Felice Sgarra, thoughts of an Apulian in Asia

The bright lights of Shanghai and Singapore, Chinese palates, Italian identity. Tour notes by the chef from Andria

13-02-2017

Felice Sgarra, of restaurant Umami in Andria, Apulia, one Michelin star. The following thoughts are based on his recent Asian tour in Shanghai and Singapore. Next stop: Taipei

I was invited in October to participate in the West Bund Food Festival dedicated to European gastronomy in Shanghai. There were 6 more starred colleagues, French and Italian. Among them, Fabrizio Tesse from Piedmont, Giuseppe Costa from Sicily and Corrado Michelazzo, who will soon move from Shanghai to New York. Each one cooked inside one of the stands created for the occasion, with their dining room and kitchen staff. They had all sorts of tools and equipment.

Cooking Apulian dishes for a Chinese audience, prompt to learn and perfectly reproduce our alchemies, was gratifying. And it was instructive from many points of view. We shared lots of laughs, ideas, and we all realised these people have still plenty to learn about Italian culinary culture. And we have plenty to discover from them.

We prepared Calamari with squid ink and almonds from Toritto in two textures, Risotto with carbonara, onion from Acquaviva and ricotta snow, Gin Brulée with potatoes and beetroot sorbet and a sauce of extra virgin olive oil… They appreciated especially the Aubergine burrata and tomato ice cream, for its hot-cold contrast.

My tip for an Italian chef who’s to cook in Asia is first of all to bring high quality raw materials. Today this task not as prohibitive as in the past. Then, it’s best to choose simple dishes, easy to identify in terms of flavour and appearance. You must take into account the strong differences of palate: Chinese people love sweet, almost unsalted flavours. This is why you should avoid using too sapid flavours.

Fabrizio Tesse, Giuseppe Costa and Felice Sgarra at the West Bund Food Festival in Shanghai

Fabrizio Tesse, Giuseppe Costa and Felice Sgarra at the West Bund Food Festival in Shanghai

They prefer soups and creams instead of dishes requiring lengthy chewing. They don’t pay attention to a contrast we like, between liquid and crispy (Massimo Bottura’s lasagna comes to my mind; I believe it’s a real masterpiece from an artist who changed the rules of Italian cuisine). They prefer soupy textures, soft, overcooked pasta instead of al dente. Instead of mature cheese, which evolves and develops different notes as years go by, they prefer soft fresh cheese: so ricotta and burrata is fine but there’s scepticism with long-matured cheese.

The organisers of the festival made us taste typical food at Da Dong, in the Jing'an Temple area. A triumph of great dishes and ingredients they cook very little, like sea cucumbers. And then an excellent Beijing style Duck. Afterwards, we visited markets displaying jellyfish, living frogs and turtles with strong aromas of spices, Szechuan pepper. A triumph of meat and vegetables, poor dishes reaching heaven.

In January we moved to cook our menu at Fullerton, a 5 star hotel in Singapore. Even in this case our thought was only one: presenting traditional dishes but with a modern twist. Show our aromas and flavours, without any pastiche but with a definite identity.

Chan Hon Meng, chef at Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle in Singapore, the cheapest Michelin star restaurant in the world (photo credits St File)

Chan Hon Meng, chef at Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle in Singapore, the cheapest Michelin star restaurant in the world (photo credits St File)

It was strange thinking of the location of the hotel, inside the old postal building, which was less than 70 years old. See, in Italy we have bakeries and pastry shops that are much older than their monuments, which made me happy. And it made me think of how hard it is even for us to recognise and valorise the beautiful and delicious products we have every day in front of us.

Cooking with the beautiful view of Marina Bay, and with the support of director Andrea Sacchi and cooks Sandro Falbo and Carlo Marengoni was a great experience. With the excellent Piedmontese colleague Giovanni Grasso of Credenza we tasted crazy good dishes. For instance, in Singapore there’s a street food place with a Michelin star. It’s called Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle. It’s the cheapest restaurant in the world: steamed chicken and rice is only two dollars. However, you must wait patiently for your food: it took us an hour…

The Asian tour will finish at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Taipei. Meanwhile, how is the restaurant doing without me? Perfectly, thanks to Roberto, Vincenzo, Lucia, Michele, Luigi, Alessandro, Sabino, Valentino and Vincenzo. We’re a family.

See also
Scabin and gorgonzola to the Chinese