Interview with an Innovator

Bao’s Erchen Chang: ‘I think more and more successful restaurants from Taiwan, Hong Kong and China will come to London’

Having launched the latest Bao site in Borough last month, the chef director talks to Sarah Sharples about the new dishes coming to menus and her research into retro Asian eats.

21 June 2019
asianchainschefschinesemeatrestaurantsstreet food

Chang on Paper – CV

  • Studied at the Slade School of Fine Art at the University College of London
  • Launched Bao in 2012 at Kerb markets before the concept landeda permanent site in Soho in 2015
  • Added to the stable with Taiwanese teahouse and restaurant Xu in 2017

Erchen Chang is credited by many as the person who popularised gua bao in the UK. Before she, along with husband Shing Tat Chung and sister-in-law Wai Ting Chung, launched the Bao street food concept at Kerb, the Taiwanese dish was unknown to most consumers. Today, it pops up everywhere from Tesco to Itsu, and 5% of UK consumers cite it as one of their favourite East Asian dishes.

Building off this staple, Chang moved from stall to semi-permanent location at Hackney’s Netil Market, before finally opening the first restaurant in 2015. The brand has since grown to three with sites in Soho, Fitzrovia and Borough, backed by the Sethi family, who also count Gymkhana, Hoppers, Bubbledogs and Lyle’s as part of their stable.

The classic bao, which contains braised pork, peanut powder, coriander and fermented mustard greens, is still the most popular dish to date, says Chang. But she’s not afraid to experiment – at Borough, new menu items have been introduced like a chicken nugget bao and an aubergine bao, as well as a curry with panko goat and frankfurter.

Chang also oversees another labour of love, the teahouse and restaurant Xu, allowing her to focus on a more classical style of Taiwanese cuisine.

Here, she talks about the infiltration of Taiwanese cuisine, how she approaches dish development and the ingredients she sources from overseas.

 

At Xu, the food we do is a creative take on the classic Chinese and Taiwanese cuisines, with a big focus on sauces and Taiwanese ingredients and British ingredients... Also, because of the decor and interior that we have at Xu – it is inspired by the 1930s glamour of Taipei –a lot of food that we do there we try and take more of an old-school idea or presentation.

In terms of Bao, it’s creative. It’s a really fun take on Taiwanese cuisine, and we are inspired by a lot of street food. It’s affordable and just pure tasty food really. It’s still evolving and there is so much more we can create and do, so it’s an ongoing project that keeps growing.

Bao can be very reactive to what’s right now while Xu is digging deeper into what has been done before, which I think goes hand in hand. When I’m doing research for Xu, you suddenly realise certain things that are on trend now might have had an influence from somewhere else for ages, so that really works well for stimulating thinking of dishes and new development.

With Bao we always look at different eateries in Asia. For example, we recently opened Bao Borough and that is inspired by the late-night grills in Japan or in Taiwan where salaried men go after work and they will drink and eat grilled food to get loose. We’ve done a lot of research, we went there to eat ourselves, and then we also looked at the style of eating and created dishes according to that.

One dish that we have at Borough is a grilled 40-day aged beef rice... and it’s one of the biggest hits with the look, how we present it and just the amount of beef that we give. People see it as good value but also as a well sourced ingredient from our amazing butcher in Cornwall, Philip Warren. So it’s really amazing produce at an affordable price, which is always the aim at Bao.

We are actually working on a lamb chop dish for Bao. It’s super tasty, super juicy. We were working on it last week with spices and then a Taiwanese barbecue sauce. We are probably looking to put that on sometime this week or next week as a special, and if it works well we are going to put it on the menu. There’s no lamb on the menu currently.

In terms of Xu, ‘shou pa’ chicken, which is a roast chicken dish that we do, is really popular. And taro dumplings are really popular too.

At Xu, the dish I’m most proud of is the taro dumplings, because it’s taking two elements together. So the filling is a Chinese sausage, which is a very familiar flavour for Asian people, but then in terms of the casing, the taro dough is something that people don’t usually put a filling in. In Taiwan, you fry it off with different flavours and then you have this chewy texture and you eat it with, say, vegetables or stir-fry with strong sauces. So this dish is combining the texture and flavour of the taro dough and then the sweet meat filling. It’s a tribute to Taiwanese cuisine but in our own way.

There’s one dish at Xu that we do which is a blood wonton in a fermented beetroot broth. It’s super tasty, I love it, it’s good… But I think when you see blood on the menu, it’s not a normal thing that people would want to pick up and eat. It’s too niche and too specific, so we don’t sell a lot of it.

We are introducing five new dishes in Xu. My head chef Kim worked on this lamb rump dish using a sauce that we used to do that isn’t currently on the menu, using sesame paste and a citron oil flavour. It used to work with chicken, but this time on lamb it’s really amazing. It’s looking at classic flavours and applying them to the menu.

I have an R&D chef in-house and I also work with the head chefs on site to develop dishes. The two brands work slightly differently. In terms of Xu, there are two ways I look at it. One is to look at flavours that we don’t really have at Xu, so if we were to take a dish out and put a new dish in I always try and look at a classic Taiwanese flavours that we don’t currently do that we could introduce to the menu. Currently, in terms of a new flavour we are working on a Taiwanese beef noodle and that’s something flavour wise we do not have in Xu.

Then there’s another way of working, which is to take the dishes that we already do, but then I will ask the chefs to think of ways to improve it. For example, give me a version two, give me something to upgrade this dish. I know this dish is already tasty and people like it, but what can we do to make it better?

We really love looking at how the experience leads the food and that’s what we are working on at the moment in terms of Bao.

Usually we pick an idea of food – for example, Taiwanese stinky tofu. It’s really famous, but because of regulations you can’t get it here. But then what we do at Borough is try and mimic the same method of making it. So Taiwanese stinky tofu, you would have to ferment the tofu and then there is a thick layer of mould growing on top of the tofu that really develops the flavour, but we couldn’t go that far because of the regulations. Instead, we go with brining of the tofu with vinegar and salt, so that then gives something that may seem really plain another depth of flavour, and then we deep fry it.

I would definitely say Taiwanese cuisine is growing and there are more and more huge chains coming to London. Din Tai Fung, which is a really big and famous Taiwanese soup dumpling restaurant, that’s already in London. Recently I saw a hot pot chain called Haidilao also came to London, and whenever I walk past there is always the longest queue. Then there are more independent places opening or chefs doing food which is amazing.

I think more and more successful restaurants from Taiwan, Hong Kong and China will come to London as they see other brands or restaurants prosper and do really well. I think London has become more of a destination for food.

Bao is something that a majority of people don’t know is from Taiwan. It’s just like a new type of food trend… Bubble tea is also one of the most famous drinks from Taiwan. So I think [Taiwanese food] will grow, but not in the way that people will say, ‘This is Taiwanese food.’

I saw bao in Marks & Spencer the other day. It’s pretty crazy to see that but it’s amazing at the same time.

I think the current trend within bubble tea is the dark brown sugar bubble milk, which comes from Taiwan, in traditional bubble milk places where they don’t put tea, they put milk. Then they cook the bubbles in dark brown sugar syrup – which we currently do in Bao – whereas the normal bubble tea doesn’t do that. You get this amazing gradient of caramel in the cup.

I’m starting to see more people looking at retro-style Asian food… This is a style of eating which is mostly from before the 60s in Taiwan or in Japan, where they were trying to do a Western-style cafe, but then inevitably it was so Asian that it became a style on its own.

Katsu sandos are very popular at the moment and everyone is jumping onto it.

More unusual things we have already put on the menu: at Xu, we have one fish dish using fermented pineapple sauce, which is a classic Taiwanese flavour. Then on top we have Chinese olives that we import from Taiwan – they are much smaller, really sour, and they sit in a brine. When I share it with chefs, they say it is like nothing they’ve had before.

In terms of Bao, I’m currently getting this really amazing roasted sesame sauce from the south of Taiwan. My aunty gave me a jar before I came back sometime last year and then I had it in my pantry at home, but it’s so good that I’m getting some more to use in the restaurant. It uses good quality sesame and then it’s really roasted so it’s very fragrant. It’s not like the sesame paste I’ve had here before.

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