When I reached out to celebrity chef J Chong about participating in this month’s “Fresh Dish” feature, she was happy to comply. But unlike the column’s previous two guests — Katie Button and Iris Rodriguez — Chong did not have a brick-and-mortar to showcase her dishes. We agreed to meet at my house, which was both exciting and little intimidating. Later, when she asked if she could plate a dish while there, I became a tad self-conscious about my kitchen’s setup.
But as soon as Chong arrived at my front door, her genuine smile put me at ease. We spoke for a good chunk of time — chatting about what it’s like to be half-Asian in the South (my mother is from Thailand) and how fortunate we are to have access to so many locally grown and raised foods.
For many in the community, Chong is a familiar face — she sells Cantonese fare such as dumplings and sauces at the East Asheville Tailgate Market on Friday afternoons and the North Asheville Tailgate Market every Saturday morning. She also participated in HBO Max‘s cooking competition show “The Big Brunch,” where she was one of three finalists. Her cuisine can also be found at occasional pop-up events at local wineries and breweries.
Chong, who is originally from Toronto, has lived in Asheville with her wife, Danielle Wheeler, for seven years.
In the third installation of Xpress‘ new monthly food column, I spoke with Chong about Chinese turnips, fried plantains and her passion for sharing her story and Cantonese heritage through her cooking.
“That is the sole purpose of why I have my business here in Western North Carolina: because it is so important for me,” she says. “It’s my identity. It’s so important for me to cook my people’s food, to reintroduce what Chinese food is to people. … It’s not cheap and it’s not fast.”
Xpress: What is a current dish you serve that you feel is not getting the attention that it deserves, and why do you think it’s being overlooked?
From my pop-ups there’s a dish called lo bak go — that’s Chinese for turnip cakes. It’s made with turnips. But in Chinese it’s actually daikon because we call daikon “Chinese turnips.” It’s got some rice flour and cured Chinese sausage, with scallions and shiitake mushrooms. I steam them and cut them into whatever shape or size I want, and then I sear them just to get them to have a little crisp. These are sitting on green pea puree and garnished with pickled vegetables.
I love making this dish because many people have told me that it’s the first time they’ve ever had daikon, which is strange for me — being Asian, there is daikon in everything. I love introducing this dish to people. And this region grows a lot of really good turnips and radishes.
I think people don’t order it as much because, when they see turnip cakes, it doesn’t register what that can be. And if you don’t know what daikon is, you’re probably not going to order it. Sometimes people aren’t very adventurous eaters and won’t choose something that they’re not used to, so I like getting people to try it. And every time, they’re shocked with the flavor.
Outside of your own, what’s a local dish that you’ve tried in the last month that completely blew you away, and why?
There’s so many. Have you heard of the food truck Guajiro Cuban Comfort Food? … My wife got the Cuban sandwich, and it blew her mind — the pickles, the mustard, the pork, the cheese was all melty. I got fried pork bits and sweet fried plantains. I don’t know what they did, but the plantains were extra caramelized, so they were extra sweet. And they were ripe enough where I think they caramelized even more. The pork shoulder was marinated and deep-fried extra crispy. And it was served with a vinegary pepper and red onion salad, almost like a salsa. My mouth is watering!
What’s a good seasonal ingredient underrepresented in home cooking?
We are very fortunate in this area to grow so much produce, and I think the farmers here do a fantastic job of growing everything possible. But right now we’re into summer turnips, specifically hakurei turnips, which are Japanese. They’re smaller, they’re white and their stems are beautiful and green and leafy.
The greens are mild flavors, juicier and kind of spicier than kale. And the turnips are just like the texture of a radish. So you could use them the same way you cook daikon. You could braise them, blanch them or boil them and then give them a nice pan syrup like butter or my chili oil.
I don’t think enough people eat turnips because at the farmers markets, I’m standing beside farmers with turnips on their table. People are constantly like, “Oh, what are those?”
I grew up eating turnips. Let’s say we had braised pork belly or beef, we would just throw turnips in there. They’re like a sponge and soak up all the broth. Or you can grill them. But my new thing is eating them raw with my chili oil and citrus and a squeeze of lime. Especially for summertime, it’s very refreshing.
What cuisine would you like to see represented more in Asheville?
I would say Asian cuisine, and we’ll go specific and say Cantonese food. I think that’s why I do it. I think that’s why people are very open and embrace me in this town, because we are missing it. I just think there needs to be more of it.
What’s a favorite food destination within driving distance of Asheville that readers should add to their list?
For me, it’s Atlanta. And I think it’s because it reminds me of Toronto in a sense. You can have any kind of cuisine possible. I’ve been there for Chinese food — dim sum, Chinese bakeries, char siu bao. There’s also Korean, Thai, really good Ethiopian and Mediterranean food.
Atlanta also has Ponce City Market, and it’s like being in Toronto, New York, or D.C. You walk into this food hall and you have all ethnicities being represented. Asheville needs that.
Who would you like to see us dish with next month?
I’d like to recommend chef Queenie Mcleod who owns Queens Island Cuisine food truck. In Toronto, I grew up with a lot of West Indian kids, so those flavors are very familiar to me. The first time I visited her food truck, I got the oxtail and the chicken curry, and it was out of this world. I like true island food. It’s good stuff.