“I almost went to Europe,” says Sebastian Gee, head chef of China Diner, the fourth installment in the China Doll family of eateries. It was after completing his apprenticeship at est. that he decided to explore overseas kitchens. “But I never made it past Southeast Asia.”
While travelling through Southeast Asia, Gee realised his loyalties lay with Asian cuisine, so he stayed, saw everything his wallet would allow him to, and then returned to Sydney in search of a job in an Asian kitchen. He first landed at Sailor’s Thai, where he spent months training his palate and his stomach to shift from appreciating heavy, European-inspired creams to Asian staples such as chilli, soy and fish sauce.
“The food at Sailor’s Thai is very traditional,” says Gee. Everything is made by hand and it was this experience that cemented his devotion to tradition as he continued through Asian kitchens in Sydney.
Some things are hard not to modernize and, according to Gee, there is a delicate balance between tradition and modernisation. Gee has found this to be most true when it comes to desserts. “Chinese desserts are hard for Westerners,” says Gee, because they’re made with ingredients such as red beans and jelly candies, cream and chocolate lovers may have difficulty shifting their thinking.
“Red beans actually have a lot of health benefits,” he says. “The whole bean is used in a lot of tonics and medicinal treatments.” Surprisingly enough, when it comes to cooking, the starchy bean is really only used in desserts. “I’ve never seen it used as a savoury,” Gee says. Years working in Chinese and Southeast-Asian restaurants have shown Gee that even as minds become more open, people need more convincing when it comes to this ingredient.
Red beans are usually mashed into a paste and mixed with palm sugar and sesame for use in sweet dumplings or ice cream. “It’s funny, when you mix certain ingredients inside dishes, people don’t realise,” Gee says. He makes a comparison to coriander, a herb used so commonly in Asian cuisine, and Gee’s favourite flavour. Opinions about coriander are usually at one extreme or the other, but, as Gee explains, it appears the actual aversion is to the leaf. “When roots and stems are mixed into dumpling stuffing and sauces, people don’t realise it’s there.”
Shifting our focus back to red beans, Gee explains that it is for this reason other sweets, such as coconut and sugar, are often paired with the bean, to coax unsure palates into giving it a chance. “There are so many simple ways that you can use the beans,” says Gee. He instantly rattles off a list of delicious sounding cakes, ice creams and drinks, without hesitation.
“One of the things I remember most from my travels is three-colour drink,” he says. Called Ché in Vietnam where it orignated, it is a drink made from three simple ingredients: beans, jelly candies or tapioca, and coconut milk. The drink has spread and is common on the streets of Southeast Asia, served simply in a plastic bag with a straw to poke through.
Many of these types of sweets have spread throughout Southeast Asia; coconuts are abundant in the warmer countries and brought into China for use in a huge variety of dishes, both sweet and savoury. The coconut is so versatile – it can be used in curries, desserts, for milk or cream. Gee’s memory of the fruit spans back to the beginning of his cooking career, “I was 16 years old. We got to crack open these fresh coconuts,” he remembers. “We had this massive machine we used to grate them in order to make upside-down cake.” The machine is likely not in use anymore, but it was an introduction to Asian sweets which stuck strongly in Gee’s mind.
“It’s amazing how much there is to learn,” Gee says as he discusses his years cooking in Asian kitchens, “I am still learning so many new things every day.” As head chef, Gee spends the majority of his time in the kitchen at China Diner. Here, he is constantly speaking to his dim-sum chef, searching the history of Chinese cuisine through a translator.
“People don’t often come to Chinese restaurants and look at the desserts,” says Gee, “so we’ve had to adapt a lot.” Regardless, Gee admits that his soft spot is still sweets. “Deep-fried ice cream is a common Chinese dessert,” he tells us, “so I just added some strawberry jam and toasted coconut to mine.”
Maybe Australia still needs a little convincing when it comes to Chinese desserts, but with a culinary scene that is constantly changing, and a long line of passionate chefs, there seem to be endless opportunities for Sydneysiders to prep their palates for the challenge.
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.