The whole Steavenson family was in town together recently and we went to the old family favourite Royal China in Queensway. ‘I think I remember coming here when I was about eight for my birthday and then going skating at the ice rink next door,’ remembered my brother Michael. We happily chopsticked through all the greatest hits: crispy fried seaweed, sweet and sour pork (Dad indulged his nostalgia: ‘I think I first ate this in Hong Kong in 1955’) prawn toasts, beef with oyster sauce, egg fried rice and, of course, duck and pancakes and all the trimmings. The expanse of white linen tablecloth was happily Jackson Pollocked with saucy splatterings.
It was all good. What makes Chinese food so yummy? Is it the salty soy? The fifth taste dimension of MSG? The fat slurpy punch of full mega watt sauces: funky oyster gravy, chili firework pop-bang, the plummy Worcestershireness of Hoisin? The Royal China, with its black and gold lacquered 1930s glamour interior and good fresh ingredients, is clearly a serious cut above the polystyrene takeaway slop. I love the funky peanut-coffee bean crunch of a fermented black bean, the crackle of duck skin shards, nuggets of sweet pink shrimp in the Singapore noodles. But if you have never been to China, how do you know what is good, what is authentic?
‘I don’t know why,’ said Michael, who lives in Queens in New York which famously has the greatest density of homemade noodles outside of Mainland China, ‘but I find Chinese restaurants slightly intimidating. There’s not much explanation on the menu. It just says beef or meat or Szechuan or hot pot. And its hard to tell the dumps from the decent places.’
So I borrowed a Chinese person. Via Facebook, Boston and Beijing, friend of a friend, I found Rosie from Shanghai who came to London seven years ago to study and is now in digital marketing, selling cable packages to Chinese people in Europe. ‘Which I hate,’ she added brightly. She said she would be glad to have dinner with me.
‘Where should we eat?’ I asked. Rosie suggested Hunan, an expensive and well established Chinese restaurant in SW1 and the nearby A Wong, the trendy arriviste (it opened in 2013) where dishes are presented in a new Nordic style of minimalism. Both, she said, were among the best Chinese food in London. I said, ‘nah, something more normal, less swanky. Take me to the place where you go to eat when you miss home.’
She came up with The Little Wooden Hut, on Lisle Street in Chinatown, because it has recently opened and several of her friends had recommended it. Perfect. The Little Wooden Hut looks like many other Chinese restaurants in China town, unremarkable, narrow, white walls, bare wooden tables. In fact, during random dumpling cravings, I had eaten on either side of it without noticing it.
Rosie has a ‘typical English’ boyfriend and she is used to translating Chinese food for the wide-eyed occidentals. ‘We went to China recently and there were noodles for breakfast in the hotel and he found it really weird. He would say, “I just want cereal or eggs.”‘ ‘Western people eat such simple food,’ said Rosie, sighing a little. ‘I’ve got used to it now, but it’s basically just one main dish, something meat and vegetables. In China we’re used to complexity.’
I opened the menu. There were small pictures beside each dish, and each rectangle looked as colourful and alien as a tropical fish tank. Beef and ox tripe, duck tongue, marinated jellyfish, black fungus in special vinegar, steamed lotus root, sliced pigs ear, spicy honey comb, sautéed beef tendon, pigs intestine and pigs blood, deep-fried squid tentacles, braised rabbit, bullfrogs legs en casserole. These scary things were interspersed with the more familiar but suspiciously vaguely described: assorted cold dish, beef with soy sauce, spicy edamame, chicken with mushroom sauce, poached prawns, spicy hot pot, braised fish fillets, sautéed meat with brown sauce, cucumber in sauce (but what sauce?). ‘Smoked chicken’ was accompanied by a picture of a strangely red bird, head and neck still attached and there was an alarming ‘pole dance chicken’ which had been photographed stretched and skewered into a vertical standing up position.
I said, ‘order whatever you like. I eat everything.’
Rosie perused the more than 90 items on the menu. ‘It’s usual in China to order lots of dishes, even if there are only two people. There is a saying: ‘three dishes and a soup’ which means a proper meal.’
‘So its not just stupid foreigners who always over order in Chinese restaurants.’
‘No, not at all!’ I looked around; there were only Chinese people in the place; every table was covered in dishes.
Rosie was a little bemused by the menu which offered dishes from all over the large and diverse Chinese culinary map. There was a chicken dish from the Uighur Muslim region of Xinjiang near Tibet, spicy chili dishes from Szechuan, sweet and sour from Hangzhou. ‘It’s near Shanghai, so that’s more what I grew up with,’ explained Rosie. ‘We have sweet dishes, we put a lot of sugar in our sauces.’ After much deliberation she ordered chili tripe, the chef’s special sea bass, Szechuan pork knuckles and tofu with preserved egg.
The dishes all arrived within three minutes. The first mystery of the Chinese restaurant is how you can have so many different dishes on the menu with a restaurant of only ten or fifteen tables. ‘This is the second mystery of the Chinese restaurant,’ I said. ‘how does the food appear so magically fast? ‘You’re right,’ said Rosie, thinking about my observations. ‘I don’t know why. I’ve never thought about it before.’
The tripe was yellow and supple, a little bit furry and chewy and swimming in bright orange chili oil. I have never warmed to tripe (à la mode de Caen or stewed forever and ever with onions) but this was a warm buzz of revelation. I ate one strip after another, swigging Tsingtao beer in between, in a perfect rhythm of moreish bar snack tandem. I watched carefully to see how Rosie would navigate the slippery knobbly knots of pork knuckle with her chopsticks, slick in glossy oily gravy and covered in drifts of whole Szechuan pepper corns and ribbons of red chili. She used her fingers, so I did too. I nibbled through the gelatinous soft connective joints. They were fleshy, fatty, salty, spicy — wow. I stopped. My mouth was shimmering with an electric tingle.
‘We call it “ma”,’ said Rosie knowingly, ‘which translates as “numbing”.’ ‘It’s not exactly the same heat as chili, the numbingness is the special property of the Szechuan pepper. Frankly I don’t like it.’ she admitted. ‘I do,’ I said. The sensation was physical, like pleasure pins and needles. Which I then soothed with cool slabs of silky tofu that rested on a lake of soy and vinegary sauce topped with blue preserved egg, red peppers and the herby frill of coriander.
The whole sea bass had been spliced on the diagonal, deep fried and set on a slick of blackly sweet salt sour. ‘This is more my kind of dish,’ admitted Rosie, ‘this is something my grandmother would cook.’ It was good, the fish skin thick and crunchy and chewy (which I like), but the sauce was too rich for me and overpowered the fish. Rosie said it was a classic sauce.
‘What’s in it?’
We asked the waitress. She was as uncommunicative and unsmiling as any Chinese waiter. I had always imagined this was because Chinese waiters often don’t speak much English, but Rosie talking in Mandarin didn’t unlock any friendliness either. The waitress went away to ask and came back and said, ‘I can’t tell you, its a chef’s secret.’
Chinese food is about, above all, variety. It is colourful. It is many dishes, different sizes and shapes of food, salt and spice and sugar, cold and hot, some long simmered, some quickly stir fried. But, without a handy Chinese friend, how to bridge the gap between what we foreigners love about it —the tastiness, the excitement of the lazy Susan pick n’ mix — and our lack of knowledge? How to get us out of our chow mein comfort zone?
According to tradition, Rosie and I couldn’t finish everything but luckily that’s what Chinese takeaway is for. After everything had been boxed up, we went upstairs where the owner Kevin Dai was having dinner with a friend of Rosie’s. They let me try their bull frog casserole (yup, tastes like chicken), duck tongues (tough sell, even for omnivore me, crunching through an avian soft palate…) and something Rosie had never seen before, an invention of the chef, crispy fried rice simply covered with chicken bouillon to make a universally comforting soup. I asked Kevin about the mysteries of the Chinese restaurants, the multitude and speed of the dishes and he even let me see the kitchen (cramped basement full of furiously stirring-swiping-pouring-ladling-mixing chefs standing at a row of jet engine wok burners) but he could offer no particular explanation. He shrugged; it was just the way they did things.
‘So how do you communicate what real Chinese food is for people who don’t know?’
Kevin smiled. ‘They just have to try it!’