Chef John Zhang Revives Authentic Chinese Cuisine
YouTube star chef John Zhang reveals the philosophy of traditional Chinese cuisine.
YouTube channel Taste Show first caught my attention with a viral video that had over 20 million views. It featured the friendly face of chef John Zhang as he skillfully cut a potato. His knife moved swiftly to the brisk rhythm of Chinese folk music. He first cut the potatoes into thin slices that resembled cicada wings, and then into shreds that could almost pass through the eye of a needle.
Just when I thought this was a video about his knife skills, the screen changed, and the chef began to ball up a heap of scallops and shrimp. Then he heated a frying pan and deep-fried the potato shreds. He coated the seafood balls with salad sauce and rolled them in the crispy potato shreds. Viewers from all over the world said the video was an eye-opener—a Chinese chef who made fried seafood and French fries into a Michelin star recipe.
The channel’s videos and all the incredible meals they feature are the work of celebrity chef John Zhang. He grew up in Shanghai where he apprenticed under a master chef. Later he went abroad, and in 2009, he won the Huaiyang Cuisine Gold Award at NTD’s International Chinese Culinary Competition in New York City. As for the skills demonstrated in the video, Zhang says, “Traditional Huaiyang cuisine relies mostly on cutting skills. This is the inheritance of Chinese cuisine culture. It takes a lot of time for chefs to achieve this level of mastery.”
After working in the culinary industry for more than 30 years, Zhang understands the deeper responsibilities attached to his success. His wish is to bring people the genuine essence of traditional Chinese cuisine, which has been stifled under China’s communist regime for decades. This wish became so strong that it drove him from the stoves to the camera.
Chef John Zhang’s artful tradition
Oftentimes, the famous gastronomes in ancient China were also writers and poets. Su Shi was one of the great literary masters of the Song Dynasty, poet and painter Yuan Mei wrote Sui Garden Recipes during the Qing Dynasty, and his contemporary Cao Xueqin wrote the great novel A Dream of Red Mansions. All were as accomplished at their writing desks as they were in their kitchens.
The reason for this might be that food preparation, like any serious craft, was a practice in mindfulness that led to spiritual insight. Gourmet food in China not only emphasized taste, but also colour, shape, and symbology. It required conscious colour matching and skillful cutting. Ingredients were often carved into meaningful shapes, such as flowers and phoenixes. The literati chefs brought vivid language to the kitchen and dining room with poetic names that enhanced the culinary experience. The classic Southern Song Dynasty recipe book Mountain Home Light Diet featured a soup made from marinated Chinese celery. Because it tasted fresh and refreshing, like a stream flowing over the lips and teeth, it was called Mountain Stream Soup.
This is the culinary legacy that Chef John Zhang has become a part of. In order to show the unique literary spirit and artistic beauty of traditional Chinese cuisine, Zhang captured the preparation process in a series of short videos. There are no smoky fires or clinking pots and pans in his demonstrations. Instead, he displays his skills with appealing and colourful ingredients, accompanied by traditional Chinese folk music. Unlike chefs from other food channels who teach people how to cook under high pressure conditions, Zhang has a relaxed and happy expression. In many videos, he doesn’t even teach any cooking skills, but shares his insights into the true meaning of gourmet foods.
Genuinely great food
“I worked as an apprentice for a master [chef] when I studied in China. The Chinese have a saying, ‘The master guides one to the field, but progress relies on the student’s practice.’ The same is true in the culinary arts.” In the West, chefs have precise ingredient measurements passed down through written recipes. However, practitioners of traditional Chinese cuisine, like those of other ancient Asian arts, are taught by the master orally and without uniform standards.
Chinese cuisine once rivaled the French, considered the finest Western culinary tradition. Unfortunately, today’s Chinese food has lost its original taste, and is often seen as a low-end consumer choice. Zhang says, “If you try to charge the same price for a Chinese meal as a French one, others will find it unbelievable. We Chinese have abandoned our good things, especially since the communist culture took over.”
Taste Show features traditional dishes from time to time, such as the Shanghai dish “Zou You Rou”(“Defatted Pork”), which has received millions of views on social media. Nowadays, few from the younger generation know about it, and almost no chef can cook it. “Defatted” means to remove the fat in the pork belly, so that it isn’t as greasy. Surprisingly, this is done through deep frying, which melts the fat off the meat, making “Defatted Pork” one of the few dishes in existence where deep frying actually makes the dish healthier to eat.
As early as the Qing Dynasty, painter and poet Yuan Mei used a similar method for “Oil-Scorched Meat” in his Sui Garden Recipes. “I believe there are two aspects to an authentic dish. It must be loved by people and it has to stand the test of time,” says Zhang.
Chinese culinary traditions go back thousands of years. Even Confucius wrote about food culture. In The Analects, he advises people “to eat but finely ground grain and finely chopped meat.” He also suggests “not to eat what is discoloured, or what is of a bad flavour, nor anything which was ill-cooked, or was not in season.” Every cut meat has its proper sauce and cooking method.
As for how to judge the quality of a traditional Chinese dish, Zhang says it’s all about the broth. “In the past, famous chefs from both the East and the West cared about broth the most. Chefs all had their own secret recipes, but nowadays few chefs prepare their own broth. Many people alternatively use MSG and essence of chicken. But the process of making broth contains gems of wisdom accumulated by many generations, and it is also a cultural heritage. What I am doing now is part of my mission as a chef. I hope that more and more people will return to pure and delicious traditional gourmet food.”
In that spirit, we asked Zhang to share one of the classic Chinese entrées, “Braised Pork Belly.” It’s fairly easy to make and only uses three ingredients.
Braised Pork Belly Recipe
High-quality pork belly
Shaoxing rice wine
1. Cut the meat into thumb-thick strips.
2. Stir-fry strips in the pan until the fat flows out.
3. Add rice wine. The meat smell will vanish during the rice
4. Add soy sauce to cook and a dash of water if needed.
The dish can be served within an hour of preparation. Zhang says, “It has pure meat flavour, it’s crisp, not easy to fall apart, slightly chewy, and with an endless aftertaste. I suggest you try to make it yourself.”