Chef Alex Wong grew up with an asian remix of italian food: her mom splashed salty Maggi season in their spaghetti bolognese. âBecause I’m Chinese-Vietnamese, it wasn’t a ragÃ¹, it was more beef sautÃ©ed with tomato paste,â he says. “It was delicious, but when I first tried the good Italian I was blown away.”
He credits his school friend Daniel for this culinary introduction. âAfter school, we would go to his nun’s house, because her parents were working,â he says. Daniel’s nonna was from Naples, so their penne was flavored with tomato and basil, a la Napoletana. “They always had fresh pane di casa, fresh bread, on the table, it blew me away,” he says.
These two styles of Italian cuisine – traditional and Asian-inspired – would eventually shape his career as a chef.
âIt’s everyone’s nemesis for pasta,â says Wong. “It was very painful to do and only two people in the kitchen could do it – me being one of them.” It is a Sardinian custom to eat them on the Day of the Dead or to celebrate a good harvest. In this restaurant, culurgiones were always on the menu.
âIt looks like little braids of wheat,â says the chef, describing the dish in the shape of a dumpling. Pleating each was a challenge, requiring 16 meticulous pleats. âYou have to pinch it hard enough, otherwise it won’t seal,â he says. “If you don’t do it right the filling comes out and it’s not good.” You wouldn’t want potatoes, pecorino, and mint to boil over. Or a mixture of pumpkin, ricotta and spinach. Sometimes roasted Jerusalem artichokes in butter mixed with cheese were hidden inside the culurgiones.
It was only when Wong opened Allegra dining room, in 2017, that he was considering slipping Asian ingredients into his Italian dishes, like his mom used to. “What inspired me for the first time was when LuMi opened for the first time, âhe says. This Pyrmont restaurant launched in 2014, with chef Federico zanellato featuring crab with puffed sushi rice, pumpkin and uni flavored dumplings and Parmesan cream in a delicate chawanmushi style.
Wong remembers being stunned by LuMi’s brioche with caramelized koji butter. âI’ve never used a koji before,â he says, referring to the starter that gives Japanese staples – like miso and soy sauce – their flavorful punch.
ACME by Mitch Orr opened around the same time as LuMi. Its Italian menu did not stick to European borders either. His pig’s head macaroni was triggered by the Filipino sisig, his black garlic and burnt chili linguine looked like mee goreng, and his idea for the Sydney restaurant came from daily visits to an udon store. on his first trip to Tokyo. ACME was also inspired by Asian institutions on its doorstep: âIt was 100% influenced by Chinatown and restaurants like Golden Age,” he says.
Orr notes that there is a lot of overlap between Asian and Italian cuisines: they fill tables with rice and noodles, they increase umami levels when needed, they both have a strong sense of regionality and have produced sustainable dishes in impoverished circumstances. Introducing Asian ideas into your Italian cuisine is something he credits Alessandro Pavoni and Federico Zanellato for pioneering when they worked together at Ormeggio on a spit over a decade ago. Other chefs also shared this reflex: O Tama Carey introduced curry leaves to his Italian menu at Berta, in 2014, while Trisha greentree keep doing it in a subtle way to 10 William Street and Fratelli Paradiso.
“One of the first things I did was my own Italian inspired XO sauce.”
Like Wong, Greentree grew up with Asian ingredients flavoring her Italian cuisine: her Filipino mother made spaghetti bolognese with a touch of fish sauce. âTraditional Filipino spaghetti is with hot dogs,â she says. “It’s a whole new level.”
In her restaurants, the chef uses Asian ingredients in a subtle rather than attractive way. Its blood orange crudo can be enhanced with an herbaceous note of makrut. Or she could flavor something with yuzu – a move that she feels is very Italian, rather than strictly Japanese. “It’s also very Sicilian. For me, citrus is Italy,” she says.
The chef remembers when some Asian Australian diners detected a Szechuan flavor profile in an Italian dish. “But it’s not planned at all. There’s no way it’s planned,” she said. Greentree tends to balance flavors in a certain way. “It turns out he’s leaning toward an Asian palace. That’s all it is.”
Wong remembers eating his meals; a squid salad with fish sauce stands out in particular. Even though its Asian flourishes are understated, you’ll notice if you’re aware of it enough, he thinks. “Asians can tell for sure.”
Like the aforementioned chefs, Wong has been experimenting with Asian flavors in his Italian cuisine for years. âAllegra was like a stepping stone, I tested a lot of things there,â he says. “One of the first things I did was my own Italian inspired XO sauce.” So he added ‘nduja and pancetta instead of Jinhua ham and increased the salty taste with capers.
âI used to make a lamb ragÃ¹ and I seasoned it with fish sauce. Because traditionally in Italian there are recipes where lamb would be served with anchovies, âhe says. With this Asian touch, he channeled his childhood days as a mother salting bolognese with Maggi seasoning.
These Asian riffs of Italian cuisine can also be found on his menus now. TO Lana at Sydney’s Circular Quay, where he is currently the chef, he seasons his acqua pazza broth with Thai basil, Korean kombu and Chinese dried shrimp. And the Mannaggia a Trois pop-up that he runs with chefs Andrea Sonnante and Hai Le is about exploring both cuisines creatively.
Originally, they were planning to organize their next dinner at Sonnante Sagra restaurant in Darlinghurst, serving up Chinese donuts with lardo and liver pate, and featuring holy basil rigatoni, prawns and XO salumi sauce. But with the current COVID-19 outbreak limiting all restaurants in Sydney to take out and delivery only, they have focused on offering in-home meal packs of their food. A recent menu included a chickpea dip spiced with Szechuan peppers – ready to pick up with long curls of fried fritta pasta. There was a burrata drizzled with scallop sambal, made by a close friend Andy wirya from Queen Chow too.
Restaurant meals may be on hiatus right now, but Wong’s mind continues to buzz with ideas for Mannaggia a Trois’s future menu: he plans to make smoked parmesan chawanmushi, ginger salsa verde and with shallots for a fish dish, and stracciatella with black sesame and saffron pappardelle – inspired by Japanese goma ae. Lifting boundaries and mixing different culinary influences makes these dishes possible.
âOld-fashioned Italian is good, but sometimes it’s boring,â he jokes.