In Berlin, Ash Lee’s reputation as a chef cooking incredible, authentic Chinese food proceeds her. Chi Fan, her supper club, and ChungKing Noodles, her pop-up restaurant, speak to the strength of Ash’s cooking, as they both require a sizeable and loyal following to sustain them. As Berlin lacks the usual characteristics of a Western capital and is still fairly monocultural in some aspects, the eaters here are particularly hungry for excellent and authentic Chinese cuisine. Ash is happy to meet their demands, so long as she can source the right ingredients to deliver the best, most delicious experience to her diners. By doing so, she is broadening minds and palates, while introducing them to the true flavors and colors of Chinese cuisine.
Ash’s culinary career started in Berlin in 2010 when she moved to the city from Shanghai, her birthplace. A windfall of free time and a scarcity of excellent Chinese restaurants in her new home inspired her to revisit a lifelong interest in cooking. “There was a lack of good Chinese food but also because my partner is not from the EU and I am a Chinese citizen, I had my visa to stay here but I was not allowed to work. So I was like: ‘Okay, what am I going to do now? Just sit at home and die?’ I [thought], ‘Great, now I have my time to do something I really like.’ Then I totally got into cooking, and started a supper club.”
After almost four years of her supper club Chi Fan (which means “to eat a meal” in Mandarin), Ash decided to pare down. “It’s really hard to get seasonal stuff from China. I can’t talk about getting the ingredients locally because I’m not cooking local food. So my hope is all on the Asian markets, if they can import nice bamboo shoots or something like that. For vegetables and a lot of the spices, I have to go to Asian markets. It was just getting so hard and a bit boring to do a ten course banquet because I found myself repeating [dishes] but not really in a fun way. I wanted to do something very simple that I love to eat. (…) I love spicy food. But a lot of times, spicy food here is not very spicy, and it’s really hard to find places that have a good bowl of spicy noodles with numbing citron peppercorn. We don’t really have it here. We don’t have it yet, let me put it this way. And also, it’s very affordable. So I started ChungKing Noodles because it’s basically my favorite noodle dish. In Chongqing, they eat it as a breakfast dish actually.”
Ash came to know of and love Chongqing noodles as a young adult. “I went to university with a girl from Chongqing and her mom fed us many times with the Chongqing noodles. I picked this recipe from my friend’s mom. Chongqing noodles are supposed to be a very simple noodle [dish] for a quick breakfast before you go to work or school so you have a bit of pickled vegetables; you have a bit of chili oil. Sometimes there’s not even a topping on that, you just have a bit of green onion, chili oil, soy sauce, tiny bit of water from boiling the noodles, the noodles; eat and then go. Some places put a lot of tahini in there; some serve it with broth; some serve it without broth—dry mix style—which I prefer because there are more intense flavors. In most of the places, the classic is braised minced meat and braised peas.”
“Chongqing noodles are very much like an Italian mama’s Bolognese. There’s no [defining] place, and it’s not like there’s a stereotype where every place tastes the same. Every place has its own take.”
Her approach to authenticity as a self-taught and, as she says, “family-taught” chef (particularly by her mother and maternal grandmother) allows her to expand upon the concept of authentic Chinese food. Aside from not being bound by formal training, she is working in a foreign and very free environment: Berlin. For Ash, authenticity is fluid.
“When I first came here, I was really [into] authentic Chinese food. But now after years of doing the supper club, I’m [asking], ‘What is authentic?’ Those are very heavy words these days. Even when I go back to Shanghai, there are always new things. Do you consider it Chinese food? It is Chinese food, because everything is from China. So as long as it’s tasty, it’s good ingredients, fresh ingredients—it’s fine. But then again, let’s not be too crazy about authenticity. Let’s just enjoy the food.”
While she strives to make her food accessible regarding the price of the meal or the dish, she rightly questions why certain cuisines are considered more deserving of being seen as fine dining. She speaks to the bias towards food that adheres to Western-centric norms, in terms of ingredients or presentation. “When I was doing the supper club, because it’s a ten course [meal], I couldn’t really charge 20 euros. It’s still not every expensive, it’s 50 euros, but not everyone is happy. People still have the wrong idea of Chinese food. A lot of times, they consider Chinese food cheap takeaway because of the Chinese imbiss (snack bar/fast food restaurant) thing. They would probably be happy to spend 50 euros on a good Italian restaurant…French…maybe Japanese. Respect to all the chefs, we all work hard but for me, it’s not fair to be judged by the regions. Italian, French, Japanese, they’re all fine to be expensive. Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai—not sure about it, you know?”
As for contemporary Chinese cuisine in China, Ash mused about what is considered fusion cuisine there, and how it affects the notion of authenticity. During her last trip to Shanghai, she “went to a really Chinese restaurant, a vegetarian restaurant. Michelin gives it one star but I’m not going there for the star, I’m going there to see what the chef is doing. He uses so [many] delicate Chinese ingredients and the presentation is really Western [with] very nice plating; and it’s great to see. It was the most beautiful meal I had in Shanghai. But if I brought my mom there, she would [say]: ‘This is not Chinese food. This is just using Chinese ingredients.’ Well, fine—but if you can use Chinese ingredients to make some Western-looking food but the flavor is still Chinese, why not? It’s tasty. You really have to use your brain and work a lot for that; I respect that.” Ash recognizes the work that goes into adapting one’s cooking to the circumstances and surroundings while maintaining authenticity or traditional aspects, as she herself is intimately familiar with the process.
Catering to the particularities of Berlin diners has in turn inspired aspects of Ash’s cooking. “Because a lot of people are vegan or vegetarian here, sometimes I have to challenge myself to work on a vegan recipe that is delicious enough for them. [Although] we do have a lot of people who don’t eat meat in China, most of them are in Buddhism, or monks. In my daily life [in Shanghai], I actually never met a vegetarian who is Chinese.” She relishes the challenge of creating vegan versions of traditional Chinese dishes. “I really like very honest feedback, it’s always welcome. That’s where I have to learn, from wanting to do better.”
For Ash, meeting her personal need for delicious Chinese food in her chosen home and occupying herself with something fulfilling and meaningful evolved into both a social initiative and a cross-cultural exchange. In Berlin, she introduces people to Chinese cuisine in an individual yet authentic way, while creating temporary social spaces and an ongoing dialogue about food. In doing so, she has added another layer of what authentic Chinese food can be in this city, as her food is authentic to who she is, her point of view, her experience, and her palate; that is, polished, with abundant attention to detail, but wholly unpretentious and disarmingly charming. She only serves up what she enjoys, and what she feels excited about sharing with people.