Bundles of rare delight: the flavours of dim sum in Shanghai are unlike anything you’ll discover at your local. Photo: ROB HOWARD/CORBIS
Show Hide image

Snow fungus and braised frog: in search of real Chinese food

If you know where to look, you can get a long way from virulent orange sauce and “chips, not rice”.

Thursday 19 February marked the beginning of the Year of the Sheep in the Chinese lunar calendar – a safer culinary bet, in the light of recent scandals, than the horse that preceded it, and an occasion celebrated by over a billion people worldwide with fireworks, family and, of course, food.

Not just any old food, either: turnip cakes for good luck, black hair moss for prosperity and candied winter melon for good health are just a few of the auspicious dishes favoured during the festival. Noodles often feature, too (the longer the better, for a long life) and dumplings (wealth, again) but in general this 15-day party involves foodstuffs utterly unfamiliar to most non-Chinese. Partly, of course, that’s because China is a vast place, and because most Chinese restaurants in Britain, thanks to our historic links with Hong Kong, still offer a largely Cantonese menu adapted to British tastes – which, perhaps regrettably, rarely extend to water chestnut cake or snow fungus soup.

But over a hundred years after the UK’s first mainstream Chinese restaurant opened, just off Piccadilly Circus, and many more since the first brave sailors jumped ship and began cooking for their homesick countrymen, we’re moving beyond the “curry chicken and chips – not rice – and bread and butter” the Hong Kong-born retail millionaire Wing Yip recalls customers demanding at his first British restaurant in the 1960s.

As recently as 2003, when Hakkasan in London attracted the attention of the Michelin Guide, it made the national news – a Chinese restaurant, with a star? Clearly, as the Daily Telegraph noted at the time, the food at the Wagamama founder Alan Yau’s new restaurant must be only “a distant relation of the traditional Sino-English dinner of prawn crackers and sweet and sour pork”.

Twelve years later four Chinese restaurants in this country have been recognised by the guide, all of them serving Cantonese food. But a new wave of Chinese students, professionals and wealthy tourists coming to this country has encouraged restaurateurs to cater to more diverse tastes.

The Chinese restaurant closest to where I live specialises in the hearty cuisine of Hunan Province, though it offers sweet and sour spare ribs and egg fried rice alongside the dry-fried pig’s intestines and bear’s paw bean curd, and its crispy aromatic duck seems to be as popular as its Chairman Mao pork.

There are also restaurants in the capital showcasing the hot, sour flavours of China’s south-western Guizhou region, the delicate cuisine of Shanghai, and the dumplings and hot pots of the north. It’s all there, if you know where to look.

Outside London, however, the bold flavours of Sichuan Province, also in the south-west, are likely to be the easiest to find. Though fiery dan dan noodles and pockmarked grandmother’s bean curd are in no danger of replacing crispy seaweed in our affections just yet, the liberal use of garlic and chilli, and the intriguingly tingly hot and numbing Sichuan peppercorn, seem more likely to appeal to the British palate than, say, the delicate braised frogs of Fujian cuisine.

Sichuan House in Glasgow, Red & Hot of Birmingham and Manchester, Bristol’s Chilli Daddy, Cardiff’s .cn, Liverpool’s Mr Chilli – as the names suggest, Sichuan cuisine isn’t afraid of a bit of spice and, fortunately, neither are British diners. (From bitter experience I can tell you that the enormous mounds of papery, pungent peppers that rest atop many Sichuan dishes are just there for show. The staff will laugh at you behind their hands if you attempt to work your way through them out of misguided British politeness.)

So make the Year of the Sheep the year you swap Peking duck for the tea-smoked variety. Bread and butter optional.

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

Getty
Show Hide image

In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser