“EVERYTHING SHOULD BE NEW AND CLEAN,” SAYS HANNAH CHENG, CO-OWNER OF THE HIP DUMPLINGS CANTEEN MIMI CHENG‘S ON THE SUBJECT OF THE CHINESE NEW YEAR, WHICH FALLS THIS WEEKEND. “The idea is that you have to clean your house out and you eat a big feast–dumplings that resemble old Chinese gold pieces for wealth and longevity noodles so you have a long life.” Clean might be the perfect theme when it comes to Mimi Cheng’s, the chic Taiwanese-inspired eatery launched by Hannah and her sister Marian. Focusing on fresh ingredients and sourcing from local purveyors, plus an admirable attention to presentation and plating, the Cheng sisters are single-handedly making dumplings the new avocado toast. “We are firm believers that you are what you eat,” continues Marian Cheng.
“We have our healthy days when we have salad, but we also have have a day where we have a burger.” Below, we caught up with the sister duo at their new Nolita location and picked their brain on their philosophy on wellness, MSG and an ancient Chinese remedy for when you get the sniffles.
Photos by Kerri Brewer
What are some misconceptions on Chinese food?
Hannah: The first misconception is that Chinese food is one big umbrella. It varies so much from region to region. If you go to the North, everything is much heavier and carb-y. There’s a lot more meat and it’s spicy because its so cold there. If you go down south by Taiwan, there’s a lot of seafood. There’s not one catchall.
Growing up what did your mom feed you?
Marian: Everything. She never had professional experience but she could whip up so many dishes that were healthy and diverse.
Hannah: The food that we grew up on is very representative of Taiwanese history. It was Chinese food and Thai food because her father was a general in the national Taiwanese army so when they lost the war, they went to Thailand. That’s why she had a lot of Thai influences, but that’s very much like Taiwanese culture. Unless you’re a native of the land you were an immigrant at some point.
What type of dishes did you eat growing up?
Marian: A lot of congee for breakfast with soy milk. Our mom makes her own soy milk. There was a time our dad was a vegetarian. We loved eating a lot of greens.
Hannah: It’s funny because growing up kids always say they hate vegetables and we never understood why because we loved vegetables growing up. But our mom never overcooked anything. Everything was in the wok with garlic and salt and it was so good. I remember in kindergarten, she would make us fried rice. I would open it at school and it would have green peas in it and I was like, “Mom, can I just have a bologna sandwich like everybody else?”
Were there any things off limits as kids?
Hannah: We always wanted bologna and salami and never got it. Now we’re like, its disgusting.
How would you describe your philosophy on health and wellness?
Hannah: We’re all about balance. We’ve never done a cleanse before. We don’t believe in diets per se. Everything should be part of a lifestyle, otherwise it’s not sustainable. How much happier are we that we can have pizza, pasta and drink red wine?
What is your diet mostly comprised of?
Hannah: We eat mostly vegetarian. We don’t think eating meat everyday is healthy for your body or the environment. The big farming system is a major problem in this country so we choose not to contribute to that. Eating vegetables is just better for you. You feel better. We only eat meat from places where we know source responsibly.
Why is where you source your meats at Mimi Cheng’s important?
Hannah: As a commercial restaurant, we have a moral obligation to make sure that what we’re doing is not leaving a huge footprint on this earth. So we compost. Big industrial farming of pork or chicken can cause a lot of havoc in certain cities so if you know you’re sourcing from a family farm, the animals are in a healthy position and the environment is in a healthy position. That’s the only way in good conscious we would serve meat.
Marian: If you’re intaking meat that has antibiotics then we’re going to have traces of that in our system so we source from Fleisher’s. They’re upstate and pasture raised and we know exactly what goes down there.
Do you both cook at home?
Marian: I really like roasting a vegetable with a baked or grilled fish with olive oil, salt and pepper.
Hannah: I love making pasta with our own tomato sauce.
What are some of your pantry musts at home?
Marian: A toasted sesame oil is always key. And fresh ginger and garlic. We like the fresh rice noodles you can get in Chinatown.
Hannah: White pepper and black Chinese vinegar to make sauces for dipping and marinades. We also love red chili flakes from Kalustyan’s and bean thread noodles because you’re eating noodles but not carbs.
We see white pepper called for in many Chinese recipes. How is white pepper different than black pepper?
Hannah: It’s hard to explain. You know the way black pepper hit you in the throat? White pepper hits you more in the sinus.
Did your mom pass down any health secrets?
Marian: We grew up around lot of Chinese herbal medicine. Our parents are loving Lotus Seed right now. It’s good for warming up your internal body, especially if you’re starting to sniffle.
Hannah: Yes, like, “Oh you sneezed! It means your chi is too low.” We were eating a lot of persimmons this weekend and she said you cant eat it with yoghurt. You can’t eat spinach and tofu together because it causes kidney stones. They love brewing ginger soup for us with rock sugar or raw honey. It builds up your internal fire. So if you’re cold, if you drink that, it helps. If your circulation is poor, eating something like lamb heats you up.
What are some of your favorite natural beauty products?
Hannah: We use organic avocado oil for body lotion or facial lotion. Desert Essence Toothpaste; Bite lip color in Zinfandel and Pink Lady; Rosewater facial mist; Andalu shampoo.
Marian: And raw coconut oil. Dr. Bronner’s Eucalyptus Soap; We go to CAP Beauty and Credo Beauty.
What exercises do you love?
Marian: We do a lot of Modelfit.
Favorite healthy beverage?
Hannah: Wake up, read emails in bed. Make African Autumn Tea with a splash of almond milk or I’ll do a Matcha. I also love a mint ginger tea from Café Intergal it helps your digestion.
What is your stance on MSG?
Hannah: It’s a no. MSG makes my hair fall out. It’s just a chemical that people sprinkle over to enhance or hide something. But if you’re using good ingredients, you really don’t need so many seasonings. Otherwise it just masks the actual ingredient.
Marian: MSG is not needed. You just need fresh quality ingredients.
Taiwanese Style White Fish with Ginger and Scallions
by Hannah and Marian of Mimi Cheng’s
1 flakey white fish such as flounder or striped bass (filet or whole fish)
2 stalks scallions, julienned (reserve half)
2 tablespoons of fresh ginger, julienned (reserved half)
1 tbspn of soy sauce (or more to taste)
1/4 tsp of sugar (to taste)
pinch of salt to taste
pinch of white pepper
2 tbsp oil
2 tbsp water
Place cleaned fish on plate with a lip that can go in the steamer. Whisk all the liquids, salt, and sugar together. Pour mixture over the fish. Sprinkle half of the scallions and ginger over the fish. Steam until fish is opaque and easily flakes. Sprinkle the reserved scallions and ginger just before serving.If you don’t have a steamer, you could also make this fish in a foil packet in the oven at 350 degrees.