CHINESE FOR JOZI
Charlie and the Chopstix Eatery
It is the happy opposite of the tragic mystery tour of any stultifying Chinese menu. At Chopstix, Charlie Chen is conscious of making our Chinese food experience as inclusive and easy for us to access as possible.
Often you want to eat Chinese food but feel disconnected and somehow left out or palmed off with something less than the dishes the owner and their friends seem to be enjoying. Maybe the food that’s for you is the Westerner version, specially slung together for gauche gwáilóu. You even peruse the boring list of wines and choose any of them, to hear none seem to be available. Is it a joke? Or some list of wines they don’t have. Even getting a glass of water is problematic for non-Cantonese speakers in Jozi.
I was here at Chopstix in Melville a few weeks ago, after convincing a less than willing friend to come with me to try it. Right then, I realised the completely different and charming experience warranted a return food visit and maybe more time to devote to it.
Sweetly-dispositioned cook and owner Charlie Chen and the staff speak very good English and can explain every dish, having tested them all thoroughly in the kitchen as a team. Charlie refers to them as “me and my two staff”. Before any dishes make it onto the single A4 paper menu that is always changing slightly, they are cooked and recooked. For a few weeks before Chopstix opened to the public, they tested dishes for two months. Everything, including the sauces, is made from scratch. Some dishes are new, some endure, some leave, for various reasons, like being able or not to source ingredients seasonally or because of public preference.
The menu, unlike most puzzling Chinese hundred-choices collections, is blessedly short. The last time, I had had beautifully made, translucent, pork sausage-meat-filled Magic Bags, from the Dim Sum section of just four other dishes. I’d also sampled Charlie’s Kung Pau Chicken from the main menu, from among other completely different mains. On the menu too are six Small Plates, five fried rice dishes and five Chow Mein dishes. That’s it. It had been a first for me to have dishes quietly and properly described on this menu. The read-out-loud funnies on most Chinese menus are also slightly embarrassing to hear from ourselves and friends, guiltily confirming what must seem the worst of ignorant Western style behaviour.
We have three Chinatowns in Jozi. First Chinatown is on the befittingly eastern end of the inner city, first established during Joburg’s early mining days. People like the Pon family with their places there are fond third- and fourth-generation neighbours. They and we and even Charlie Chen are not keen generally on the ways of the much bigger and seemingly exclusive second Chinatown restaurant community in Cyrildene. “I find them rude,” says Charlie outright, as do our older established Chinese families and characters like Emma Chen of Hyde Park’s Red Dragon and Linden’s PRON. It’s a bit of a relief for us gwáilóu to hear that, having thought exactly the same thing.
Charlie Chen hasn’t met these, our other Chens, yet. “It’s the second most common name in China, after Li,” he says.
Plenty of Joburgers nevertheless run the gauntlet there in Derrick Avenue, in search of adventurous Chinese food experiences, even though they are patently “not for” us. And not everyone is blatantly rude. I can think of two people there who may not know any of our languages at all well but who are welcoming and accommodating. But that’s not a fantastic ratio.
Then there’s Rivonia, the third big conglomerate of Chinese food places in Jozi. It can also feel exclusive but not as much as does the one in Cyrildene.
Charlie Chen, or Shang Chen when he’s at home, is intentionally conscious of making our Chinese food experience as inclusive and easy for us to access as possible. His family of Chens are in China’s Fujian province in the south-east. He came out here when he was 18 and has returned home often, for university, travel and trade purposes. He shows me WhatsApp pictures of his home area in all its green beauty, oolong tea plants growing down impressive soft slopes. Fujian faces Taiwan across the eponymous strait.
Charlie and I share a tea sequence for drinking the precious oolong Pi tea that Charlie sells to real tea connoisseurs, generally Chinese. It’s stunningly packaged, the important spinachy looking bright leaves in foil-festooned, vacuum packed pouches that reveal the actual fresh-looking bunch of leaves, ready for its bathing of hot water, over and over again. He shows me how to rap two fingers on the edge of the table to assure my participation in this tea drinking ritual.
Behind me I hear someone speaking Cantonese and mentioning the tea. It’s no Chinese person but a local South African who studied there. He’s a bit of a gourmet himself and is in love with the tea that seems to beat all others. That’s exactly what he’s enjoying. Of course, he’s a regular at Chopstix.
I pour the silkiest smooth liquor down my newly appreciative throat. There’s no question of sullying perfection by adding milk or sugar. One mouth-feeling sip and you get that immediately. It has the dreamiest flowery but fruity taste, with a verdant leafiness, maybe even a hint of some umami mushroominess. Why would anyone drink anything else if they could afford to drink this forever?
I call the same friend who had once been so reluctant to have Chinese food at Chopstix. I need someone to eat with me so that I can order a few more lunch dishes to make it a proper meal. While I wait, I drink the luxurious Pi tea with Charlie and marvel over the menu’s food prices that will make my forthcoming meal even more of an easy pleasure. Charlie’s been as conscious of pricing as he’s been about getting every dish just right. All of it will come to less than 300 South African bokkies, for two people, not counting the tea.
Despite his Fujian roots, Charlie has designed his menu to be representative of more of China than just his home province, which is especially known for its lighter, much less chilli-hot dishes, ungreasy, fresh, often featuring seafood. Typical meats are chicken, duck and pork. The Fujian art involves cutting and seasoning. The best rice wines and soy sauces come from there, though Charlie composes his own sauces. Red-cooking in soy sauces, stir-frying, steaming and quick simmering are the bases of most dishes.
Charlie says that the dim sum and dumplings are all made at Chopstix but according to the Chinese recipes. His other dishes are the product of his having cooked within and for a family, where it was not unusual to cater from scratch for eight tables of people. He evolved and is still evolving many of his own methods which he uses today. Apart from the White Rabbit toffees that he often gives people as part of the equivalent of a dessert that may include Chinese custard-filled steamed buns, quick-fried steamed blocks dipped in condensed milk, iced rice cakes, there are also fortune cookies, “the only non-Chinese items on the menu”. They were originally Californian, made for Japanese people, but he does serve them to the insistent.
It’s a little after lunch time when my friend pitches up and I ask Charlie what dishes he thinks we should have, given those we’ve already enjoyed. After another food trial in Cyrildene, I read about Chinese ordering, that it’s not supposed to be the way we South Africans usually do it, making up starters, mains, etcetera. The real idea is to have all the dishes on the table and all its people to share in all of them.
A good example would be to include a soup (we don’t), a salad or vegetable, to have a choice of the cooking methods, the flavours and colours, including a protein which could be meat, seafood or tofu and that we should pronounce the latter “dofu”. An anti gwáilóu piece of advice was never to spear stuff with a fork, especially meat, and rather to employ those chopsticks, never as difficult to use as one first imagined.
Charlie suggests a tablescape of Prawn Pockets, a luxurious main comprising six whole queen prawns within pot stickers, of Stir-fry Pressed Tofu (dofu), another main of Cucumber Salad and of “Chives Egg”. The two latter are under Small Plates.
Charlie travels quite a bit, “not so much to Europe because it’s so expensive” and, as he says, he really travels to eat. “Every time I come back, my face is so round!”
The large queen prawns in their pockets are filling, richly moreish. The prawns are combined with chopped chicken thigh meat, all plumped into their freshly fried pot sticker boats, seated on a crisp pancake with a few chopped vegetables and ginger at the bottom of the serving dish.
I am now careful to eat the other things too, such as the tofu. I’d never ordinarily order tofu, this made and pressed by Charlie and his small team. He loves tofu but admits people are wary until they try it. There is truly nothing like it and it’s useless to compare it with meat, vegetable and cheese but to admire its own texture, its unique umaminess and the fact that it pairs so well with the shiitake mushroom slivers, cooked celery and beans and absorbs the light and toasty sesame taste.
This isn’t really how Charlie Chen thought things would work out when he arrived here. A so-called friend suggested he sell food and maybe his tea from an office in Rivonia. It was then decided that the top floor of the 27 Boxes would be better. It didn’t matter because the South African friend Charlie had made ran off with his entire investment fund anyway. Charlie had nothing except a few contacts left and he spent much frustrated time thinking about what was open to him. “I asked myself then, what can I do?”
His mind flew back to all that cooking he’d done back home, got partner funding from a Chinese person this time, and worked on the idea little by little until the 27 Boxes management offered him Covid-freed space on the ground floor. Suddenly he felt it was more like a restaurant even though it was deep Lockdown and Charlie put all the research and practice he could into developing it that way as a really nice place for the people he had grown to like in this part of Jozi, despite his erstwhile robber. He wanted locals to be able to access what he provided and for him to be able to share their appreciation. He worked on his already good English too.
A coolly juicy, crunchy surprise comes in the form of the cucumber salad as I dip into this. It’s made with what we call Lebanese cucumbers, not the hothouse English sort but the real middle-eastern ones, shorter and punchier in every way. It’s dressed with rice vinegar, soy, garlic and coriander and is simply fabulous.
My chopsticks and I are delighted by another bit of serendipity, possibly something neither I nor the friend would have ordered, given free menu rein. It turns out to be something of extreme delight. Simply labelled Chives Egg on the menu, it’s an omelette solidly packed with more chive pieces than there is egg. And, again, it is an excitingly wonderful thing to eat, in happy contrast in many ways to the other dishes.
Since we’re already looking forward to the Chinese New Year at the end of January, the one of the Water Tiger, I believe, I wonder how people will celebrate this year at any of the three Chinatowns. Events at all of them were cancelled for the last two years, but who knows this time. Or maybe some of us will be having dinner right here. Since it’s not licensed there’d be no wine list problems, despite the 2022 Tiger prediction of enhancing intense emotions and being the time for big decisions. You’d simply bring your own wine.
I haven’t tried any of these ideas out on Charlie Chen yet but I believe it will be auspicious to eat Chinese steamed fish in ginger shallot sauce. I see Chopstix has steamed fish with ginger and spring onions or shallots sauce on the menu at present. Chinese dumplings are recommended too and I see Chopstix has many of those. Spring rolls apparently bring in the gold and I know there are some under Small Plates at Chopstix. There aren’t any sweet rice balls or longevity noodles, also recommended to keep that tiger happy, but a lucky vegetable stir-fry can be had here as Seasonal Vegetables, stir-fried with garlic.
Things are already good, especially Chinese food things, with Chopstix in Jozi. Now it seems especially wonderful that Charlie and his Chopstix eatery may transport us happily into the future as well. DM/TGIFood
Chopstix, 27 Boxes, 4th Avenue, Melville. 083 289 1952. Chopstix reopens today (7 January) after the SA holidays and a small renovation to expand the kitchen.
The writer supports Nosh Food Rescue, an NGO that helps Jozi feeding schemes with food ‘rescued’ from the food chain. Please support them here.