Today my phone randomly displayed a photo for me dating back to exactly one year ago. The bittersweet photo shows approximately 30 people smiling in front of a table laid out just for them. I took the photo to immortalize an evening where, together with friends in Milan, my hometown, I had organized a convivial dinner party in a local restaurant in order to demonstrate our community’s closeness with the Chinese restaurateurs in our multi-cultural city.
At that time, Coronavirus was still only referred to in the media as the "China Virus" (as Trump later stubbornly nicknamed it). The result was quasi-total desertion of area Chinese restaurants by most Italian clientele, with serious economic damage to the restaurateurs. This emotive reaction was entirely based on instincts and with an absolute lack of scientific evidence, and is a reflection of the deep-seated ambivalence the Milanese have towards the Chinese community. This group has a centuries-old history in Milan: their roots date back to the 1930s, with the arrival of specialized workers for the Milanese leather industry.
While the Chinese people are largely perceived as great workers, the highest possible compliment a Lombard can bestow on anyone, the Chinese community is also the victim of deep-seated prejudices. For instance, common lore indicates (unjustly, of course) that Chinese deaths are not registered at the local Registry Office. The real reason: many elderly people return to China to spend their old age in their country of origin.
CHINESE RESTAURANTEURS, MASTERS OF TRANSFORMISM
Under normal circumstances, Chinese restaurants in Milan are heavily frequented by Milanese people, particularly authentically-managed and run Chinese restaurants. Chinese entrepreneurs running these popular establishments have shown exceptional elasticity in offering customers exactly what they want over the past 20 years. Every fashion and moda that has gone through the culinary world, from sushi to bubble tea to ramen, has been worked into the restaurant offerings. The restauranteurs have adapted remarkably, converting their restaurants in a flash in order to meet consumer requests.
While they were the first to be hit by the Covid-19 crisis, today, Chinese restaurants seem to be in the ideal position to be the first to come out of it. The previous May, when restaurants reopened, Chinese-owned restaurants were among the most prepared and compliant with new health protocols. Thanks to the Asian experience with the SARS and MERS crises, these cultures have prepared their inhabitants for pre-emptive, quick action. This preparedness can also be found in Chinatowns throughout the world.
In Lombardy, restaurants reopened a week ago, and on February 12th, the Chinese will celebrate the Chinese New Year's Eve. This is a wonderful, traditional family-focused feast where the closest family relatives gather around a richly laid table. Generally celebrated in the private homes of the eldest family members, traditional dishes that must be present are chicken and fish, particularly the latter, which contains both symbolic and augural meaning: “yu," the word for fish, also translates as “surplus.”
THE PATIENCE OF THE BUFFALO
The year ahead of us now will be the year of the Buffalo. From a strictly symbolic perspective, this is the ideal year for Reconstruction - in Chinese traditions, the Buffalo is the manifestation of tireless devotion to work. In a nutshell, the Buffalo represents authentic value of patience and tireless work.
After months of Delivery-only meal preparation, and amongst the best in town, Mu Dim Sum reopens now with a new chef, Chang Liu. Liu, until last year, was at the helm of the gourmet hybrid Serica restaurant, an ideal "Silk Road" creation, bridging traditional Chinese and Italian haute cuisines.
At Mu Dim Sum, Chang Liu is expected to help the restaurant develop a signature Chinese cuisine. The New Year's Eve menu will be a dress rehearsal of the restaurant’s ambitions, and will feature new courses, like "A Bag of Gold a Day" (rice cooked in saffron water and sautéed with scallops and XO sauce), and "Bright Prospects for a Gourmet Future" (dumpling dim sum).
SAY IT WITH A DUMPLING
Even Bon Wei, amongst the first restaurants in Milan to successfully demonstrate Chinese cuisine’s ability to be haute, is evolving its menu around a more authorial, personalized approach with their menus clearly reflecting chef Zhang Guoqing’s imprint.
“Today in China," says chef Zhang, "restaurants are providing different outlets for people. Traditional dishes remain a part of popular cuisine, but they’re increasingly available either at home or in trattorias. When you go out at a certain level, restaurant’s offer menus and recipes focusing on available ingredients. There’s a movement that prefers prized, raw materials from other countries as well as locally-available, so we’ve got a focus on recipes with truffles and foie gras, for instance, that are often enhanced by their combination with great wines.”
Just in time for the Chinese New Year, we’ll find traditional dishes are available, all imbued with hopeful, auspicious symbolism. Dishes include Niángāo, or "New Year's Rice Dumplings,” whose name literally translates into "every year more and more.”
A largely universal, magical hope can demonstrate itself in just about any culture: the desire for more wealth appears at the New Year’s Eve Cenone in Italy with the appearance of lentils. Grapes served at 12AM in Spain also express the desire for an increase in personal wealth. The great wish uniting us all this year however, and one that’s on everyone’s mind for the New Year to come in 2021: good health.
Reading about the specialty dishes coming up got you hungry? Be sure to head over the Mamablip’s Recipe Index to check out some wonderful and doable recipes for all seasons, and all occasions. And while our New Year’s has already come and gone, and with it our Prosecco toasts, be sure to check out the Mamablip Video Index for lots of wine tastings and explorations of unique Italian wine regions as guided by Filippo Bartolotta, Mamablip’s expert grape-trotter.
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