These Grain-Obsessed Chefs Want You to Eat Rice with Everything
Nuno Mendes protégées Zijun Meng and Ana Gonçalves of Chinese-inspired restaurant Curio + Cabal in East London are rice crazy. “It’s just a little bouncy thing that goes with everything,” says Gonçalves.
An old-school sundae glass filled with soft serve-style ice cream and mashed-up, syrupy strawberries is placed in front of me. But a Mr Whippy bowl this is not. Clutching my spoon like I haven't eaten in weeks (I inhaled a huge lunch about an hour ago), I dive in.
This is no ordinary dessert, it's made with rice and with not a tin of Ambrosia in sight.
I'm sitting in Curio Cabal, a new East London cafe where Nuno Mendes protégées Zijun Meng and Ana Gonçalves spend their weekends serving Chinese-inspired dishes from their previously roaming street food stall Ta Ta Eatery. The result is Curio + Ta Ta, a collaboration between the cafe space and the couple's obsession with all things rice.
"When we opened, we had to get the message across to people that they needed to order more of the rice," says Gonçalves. "People are starting to get that you need to have it with everything."
I get the obvious question out of the way quickly. Why rice?
"Because we eat rice every day. Probably 90 percent of the time, we'll have rice," says a deadpan Gonçalves. "It's just like our bread or potatoes. If we have leftovers from the night before, we'll make fried rice for the morning."
As a rabid consumer of bread, I can take a lot of starchy carbs but my cheeks are bloating just at the thought of the grainy stuff for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Gonçalves shrugs. "It's just a little bouncy thing that goes with everything," she says. "When we set Ta Ta up, there was so much of the ramen trend around and there was no one doing rice."
But, of course, the rice served at Curio + Ta Ta isn't a quick-cook, boil-in-the-bag job. Meng explains that they use a "high quality blend of short grain rice from northern Japan" which is rinsed ten times before going in the rice cooker. The finishing touch is a leek and soy dressing.
"I could have done it in a pot but we've got a limited amount of space at the moment and for us to be able to do that, we'd have to allocate one person just to focus on that," explains Meng. "It's not quite doable so we use a rice cooker."
While I'm poking around the kitchen, Gonçalves tells me that the rice cookers in question have been affectionately dubbed "the Fiat" and "the Ferrari." The former has travelled with Meng for the past 14 years and still loyally churns out rice, while the latter is a super swish investment with every cook setting under the grain sun.
"At the moment, we serve about 3 kilograms of rice per service," says Gonçalves. "But I think that'll go up once we start telling people they need to have rice with everything. It's even great with things like the in-house made pickles."
The pair, who have worked together under the watch of Mendes at places like Viajante (now closed) and Chiltern Firehouse, launched the street food stall in September 2015, dishing up at London's Druid Street Market and Broadway Market. But these outfits weren't big enough for Meng and Gonçalves to spread their rice-y wings, and the pair stopped trading in May to focus on Curio + Ta Ta's new permanent home.
"Our food is a bit complicated for street food," says Meng. "With the quality of ingredients of the stuff we were selling on the streets, one item could have been £20. Having the space here has allowed us to make the food even more complex."
The food served alongside the rice is a mash-up of Meng's Chinese background with a Portuguese influence from Gonçalves—Iberian pork with black beans, onions, and aioli sits alongside umami-packed congee.
I assume one of the more complex dishes Meng refers to is the sweet-savoury tasting "ricecream," but I'm soon put in my place about how simple it is to make. Meng explains: "It's just toasted rice infused with milk and then you just follow a normal ice cream recipe." Of course.
Curio + Ta Ta's dishes may focus on championing the small grains—even the drinks menu features a healthy selection of sake, a fermented Japanese rice wine—but Meng insists that it's just as important to have the best produce to pair with the star ingredient.
"Choosing great ingredients is part of our philosophy. Every time I go back home and my mum is cooking a meal, she'll always search through the fridge or freezer to look for the best products," he says. "That's something we like to do here as well. We also have the contacts to find the best ingredients from when we worked with Nuno, back in the day."
Gonçalves adds: "It's the kind of food we eat at home but more elaborate."
As I finish the last spoonful of ricecream, I wonder how I can wangle an invite to the Ta Ta household.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in July 2016.