Hold the chop suey: British fans of Chinese cuisine can now eat, and cook, the real thing
A nation long accustomed to invented dishes and Cantonese fare adapted to their supposed tastes has woken up to authentic, high-quality regional Chinese cuisines and ingredients
Gloopy sweet and sour pork, chicken chop suey and fried rice were once Chinese dishes of choice in Britain. Fortunately, places serving these poorly made versions of Cantonese classics – and Western inventions – are now being rivalled by restaurants dishing up the best of China’s regional cuisines.
It’s a development that has been fostered by the rising number of people from China visiting the country and also Britons’ expanding food horizons.
British-born Chinese foodie David Chan, who lives in the county of Norfolk in eastern England, regularly visits the Norwich restaurant Baby Buddha. The quality of the dim sum is as good as almost any he tried in Hong Kong, he says. The nearby University of East Anglia has a large population of students from China, who are the restaurant’s core clientele.
A walk around London’s Chinatown finds supermarkets selling far more fresh Chinese vegetables than 20 years ago, and restaurants with more wide-ranging menus alongside the more usual Cantonese fare, often including Hunan and Sichuan dishes – China’s hottest cuisines in terms of trend and flavour.
Writer and cook Fuschia Dunlop, who speaks fluent Putonghua and learned cooking in China, says this is largely due to an influx of students, businesspeople and tourists from China hungry for hometown cuisines.
The menu at Oriental Dragon is typical of the new offerings in the British capital’s Chinatown – sweet and sour pork sits alongside Hunanese smoked pork and dried radish. As Dunlop explains, the Hunanese are well known for their cured and smoked meats, and these have caught on in Britain.
Television chef Ching-he Huang, originally from Taiwan but resident of Britain since the age of 11, says illegal immigrants from Fujian are partly responsible for the Chinese cuisine’s greater reach. A larger number of Fujianese have been arriving in the country since 2000 and have brought a new lease of life to the industry. “They were dedicated, worked hard and had skills,” says Huang.
She says menus have changed to include more Chinese-style breakfast choices, and dim sum has become far more mainstream.
The increased interest in regional Chinese food has also spread to some unlikely areas. Take the London borough of Hackney, one of the city’s poorest. It is now home to restaurants such as Xi’an Impression and Som-Saa, which have been favourably reviewed in the national press, and neighbourhood grocery stores that rival Hong Kong’s top supermarkets.
Television personalities such as Huang have certainly played a role in popularising a more authentic Chinese cuisine, and encouraging Britons to cook it themselves.
“When I came on the TV scene in 2005, Shaoxing rice wine could not be bought in Tesco’s, my local supermarket. After my BBC show Chinese Food Made Easy in 2008, where I used it religiously to enhance the flavour of my dishes, it became stocked in all the supermarkets. I like to think I have influenced the way people cook Chinese food,” she says.
Market research firm Mintel announced early last year that 78 per cent of Britons surveyed had eaten Chinese food at home in the previous three months – a greater number than had eaten Indian food, Britain’s other go-to Asian favourite. Mintel also revealed that sales of soy sauce were estimated at four million kilograms in 2014, up 25 per cent on a year earlier.
Huang also credits fellow television chef Ken Hom with popularising Chinese food, noting he was the first chef to introduce Chinese cookery . “He has been going strong for 30 years; he paved the way for all of us,” she says.
British chef Jason Atherton, whose restaurant empire stretches from London to Shanghai and Hong Kong – where he owns three restaurants, including 22 Ships in Wan Chai – says restaurateur Alan Yau should take much of the credit. Yau “has paved the way, introducing Chinese food to a whole new audience with Hakkasan and Yauatcha”, he says of Yau’s two Michelin-starred London restaurants.
Growing up in the 1970s, Atherton says, his local Chinese restaurant probably had the same menu as every other in the country – chicken chow mein, egg-fried rice, and sweet and sour pork, for example.
Atherton first realised Chinese food didn’t have to be that way on a trip to Shanghai in 2010. “I tried things like hairy crab. It was quite the awakening,” he says.
Huang says she had mixed experiences when she arrived in Britain with her family. Her parents thought the quality of restaurant food was poor, with thick, gummy cornflour-laden soups and zhong wei – strong tastes – meaning overly sweet, overly sour, overly salty. The family also had the misfortune to visit Wong Kei in London’s Chinatown without realising it was most famous for its rude service.
“The table next to us complained about cold tea, and the chef came out with his cleaver and told them to leave. It was quite an experience,” Huang recalls. Eventually the family found Joy King Lau, which became a firm favourite for its dishes such as steamed scallop or fish, claypot chicken and shrimp paste tofu. The restaurant is still in Chinatown.
Taiwanese food was more difficult to find. There was an annual food fair organised by a Taiwanese community association where members sold home-cooked goods such as oyster vermicelli, steamed pork cakes, ba wan and zongzi bamboo dumplings. Then the family found a favourite Hunanese restaurant.
“Owned by Mr Peng, located in Pimlico [in south London], it was a cross between Taiwanese and Cantonese cuisine. You had to pre-book, and the menu was dependent on what Chef Peng had fresh in the kitchen that day. I went a few times with my father as a guest when he was invited by members of the Taiwanese community. I remember the food was delicious and that Chef Peng was quite stern. He still cooks there now, and I think he is over 70 years old,” Huang says.
Cooking at home in the 1990s was a safer option, she says, when fresh Asian vegetables were often found in Indian shops and supermarkets. More traditional Chinese ingredients, including tofu, were bought at Wing Yip, a well-known Chinese supermarket in Britain.
Now, a well-travelled public with curious palates can find the ingredients for cooking Chinese food at almost any supermarket. British-born Chan regularly buys packs of prepared ingredients from Sainsbury’s supermarket.
However, despite Britons’ growing love of authentic Chinese food, and a higher standard of cooking, Chan questions whether most could stomach too much authenticity.
He lived in Hong Kong between 2003 and 2013, and often visited a factory in Dongguan, Guangdong.
“I used to eat lunch in the factory canteen. One dish came out and I didn’t know what it was. It looked like a chicken drumstick covered in sauce. I took the sauce off so I could pick it up, and it was a duck’s head split in two,” he says. “I think I was supposed to scoop the brains out. It made me laugh.”
One of the food stalls outside the factory gates had a line of animals hanging up, cooked and ready to eat. He soon realised they were skinned dogs. “I didn’t knowingly try it. That’s China for you.”
Chinese restaurants recommended by Ching-he Huang and Jason Atherton
Ching-he Huang: “For me, I’m happiest when I have a day off and I’m having dim sum in Royal China in Queensway with people I love. The dim sum is always spot on at Hakkasan and Yauatcha. My mainland [Chinese] friends enjoy the food at the Bright Courtyard Club in London. The Peking duck at Min Jiang is great and [it] serves up a good view of Hyde Park too. I like Far East in Gerrard Street for their delicious buns and Chinese breakfasts. If you’re not worried about finances, try Kai Mayfair for some high-end Chinese.
“For Sichuan go to Bashan, for Taiwanese-Chinese dishes Peng’s.”
Jason Atherton recommends a more modern take on Chinese cuisine. “My wife, Irha, and I recently went to Park Chinois in London, which we loved – it’s an Alan Yau creation. It’s a fabulous room – try the Park carbonara with inaniwa udon, sea urchin, 65-degree organic egg and pancetta.”