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In search of 'real' Chinese cooking...(long)

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In search of 'real' Chinese cooking...(long)

Gareth Williams | Jun 6, 2002 01:13 PM

I love Chinese food. But I have also always suffered from an inferiority complex that what I eat here in London is not the real McCoy.

Two nights stopover in Hong Kong (my first visit) gave me an opportunity to at least get a preliminary view (though I can hardly claim that two nights in HK allowed me to try a statistically representative sample). In fact we ate streetfood (twice); posh Dim Sum (at Spring Moon in the Peninsula); and had one blow-out expensive meal (at Yan Toh Heen(spell ?) in the Regency/Intercontinental). Thanks to Chowhounders for the tips.

Streetfood was great – simple and fresh. Indeed, much of the seafood was cooked on a kill to order policy; careful where you point on the menu – you could orphan an entire family of crayfish by mistake.

However, of most interest to me was to compare and contrast top of the range HK dining (at Y-T-H) with what I normally get in London (where my most regular haunt is the estimable Fung Shing in Lilse St.). At Y-T-H we did a bit of a pick and mix around the menu, eating barbequed meats; abalone and goose web; a pork hotpot; and lemon chicken (the latter deliberately to baseline the cooking vs that back home !). The cost was £100pp vs. the £25 to £30pp a similar meal would cost me at FS. And the difference was….

Underwhelming. Don’t get me wrong: Y-T-H was a very good meal (+ great service and a fantastic harbourside setting). And the cooking was definitely a class or two above what I’ve had before. But it was by no means out-of-sight better. Indeed, I would venture the difference was considerably less than is delivered between top-of-the-range ‘French’ establishments (such as Gordon Ramsay or Le Manoir) at £100pp when compared to most £30pp French cooking.

Of particular interest was that fact that the style of cooking between HK Cantonese and London Cantonese was so similar. Unsurprising maybe (given the colonial links) but a marked contrast with Indian cooking, where 9 times out of 10, the food served in London is an ‘anglo-indian’ concoction which is great in its own right but of an entirely different style to most of what’s cooked even in the most closely related areas of the subcontinent. The HK/London styles seemed to me much more closely related than this. Indeed more closely related than either were to the style of cantonese Chinese cooking I’ve had in the States.

All of which I found rather encouraging. There is a school of Chowhoundery (q.v. previous ‘Howler’ posts) that argues that little or no ethnic cooking on these shores is worthy of the name. Advanced proponents then go on to argue that such cooking really can’t be genuine unless you’re eating in an undiscovered backstreet restaurant on location in old Kowloon/Bombay/Saigon etc. which has been in the family for 8 generations. And the real Authenticity Nazi’s then sneer at us folk who sully our taste buds in the ersatz eateries of Chinatown/Southall etc., preferring to sit at home, nibble lettuce and starve, rather than eat an imported travesty of ethnic cuisine.

I’ve never really believed this. (I’m prepared to concede that most ethnic cooking in London is second rate, but then so is most cooking full stop – anyone been to Little Chef lately for the great British food ?). But not having experience by which to compare and contrast, the nagging suspicion of inferiority – that it’s impossible to get good chinese/indian/japanese etc. food in London - has always lingered. It may be I am still wrong. Maybe Yan Toh Heen wasn’t the place to go. Maybe HK Cantonese still isn't ‘real Chinese cooking’ (which can only be found in the backstreets of Old Canton, etc…). Maybe my woefully limited sample and wrongfooted menu choices etc have mislead me. But from this quick initial sally I will return to Lisle St. with renewed confidence that I’m once more about to enjoy a really good, really real, Chinese meal.

Views welcome.

As a coda, the same is not true of the Dim Sum, alas. The Dim Sum at Spring Moon (in the Peninsula) was just Light Years ahead of that which I can normally find in London (usual haunt Harbour City). Both in the technique of execution and in the variety of what was on offer. Superb. Raptures. Is my General Theory of Chinese Cooking (outlined above) about to come crashing to the ground ? Am I just eating in the wrong place in London ? Is the waiter not showing me the 'proper' menu ? Or is there something about Dim Sum which makes it different from more general cuisine ?

Gareth

p.s. As a final line and to help rebalance some of the London-centricity of this board can I put in a provincial plug for “Trong’s” Chinese restaurant in Ipswich (St Matthews St). Excellent cooking; interesting variety of dishes and a good wine list. Well worth a visit next time you’re in Suffolk to watch first division football (sob).

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