David Zhou didn’t speak a word of English when he first walked through the doors at his small warehouse in Cecil Street, Prahran, 17 years ago. He had migrated from Shanghai just a few years earlier, and rather aimlessly, scraped together all the money he had in Melbourne and imported a few boxes of Chinese tea. Once the tea arrived he realised he needed some warehouse space, and the space in Cecil Street – which is still home to David’s, one of Melbourne’s most delightful and essential Chinese eateries – was on the rental market for a good price.
“I just imported tea in a cardboard box, I didn’t even unpack them,” says Zhou, from the front table at David’s in Prahran, where the sun is streaming in and bouncing off the white-washed walls. Looking back, Zhou recalls opening day, when he hung a curtain from the front door and scribbled the word “sell” across it with a fabric marker.
David’s was open for business, and from there, with just a few curious locals filtering through the door each day, the restaurant became something of a Prahran establishment, initially as a Shanghai tea house and more recently as a sophisticated kitchen; one that adds local ingredients to traditional Chinese recipes. Zhou describes some of the ingredients that made his restaurant such a success in Melbourne.
“Red bean is a very common ingredient in Chinese cuisine,” he says, talking about David’s osmanthus and red bean black sticky rice pudding, a favourite dessert at the restaurant. “[Red bean] is mainly used for a sweet dessert, but we use it here with dates. It is something very common, with a nutty flavour, and it is neutral in nature, not like ginger or chili.”
As a boy, Zhou lived on Nanjing Road in Shanghai, the city’s busiest shopping strip. It was “shoulder to shoulder” during the day and food was his escape. He’d leave the house late at night and get chicken soup in the city when the crowds slowed and the city went to sleep. At David’s, the menu is inspired by a nearby rural city called Zhouzhuang, which is an hour’s drive west of Shanghai in Jiungsu. At David’s the menu highlights produce with classic ingredients such as red and black beans, coconut milk, chili, alcohol, and garlic. It’s also grounded in ancient Chinese health remedies, which Zhou is particularly interested in.
“Nowadays people really care about health and super foods, and the red bean is a Chinese version of it. When you feel swelling and you are a bit bloated, red bean cooked with dates is very good for nourishing the heart and helping the blood,” he says. “It’s also good for happiness.”
When cooking rice pudding, Zhou adds black and white rice, cooking them separately. “We make the red bean into paste, and we use a small percentage of the black and white sticky rice. We steam, add sugar, nuts, and red-bean paste into a bowl, then we steam again for one hour and put coconut milk and paste to thicken. I like red bean. It really can be used for many things.”
This piece was produced in partnership with the new CONNOISSEUR Empire Collection, which includes the 'Emperor Jing Zong’ ice cream with red bean and coconut.