Going Beyond Orange Chicken
America's New Chinese American food
So much of the farm-to-table movement has been focused on Western food. Many people forget Asian food has been this way since the dawn of the Peking Man. With no refrigeration and no food corporations until the '70s, eating food cooked with ingredients straight from the farm was the norm. Nom Wah Tu chef Jonathan Wu celebrates this hyper locality and freshness of Chinese cuisine with his interpretation of Chinese American food on the Lower East Side in New York City. Gone are the thick sauces and cream cheese wontons; in their place is food that combines modernity, traditional cooking, and a hint of Chinese takeout.
By George Ko
Photos by George Ko. Photos edited by Kevin Vu Kim. Video edited by Sharon Choi.
GR: What is Nom Wah Tu's philosophy as a restaurant?
JW: Nom Wah Tu is a combination of Nom Wah Tea Parlor and Fung Tu. Nom Wah Tea Parlor is Wilson Tang's restaurant. He's my business partner. It’s the oldest dim sum restaurant in Manhattan, established in 1920, and it’s a classic dim sum restaurant. That’s the Nom Wah part. The Tu part comes from Fung Tu, which was my restaurant in this space, 22 Orchard Street.
The idea with Nom Wah Tu was to have a bar. We really want to serve the neighborhood here, where they’re big drinkers. So we have an amazing beverage program: natural wines, cocktails, a great selection of beer. It’s high-low. It's important to have this fun spectrum that allows people to choose their own adventure. That spirit is also pervasive in the food. I want people to have tasty food with fun, clever elements to it. But for the most part, it’s easy, recognizable Chinese food.
As a Chinese American, and someone who doesn’t really know the language, my connection to my heritage is through food. I was lucky that my mother cooked food every night even though she worked full-time. Often times it was Chinese food; sometimes it was Western, and sometimes it was these funny fusions. Our pantry was very eclectic. It had everything from thousand-year-old-egg, pork floss, and pickled mustard greens to El Paso taco shells and Dinty Moore beef stew.
Opening Fung Tu was a very personal restaurant, and a way Wilson and I could contribute to Asian American culture by incorporating our own values. The notion of farm-to-table cooking, seasonality and quality of ingredients somehow missed the boat when people spoke about Chinese food in the United States. That always kind of frustrated me. I found it so odd because, of course, China is an agrarian country, so by definition people tend to dine locally and eat farm-to-table foods.
Chinese American food has become its own distinct entity, so it was fun to play with the definition of Chinese food in America. I wanted to bring attention to the fact that it’s derived from a 5000 year-old culture. There's imperial cooking and street food, and different regions with their own special foods. I respect how Jason Wang of Xi’an Famous Foods has brought Western Chinese flavors to the masses. In my own way, I was pushing for that with Fung Tu. And it’s now expressed here at Nom Wah Tu.
GR: I’ve noticed a lot of Café Du Monde tins holding your chopsticks. What’s the story behind that? Café Du Monde is a place in New Orleans famous for their beignets.
JW: It’s a short answer. A restaurant friends with Wilson was going out of business. The owner was like, “Do you guys want to come over and see if there’s anything you’d like to use at Nom Wah Tu?” So we went and saw they had these vintage Café du Monde cans, which I realize is a Vietnamese thing (for Vietnamese coffee). It was a practical coincidence that just happened.
GR: Your menu has “traditional” dim sum on one side, and “new” dim sum on the other. Was this varied palette of combinations inspired by interesting fusion from your childhood?
JW: One seminal dish that always stuck with me was this stir fry of soybean sprouts, bacon, and black vinegar my mom would make. My knowledge of Chinese restaurant cooking is still evolving; it's much less than my knowledge of home-cooked foods.
First of all, I don't see soybean sprouts much in restaurants. I was curious because it’s the most prevalent sprout I see in Chinatown vegetables stalls. That kind of nutty, crunchy vegetable goes well with a tart, vinegar element.
And so when my mother put that with the porky, smoky bacon, it was one of those combinations that I absolutely loved. And so maybe translated a little bit into our mushroom dish, where the mushrooms are basically a marinated pickle. It’s the French technique à la Grecque, which means they're sautéed or stir fried, and then stored in a marinade that has a lot of vinegar.
GR: Most of your Chinese cooking is self taught, but you had a strong Michelin background at Per Se. What was the process of re-learning the food from your childhood like?
JW: When I started cooking, I had no idea what style of food I would end up choosing for a lifelong pursuit. But when I finished working at Per Se, I knew that I wanted to open a restaurant, with the values of originality and soulfulness.
In terms of originality I’m self-aware; I know I'm not Ferran Adrià or René Redzepi, people whose creativity is at the end of that spectrum, as the most influential guy. So I looked within my Chinese heritage, and it just clicked. The food is also such a rich subject personally. It became a way to learn about family stories and reach out to relatives. I would ask, “Growing up in Shanghai, pre-Cultural Revolution, what did you eat as a kid?” I was curious about the foodstuffs from before the Cultural Revolution’s eradication of culture. Since food was bourgeois, I feel like so many things were lost. And I was curious if that history would play out in my own family story.
That's how the dried dates became a signature dish. I asked a relative from Shanghai, “What was your favorite street food growing up?” And he describes a black date that was smoked, stuffed with red bean paste, coated in egg wash, and then fried. I was like, wow. This sounds amazingly delicious and I've never heard of anything like that.
But that inspired me. So we ended up taking dates that we would poach, peel, pit and smoke. We would pipe shredded duck confit into them, and then batter and fry them. So that dish really encapsulated what I was trying to do with their personal histories, which of course ties into a larger Chinese history. But in the end it was a delicious, smoked, deep-fried date stuffed with duck. It tasted like American barbecue: savory, salty, and smoky.
The duck was a big hit; I'm still debating whether to bring it back. It was also very Chinese in that it was incredibly labor intensive – which relates to things like dumplings. I love the finer notes of choosing the flour and making the dough, and how the humidity will affect it. Then actually rolling them out and making a filling is a huge process unto itself. And then wrapping them, which is another huge process. And finally deciding how to cook them. They're really special things.
I hope through interviews like this, we can get the information out and let people know that these are things that should be valued culturally as well as monetarily. If people are going to gripe about 5 for $1 dumplings, that galls me. It makes me super mad. They're making them by hand right there!
And in terms of how that relates to training, I'm a bookworm. I started cooking pre-YouTube everything. I went to the University of Chicago, where it's a bunch of nerds who love books. And so when I first started cooking, I would work and buy books. I didn't even eat out. It was cooking, trying to develop skills, and then also buying cookbooks.
So that's the route I started with when I decided to cook Chinese food. I thought about what kind of books to learn from, even though I couldn’t read Chinese. But I was fortunate – I did find some amazing English language Chinese cookbooks. My two favorite Chinese cookbooks are Chinese Gastronomy and Secrets of Chinese Cooking.
Chinese Gastronomy is a really special book. It goes through the eight major regions, and then the different types of cooking, whether it be vegetarian, Buddhist or textural cooking. But most importantly, it quotes a lot of Yuan Mei (袁枚), who is a 17th century scholar poet, kind of like the Chinese Brillat-Savarin. He writes about wanting food to taste of itself – essentiality. I thought, this is historical precedent for essential cooking.
That means cooking a snow pea perfectly so that it has texture – like a snap chew – but that it's cooked long enough so it doesn't taste starchy. It's sweet, especially in the spring, when snow peas are perfect. I think that’s a stark contrast to what a lot of people think as American Chinese food, where it's not essential in flavor at all. It's an interchangeable protein with a kind of mother sauce, whether it's a brown gravy, or a white gravy, or sweet and sour. It's not essential.
So when I read the historical precedent for that it made me excited, because the cuisine I think of most when I think of essential cooking is Japanese food: a stark, naked piece of fish like sashimi, and all the artistry and skill that goes into making it taste of itself. From having the connection to get the right fish, to killing and butchering it properly; whether it's scored or treated with acid; what kind of acid, vinegar, salt – all these minute decisions to make something taste of itself. And so to find that in Chinese food was important and made me proud.
I try to do stuff like that. For example, this wallpaper is the Toon leaf. It grows in Upstate New York, or in the Westchester suburbs at my grandparents’ house. This is a tree that is 40 feet tall; my grandmother planted it in the '60s. My whole life it had been there, but I didn't know about it until I started to cook Chinese food and asked her, “What edible Chinese foods do you have in the yard?”
She said, “It just so happens that it's spring, and you should go taste this tree.” Tasting the leaves was a huge moment for me. Toon leaves are garlicky, mineral, a little bitter, but they have this unmistakable wild flavor like ramps and nettles. It was the signature dish and symbol of Fung Tu because it's a delicacy in China that's little known in the States. Traditionally, they would create a flavor combination by chopping the leaves up and folding them into scrambled eggs.
That was the reference point. What I ended up doing is taking egg whites and infusing them with ginger, garlic, scallion, and star anise. Then I would strain off the aromatics, whip it into a meringue, and poach it with dashi, so we have a little light cloud. Put some leaves on top of that, and then served it with the broth-chilled dish. It was all about highlighting the leaves without chopping them up, and keeping the egg combination.
I made this dish for the Cafe China folks. The owner is Shanghainese, so he knows that vegetable really well. And they had guests from Shanghai who asked, “First of all, how did you get this leaf fresh, and what is this? It's so familiar.” That's the response I get a lot: why is this so familiar? Nom Wah Tu is about that feeling.
GR: I think because travel is so easy right now, when people explore cuisine, they assume they should go to the original place. A lot of them forget that in America, the most original places exist within the people walking on Canal Street right now. They came from a more O.G. Asia than we could currently go to. We forget that they could be our relatives, our friends’ parents.
With your beverages, I see locally sourced beers, while the only Asian beer on your menu is Tsingtao. What is the direction of the beverage program? Why did you decide to have only one Asian beer?
JW: The beverage program was inspired by drinking Shaoxing and thinking about its flavor profile – nutty, saline, oxidative – and how those qualities interplay with Chinese food. Oftentimes natural wines have those characteristics. There are a lot of wines that work well that aren't the default beer or sweet Riesling.
The only things that probably don't work well are the huge wines, like extremely alcoholic fruit bombs that would just overwhelm the food.
GR: Was there a conscious decision to push more locally sourced stuff over imports?
JW: “Fung Tu” taken together means hometown culture, and part of that is ingredients and materials that are local. That has carried through with Nom Wah Tu.
Part of it is just people in relationships. We've gotten to know the Transmitter Beer folks, and their beer is delicious. They've become our friends, so we support each other. As far as other Asian beers, we have Hitachino. Of course I love Taiwan beer.
One thing I've always been curious about is Chinese wines. My friend’s parents have a 30 year-old Shaoxing and other really special stuff. I haven't been able to explore that in the States, but I wonder where are those producers that are really into their craft, and can we get those to the States?
GR: Wine making in China is starting to pick up. Most of China's grapes are produced in Xinjiang, but their grapes are very sugary, so they're figuring out how to make wine with them.
JW: I can see Vitis Lambrusco wine made from Concord grapes being big in China. From the Western wine world, it's really looked down upon, but weirdly enough I can actually see that working somehow.
GR: What's the next step for you?
JW: In terms of new spots, that's a better question for Wilson. I'm still focused on Nom Wah Tu. I'm excited; I’m happy with how we've renovated this space. It feels like a place I'd be down to hang out.
I’ve changed. I don’t really go out to fancy meals and do long tastings. I'm just kind of a low-key, casual person, and it's been nice to align that real sensibility with my business. I think Fung Tu was more aspirational if I'm being frank. There was ego involved; I was younger and I really want to make a mark in my job by doing something – fancy is not the right word-
JW: I was aspiring to a certain level. But this has been very freeing. It's just like life. It's nice to be focused and just make some tasty food without having to think hard about it. I like to have a good time.