In “Mad Kitchen,” Madeleine Brown speaks to members of the Toronto (or in this case Toronto-visiting) theatre community about one of their favourite recipes.
In A Taste of Empire, Jovanni Sy, as sous-chef Jovanni to imaginary celebrity chef Maximo Cortés, prepares rellenong bangus—stuffed milkfish—recounting the dish and the origins of its ingredients to the delight (and eventual dismay) of his audience. After each performance, they are then invited to sample the traditional Filipino dish for themselves.
As he describes in the afterword to the 2017 edition of his play, A Taste of Empire was created during a difficult period of writer’s block and depression. Once Sy came upon the conceit of sous-chef Jovanni and chef Maximo as a framework for his demonstration, he hit his stride. A year after concluding his tenure as artistic director of Cahoots Theatre, the play premiered in June 2010 with a run in a demo kitchen in the St. Lawrence Market. It went on to receive Dora nominations for Outstanding Production and Outstanding New Play.
In 2012, Sy moved out west, assuming artistic leadership of the Gateway Theatre in Richmond, BC, and performed the play again for Vancouver and Granville Island audiences in 2014 and 2015.
It was then that fellow theatre-maker Derek Chan first saw the show. At the time, Chan never anticipated he would eventually take on Sy’s signature role—even after Sy enlisted him to translate the play into Cantonese for a 2016 run at the Gateway. It wasn’t until Sy asked Chan, “Do you know how to cook?” that Chan realized he was in consideration. As he remembers, he started “freaking the fuck out” over the opportunity to tackle a role he greatly admired.
Thankfully, Hong Kong–born and Vancouver-based Chan was (and still is) a capable home cook. He accepted the role.
Sous-chef Jovanni became sous-chef Chan, and Sy assumed the position of director—Guillermo Verdecchia having directed the original English-language production. Chan likens the 2016 rehearsal process to the traditional student/master relationship: Chan the student to Sy’s master. Once Chan was comfortable with the text and blocking, the pair introduced the actual preparation of rellenong bangus into rehearsal.
Noting the differences between himself and Sy as performers, Chan starts with age, although he quickly corrects himself (“Jovanni’s not that old!”). Instead, he uses the Cantonese term 唔識死, which translates roughly as “doesn’t know when he’s going to get killed or what death is.” He continues, “My interpretation of the character is a lot younger and ignorant of the horrors of the world, but, on the flip side, hopeful.”
In combination with his interpretation—“this young-looking kid”—Chan’s fluency in Cantonese and his ability in the kitchen notably impressed the older, Cantonese-speaking members of the audience who attended the 2016 production. “There was this sense of, ‘Aw, I made them proud,’” says Chan, who says he regularly speaks, writes, and even thinks in the language.
Beyond this translation and performance, Chan often incorporates food into his own theatre creation, even if it’s not the full-on preparation of a meal: “I don’t know if it’s being Chinese, but there’s something about sharing food that highlights connection or disconnection for me.” In the case of the latter, he elaborates further with a common experience: the bad dinner party. “You know those awkward situations where you show up to somebody’s house for dinner and it’s awful? Just awful! But you can’t tell them, so you just work through it.”
Even rice+beans theatre, the company Chan cofounded with fellow theatre artist Pedro Chamale in 2010, has its origins in food. “It all started as a bit of a joke,” Chan explains. The pair, then both collaborators and roommates, came up with the name when Chan was in the middle of writing their first grant in his bedroom.
“I just yelled down the hall, ‘Hey, Pedro! We need a company name for this grant. I can’t just say, Derek Chan Wants Your Money,’” he says. “Jokester as Pedro always is, he pokes out of his bedroom and says, ‘How about rice and beans theatre? You’re the rice. And I’m the beans.’”
It stuck. Although it was a couple more years before they received any public funding—that first grant application unsuccessful—the company still exists today, and serves as the producer, along with local presenter Cahoots Theatre, on the upcoming Toronto run of A Taste of Empire. At this point, Chan has certainly eaten his fair share of rellenong bangus—for the 2016 production, he ate about a month and half’s worth.
He’ll dig in again in preparation for sous-chef Chan’s appearance, which is taking place at Factory, this May. And then it’ll be Toronto’s turn to eat.
Jovanni Sy’s Rellenong Bangus, via Derek Chan
- 1 whole bangus (milkfish) 1½ to 2 pounds
- banana leaf for steaming
- 2 tsp whole black peppercorns
- 1 bunch cilantro roots, lightly scraped and chopped fine
- 1 bunch cilantro stems, chopped fine
- 10 cloves garlic, chopped fine
- 1 cup rice flour
- ½ tsp cayenne pepper
- 2 tsp salt
- 2 tbsp fish sauce
- 150 ml water
Fish skin marinade:
- ¼ cup soy sauce
- ¼ cup lemon juice
- sea salt to taste
- pepper to taste
- 1 tbsp tamarind paste
- 3 oz tomato paste
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 3 drops Worcestershire sauce
- 4 tbsp olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic, chopped fine
- ½ small onion, chopped fine
- ½ cup tomatoes, diced
- ½ cup potatoes, diced fine
- ½ cup carrots, diced fine
- ½ cup peas (frozen)
- ¼ cup raisins
- sea salt to taste
- ground pepper to taste
- bowl of ice for ice bath
- ½ cup breadcrumbs
- 1 egg, beaten
- Panko-style breadcrumbs for coating
- Canola oil for frying
- Prepare the batter. Place the peppercorns and a few drops of water in a food processor and grind coarsely. Add the cilantro roots and stems, garlic, rice flour, cayenne pepper, and salt into the food processor and blend into a smooth paste. Transfer to a bowl, then stir in the fish sauce and water and whisk until blended. Pour the batter onto a baking sheet, spreading it to the edges, and refrigerate until needed.
- Scale the fish and remove the pectoral fin with scissors. Pound the fish body with a wooden mallet and massage. Make a small incision with a paring knife on one side at the gills. Using a pallet knife, carefully separate the fish meat from the skin without puncturing the skin. This process takes approximately five minutes.
- Squeeze out the fish meat, and remove and discard the viscera.
- Wrap the fish meat in the banana leaf and place it in a bamboo steamer, steaming for approximately 10 minutes over a pot filled with simmering water. Do not fully cook the meat—simply firm it up enough to easily remove the bones.
- Turn the fish skin inside out. Remove any remaining flesh and cut out the bones.
- Prepare the fish skin marinade. Place the soy sauce in a dish and stir in the lemon juice, sea salt and pepper. Using tongs, lift the fish skin into dish. Set aside.
- Prepare the tamarind mixture. In a bowl, stir together the tamarind paste, tomato paste, sugar, and Worcestershire sauce. Set aside.
- Prepare the brunoise. Heat the olive oil in a pan. Chop the garlic, onion, and tomato, and sauté in the olive oil.
- Dice the potato and carrot and add to the brunoise. Stir-fry vegetables over medium heat until they are tender. Add the peas, raisins, cooked fish meat, and tamarind mixture, and season with salt and pepper. Cook about 5 minutes more. Remove from heat, pour the contents of the pan into a bowl and place the bowl in an ice bath. Let cool.
- When cool, add the breadcrumbs and then the beaten egg, mixing well. Remove the fish skin from the dish, and stuff the mixture into it. In A Taste of Empire, Chan stuffs the fish using an icing bag.
- Heat the canola oil in large pan. Coat the fish in the chilled batter and dredge it in the Panko-style breadcrumbs. Fry for approximately three minutes per side, until golden brown. When flipping, use two spatulas, carefully supporting the fish head so it does not separate. Remove from heat, dry on a paper towel, and serve.