Cover Dr Mukta Das and chef Andrew Wong (Photo: David Cotsworth)

Acclaimed chef Andrew Wong and food anthropologist Dr Mukta Das discuss everything from cheese in the Chinese kitchen to chilli, crispy duck skin and creativity in the first season of their podcast XO Soused. Now they’re ready to launch season two.

Do you know the secret to achieving perfect chicken’s feet? Or how to make your char sui bao laugh? And that it’s technically illegal to make XO sauce in the UK? That’s just a taste of the many aspects of Chinese cuisine that chef Andrew Wong of two-Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant A.Wong in London and food anthropologist Dr Mukta Das, a research associate at SOAS who focuses on Hong Kong, Macau and Guangzhou, cover on their podcast, XO Soused.

The podcast was a natural progression of the pair’s work together, which began in 2014, and has seen Das and Wong explore Chinese food history, including recipes and ingredients, to inform innovative dishes and inspire new ideas.

XO Soused came about organically. Propelled by the pandemic, Wong and Das’s in-person get togethers, where they would chat all things Chinese food, were forced online and the duo decided to document them for future reference.

“We hit record for selfish reasons, then we put it out there tentatively. We didn’t know what to expect,” says Das of the podcast, the first episode of which aired in January 2021 with fortnightly episodes released throughout last year. Each one is a raw, unedited conversation around topics that range from the techniques behind such Chinese classics as Peking duck and pulled noodles, to the culture of Chinese New Year feasting and the truths and tales behind Beggar’s chicken, with much more in between. It’s like listening in, as Wong puts it, on “two people sitting in a coffee shop sharing a passion and having a chat”. Like the best podcasts, listeners feel part of the conversation, get to know Wong and Das, and are simultaneously educated and entertained.

A more diverse audience than imagined has tuned in. The original thinking was that the conversations would appeal to culinary professionals. “We thought it would be great for chefs. Andrew gets a lot of messages from fellow chefs who say they want to introduce [a certain] technique and how to go about doing that,” says Das. As such, early episodes focused on topics such as steaming, or how to execute transparent wrappers and bouncy fillings for har gau. But as the audience expanded, Das says “our conversations become less about technique and a bit more about the social history.”

An episode that both Das and Wong highlight as a favourite looks at female chefs in the professional Chinese kitchen and their prominence both past and present.

“There were many women in elite and imperial kitchens, but they are little celebrated,” says Das. “Some of the key female historical figures [in food] were able to write books and those recipes are fantastically rich with detail and process and amounts and temperatures, so it was nice to be able to focus in on that female knowledge and acknowledge their expertise out loud.”

The intention of the podcast is reflected in its name, XO Soused, which derives from the ubiquitous Chinese condiment. “XO sauce means so much to me, and I think it has a real resonance to what I do and the way I interpret our work with Mukta. Because XO sauce is actually quite a modern invention for Chinese food that has gone internationally viral,” says Wong.

Dating from the 1950s and 1960s, XO sauce was invented by Hong Kong chefs looking to make a luxurious condiment. Its name came from Remy Martin XO cognac, which was symbolic of status, and as such chefs incorporated the most expensive ingredients into the namesake sauce including dried shrimps, dried scallops and Jinhua ham. The sauce was about modernity, evolution and pushing boundaries—and it has endured. Today XO sauce is used by chefs the world over, and not only those with Chinese restaurants. “I see it used everywhere and in everything, whether it’s a modern European restaurant or a French restaurant,” says Wong. “XO as a sauce does what we want to do, which is to connect people in a modern way steeped in Chinese roots.”

And ‘soused’? The culinary term that refers to preserving food was not included in the name for its meaning but more as a play on words, however, by its very nature the podcast is a way of preserving the traditions and culture of Chinese food.

The pair are now gearing up to launch season two later this month, which ties in with the evolution of Wong’s cooking. As the world welcomed the Year of the Tiger, Wong’s restaurant in London did away with the evening à la carte menu in favour of a menu to honour ancient imperial banqueting in China, where multiple dishes were served as collections in a showcase of techniques, ingredients, textures and flavours from across China. Wong hopes to challenge how diners navigate Chinese food, and the podcast will be a real-time look at how that goes, both in the kitchen and looking beyond the pass to the front of house and restaurant experience.

To learn more about Chinese food, both from a technical perspective and with historical and cultural context, tune in as these two engaging food professionals share their complementary expertise through their enlightening fortnightly conversations.

Sign up for the XO Soused audio newsletter on Substack or search for XO Soused wherever you get your podcasts.

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