The British have long loved Chinese food. But in the decades since Chinese takeaways first introduced us to dim sum and roast duck, chicken chow mein and prawn crackers, British-Chinese food has grown beyond the clichés. Immigrants from different regions across China have brought with them a greater variety of cuisine, and Chinese university students have also helped bring about a change in tastes. London’s Chinatown is still the best place to try a range of regional cuisines. With Chinese New Year just around the corner (Saturday this week), now is a good time to visit.
The Soho neighbourhood was originally nurtured by Cantonese immigrants. Hailing from the south of China, they brought with them the tastes of Hong Kong and Canton (you might know it as ‘Guangzhou’). Walk down Gerrard Street today and you will find that the heart of Chinatown is still Cantonese, with menus dominated by dim sum and Cantonese roast duck. The best duck is to be found at Four Seasons, a traditional red and gold affair so popular that it now has four outlets in Chinatown alone. Queues on Saturday morning are normal. Its crispy and aromatic roast duck is, according to the FT, ‘the best roast duck in the world’.
Further down Gerrard St is Plum Valley, with its sleek, black exterior. When Stanley Cheung inherited his family’s restaurant, he set about modernising the business. A Spanish architect was responsible for the redesign, and the restaurant shed the traditional red and gold colours seen all over Chinatown. The menu is innovative too, with specialities like wasabi prawn dumpling. It offers a pan-Asian take on Chinese favourites, and serves dim sum all day long.
Xu is an elegant restaurant offering Taiwanese classics. The interior is inspired by 1930s teahouses and there’s a mah-jong room in the back. Prices are a little expensive, but the food is beautifully presented. It’s worth trying the smoked tea duck with oolong tea salt and the 28 day-agedged middlewhite pork xian bing.
Alongside the more stylised dishes, there is also plenty of Chinese-style home cooking – or jiachangcai – to be found in Chinatown. Simple ingredients are used to create traditional staples. Two doors down from Xu is Old Tree Daiwan Bee, which is both affordable and unassuming. Try the Taiwanese sausages and beef soup noodles for a taste of a Taiwanese childhood.
But save room for pudding! Asian desserts are all the rage these days, largely thanks to social media savvy sweet-toothed Chinese students, who are always on the prowl for the next sugar craze. Bubblewrap was started by two such students who reinvented the egg-shaped waffles from Hong Kong. Instead of being served flat, as is traditional, the Bubblewrap waffle is stuffed with sweet fillings like a burrito. You can get anything from strawberry cheesecake to pistachio gelato. The wraps are big, sweet, and Insta-perfect.
My favourite bakery in Chinatown is Bake on Wardour Street. This simple shop sells traditional baked treats from all over China. I pop in for egg tarts (not unlike the Portuguese pastel de nata) and some rather unassuming fried dough sticks. A real staple of Chinese breakfasts, the dough sticks are crispy and soft, and best served dipped in runny rice congee.