Ching-He Huang is part of a new wave of Chinese cuisine that is locally sourced and low on the dreaded MSGs.
If the mention of a Chinese meal conjures up images of lurid chunks of deep fried chicken, it’s time for a rethink.
The Asian cuisine, whose love affair with most Britons extends to nothing more wholesome than crispy seaweed and sweet and sour prawns, is undergoing something of a revolution. Restaurants specialising in regional Chinese cuisine, and not in the ubiquitous, greasy western version, are flourishing.
Nowhere is the Chinese restaurant scene in the UK more dynamic than in London, where two eateries from Hong Kong restaurateur, Alan Yau, are challenging the perceptions of Chinese food. Hakkasan and Yauatcha in Soho have made Chinese food sexy, with innovative cocktails, all-day dim sum and delicate Chinese teas. So influential to the country’s restaurant scene is Alan Yau regarded that last year he received an OBE, together with Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal, for services to the restaurant industry.
Of course there were top quality Chinese restaurants before Yau – Lee Ho Fook in Soho and Poons of Covent Garden were awarded Michelin stars in the 1970s. But with dishes such as diver caught scallops or organic pork, Yau is bringing the appeal of Chinese food to a generation of people to whom sweet and sour is anathema.
The reputation of Chinese food has gone so awry in recent decades that a condition, “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” was put forward in the late 1960s, although its symptoms and causes remain wholly. “Sufferers” cite headaches, sweating, facial swelling and numbness around the mouth among the symptoms of the illness, which has been connected with the consumption of Chinese food, or more loosely with monosodium glutamates (MSGs).
Such has been the repellent affect of MSGs that some restaurants now advertise MSG-free dishes, or even entire menus free of the stuff. However, the infamous ingredient is not as evil as its reputation suggests, and is not limited to Chinese food. It was discovered over a century ago by Japanese cooks as a flavour enhancer.
“In culinary terms it is much like Parmesan cheese, and is regarded as a condiment by the Chinese, while westerners see it as junky,” says Fuchsia Dunlop, who has studied Chinese food for ten years and spent two years at chef school in China. “It’s no worse for us than refined salt or white sugar,” she says.
Infact glutamates are a naturally occurring amino acid present in many foods, including tomatoes, ripe cheese, peas, chicken and broccoli, and also in condiments such as soy sauce, Marmite and Worcester sauce. When stabilised with salt it becomes MSG, a product used to enhance the flavour of condiments, ready-made meals and a number of other products.
The dangers of MSG consumption are little known, and like most foods, consumption in moderation is arguably the best step forward. Says Dunlop: “A lot of top Chinese chefs use judicious use of MSG, just as they would sugar or salt.”
The message is to go easy on soy sauce and bottled sauces, and like any health-conscious diner would in any restaurant, opt for dishes with a variety of fresh vegetables and anything in season, so specials are a good bet.
MSG scares isn’t the only thing holding back Chinese food – there’s an ill-conceived presumption that all ingredients are imported from Asia, accumulating heinous food miles. But in reality, many restaurants will source produce locally simply because it is cheaper. “Without realising it, or advertising it, they [Chinese restaurants in England] will use a lot of locally sourced produce,” says Ching-He Huang, author of a contemporary Chinese cookbook, China Modern, and presenter of Ching’s Kitchen on UKTV Food.
While some Asian seasonings and vegetables cannot be sourced from within the UK, meat and fish are of course available here, and increasingly farmers are experimenting with growing Asian vegetables in the UK.
David Lam is a Hong Kong originated farmer who grows Chinese vegetables including pak choi, choi sum and kai lan, on a farm near Wisbech in East Anglia. He now supplies to Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Marks and Spencer, among other supermarkets, and is continuing to trial new vegetables.
Ching has visited Lam’s farm and credits him with producing vegetables that she’s not seen growing outside her native Taiwan.
Lam is not the only farmer growing Asian vegetables in the UK: “ I know of a Chinese tofu supplier called Kamtong and a beansprout grower called J Pao in Park Royal. They all supply the Chinese supermarkets and restaurateurs? I would think the seedlings, from soya beans to mushroom spores and vegetable seeds, are still brought over from abroad though,” says Ching.
Another UK grower is Kentdown Mushrooms, a farm that has been operating in the south east of England for over 30 years and grows Asian and European mushrooms, from white button to shimenji. The farm supplies mushrooms to Yau’s restaurant Hakkasan, which also uses a number of UK producers, including Fairfax Meadows for rib-eye steak, Billfields for duck, M&J Seafood for native fish such as oysters and Harwoods of London supply for a variety of fruit and vegetables.
With the exception of some ingredients, many Chinese and European dishes use the same produce says Dunlop. “In my own kitchen I’ll look at a heap of vegetables and I can either cook a European or a Chinese dish,” she says. So, whether you’re eating out or cooking, you can shop local and eat oriental.
Need to know
For more information on Ching visit her website
China Modern by Ching-He Huang is published by Kyle Cathie Ltd (£14.99, www.kylecathie.com)
Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook by Fuchsia Dunlop is published by Ebury Press (£25, www.eburypublishing.co.uk)
Chinese restaurant recommendations
Expect wild dishes from this Sichuanese specialist alongside some more recognisable ones, such as man-and-wife offal slices, pock-marked old woman’s beancurd, and tongue-numbing beef, which thankfully come with pictures on the menu to elaborate. There are plenty of Chinese diners, which is always a good sign, and if you’re feeling really adventurous you can team your meal with Chinese wine. Someone’s also has a lot of fun with the interior too with its bright murals, elaborate wood carving and fun bar – it puts your local Chinese in the shade. Around £100 for two with drinks and service.
Bar Shu, 28 Frith Street, W1, tel. 020 7287 8822, www.bar-shu.co.uk
Fashionable surroundings in a discreet basement setting. Exotic cocktails including sake concoctions, dim sum served all day and staff uniforms designed by Hussein Chalayan. Expect to pay about £100 for two with drinks and food.
Hakkasan, 8 Hanway Place, W1T 1HD, tel. 020 7907 1888
Extravagant teas upstairs with cakes you don’t want to eat because they’re so delicate, and downstairs another trendy basement with moody lighting, trendy furniture and elaborate dim sum dishes. Around £60 for two for drinks and food.
Yauatcha, 15-17 Broadwick Street, London W1, 020 7494 8888
The unassuming surroundings of one of Oxford’s less attractive streets shouldn’t put you off – dishes such as drunken chicken and pak choi with garlic are top notch. Around £50 for food and drinks for two.
The Liaison, 29 Castle Street, Oxford, OX1 1LJ, tel. 01865 242944
Arguably Manchester’s top Chinese restaurant continues to impress, with sophisticated surroundings and a number of different private dining options over a few floors. The four-course £29.50 banquet menu is good value, with a selection of dim sum and dishes such as steamed scallops or pan-fried ostrich. Moso Moso is also worth a mention –it serves a fusion of Chinese and Thai cooking in bright, airy and modern surroundings. Expect to pay around £60 for two for a set course menu.
Yang Sing, 34 Princess St, Manchester, tel. 0161 236 2200, www.yang-sing.com
Moso Moso, 403 Oxford Rd, Manchester tel. 0161 273 3373, www.mosomoso.co.uk