There is good Chinese food in Ireland. Great food, actually, existing in every corner. This is no secret to anyone who is Chinese in Ireland but probably news to any Irish person. For years, a Chinese person could get freshly made dimsum (freshest on a Monday, when every other Chinese restaurant besides the dimsum places takes the day off), scallops roasted on the half shell and topped with mung bean vermicelli. Chinese people knew to eschew the three-in-one’s at Charlie’s on Georges Street because the guy behind the counter made the best charsiu, braised and charred to a crisp. Asian markets here are rife with fresh, emerald green pak choi and garlic chives; langoustines, razor clams and crabs from waters far cleaner than in China, and pork and duck that has been raised in Irish meadows. Hungry in the Irish countryside? There is always someone to call who would provide you with the hook-up to that town’s local, and who will give you the secret dishes you need to order as anyone in the know.
It is a part of Ireland of which many Irish people are unaware. This is a fault on both sides. Walk into a restaurant, and if you are Chinese, you are handed one menu, and if you are Irish, you are handed another. Chinese people do not believe that Irish people like their food; Irish people tend to think that Chinese people eat strange things like worms. Chinese people will not hesitate to pay good money for a fresh lobster or a duck, perfectly executed; Irish people flinch at wasting money on “ethnic” food. There’s a lot of Chinese restaurants in Ireland that will give you more than an egg fried rice if you just ask. Sichuan noodles that make a ma la burn in your mouth. Sweet, briny oysters sauteed with ginger and scallion. Dumplings bursting with lobster. Icy cucumbers sprinkled with vinegar and sesame seeds.
For Mei, a Chinese-American writer from Manhattan, her first reaction was delight. Where she came from, Chinese and other people mixed freely. But in Ireland, where they did not, she revelled in the freshness of produce and at the novelty of being able to easily score Hainan chicken on rice at one AM from the takeaway down the street, silky with its juices perfumed with sesame oil, while everyone else drunkenly scarfed chips. Because of the insularity of the Chinese communities, the Chinese restaurants where she ate were unpretentious and hipster-free. Still, she was astonished that her Irish food industry friends did not know about the same Chinese food she ate on a regular basis.
For Kwanghi, a Hong Kong boy raised in Buncrana, the relationship more complicated. Kwanghi is a Donegal boy, trained in French cooking, who first cemented his career as chef at the very traditional but modern approach in cooking techniques at the Michelin Cliff House. Fiercely Irish, he took his weekly dimsum runs, and his love of cashews, sticky rice, and velvet crabs, as both part of his life and also separate, something that his friends and clients would not appreciate. Perhaps it was his Irish wife Michelle’s encouragement to connect with his Hong Kong family, or their daughter Lily’s love for lo mai gai, that has made Kwanghi consider things in a different light.
Together, we hope to begin to bridge the Irish-Chinese food gap. Irish people – we intend we can show that China can produce something more than chicken balls. Chinese people, we endeavor to prove that Irish people will eat something more daring than sweet and sour pork. We want to explain the difference between the Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Sichuan communities and their food. We are here to highlight the taste-makers and the knife and wok wielders who have been quiet heroes in the Chinese-Irish community for decades. We are here to teach how not to be afraid at an Asian market, how to use chopsticks, and how to order with authority and respect. Both the Irish and Chinese cultures are known for their stubbornness, their pride, and also their secrecy; perhaps this is why they haven’t communicated properly after all these years. Irish and Chinese also share a long history of slaggers, gamblers, poets, cooks, and chancers. Isn’t it time that we start eating at each other’s tables?
P.S. We’re also gonna get to the history of the three-in-one and the spice bag, because, let’s be honest, those creations are genius.
Kwanghi Chan was born in Hong Kong and moved to Buncrana, Donegal at the age of eight. In 2011, he was head chef at the Michelin starred Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore. In 2015, he was director of Soder+Ko in Dublin. Kwanghi has also represented Ireland in various international culinary competitions, including the Germany Culinary Olympics, where he was awarded a silver medal in 2008. In 2014 he was awarded Lauréat of Le Grand Prix de Cuisine de L’Academie Paris after being judged by 25 MOF Chefs. Currently, Kwanghi is the Development chef at BaxterStorey Ireland and appears on TV3’s The Seven O’Clock Show and RTE’s Today.
Mei Chin was born in New Jersey, raised in Connecticut, and is a resident of New York and Dublin. A food writer, her work has appeared in Saveur, Lucky Peach, Gilttaste, and Gourmet. She was a winner of the 2005 James Beard/MFK Fisher Award, and a winner of the IACP Bert Greene Journalism Awards in 2010 and 2013. She has taught for two semesters at Yale University, and her work has been anthologised several times in Best Food Writing.