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New England chefs give recipes a flavor of Asia

Provenance and business ethics key issues for restaurateurs

Asia Mei, chef at Moonshine 152, sources baby vegetables from local farms that support inner-city children. (Photo by Wendy Lim)

BOSTON -- Growing numbers of Chinese-American restaurateurs in Boston are recreating traditional Asian recipes with fresh New England produce, reflecting the rich multicultural history of food in the northeastern United States.

Popular restaurants such as Mei Mei, Moonshine 152 and Myers+Chang are owned by Chinese-Americans who grew up in the U.S and entered the food industry with a commitment to supporting local industry wherever possible.

"Every restaurant needs egg, milk and butter," said Irene Li, owner and chef at Mei Mei. "A lot of restaurants talk about local produce, but they use commodity, industrial, mid-to-low quality products. Our eggs are from Rhode Island, butter from the northeast and milk from New York [State]."

One of Mei Mei's most popular dishes is "Double Awesome," a Beijing-style scallion pancake prepared with local green pesto, cheddar from Vermont and two oozy eggs, with the option to add bacon, ham or turkey from pasture-raised animals in the northeastern states.

Li said work experience on an organic farm and weekly trips to farmers' markets in her university years helped her to appreciate how hard it was to serve organic food, free range produce and pastured poultry. Since 2012, Li and her siblings have thrown themselves into the food business, starting a food truck that year, Mei Mei in 2013 and operating a food kiosk from a shipping container since 2015.

Li noted that some restaurants claim they support local farms as a marketing strategy, but said she is committed to backing the farming community, buying from more than 40 local and regional farms.

Myers+Chang, owned by James Beard Award-winning baker Joanne Chang, was a pioneer in serving Taiwanese soul food and Southeast Asian street food in Boston in 2007. The upmarket restaurant is committed to using New England produce.

"Green curry with Maine lobster, Hadley asparagus with green olive miso, fiddlehead ferns with katsuobushi (tuna flakes) and oyster sauce -- these are just a few dishes that celebrate New England and burst with umami (the 'fifth taste,' often described as a meaty or savory flavor)," said Karen Akunowicz, executive chef of Myers+Chang.

Asia Mei, the owner and chef at Moonshine 152, a restaurant and bar, said she sees it as her responsibility to support the local community. Mei said she preferred to work with independent traders rather than huge companies, insisting that the provenance of produce and the labor conditions involved in producing it matter to her.

Double Awesome, a Beijing-style scallion pancake incorporating Vermont cheddar cheese and New England pesto, is a top-selling dish at Mei Mei restaurant in Boston. (Photo by Wendy Lim)

"It's important to me. I love it. It goes from everything to keeping your carbon footprint down to just working more in the community. These are things that as a business owner, as a chef feeding people in my community, that I consider my responsibility to try to make a better decision where I can," said Mei, who sources baby vegetables from local farms that support inner-city children.

Lok Siu, associate professor in the department of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, said the current craze for Asian-American food is part of a bigger change in U.S. food culture that is moving toward a healthier, organic, farm-to-table movement.

"They are creating a new culture, a new way of approaching Asian-American food that is aligned with the changes of the food culture in the United States ... with the Asian flair," Siu said. "A lot of Asian fusion comes in the scene in 2000. I see this as an ongoing movement for a new set of restaurants to experiment."

Multicultural menu

Many of these restaurant owners grew up used to eating pigs' ears, hearts, kidneys, liver, pork belly or stir-fry at home, and enjoy tacos, pizzas and pierogi (dumplings of Central and Eastern European origin) when they eat out. As a result, their restaurant menus become creative experiments in their multicultural food backgrounds.

Li said her menu is "very personal," reflecting some of her own background. She shuns the description "fusion," joking that it is the "f-word" and a reminder of the 1990s. She brands her dishes as "ABC food, food that an Asian-American Chinese grows up eating." ABC refers to "American-born Chinese."

One of Mei Mei's specialties is pierogi dumplings with apple sauce and sour cream. Li drew on visits to a Jewish delicatessen, where pierogi is stuffed with potatoes or cheese. Also on the menu is Three Sisters Dumplings. Li substitutes tofu and noodles with corn, beans and squash -- produce that is commonly farmed by Native Americans.

Similarly, Mei said her Asian-influenced menu draws on her personal experience of growing up in a Chinese household and subsequently being trained in classical French cooking. "It's like telling a story through the food. You know, it's like you're trying to tell a story without getting the opportunity to use the words," she said.

One popular item is "dirty fried rice." Mei adds duck liver seared with shallots and Madeira wine to a dish of fried rice with eggs and Chinese sausage, reflecting her American-Asian influence and Western cooking techniques.

Siu noted that these modern American restaurants cater to a clientele of Boston urbanites who are willing to try different tastes. When Moonshine first opened in 2015, offal and off cuts were challenging to sell to American clients, Mei said. Many would order "dirty fried rice" without the liver, she said, but that almost never happens now.

"I think that the story that happens naturally with America is more acceptance and more people able to, sort of, be open to going outside the box and responding to different flavors," said Mei.

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