Food as a cultural glue: a story of migration and cultural integration. Piero Ling restores value to quality Chinese cuisine.
Ling Kuang Sung, Piero Ling in Italian, born in 1968, is a second-generation Chinese man who arrived in Italy many years ago. It is a story of immigration and integration of two different cultures that blend thanks to his restaurant Zheng Yang, perfectly. The turning point was the year 1989 when he met Carlo Petrini, founder of the International Slow Food movement. From that moment on, the story of Piero and his family changed, and they became the bearers of an important message: that of good, clean, and fair food.
By Lodovica Bo
What is your story, Piero?
“I was born in China, in Wenzhou, in the Zhejiang region. Until I was four years old, I stayed there and then we moved to Italy. Our family experienced substantial immigration: the first of the family was my uncle, who later brought my father in the late ’60s. We were among the first Chinese here in Italy. We didn’t start immediately with catering because in the ’70s most of the Chinese were engaged in the textile sector. The ’80s were the boom in Chinese cusine, and my father decided to try: I was 15-16 years old, I started working in the kitchen with my sisters. Then the meeting with Carlo Petrini changed everything. I wither to the movement, and from that moment on, the change happens: we get closer to the idea of a high-quality restaurant. We start participating at the Salone del Gusto in Turin, which will then become Terra Madre. Then the projects continued: we became chefs of the alliance and in 2015, I founded Slow Food China with two members, and I started to promote high-quality cuisine there too.”
How does your philosophy change, after the meeting with Carlo Petrini, how is the before and after? Was the process of change difficult?
“Like any change, it wasn’t easy. We needed time to take its course. The restaurant has always been family-run, now it’s my two sisters and me: we wanted to represent Chinese cuisine that was not the stereotype of spring rolls and Cantonese rice, but to be able to offer a taste of real Chinese cuisine, with the fresh products that we could use here. We started with a first change from frozen to fresh and seasonal products, trying to combine typical Chinese products (rice pasta, soy sauce, Chinese wheat spaghetti) with fresh local products. Slow food has made a fundamental contribution to this process because we know that the first Chinese restaurants did not focus on quality.
Moreover, there were many commonplaces linked to the high consumption of frying and the massive use of oil. We aimed to bring culture to the Italian public, conveying the message that Chinese cuisine is refined, ancient, and not comparable to fast food. Over the years, we have managed to carry on this desire to search for quality products, and we are satisfied with it because I think that food can be a great vehicle of knowledge between cultures. Especially in recent times, when there is a kind of mistrust towards the different, I think that food can be a bridge between different cultures.”
How does your restaurant, which focuses on product quality and tradition, stand out from the rest of Chinese restaurants?
“We are lucky to be a restaurant with more than 30 years of history. Suppliers recognize us for the use of our raw materials, and that is an indication of quality. Of course, quality is pricy. In the restaurant industry, you have to be wary of places where first of all the products do not know where they come from, and secondly, if they do not have an adequate price, it means that it is almost certainly a restaurant that does not use quality products. The price is indicative. Through our menu, you can immediately understand the research work that is behind the culture we represent: you can find dishes from 8 different Chinese cuisines and not just the spring roll.”
Why in the popular imagination is Chinese cuisine considered of poor quality? Is it right, and if so, why?
“I think the situation in the last five years has changed a lot, thanks to people like me or friends who have understood the importance of quality food. To let you understand, people used to say- let’s go and eat Chinese- but it’s a bit generic. It was our generation that created a break with the past. Now, in big cities like Rome, Milan, and Turin, you can find a typical Chinese trattoria: places specialized only in ravioli or dim sum and so on. There has been a diversification that led to much more knowledge for both costumers and restaurateurs.”
Was it difficult to pass on the message from the stereotype of the traditional recipe to the real one?
It wasn’t easy. Undoubtedly what is influencing is the rise towards China. It has become a more touristy destination, and people are starting to understand what Chinese food is. Then, of course, there are still so many prejudices, clichés, and ignorance. There is not just one type of cuisine, but there are many regional-local cuisines that offer different things. What is true is that there are Chinese dishes that would never be eaten here in Italy: in China, for example, we have a lot of steamed food. If I propose pasta in broth, the famous ramen, or steamed sea bream, people tell me – I’m not sick. In China, on the other hand, pasta in broth is a cultural glue, as is wine here. We try to make an effort to make traditions known, which reflects more the Italian taste; otherwise, we close tomorrow – he says laughing.
My cuisine is mostly Cantonese, but we try to touch different Chinese cuisines. Lately we are going much further towards a specialization of the kitchen, for example, now there is a lot of Sichuan cuisine, very spicy: this is great for me because it is a huge leap forward in the quality of Chinese cuisine in Italy.”
What is your idea about gastronomy in China today? Is there attention to quality?
“There is a rediscovery of traditional cuisine, of raw materials. In recent trips, I have been pleasantly impressed to discover that many restaurants are trying to use increasingly local products to spread the culture behind a territory.
Today, with the support of Slow Food International, we are carrying out small targeted projects, finding an awareness of quality Chinese cuisine.”
How much have Italian culture and cuisine influenced your cuisine?
“I grew up in Italy, and I went to school here. So Italian culture has also greatly influenced my cuisine. Just as a tribute to Piedmont, we wanted to pay homage to Italian culture by experimenting with fusion dishes. My cuisine can already be considered fusion because our suppliers and our products come from Italy. By joining Slow Food, we use various products from Italian presidia. For example, we make a sweet-and-sour sauce with Carmagnola Peppers. The taste changes. It’s different: but this is fusion. We were among the first to push the Chinese community of Turin to grow some Chinese vegetables, such as pak choi, Chinese aubergines, and we saw that the public responded. The results are excellent, but the taste changes. The result is that we have a fresh product, not dried and not imported. These are satisfactions even at the human level of cultural exchanges.”
Fusion, do the Chinese like it?
“Yes. We don’t care that it is 100% traditional but that it is tasty and curious. A dish in homage to Piedmont was, for example, steamed rice spaghetti with vegetables, black soybeans, and truffles. Very tasty. My Chinese cuisine has grown in Italy and should not only stop at tradition. Cooking is evolution; as such, it can do something that brings together different ways of thinking and, above all, allows exchange with producers, not just with cooks. I go directly to the producers, and they come here. We have a great culture linked to river fish, and together with a producer of Ceresole d’Alba we have found a way to make Tinca, a slow food garrison, and we make a triptych of tench: one in carpione, in homage to the piedmont. One is cold-smoked with Chinese rosewood, the other steamed with Sichuan peppercorns. I believe that the spread of fusion cuisine can stimulate new tastes and a return of the consumer to the product that is being lost here in Piedmont.”
Prejudices and defects? Would you like to grow up?
“My restaurant is a place for families, and I call it a trattoria where I offer a moment of conviviality, where people can be together. After 30 years of activity, I can say that I am satisfied.
Defects: if there were the possibility of finding exceptional Chinese raw materials, we could offer an even better product. There are many decisions for us ethnic restaurateurs that are not easy.”
Periods of crisis or turning point?
“Different. As a family-run restaurant, we have always shared with my sisters bad and good times, and the restaurant has allowed us to have this strong union not only at the family level but also at work. The thing that satisfies us most is the relationship with customers that we have.
The only difficult period was the SARS year. It has created distrust towards the consumer, especially towards ethnic restaurants. Therefore, revenues had fallen by 80%. It was a time of significant discomfort. At that time, our employees, who had been with us for decades, were also with us, even though they had no salary. Seven months later, fortunately, it was over, and we started again.
For the rest there are more satisfactions.”
How do you see the world of gastronomy today?
“I’m more of a trattoria and a tavern. I prefer the restaurant where you cook, not where you compose the dish. There are too much refinement and too little cooking. I like traditional cuisine.”
How many are you today? Will you pass it on to your children?
“Today we are 4 in the kitchen and 5 in the dining room, including the brothers. I was born as a cook, but now my sister, Silvia, is in the kitchen. It will not be handed down. Unfortunately, it’s an end that many crafts are suffering. My daughters are studying medicine. We have passed on to them the passion for cooking, not for catering as a job.”
“In my region, there is a very ancient cuisine, which we want the Chinese to rediscover. We also want to recover the traditional processing of some products such as rice wine: from the lees of the rice, we obtain a traditional rice wine.”
Are you interested to get in contact with Piero Kuang Sung Ling, the Founder of Slow Food China: https://www.facebook.com/piero.k.ling
Or find out some more information about Slow Food Great China: www.slowfoodchina.org