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Fuchsia Dunlop: London’s Chinatown

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Illustrations by Hannah K. Lee

Four articles from Lucky Peach were nominated for James Beard awards this year. We’ll post all of them this week for your reading pleasure. First up: Chinese food guru Fuchsia Dunlop on London’s Chinatown.

Bonus recommendation: Fuchsia’s latest book, Every Grain of Rice, is amazing for the home cooks in the audience. I’ve been cooking out of it on the regular for the last few months. - pfm

The first time I visited London’s Chinatown was in the late 1980s, when a Singaporean family friend, Li-Er, took my cousin and me there for dim sum. To a Chinese-food virgin, as I was at the time, it was daring and exotic. We passed pillars wreathed in dragons on our way into the cavernous Chuen Cheng Ku, where we sat among the roaming trolleys, eating strange tidbits made with unfathomable ingredients. The textures of the food were unlike anything I’d encountered before: flabby, glutinous, taut, and slippery.

I was still in my teens, already a keen cook and adventurous eater, and I’d acquired from my mother a habit of analyzing new dishes, trying to guess how and with what they’d been made. But until that Sunday lunchtime, the nearest I’d got to tasting real Chinese food was the occasional takeaway of deep-fried pork balls with a slick of bright red sweet-and-sour sauce, chicken with tinned bamboo shoots, and egg-fried rice (which, incidentally, I adored). In Chuen Cheng Ku, I was thrilled and baffled in equal measure. I was game for eating anything, so I tried my first chicken’s foot, steamed in black bean sauce, and scoffed down mysterious, slithery rolls stuffed with prawns and slabs of something white and pasty. I couldn’t have guessed what went into most of the snacks and had no yardstick with which to judge them. Without Li-Er, I doubt that I’d have ventured into that kind of restaurant at all. Our dim sum lunch was just an isolated adventure. I had no idea then Chinese food was going to become an obsession that would take over my life.

It wasn’t until a few years later, in 1992, that I made the first of many trips to China. I backpacked my way around the country, from Guangzhou to Yangshuo, Chongqing, and Beijing. Like many foreign travelers, I was stymied by my lack of knowledge and my inability to speak or read the language. Aside from a few famous delicacies like Peking duck, I didn’t know what I should eat or where to find it. Once inside a restaurant, I didn’t have a clue how to order. My gastronomic experiences on the trip were random and haphazard.

In Chongqing, I recoiled from dishes that bristled with a nasty spice I’d never tasted before—Sichuan pepper. I grappled with rubbery things that I thought might be part of some animal’s digestive apparatus and was ripped off in Guilin by fraudsters who told me a deep-fried quail I’d eaten was a rare and precious wild bird. There were highlights, like the stir-fried snake and the amazing dim sum I tried in Guangzhou restaurants listed in my Lonely Planet guidebook, but often I clung to the backpackers’ cafés, with their simple home-style dishes and menus translated into pidgin English.

But I still became hooked on China, and when I returned to London I started taking evening classes in Mandarin and meeting friends for dinner in Chinatown, where I ordered randomly from menus filled with ingredients and dishes I’d mostly never heard of. I remember enjoying deep-fried duck in a frizz of taro paste, and emerald greens covered in a cloud of crabmeat sauce, but I didn’t know what I was doing. Sometimes I committed what I later realized was a cardinal error of Chinese restaurants: ordering set menus that were, almost without exception, dumping grounds for the dumbed-down dishes that Chinese people hardly ate. But I had no idea what I was missing, and so I was perfectly happy with the food.

It was only later, in 1996, when I returned from a much longer sojourn in China, during which I spent a year and a half studying Chinese at Sichuan University, training as a chef and roaming round the country, that Chinatown became an essential part of my London life. My eyes had been opened to the infinite variety of China’s regional cuisines and the sophistication of its culinary culture. I was cooking Sichuanese food at home, longing to speak Mandarin, and aching for China in every sense. I went to Chinatown to stock up on ingredients and for long dim sum lunches with the few Sichuan University friends—Canadian, Italian, Russian, and English—who had also fetched up in London.

 

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Chinatown was home and it wasn’t. Yes, we could eat one Cantonese version of Chinese food, and converse with the Cantonese waiters in stilted Mandarin. The local groceries and fishmonger were a source of vital supplies, including basic seasonings and occasional treasures like preserved duck eggs encrusted in rice husks and mud (sent from China in enormous clay vats ringed with dragons, until they were seen off by EU regulations). But Hong Kong and the Cantonese south are a long way from Sichuan, and their food customs are strikingly different. There wasn’t a single genuine Sichuanese restaurant in Chinatown. Whereas before I’d known of only a generic Chinese cuisine, now I could see that Cantonese cooking was just one of myriad styles. I missed the one I’d come to love in Sichuan Province.

By now I was addicted to Sichuan pepper, but the pepper sold in Chinatown was fusty and tasteless, a damp squib rather than a trail of fireworks across the sky. There were no Sichuanese chilies, and the only chili-bean paste was a Hong Kong version made by Lee Kum Kee that was serviceable but lacked the dark, profound savoriness of the real Pixian deal. When I asked for ya cai, the salty-sour, crinkly pickle that is the magic ingredient in dry-fried beans and dan dan noodles, staff would direct me to the bean sprouts, which all non-Sichuanese Chinese refer to by the exact same name. Cantonese was the language of Chinatown, in linguistic and culinary terms, and Mandarin was rarely heard. The few Sichuanese I met in the UK had to make their own arrangements—stuffing their luggage with spices on each return trip—or depend on care parcels from friends in Chengdu.

It was around this time that I started my first job as a food writer, reviewing Chinese restaurants for the annual Time Out eating guide to the city. The Cantonese domination of the restaurant trade was frustrating for someone who had been spoiled by the electrifying flavors of Sichuan. And Chinatown wasn’t even the best place in London to eat Cantonese food. The most discerning Hong Kongers tended to dine out at a handful of Cantonese restaurants in more salubrious parts of town. But there was still plenty to excite me in Chinatown. There was the New Mayflower, where they would size you up and give you a dish of their own pickles and a bowlful of sweet soup if they saw that you weren’t the usual truculent postpub customer; Mr Kong, a tiny, cramped eatery with a thrilling specials menu featuring dishes like slow-cooked duck with garlic and lotus root, and pea shoots crowned with a dried scallop sauce; and the Hing Loon café, which served spiced duck hearts that reminded me of Sichuan.

Often, though, the restaurants in Chinatown hid their best dishes away on Chinese-character menus that Westerners would never see. If you were a Chinese reader, this is where you’d find the fiddly bones, the voluptuous fat and crunchy cartilage; stinky dried fish and shell-on prawns; preserved duck eggs and bitter melon. After my time in China, these were exactly the kinds of foods I wanted to eat, and the ones I was trying to inspire Time Out readers to take a chance on. But usually, when I tried to order something more challenging than a boneless chicken stir-fry or crispy aromatic duck, the waiters would urge me to desist and point me in the direction of those dreary set menus that no Chinese person would ever order from.

“Why don’t you translate the names of your best dishes?” I would ask, poring over an enticing specials list in Chinese characters. Waitstaff across Chinatown would then tell me how Westerners usually made trouble when they were given the kind of dishes Chinese people liked best. They would moan about bones and cartilage, send shell-on prawns back to the kitchen, be shocked by chicken that was a little pink along the bones, and accuse staff of trying to cheat them by serving cheap, fatty pork. On one occasion, I raved in print about a magnificent version of Chaozhou spiced duck with tofu that was, to my knowledge, unique in London. The next time I visited the restaurant, it had disappeared from the menu, and I asked the waiter why. “Westerners complained about the bones, and the small size of the portion,” he told me, “and it just wasn’t worth the trouble.”

One veteran Chinatown waitress told me there was a recurrent problem of non-Chinese customers making spurious complaints after they’d finished their meals and refusing to pay for dishes they’d found unacceptable. In the Chinatown trade, refusing to pay for a meal that has been eaten is known as ba wang can, or “tyrannical eating.” I witnessed it once at the table next to me in one of my favorite Chinatown restaurants, the New Mayflower. A well-dressed young English couple had finished their dinner and were complaining that the food wasn’t worth the price on the menu. After arguing with their waiter, they flounced off, saying they’d left as much money as they thought the meal was worth. Later I chatted with their waiter, who was quietly overcome with hurt and rage: “They wouldn’t do this in a French restaurant, would they? Why here?”

 

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Worn down by the boorish behavior of tyrants like these and usually struggling anyway with the English language, most waiters had given up trying to sell proper Chinese food to Westerners. People like me, able to read Chinese and with some experience of real Chinese eating, as well as those with Chinese friends or partners, were able to eat very well in Chinatown. It was more difficult for those who might have been keen to try interesting dishes but had little knowledge of Chinese food and no encouragement from their waiters. Ordering a good Chinese meal requires experience and knowledge of the food; there’s an art to creating a harmony of dishes suited to the place, the season, and the company. Some aspects of real Chinese cuisine are inherently challenging to outsiders, like an appreciation of texture and mouth feel that does not exist in European traditions. Until Westerners learn to love eating gristle, cartilage, and gelatinous sea creatures, they will inevitably be repulsed or bemused by some prized Chinese dishes. (Having segregated menus may show “a kind of laziness,” says restaurateur Christine Yau, the owner of Yming, but they also exist for the comfort of Westerners.)

Somehow, while Vietnamese, Japanese, and Thai cuisines were reshaping perceptions of Asian cooking in London in the 1990s, Chinese was stuck in a rut. Perhaps it was simply because Chinese food, along with Indian “curry,” had been one of the first Asian cuisines to arrive in the UK and had been forced to adapt to English tastes before the globalization of the national diet. Chinese chefs and restaurateurs had made compromises that might once have been necessary but had remained frozen in time, and they had failed to keep pace with changing tastes. And now, although authentic dishes were available in Chinatown, a stalemate resulting from cultural difference and mutual prejudice ensured that often only Chinese customers enjoyed them.

Too many Brits still saw Chinese food as either cheap and junky or terrifyingly exotic. The first question new acquaintances would ask me when they heard I was interested in Chinese cuisine was often: “What’s the most disgusting thing you’ve ever eaten?” In an infamous article in 2002 entitled “Chop Phooey,” the Daily Mail told its readers, “Chinese food is far and away the dodgiest in the world, created by a nation which eats bats, snakes, monkeys, bears’ paws, birds’ nests, sharks’ fins, ducks’ tongues, and chickens’ feet … With a Chinese takeaway you can never be exactly sure what the oozing Day-Glo foodstuff balanced between your chopstick actually is. Think back to that last order of sweet and sour pork balls Cantonese style. Are you absolutely sure that they didn’t glow in the dark?” The article caused so much offense that Chinese restaurateurs marched on the newspaper offices to protest. It seemed incredible to me that the world’s most sophisticated culinary nation could be regarded like this in England, a country that, until recently, was renowned the world over for its own lousy diet.

Perhaps that Daily Mail article was the last cry of the old prejudices against Chinese food, because the decade since has seen the beginnings of a revolution. British tastes have become more adventurous, while Alan Yau’s Hakkasan restaurant, which opened in 2001, gave Chinese cuisine a more glamorous image and helped dim sum to jump out of the ghetto. China’s economic rise and the presence in London of rich, well-dressed Mainlanders has helped to raise the status of Chinese culture in general, while British travelers are returning from trips to China with an appetite for real Chinese food.

In Chinatown, many second-generation Cantonese have moved away from the restaurant business, and China’s opening up has brought over a new wave of immigrants and visitors from Fujian and other provinces. Mandarin has begun to rival Cantonese as the language of Chinatown, and regional cuisines have begun to infiltrate its kitchens. Sichuanese cooking is all the rage, and you can also find Shanghai xiao long bao, Taiwanese rice with spiced pork, northern-style baozi buns, and a range of Fujianese and Northeastern (Dongbei) flavors. And although the Identikit set menus and the secret Chinese-specials menus live on, it’s no great challenge to find platefuls of tripe in hot-and-numbing spices, duck tongues, and slippery sea bass in a sea of seething chilies. The district may still be nibbling at the edges of China’s stunning regional diversity, but it’s come a long way.

Finally, the biggest thrill for cooks like me, long deprived of access to quality Chinese products, has been an explosion in the availability of ingredients. Where once the only seasonings stocked in Chinatown groceries were those required by Cantonese chefs, now you can choose from half a dozen brands of real Sichuanese chili-bean paste or pick up Shaoxing fermented tofu, Chaozhou “olive vegetable,” and Shanxi vinegar. Once-rare vegetables have become commonplace: garlic stems or scapes, freshwater chestnuts, lily bulbs, and yellow chives. Best of all is Mrs. Mao’s farm shop, a hole in the wall selling organic Chinese vegetables grown on her smallholding in the “garden county” of Kent. The possibilities for Chinese cooking at home have become endless.

 

With thanks to Simon Tang, Christine Yau, Lawrence Cheng, Kam Wing, Ms Tan, Tan Beefang, and “Fat Dragon.”

notes:
  1. helicopterina reblogged this from luckypeach and added:
    #chinesecookery
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    Not only do I discover Lucky Peach has a tumblr but the posts are as excellent as anything in the magazine! I am so...
  8. jwongy reblogged this from luckypeach and added:
    I enjoyed reading this article but it made me feel sad about the slipping-away of Cantonese dominance in Chinatowns. :(
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