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Alfred Ma, the owner of Good World Chinese on South Great George’s Street, appears from the kitchen of his restaurant with a face mask on and a glass oval dish in his hand, last Thursday lunchtime.
At first glance, the food appears to be three plump carrots sitting on top of a layer of soil. In this restaurant though, not everything it seems.
“The mud is oreo crumbs and on top is three pork croquettes in a crispy orange batter,” says Ma, talking through his mask.
The orange batter is crisp. The pork filling is smooth and salty. Meanwhile, the oreo crumbs that coat the bottom of the croquette provide a subtle sweet surprise aftertaste.
Ma walks back through the empty restaurant. It’s been empty for five days since Dublin went into level 3 lockdown on Friday 18 September, and at various points throughout the pandemic, but in the kitchen, there is a highly regarded chef, Felix Xu, at work.
“You can not describe his food. You have to taste, look at it and smell it,” says Ma’s wife Grace Ko sitting at a table in the restaurant.
In the background, Ma and Xu are clanging pans as they work. The crackle of a deep fryer can be heard as they prepare the rest of the seven-course meal.
“This meal is called dim sum. It is eaten in Hong Kong, Canton, and Guangdong,” Ko says.
Dim sum is a selection of foods that range from dumplings to deep-fried fish while having an emphasis on presentation, texture, and smell.
It is also the reason that Ko and Ma flew Xu over to Ireland — Xu is the king of Dim Sum, according to his nephew.
In 2010, he cooked for the President of China, Hu Jintao.
“He was the youngest person to become a national first-class chef in China when he was 30, in 2014,” says Ko.
Xu was working in Seoul, South Korea when Ma brought him over to work for his restaurant on South Great George’s Street.
“I had to ask him three times before he came over,” says Ma.
Just as Xu arrived in February, lockdown measures followed shortly afterward. Good World Chinese Restaurant closed down before Xu was able to share his cooking.
With this new free time, Xu got to work experimenting in the kitchen. He wanted to see how he could infuse Irish inspirations into this traditional meal.
The King of Dim Sum
Ma returns from the kitchen with the next dishes.
Three crab-shaped puff pastries sit on the plate. Inside the flaky pastry are crab meat and cheese fillings. The top of the pastry has a syrup glaze which makes the three crabs shine underneath the restaurant lights.
Following this, Ma brings out a tall glass with a large round bottom. The edible soil layers the bottom of the glass while baby carrot and corn stick out.
Golden deep-fried king prawn sticks out from the glass. The meat is wrapped in spring roll skin and deep-fried to give it an intricate flakey exterior.
“Dim sum is about fusing many things together,” says Ko. “Smell, look, texture, atmosphere, and taste.”
Ko moved from the Guangdong Province in China two years ago to be with Ma who was already living in Dublin. She began studying in human resource management in the National College of Ireland when she noticed a gap in the market for Dim Sum in Dublin.
“I thought that it was important to share this with people here,” she says.
Making dim sum from start to finish will take Xu around eight hours, with about six or seven hours of preparation and then one hour of cooking.
All the ingredients that Xu uses have to be fresh; nothing can be frozen, says Ma.
When asked why he brought Xu over from Seoul to cook for him, Ma pauses. His mouth is open and his hands move through the air as if he is physically looking for words: “He is just the king of dim sum.”
Getting Eager in the Kitchen
Xu takes a quick break from the kitchen and sits with Ma and Ko at the table. He wears a tall white chef’s hat and face mask. His eyes are the only clue that he is smiling on his fully covered face.
Xu doesn’t speak much English so Ma does most of the translating for him.
It wasn’t quite the experience that Xu was expecting when he came here, says Ma. Good World Chinese Restaurant closed for three months during the lockdown.
Xu has been working as a chef for the last thirty years. For the first time, he found himself with an abundance of free time in the kitchen.
“The restaurant closing was not too challenging for him,” says Ko.
The biggest challenge is that Xu’s wife is back in China, she says. Last month Xu’s wife gave birth to his second son and he was unable to be there for it.
So with this free time, Xu began to experiment with dim sum recipes in the kitchen.
“He is always thinking. He looks on Youtube and different websites for inspirations,” says Ko.
His mind goes to crazy places, you never know what he is going to come up with next, she says.
“One time he tried to use popping candy on top of crispy duck. How do you even think of that?” she says.
Another goal of Xu’s was to figure out how to fuse Irish culture into dim sum cuisine.
Ma and Xu begin to get shifty in their seats.
“Myself and Xu have to return to the kitchen. More food is ready,” Ma says.
Best of a Bad Situation
Ma places a wooden hexagonal box on the table. Steamed king prawn dumplings sit inside.
These dumplings are unusual: the steamed dough is a green, white, and orange tricolor wrapped around the fish and vegetable mix inside.
“It’s all natural. The orange colour is from pumpkin and the green colour is from spinach,” says Ko.
Following this, Ma returns from the kitchen placing a large circular plate down on the table. It takes a couple of seconds to grasp what lies inside the dish.
A swampy green vegetable broth jelly lines the bottom of the plate. Three “goldfish” swim half immersed in the jelly. Black dumplings with fins and edible gold scales complete with a vegetable prawn filling stare up from the plate.
The fish are even complete with two pea eyes and a red sliced chili mouth.
“Do you see what I mean when I say it is a fusion of many things coming together?” says Ka.
For dessert, a mango puree is brought out in a long-stemmed glass. Popping candy surrounds the rim of the glass as if the glass has a bronze crown.
Despite the addition of Xu in the kitchen, the restaurant is down 70 to 80 percent in intake, and delivery isn’t possible as many of the foods are delicate.
“It’s frustrating but we just have to wait and see,” says Ma
So in the meantime, Xu will be in the kitchen experimenting once more with Dim Sum, says Ko.