Although authentic Chinese food is rooted in Chinese history and traditions, it’s often left to the staff to interpret the dishes while preparing and serving them to customers. As a result, the often repetitive name-dropping of specific locales in cuisine can lead to some confusion.
Until recently, we’ve only had access to American-accented versions of Chinese food on our TV screens — with little thought of which real places would be providing what. But the Toronto chefs behind the latest food truck project offer a fresh, more localized perspective — one that asks, “Why should people just stick to this one identity?”
“Authentic” Chinese food
Yellow Dragon Elephant Super Speciality Food Trucks
Located on 14th Street, Northwest, a few blocks from Nationals Park, is a Chinese food truck that brings Asian street food to an American audience. Named after one of the more popular ancient Chinese gods, the trucks’ menu — and philosophy — seek to erase the typical distinctions between Westernized dishes and Chinese home cooking.
“I grew up always talking about how the Chinese restaurant in Georgetown had the best pho, or the best dumplings, or the best hot pot,” says chef Risa Yu (Rina). “We want to represent what all of these food cultures have done in the past and expand the audience in the same way [Starbuck’s] has in their ice cream and coffee.”
Instead of relying on Western chefs or recipes, the Yellow Dragon Elephants’ mantra is basically the opposite. “Cooking things by hand, eating it before it’s done, and serving it in a clean meal,” explains Brittany Schmerton (Brittany, who has worked with the chefs for four years, who has worked on the menu for two years.
“A lot of the conversation that our team is getting [is,] ‘Hey, this tastes just like I’m used to, but it’s new because it’s not made by someone with American influence or images of it,’” says Kara Fang (Kara, who was with the Yellow Dragon Elephants for about two years). “There is a history behind Chinese food — everything is different. Why shouldn’t a restaurant take advantage of that to make the food feel a little more authentic?”
What’s on the menu
Each of the trucks’ 10 new meals offers an authentic take on Chinese food including hot pot, in-season dumplings, nian gao (pickled fish, and soybean oil-infused vinegar with greens), crispy dough disks with a mango jelly, and a meaty and decadent stir-fry of turkey legs.
In addition to a beef, pork, and nian gao hot pot, we also ordered the Thanksgiving Wrap, a Korean-Chinese twist that includes zucchini, green beans, and bacon wrapped around turkey, topped with Sichuan black bean sauce and short ribs.
When it comes to the four exotic textures of the Sichuan dish, they balance out the simplicity of turkey meat and impart a variety of ingredients like cilantro, chipotle, and the chile.
While the love of experimenting with new cuisine does come from new experiences — and old recipes — “we have a lot of core philosophies of having some kind of culinary center,” says Fang. “Food should be way more creative — it should be more adventurous.”
“It’s cultural fusion and kind of a hybrid,” says Yu. “We’re open to trying everything.”
Risa Yu grew up in Mexico — and then began a career in engineering. Now her second love is cooking. “Coming from a culinary background and being given that responsibility is kind of a calling,” says Yu. “It was so liberating. You have to create from a position of strength and have the strength to change and evolve and have the ability to experience new elements. I find that to be very addicting.”
Brittany Schmerton is another girl with a unique love for food. A full-time mom, she was often without her children and distracted by eating. Then she took a job in a branch of Williams-Sonoma and realized she needed something that she could devote her time to.
When she learned the food truck route was hiring, she jumped at the chance. With chefs and