Mietta & Friends

Australia's top chefs and food educatorsin words and photographs

James Tan
The modern adaptation of some of the classic Asian dishes presented look not to bastardise or insult the past, but merely to enhance and exploit new and adventurous possibilities. Photograph ©Tony Knox 1995

James Tan

Chef James Tan is a master-blender of cuisines. He describes his New Asian Cuisine as "a blend of new cooking techniques, fresh raw materials and simplicity of presentation".

He adds: "While the underlying philosophy, presentation and introduction of the new ingredients are a gentle marriage of many culinary influences and cultures, the flavours are unmistakably Asian. The modern adaptations of some of the classic Asian dishes presented look not to bastardise or insult the past, but merely to enhance and exploit new and adventurous possibilities." James shares with Elizabeth Chong and Cheong Liew a fundamental and deep-seated belief in the importance of their Asian traditions and in the strength and value of their culture and their families' teachings.

James was raised in Singapore in a family of caterers and was taught the traditional Chinese way of cooking. His father, however, had learnt something of the Western palate from the British and Australian troops for whom he cooked after World War II. Thus, the Tan family would sometimes sit down to a meal of steak and vegetables, European style.

James decided to use the new skills and with the help of his brother started China Restaurant in the Savoy Hotel in Karlstad at the age of 21. "From the first day it was a hit with the locals and students from our school - here was my chance to bring Singaporean food to Swedish people - a cultural exchange of mutual enjoyment. I got to cook. They got to enjoy a strange and wonderfully exotic cuisine". After three years James returned home to Singapore and then six months later went to live in Australia.

James
The ballet of the kitchen. James cooks his scallop entree.
Photograph ©Tony Knox 1995

Later, when James moved to Sweden to live with his brother, he learnt traditional French cooking at a hotel and catering school. Here, a whole new world was opened to him - a world of new ingredients, utensils, techniques and flavours, all delivered by a rigid and authoritarian teacher who hurled pans at the young student till he got the dish right.

Arriving in Australia James first went to the Gold Coast and opened Jimmy's, his second restaurant before settling in Melbourne and achieving great acclaim with The Mandarin Duck. The next stage for James came through his desire to take the best from the very different worlds of cuisine he had been working in, and experiment with a combination of both. He soon discovered that "not everything blends with wonderful results, and that if it doesn't, don't force it".

Now James feels unencumbered by classic tradition, and revels in the knowledge that he is free to combine and create textures and flavours that do not need to be categorised or labelled. He does this while respecting that tradition has a role to play - his dishes are simply variations on classic themes.

At Mietta's, James served a meal with familiar ingredients - a meal which he said could be duplicated "by anyone in their kitchen at home." In saying this, however, he failed to acknowledge the contribution made by his own virtuosity, or to give adequate credit to the brilliance of his own technique.

He chose to begin with Atlantic salmon, a brilliant Australian product now available year round, and married it to celery and sweet potato. His chilli and lemongrass kangaroo fillet served to raise the question of whether the natural abundance of kangaroos and the meat's affordability will eventually outweigh Australians' nagging reluctance to eat their national emblem; the chilli and lemongrass used in its preparations pointed to the remarkable development of our market gardens. Just 10 years ago, it would only have been possible to procure imported, dried lemongrass.

James

Still concentrating on the scallops, James 'cooks off' the last of them.
Photograph ©Tony Knox 1995

His duck dish provided further evidence of his culinary development; while it was a clear acknowledgement that "no culture on earth has the long time proven history of roasting ducks to perfection that the Chinese have", the sauce was based on the Western technique of using pan juices. The herbs and spices used resulted in a Chinese flavour, but the texture and appearance of the sauce was thoroughly Western.

Then a dessert which James saw as "the truest of Asian and Western marriages."

He says: "Desserts do not form an important part in the dining experience within Asian cuisines. The typical finish to a meal would be fresh fruit, to cleanse and freshen the palate. Black rice is eaten in Asia as a savoury dish, but prepares just as well with the sweetness of fruit. The kumquat, long regarded in China as a fruit of religious significance, seems only to be consumed in a dried preserved state, but I am preparing it with a poaching method to use that sweet-sour burst of flavour to form a great contrast to the nutty flavour of the black rice and the richness of the butterscotch sauce.

"The combination of chilli in chocolate icecream is a constant source of amazement to my customers at the restaurant. An unusual combination perhaps, or just a parallel to the combination of peppermint and chocolate, long accepted by Europeans."

James Tan feels that Australian cuisine is not one entity, but an amalgam of the variety of cuisines that exist in our land of migrants, of whom Southern Europeans have been the most influential group. But he also feels that we will become increasingly influenced by Asian factors, though he finds it hard to imagine all elements the cuisines combining comfortably, as there are so many incompatibilities.

"Over a period of time, perhaps many generations, the best aspects of Southern European and Asian foods will co-exist rather then become a melting pot of flavours, eventually to establish what people in other parts of the world will describe as Australian Cuisine."

James

James Tan respects tradition. It has a role to play, his dishes are variations on classic themes. Photograph ©Tony Knox 1995

James Tan's recipes

Chinese Turnip Cake
Lacquered Duck
Kangaroo Fillet
Atlantic salmon tartare
Black rice pudding, butterscotch sauce with poached cumquat and chilli chocolate icecream
Mietta O'Donnell
©Mietta's 1996