There are six pots of master stock simmering in the Spice Temple kitchen. One batch, into which mounds of Wagyu beef are submerged each day, has been in continual use throughout the restaurant’s 11 years, part of a Chinese tradition that sees these salty, sweet, aromatic stocks passed down between generations.
Tradition is important in the underground Spice Temple kitchen, says executive chef Andy Evans as he tips a plate of orange peel, star anise, cassia bark, garlic and spring onion into one of the giant pots filled with bubbling tar-like liquid. Tradition is also very significant during the Chinese New Year period, which the chef and his team are now preparing for.
“There are really strict rules with Chinese New Year,” he says as he stirs the pot with a spoon (this master stock is only two-years old; a previous batch was mistakenly discarded by a junior chef). “It’s a really auspicious time – the end of one year and the beginning of the next. And while westerners might go out with friends and make some new year’s resolution to lose weight, it’s way more important than that for Chinese people.
“You’re setting yourself up for the year ahead, and so everything has symbolism. For example, white means ‘death’, so if you serve tofu for Chinese New Year you’re wishing death on your guests.”
With the pot having returned to a simmer, Evans submerges a mountain of free-range chicken wings, one at a time, into the heady brew. It’s all part of the two-day process demanded of the restaurant’s Spice Fried Chicken Wings With Heaven Facing Chillies, one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes.
“You wouldn’t be able to serve [the chicken wings], either,” says the chef, who joined the Rockpool kitchen as a junior in 1994 and never left. “Essentially, if you give people cheap ingredients – even though there’s days of work involved in preparing them – you’re wishing poverty on them for the year ahead. Everything has to be luxurious: abalone, whole fish – that sort of thing.”
He turns the heat off and carries the nearly overflowing pot to a corner of the kitchen where the wings will steep for three hours until they’re both cooked and permeated completely by the flavour of the stock.
“Having said that,” he adds, “people come for Chinese New Year and then they order the chicken wings anyway.”
Spice Temple’s Chinese New Year menu, which is available until February 9, offers nine courses for $99, each course symbolising a wish for the year ahead. Pipis with pork and Shaoxing wine represent fortune, stir-fried spanner crab with noodles represents longevity and a caramel ice-cream with praline, naturally, flies the flag for love.
Evans explains that, while the restaurant strives for authenticity throughout its regionally diverse Chinese menu, they can afford to be playful with this special menu.
“We try to stick to the core values of Chinese New Year, but not so strictly that we feel like we can’t deviate a little. We stick to the rules, but they’re not as hard and fast as in Chinatown.”
He takes a tray of master stock-infused wings, cooked yesterday and chilled overnight, and tosses them through a bowl of lightly beaten egg before coating them in a mix of flour, salt and Szechuan pepper. The spice, renowned for its mouth-numbing qualities, is a fundamental building block of Spice Temple’s culinary repertoire, with the kitchen using an astonishing 10 kilograms of the stuff every week.
“Because what we do is regional Chinese food, rather than being specifically Cantonese focussed, our dishes have a lot more spice,” he says. That means, he explains, that the restaurant can extend beyond dishes such as dim sum, wantons, dumplings, noodles and whole steamed fish. “We’re really lucky because we can go all the way west to Xinjiang and have lamb and bread, plus we can go north and south as well. We get to explore everything on our menu.”
The master stock-soaked, Szechuan flour-coated wings get dropped into a readied deep fryer and, as they darken, oil is warmed in a wok. A bowl of heaven-facing chillies (named for their habit of growing upwards toward the sky) are emptied into the oil and toasted until fragrant and nutty. The fried wings are seasoned with a little more salt and Szechuan pepper, tossed into the chilli-filled oil and, once coated, heaped carefully onto a platter made specially for the dish by a ceramicist in China.
The finished product is collected and hurried into the dining room. Satisfied, Evans pops an errant chilli from the benchtop into his mouth. If he’s affected by the spice, it doesn’t show on his face.
“Red is lucky in Chinese culture,” he says with a smile.
Spice Temple’s Chinese New Year banquet menu is available until February 9 for $99 per person.