Feature

London Restaurateurs "Chinese Laundry Room"

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Did this lil write up for London's Root & Bone monthly. 

How did two feisty designers create palate kicking Chinese cuisine despite a fire, cultural stereotypes, all nighters and zero chef experience? A dab of confidence, loads of motivation and a touch of good natured naivety was their blueprint. 

Peiran Gong and Tongtong Ren’s Chinese Laundry Room is nuzzled within Angel’s foodie haven Upper Street. Named after the original immigrant venture, their eatery evokes warm nostalgia through a 80s dining room aesthetic. Interior design outfit Michaelis Boyd Studio crafted a colourful mishmash of kitsch furniture, patterned tiles and kooky vintage art. With a repertoire boasting sweet tofu curd, beer sauce clams and five spice basil popcorn chicken, their food is equally chromatic. Old school exotics such as tripe, trotter, bamboo fungus and chicken carcass also boldly feature. Ren and Gong proudly modernise childhood traditions, educating unfamiliar taste-buds in process. 

The pair were unversed with fast food stereotypes before U.K emigration, their methods at odds to the five minute wok toss. “That’s not the type of food we grew up with, so we don’t want to eat that. We don’t really eat stir fried rice and noodles,” Tongtong attests. Foregoing mass production, sleep and sanity, the duo handcraft their dumplings, noodles and spring onion pancakes. Humble flour balls don’t evoke thoughts of precision, but there’s a difficult art to the folds, dough thickness and wrapping technique. It takes four hours to make 150 dumplings, only 30 servings. As a staple food always sold cheaply despite intensive preparation, it's a selfless pursuit. Ren and Gong say valuing all things edible is Chinese tradition. Families often start preparing dinner in the morning and dishes such as Mei Cai Kou Rou (steamed pork with preserves) take hours of concoction. Peiran says “in China, it's impossible to see someone on the street eat a sandwich for lunch. Every single meal has to be hot, cooked food. They can't understand how someone could go for something that easy.” 

Oddly, the duo’s unification wasn’t spurred by edible exploits. Both studied design in Bejing and were acquainted by a friendly tutor. Ren and Gong later owned labels until culinary daydreams took charge. Before setting up Chinese Laundry Room in 2015, they’d drag themselves to 4am meat markets after work or a night out. Their visual instincts, honed by the Royal College of Art, remain intact. “We definitely cook and appreciate food from a designer’s perspective, since that is basically our methodology towards everything” affirms Tongtong. Everything from menu illustrations to the candy pink signage smacks of artistic flair. Unfortunately a terrace fire recently seared their meticulous handiwork. Peiran was locked inside, but fled unscathed. Three forensic scientists failed to uncover the inferno’s mysterious cause. Doors are temporarily shut for the next few months, yet the plucky twosome aren’t defeated. They’ve kept occupied with menu brainstorming, a residency at Marylebone’s Carousel venue, and quickly invited me to sample (gorge on) their recent creations.  

When arriving at Tongtong’s South London flat, it takes microseconds to spot the flamingo pantene lathered on her door. I’m here to sample perhaps their bravest offering. The century egg. Aged for weeks in clay, ash or rice hulls, the six hundred year old delicacy is a rare sight. Tongtong and Peiran are one of few restaurateurs promoting the preserved nucleus. As white and yolk become dark green, it forms a tar coloured globdule with a potent aroma. My timid nibble is rewarded with a singular experience. 

Sliced on soft tofu with a chilli soy vinaigrette, the egg is complemented by diced cashews. Each bite varies slightly in strength, at times rustic or acidic. The flavour variance is caused by salt induced PH chemicals breaking down protein and fat. An acquired taste, but far from stomach shattering, my curiosity is sated. We also feast on meaty whelk snails with celtuce, grandma’s tasty cured sausage on garlic shoot, succulent pig’s head and green wild rice shoots as well as Zhajiang hand pulled noodles and too many other belly stuffers to name. 

Ren and Gong’s experiences as well as a passion for family recipes and local produce spur an abundance of authentic taste. Despite shared values, both chefs hail from regions with differing fare. Tongtong was raised in Hubei, an ancient outpost blanketed by rivers and lakes. Locals are spoilt with rice, unique vegetables and fish aplenty. Hubei’s breakfast scene also inspired Chinese Laundry Room’s covetable brunch staples including tomato omelette dumplings and fresh peanut milk. In contrast, Peiran originates from rural Dailan, where options were extremely limited due to a minus thirty climate. “I remember when I was little there were only two types of vegetables, daikon radishes and Chinese cabbage. [Due to shortages] One family in a month, would share one apple. We don’t waste anything.” This scarcity instilled techniques such as spicing, salting, twice or thrice cooking to wrench all flavour. An unfamiliar texture or colour is an easy sacrifice when you’re on day five of radishes. Families also save by making goods like rice wine or tofu and there’s always something hung out to dry.  

When I mention how ballsy it is to share authentic fare with unversed westerners, the duo resist any lofty ideals. “It’s like telling a story. When you like something so much, you want to share it with other people,” Tongtong shrugs. “We just make what we like.” Sounds fair to me. 

Wu Tang Forever 20th Anniversary Feature

In Chinese lore, dragons are bonded to the number nine. The ancient serpent has nine forms and nine sons. With the head of a horse, demon’s eyes, clam’s belly and snake’s tail, their interlocking parts can bring success or misfortune. Before greed, tragedy and Martin Shrekli, nine New Yorkers forged an unwieldy beast of their own. And it would never soar higher than Wu-Tang Forever.

Wu’s origin is cherished folklore, recited by greying pilgrims to the spin of anti-skip Discmans. After a failed Tommy Boy contract and vanquishing murder charges in Ohio, Robert Diggs set on industry takeover. A martial arts fanatic, Diggs was captivated by 1978 flick Five Deadly Venoms. The cult hit featured five warriors, each attacking with bestial ferocity. He conceived a similar cast of MCs spitting indomitable verbal Qigong. Diggs, now the RZA, plus his cousins Ol’ Dirty Bastard and GZA along with Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God and Masta Killa formed a nonagon of wit, knowledge and metal flying guillotines.

RZA guaranteed supremacy if they’d submit for five years. They’d have solo record deals, clothes, caramel sundae air freshener, our hearts, our minds – you name it. Stunningly, Diggs’ concept worked. Small time hoodlums became action figures and film stars. It was the mid-90s, and Wu-Tang were supremely cool at a time when “cool” was still bankable. It was also the dawn of rap commercialization, before Beats made Dre a fortune and Jay Z hosted reptilian board meetings. RZA, his brother Divine and associate Oli Grant chased Disney money. Their golden crane logo was everywhere. Power launched the Wu Wear clothing brand, cutting the path for Roc-a-Wear and Sean Jean. They created Wu Filmz, Wu nails (really), Wu management, multiple labels and had over 100 affiliate artists, including Wu Latino and that poor guy who cut off his own katana.

Musically, Wu-Tang were also completing a flawless coup. Their bulletproof debut was followed by peerless solo strikes with Method Man’s Tical, GZA’s Liquid Swords, Raekwon’s Only Built For Cuban Linx and Ghostface’s Ironman. The dynasty prevailed with supreme talent and street-bred marketing savvy. Fans passionately debated favorite members like sports teams and the Wu were constantly pitched sponsorship ideas. Between Kenan & Kel‘s shenanigans on Nickelodeon, they had prime TV advertising. RZA foresaw going public on the stock market. For those who doubted rap’s buying power, this was a spin kick to the jaw.

‘Triumph’ is Forever’s accurately titled lead single, where Wu-Tang align with fierce verbosity on their finest group cut. At six minutes with 10 rappers and no hook, it radiates thermogenic bars with zero pop concession. Inspectah Deck conjures 25 years of solo shows with one uncanny soliloquy, his karaoke contingent bonded to the words, “I bomb atomically.” Ignoring commercial appeal for lyrical ballast, Wu topped the spire on their own terms.

Read the rest in FACT Mag

Rap superheroes

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I wrote about the similarities between rappers and superheroes in Viper #7, with art by Edd Leigh.

You don’t need marvel or dc to be a superhero fan, hip hop has been tied to comic books since day uno. Faster than a foe’s bullet, smarter than a crooked cop with the ability to leap over haters and scoop your girl, MCs boast special powers minus the cape.

Hit play, pause in disbelief and you’ll witness enough uncanny sagas to mystify Stan Lee. On primeval hit ‘Rappers Delight’, former pizza boy Big Bank Hank launched comparisons by stunting on Clark Kent. “By the way baby, what’s your name? Said I go by the name of Lois Lane. And you could be my boyfriend, you surely can, just let me quit my boyfriend called Superman.”

Almost four decades later, we’ve remained covert fan-boys. Heroics and villainy surge through rap’s multiplex of wild deeds, messianic ambitions and cinematic showdowns. Among those unconsciously mimicking printed protagonists is Atlanta’s hit-making overlord Future. Whether poised as a double cupped Yahweh or 808 incubus, the masked avenger narrative remains. Like 70 years of nerd lore before him, Future’s story and perception reflects humanity’s triumphs, struggles and terrors.

MCs outstep the ordinary to snatch respect, adoration and wealth. Their names trigger a variance of mystique and believability. Akin with David Banner morphing into the Hulk, almost every hot spitta has an alias to channel their power. Quincy Matthew Hanley sounds less like a library warden under his crippy hippy pseudonym; ScHoolboy Q. Radric and Torrence aren’t names to fear, but Gucci Mane and Boosie Badazz have handled more artillery than Tunisia. Play rapper word association and specific attributes leap to consciousness. Lil Wayne – facial tattoos and drank, Cypress Hill –Latino pride and weed, Young Thug – weirdo genius. Some artists went full nerd when choosing their titles; DJ Clark Kent, DJ Green Lantern, Grandmaster Flash, Jean Grae and Big Pun all borrowed namesakes from panelled characters. One slick nom de plume isn’t enough though. Alter egos are as common as regrettable tattoos, platinum teeth and video vixens. Wu Tang Clan are the best example - each verbal assassin has a hero equivalent, most notably Ghostface Killah conjuring Tony Stark on wordplay master class Ironman. They’ve made comic books, video games and movies. RZA bought an impenetrable truck and $20,000 suit with bulletproof briefcase to realise his Bobby Digital ego. Yes, you read that right.

Read the rest here: viperpublishing.bigcartel.com