Chef Lucas Sin wants you to respect Chinese food
Lucas Sin opened his first restaurant when he was 16, in an abandoned newspaper factory in his hometown of Hong Kong. Despite spending his Yale undergraduate years in the Cognitive Science and English departments, Lucas spent his weekends running restaurants out of his dorm, known as Y Pop-up. He backpacked and cooked his way through Japan, before settling at Kikunoi Honten in Kyoto. He’s also spent time at Modernist Cuisine in Seattle and Michelin-starred kitchens in Hong Kong and New York.
We talked to this incredibly accomplished young chef about his heritage, his inspirations and the egg roll flavors that blow his mind.
Tell us a little about who you are and why you are passionate about in cooking and food?
My name is Lucas Sin. I’m the chef of Nice Day Chinese Takeout, and Junzi Kitchen in New York City and New Haven, Connecticut. I am a Chinese chef from Hong Kong who is particularly excited about changing the way people think about Chinese food. My personal understanding of Chinese food is that it’s vast, colorful, diverse, and it doesn’t get the respect that is due. I guess I’d like for other people to understand that Chinese food can be part their daily lives in a really wonderful culinary and cultural way.
What is an egg roll and why is it so significant?
The egg roll is an outstanding vehicle for deliciousness, obviously, but it’s also an outstanding vehicle for cultural storytelling, specifically about cultural confluence especially in a place like the United States. The reason why I love the egg roll is because of its geometry and its texture, which means that you can fill it with anything you want. There are a lot of variations on egg rolls. The classic Chinese takeout egg roll is usually filled with cabbage, carrots and onions. It might also be stuffed with pork, sometimes char siu, as well as shrimp. And so you have this sort of base egg roll that is the, go-to “free” item in Chinese American takeout restaurants all over the country.
The egg roll is a variation on a spring roll, or chēun gyún in Cantonese. The difference between the egg roll and spring roll is that the egg roll’s dough is oftentimes thicker and chewier, and when it’s fried you see bubbles on top of it. Its thickness brings a different sort of gastronomical experience compared to a spring roll which is thinner, but the egg roll holds better and delivers very well as a take-out item. There is a close tie between Chinese American take-out restaurants and this delivery aspect. The story of the egg roll gets even more exciting when you look at hyper-regional variations on the egg roll. Friends in Australia will know a roll called the Chiko roll. The Chiko roll is a chicken roll that’s eaten in at Australian football games. It is traditionally made from a chicken beef fat, and bulgur or some type of wheat.
In the US, my favorite type of regional variation of an egg roll is the Detroit-style corned beef egg roll, which was invented in Detroit by a Vietnamese woman. This woman was working at a Jewish deli slicing corned beef and decided to use the ends to stuff inside of a Chinese egg roll. And now she primarily serves this to the African American community. That is something so unique to the US and it feels like Chinese food is one of the only types of cuisine that can be universal enough to absorb all these cultural influences.
That is just to say that a lot of my personal interest in Chinese food stems from this universality of Chinese food, but also this sort of uncanny ability for Chinese restaurants and chefs to somehow take in and absorb influences from their neighbors. Recently, I was in Disney World and I had a Cheeseburger egg roll that blew my mind. American cheese, ground beef, black pepper, and that sort of thing. I liked it so much that it’s going to be on our menu in a couple of weeks. Pepperoni pizza egg rolls, you know, these sorts of ridiculous fusions that can be silly but also be real cultural stories. But either way, it’s just one of those American takeout items that have such staying power and resembles the interconnected fabric of American culture. So I’m a big fan of egg rolls, and I can talk about them forever.
What are some misconceptions about Chinese food in general that you would like to clarify?
When I first started making Chinese food here in the US, a lot of people would come to Junzi Kitchen and see our vegetables, fresh stir fries, and braised meats and things and say, “Oh, this is real Chinese food. The other stuff is not real.” And I’m like, “Well, what do you mean?” And they say, “The other stuff is Chinese American. The orange chicken and lo mein–that’s not real Chinese food.” That’s the first misconception. On one hand, I’m so glad that you’re excited about regional Chinese cooking that come from specific parts of China. But on the other hand, it’s really, really important to understand that Chinese American food is real Chinese food. Chinese American food is authentic Chinese food because it is a regional style of Chinese food that developed outside of the borders of China. It was developed by immigrants. It was developed at the hands of hard work and sincere food entrepreneurship and survivability. And so I think it really tells the story of a certain group of people and therefore needs to be respected. And not to mention from a culinary standpoint, there are a lot of specific techniques and operational procedures that come from this hundred-something year old history of American Chinese food developing here in the US. These specific techniques which are in American Chinese food that aren’t in other places, other cuisines, and that’s worth celebrating, worth investigating and learning from. The second is to go back to the first point. Chinese food is vast and wonderful, and there are so, so many regions, right? There are 50 something ethnic minorities in China. There are 20 something provinces. It’s at least 4,000 years of history. When people say “Chinese food” it’s kind of like people saying “European food.” It’s so diverse that we shouldn’t see it as singular. Some parts of it can be spicy. Other parts of it can be sweet and sour. Other parts of it can be rice-based, some parts of it can be noodle based. I mean, for whoever is reading, I would encourage them to explore all regions of Chinese food, the way you might explore all regions of European cooking and to understand the nuance between different regions of Chinese cooking. And I would also say that especially here in New York City, now is a really great time to eat regional Chinese food. In Flushing in particular, you’ll find clear distinctions between Sichuan-style hotpot, Dongbei Northeastern style. Different braised meats versus Shanghainese dumplings. You can start to see all those differences. It’s delicious and fun to explore. So definitely go do that.
Why is it so important for us to be talking about food at our Egg Rolls, Egg Creams, and Empanadas Festival?
The future of Chinese American food requires an understanding of the melting pot that is the United States. These cultures can come together, can be adjacent and eventually affect each other and make each other better. It’s important to celebrate those differences because the future of Chinese American food and the way that the Chinese American food is even right now includes influences from those cultures. I’ve been very excited for example, about Chinese Dominican cooking, not only in terms of Chinese people cooking for Dominicans in the DR, but also Chinese American cooking in Harlem or in Washington Heights. You can look as far back as the 1920s and have a Chinese Cuban food in Chelsea. You can find kosher Chinese food on the Lower East Side. New York City is built on the relationship that these Chinese restaurants have with the people that live in those neighborhoods. Nowhere else in the US have so many different cultures so close to each other. That is what’s so great about New York and why we should celebrate food.
We’re so thankful to Lucas for talking to us and sharing his insight, wisdom and enthusiasm with us. And that’s not all he shared! Below is Lucas’s recipe for egg rolls.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Total time: 1 hour and 20 minutes
for the mustard:
½ cup|50 grams mustard powder
for the duck sauce:
3 tablespoons apricot jam
1 tablespoon applesauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 ½ teaspoons granulated sugar
1 salted pickled plum
for the egg rolls:
6 ribs Chinese celery or 3 ribs celery, julienned
2 small carrots, peeled and julienned
1 medium head green cabbage, cored and thinly sliced
8 peeled and deveined shrimp
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
½ pound|230 grams ground pork
2 tablespoons cooking Sherry or Shaoxing wine
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
1 teaspoon oyster sauce
1 teaspoon soy sauce
½ teaspoon granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon Chinese five spice powder
¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
8 egg roll wrappers, defrosted if frozen
1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon water
vegetable oil, for frying
- Make the mustard: Mix the mustard powder with ¼ cup|60 ml water in a small bowl. Let sit for at least 30 minutes before using.
- Make the duck sauce: Mix all of the ingredients together in a small bowl, taking care to mash the plum to break it down slightly, and set aside until ready to use.
- Make the egg rolls: Bring a large pot of water to a boil and prepare a bowl of ice water. Add the celery, carrot, and cabbage and cook until the cabbage is vibrant green, about 2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the vegetables to the bowl of ice water until cold, then drain and transfer to a kitchen towel. Wring out the towel to get out all of the water from the vegetables, then transfer the veggies to a large bowl.
- Prepare another bowl of ice water and add the shrimp to the pot of boiling water. Cook the shrimp until bright pink and beginning to curl, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer to the bowl of ice water until cold, then dice into ½-inch pieces. Add the shrimp to the bowl of veggies.
- Heat the oil in a medium nonstick skillet over medium-high. Add the pork and cook, breaking it up into smaller pieces using a wooden spoon, until slightly caramelized and browned, about 5 minutes. Add the cooking wine to deglaze, then stir in the salt, oyster sauce, soy sauce, five spice, sugar, and white pepper. Cook for 2 more minutes, then cool slightly before transferring to the bowl of veggies and shrimp. Season with salt.
- To roll the egg rolls, working with one egg roll wrapper at a time, hold the wrapper in a diamond shape on the workspace in front of you. Place a heaping ⅓ cup|65 grams of filling on the bottom of the wrapper and bring the end of the wrapper closest to you up and over the filling. Tighten the wrapper over the filling, then fold the corners inside. Brush a little bit of the cornstarch mixture on the tip of the wrapper farthest from you, then roll the egg roll away from you, sealing it onto that tip. Repeat with remaining wrappers and filling.
- Heat 3-inches oil in a large saucepan until a deep-fry thermometer reads 325°F. Working in batches, cook the egg rolls, turning as needed, until lightly golden, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack set over a sheet tray and increase the temperature to 375°F. Working in batches, fry the egg rolls a second time until slightly darker and crisp, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to the cooling rack set over the sheet tray to cool slightly, then serve with the mustard and duck sauce.
Here more about egg rolls and the importance of other immigrant American cuisine at our virtual program on Sunday, June 6th! We’ll be talking from chefs and owners at legendary restaurants Wo Hop, Russ & Daughters and Casa Adela. Get your free tickets today!