Having departed from Baoism, the restaurant she co-founded this year, food writer and cook Jenny Gao turned her hand to the cuisine of her hometown: Chengdu. We sat down to learn about her new street food pop-up brand, Fly by Jing.
Why Sichuan food?
Many people know I’m from Sichuan, and when I started writing my blog, Jing Theory, it was mostly about sharing Sichuan food culture. It’s what I grew up around, and is the reason why I really got into food in the beginning – as a way to get to know my heritage a bit better. To me, Chinese food is the most underrated in the world, despite being one of the first Asian cuisines to spread in the West.
I started Fly by Jing as a means to share the amazing food culture of Sichuan. As a pop-up, I love that it has flexibility to be anywhere, be it here in Shanghai or abroad.
Why did you choose the name Fly by Jing?
Chengdu, my hometown, is a place that’s food obsessed, people of all ages and backgrounds love food. In my opinion, the craze around food is even greater than other ‘foodie’ cities like Taipei or Singapore. One thing that you only find in Chengdu is this idea of a ‘fly restaurant;’ down and dirty, hole-in-the-wall eateries that serve the most delicious food that people are willing to line up for hours for. Hidden down alleyways with no advertising, they’re like old school pop-ups – so flavorful and good that people come regardless, flocking to them ‘like flies.’
A lot of people associate Sichuan food with spice. Is there more to it than that?
Definitely! Many regional cuisines in China are dominated by certain flavors, whereas in Sichuan there are dozens and dozens of different flavor combinations. Some of them are really complex, meaning certain chefs become famous for mastering them. Getting the balance right takes both practice and a developed palate.
Who taught you how to cook in that style?
I never went down the culinary school route actually, but after a sudden and unexpected departure from a project I spent two years building, I found myself back at square one, questioning what brought me to this industry in the first place. Naturally, I gravitated to the food of my hometown, because to me, it's the most comforting and soulful cuisine in China. That's when I sought out training with Sichuan master chef Yu Bo (喻祥波), who I first met when writing an article about his restaurant Yu's Family Kitchen (喻家厨房).
Why did you choose street food as the theme of Fly by Jing?
‘Fly restaurants’ were the strongest memory of eating during my childhood; every weekend I’d go with my grandparents to eat plates and plates of these incredible noodles and dumplings that you just can’t find anywhere else. I particularly remembered the complexity of the delicious sauces they used, and that’s something I’d like to represent through Fly by Jing. I mentioned this to my teacher Yu Bo, and he thought it was a good idea, so we went through his library – he has hundreds of these old, crumbling cookbooks packed with fantastic recipes – to find inspiration.
How do you put what you learned into practice?
What I do at Fly by Jing isn’t strictly traditional; I’m happy to modernize certain elements, like putting uni with mapo tofu, or using the best imported Italian 00 flour for my 'sweet water' noodles. But what I took away from those recipes is that if you’re going to cook in this style, you really have to do everything from scratch and with the proper ingredients, there are no shortcuts.
How do you mean?
For example, the dressing used for my dumplings isn’t any old kind, it’s actually a mixture of ‘red soy,’ sugar and spices, which need to be cooked down together. Some types of doubanjiang (preserved fava bean paste) I use needs to be aged for years, the best chefs in Chengdu have stock that’s aged for over 20 years.
Even in Chengdu, this culture of taking the long way is fading, authentic flavors are getting harder to find, since many restaurants now take shortcuts or use artificial flavoring. Even if what I’m cooking at Fly by Jing is not traditional, it’s important for me to see the flavors I grew up with preserved.