballinteer. Outside of the captial, Hong Kong Street sauce is also on the shelves in Devour Bakery, Ballinrobe County Mayo, and Kate’s Kitchen in Sligo town.
There are plans to add to the range soon, firstly with a fermented black garlic paste. The paste, which Kwanghi says will be perfect spread on toast with leftover roast meat at Christmas or added to a stir-fry, will use Irish garlic from Drummond House in County Louth. “I could go and buy garlic from China, which is a quarter of the price, but we decided to keep it Irish because that’s what we’re about.”
Using the micro herbs grown by another Irish grower, Dave Heffernan of Little Cress, Kwanghi is also experimenting a unique Irish purple shiso vinegar.
With both ChanChan and Slaint-Chi, Kwanghi Chan is helping to break down the barriers between authentic Chinese flavours and Irish palates, all with a palpable passion for food and pride for his heritage – now if only he could bottle that.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law degree, she completed a Masters degree in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.