Michelle Zhao, the mastermind behind No Sweet Sour, shook up Bergen’s culinary pop-up scene last year with a number of events at BKB, Allmuen, Landmark, Østre, USF and Impact Hub Bergen. But her entrepreneurial journey isn’t locally grown, it comes with culinary baggage from her hometown in the Yunnan region of China.
Is Chinese food one-dimensional?
After living abroad for six years, Michelle realised that the recipes and practices that she grew up with would soon be forgotten if she didn’t start paying attention to them, “if I don’t start to explain to people about my own cuisine, who is going to? Chinese food is my heritage, I should feel proud to present it to my friends and people in the world.”
That nagging responsibility to share her culinary upbringing became her blog, No Sweet Sour, where she shares recipes and culture from her hometown Kunming in Yunnan, the Southwest region of China. Kunming is named “the city of eternal spring” because it maintains a consistent temperature of 20 – 25 degrees celsius, which happens to be perfect growing conditions for the coffee bean. It is also home 25 of China’s 56 ethnic minorities, including the Yi minority to which Michelle belongs.
Landscape and culture are often expressed in food, and Kunming is no exception. Michelle grew up with dishes inspired by the geography of the region and the culinary history of her people. These dishes couldn’t be found in Bergen until Michelle began No Sweet Sour.
Although Michelle’s recipes were being shared globally on her blog and Instagram account already in 2019, she was able to share her vision locally when she joined the TESTBAR program at Impact Hub Bergen that year. She began to host pop-up cafés, workshops, private dining and catering events. In the course of a year, No Sweet Sour hosted food events at Bergen establishments including BKB, Allmuen, Landmark, Østre, USF and Impact Hub Bergen.
Michelle quickly found that her ideas were unique in Bergen’s food scene: “If I narrow it down to Norway, or even Bergen, so far I haven’t come across anyone else who is from China, or from my culture, or from my city, who is doing the same.” Michelle is bringing the unique dishes of her hometown and her family’s traditional cooking practices to the table, both with the food she serves at the pop-ups and with the methods she teaches at cooking workshops around Bergen.
Michelle’s blog, “No Sweet Sour” is named to challenge the popular fast-food image of Chinese food as a westernised version of a sweet and sour sauce, a sauce that is far from representative of the food Michelle grew up with in Kunming. “Chinese cuisine is not about a one-dimensional flavour and dish,” she explains, “it has so much history behind it, and the preparation of each dish carries a story from each family.” Her local efforts and her blog are a chance for her to showcase the complexity, authenticity and tradition of how food from her region is actually prepared.
By 2019, No Sweet Sour’s blog and Instagram had grown into a full-fledged community, where followers engage with Michelle daily on food, recipes and “how things should be done” in traditional Chinese cooking.
“Hello, have you eaten?”
Most of Michelle’s recipes are her own, she documents her work to share with her followers around the world and she emphasizes using fresh, local products and making the dishes from scratch. The blog and social profiles act as her live portfolios; everything she creates, from a pop-up menu to a new dish, is put online. She uses these digital tools to promote her product and in branding her business as showcasing Chinese and Yunnan food.
According to Michelle, No Sweet Sour is not only her dossier and a space for her to document Chinese cuisine and culinary culture, but it also a source of interrelation. As the online community has grown, Michelle has realised that No Sweet Sour “is more of a personal connection.” With the internet, it is easy to find answers to questions of tradition and practice, but Michelle found that people aren’t looking for just the facts, they are looking for the authentic experience, “not only when it comes to taste, but also in the personal story behind the dish.”
Authenticity and No Sweet Sour go hand in hand, one of the first posts you encounter on her blog is the connection point, “Hello, have you eaten?” Michelle explains that this is a common greeting in China, with a typical reply along the lines of, “I’ve eaten, what about you?.” No Sweet Sour is peppered with points of personal connection that readers can engage with.
What lies ahead?
When the website began to take traction, Michelle decided to go further and make the online aspect more physical for those interested in learning. With the help of Impact Hub Bergen’s TESTBAR project that supports up-and-coming immigrant food entrepreneurs, Michelle was able to establish No Sweet Sour’s Bergen presence with pop-up stands, workshops, social dining and catering.
Michelle decided early on that starting a typical restaurant would not be the goal of No Sweet Sour. A restaurant would tie her concept down to one location, “a restaurant is just a restaurant – you come, you dine, you leave,” Michelle explained at a Waffle Pitch at Impact Hub Bergen, “but I’m thinking why not go further? For example, create an experience where guests participate in making their food. People are looking for that kind of authentic experience, they want to be part of it and hear your stories.”
She enjoys adding the dynamic factor to the dining experience that can be found in social dining and workshops. Social dining, also a TESTBAR concept, is an evening curated around food and sharing a meal with strangers. Social dining conjures excitement, nerves and is presented in an unexpected format, things that do not transverse a normal Friday dinner out.
Likewise, workshops are atypical. The focus of her workshops is more than in the taste of the final product, “workshops add to the authentic experience, because you’re working for your own food and you become more social because you’re teaming up with other people to make this happen.” Michelle is aiming to host these nights in other cities around Norway, like in Oslo and Stavanger.
Although she sources mostly local, fresh products, vegetables and raw materials, sometimes she depends on importing some key ingredients and spices to maintain the traditional cuisine and cooking practices. Michelle plans to become an importer, because of her knowledge of the region, freshness and sustainability of the products. Because many of her ingredients must be imported, she came up with the idea of selling merchandise at her social dining events and workshops. That way, “if guests return home and decide they want to make that dish that they’ve been taught, they can purchase a package of local and hard-to-find imported ingredients.” This merchandise could also be distributed through No Sweet Sour’s online presence.
A mocha with extra topping?
The long game for No Sweet Sour is to enter a new adventure, importing coffee from Yunnan. Michelle would like her business to grow into something that directly connects both of her homes, China and Norway. Ultimately, she wishes to give a Norwegian platform to fairtrade coffee producers from Yunnan.
Upon moving here, Michelle discovered that Norway has a strong coffee culture, “I wasn’t into coffee before I moved to Norway. Back then I considered coffee to be a Starbucks latte or mocha with extra whipped topping.” Her Norwegian friends quickly introduced her to hand-brewed coffee; it wasn’t long before she recognised what to look for in a good cup. On a visit to Yunnan, she noticed the same roasting and flavour notes at a local coffee shop that she found in Norway. After discovering that the bean was from her region, she realised that “perhaps the connection to [her] hometown that [she’d] been looking for was – coffee.”
Michelle plans to establish a connection and relationship between coffee producers in Yunnan and roasters here in Norway and Scandinavia, to ensure that the trade is made at a fair price and in a sustainable way towards the farmers. The beans she imports will be roasted locally and distributed as a part of the merchandise under her label No Sweet Sour.
In the meantime, Michelle is immersing herself in the world of coffee to learn as much as possible. Her ultimate goal is to build an audience that has an interest in the Yunnan region, “that could become customers of the coffee when the product is finally out.” Combined together, coffee and cuisine from Yunnan is a strong concept that can’t be found in Bergen, yet.
Where can you find Michelle next?
To support Michelle’s and No Sweet Sour’s journey, find her at one of these events around Bergen:
- In February, Michelle is hosting a pop-up for Etepub at Landmark on February 27th
- Pop up at BKB on the 21st of March
- Watch out for social dining events at Impact Hub Bergen
To find out more about Impact Hub Bergen’s TESTBAR program and their group of entrepreneurs, visit testbar.no.