In modern times, few dishes have managed to woo Berlin’s food aficionados as much as Chinese-style chili noodles. The notoriously spicy and fiercely aromatic dish seems to possess an unmatched ability to stir emotions. While serious chili noodle junkies have long pilgrimaged exclusively to Liu 成都味道 in Mitte for their Chengdu style noodle dishes, the conversion of Chung King Noodles from a pop-up into a proper restaurant in late 2019, finally offering their cult-like, contemporary Chongqing-style noodles on a daily basis, unleashed a new wave of chili noodle frenzy.
“Over the course of just three years, Ash Lee converted countless Berliners into die-hard fans of her Chongqing-style noodles”
Ash Lee is the owner, mastermind and undisputed cult leader of Chung King Noodles, and has over the course of just three years converted countless Berliners into die-hard fans of her Chongqing-style noodles. On any given day, you’re lucky if you don’t have to line up for a table at her restaurant.
As a Shanghai-born lover of anything edible, Lee moved to Berlin in 2010 and ended up pursuing a long-time dream of hers: cooking. More specifically, cooking Chinese cuisine and thereby showcasing the food of her birthplace in a city she found to be notoriously devoid of Chinese cooking as she knew (and loved) it. Lee’s first project was called “Chi Fan” (mandarin for “to eat”), a supper club she staged in her apartment, serving small groups Chinese banquet dinners in a 10-course format.
Chi Fan was extraordinarily successful and Lee learned to love the grind of professional cooking, but she also quickly realized that if she ever was going to reach a large number of people with her cooking, her food needed to be more casual.
“After multiple trips to Chongqing, Ash knew that this local variety of chili noodles was the dish her restaurant should evolve around”
She started a plan to turn her passion into a restaurant and researched dishes that would fit into a one-dish restaurant concept. One day she remembered how her old friend’s mother used to cook this noodle dish from her hometown of Chongqing in central China, an explosively spicy, mouth-numbing and super aromatic recipe that had been one of Ash’s favorites growing up.
After multiple trips to Chongqing, Ash knew that this local variety of chili noodles, readily available as street food all over the city and usually eaten as breakfast, was the dish her restaurant should revolve around, and that the name of the restaurant should be “Chung King,” the romanticized name of the region.
Lee spent the next two years perfecting her recipes and building a loyal following (or cult) doing pop-ups all over the city. Regardless of where Chung King popped up, if you wanted some of Lee’s food, you had to be there early or otherwise risk leaving empty-handed. The fascination for her food spread like wildfire over Instagram, and when Ash finally opened the doors to her dream restaurant space in October of 2019, she had a full house from day one.
“The beauty of the menu at Chung King lies in its reduced simplicity”
Today, you will today find the headquarters of Ash’s noodle cult behind a small and steamy storefront on Reichenberger Strasse. The beauty of the menu at Chung King is its reduced simplicity – a few starters, usually pickles and maybe a leafy salad, and then quickly on to the main act of the Chung King noodle show.
Your choice is between pork, beef or vegan noodles. The pork and the beef versions are Lee’s interpretations of classical, Chongqing style “xiao mian” (noodles), served here as a dry mix with thick and chewy noodles. The base is always the same: wheat noodles (made fresh in-house every day), chili oil, infused soy sauce (ginger, garlic, vinegar) and a boatload of the best quality Sichuan pepper Lee can find.
For the pork bowl, the fat back meat is minced and mixed with mustard greens and soy, a mix that, in conjunction with the oil and soy, creates a blissful and volcanic liquid that after blending, clings to your noodles in a magnificent alliance. The beef, braised in soy and bean paste, provides a chunkier meat experience that’s equally enticing. The vegan version, an adaptation Lee created for the Berlin market, is made using braised peas, tofu curds, mushrooms and mustard greens. What they all have in common: a mouth-numbing and fiercely spicy revelation, fueled by the explosive mix of chili oil and Sichuan pepper, ready to beam your taste buds into sensory overdrive and make you sweat.
“The intensity of Chung King’s food is by no means easily paired with beverages, but Lee’s very smart offering shows how it can be done”
Honestly, the noodle dishes alone would be enough to ensure a loyal following for Chung King. But as good as her noodles are, do not miss out on the desserts and the exceptionally well-curated beverage pairings.
There is only one dessert, so that decision is easy: milk ice cream with black sugar syrup and toasted black sesame. Get it, it’s sensational. But more importantly, dive deeply into the drinks, be it from the selection of Italian natural wines, the custom-brewed Chunk King ale by Motel Brews, or the custom-mixed, pre-bottled “Send Noods” cocktail by Bottled. The spicy intensity of Chung King’s food might seem impossible to pair with any kind of “sophisticated” beverages, but the very smart Chung King offering shows how exactly it can be done. In the end, I strongly believe that Ash Lee’s unmatched ability to mix traditional Chinese cooking with sprinkles of contemporary food and drink culture has enabled her to do exactly what she set out do ten years ago, when she first embarked on her culinary journey: Spread the joy and educate the Berlin masses on Chinese cuisine. And luckily, she’s well on her way of converting us all.
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