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 Images.
Show Hide image

The Brexit effect: The fall in EU migration spells trouble for the UK

The 84,000 fall in net migration to 248,000 will harm an economy that is dependent on immigration.

The UK may not have left the EU yet but Europeans are already leaving it. New figures from the ONS show that 117,000 EU citizens emigrated in 2016 (up 31,000 from 2015) - the highest level for six years. The exodus was most marked among eastern Europeans, with a fall in immigration from the EU8 countries to 48,000 (down 25,000) and a rise in emigration to 43,000 (up 16,000).

As a result, net migration has fallen to 248,000 (down 84,000), the lowest level since 2014. That's still nearly more than double the Conservatives' target of "tens of thousands a year" (reaffirmed in their election manifesto) but the trend is unmistakable. The number of international students, who Theresa May has refused to exclude from the target (despite cabinet pleas), fell by 32,000 to 136,000. And all this before the government has imposed new controls on free movement.

The causes of the UK's unattractiveness are not hard to discern. The pound’s depreciation (which makes British wages less competitive), the spectre of Brexit (May has refused to guarantee EU citizens the right to remain) and a rise in hate crimes and xenophobia are likely to be the main deterrents. Ministers may publicly welcome the figures but many privately acknowledge that they come at a price. The OBR recently forecast that lower migration would cost £6bn a year by 2020-21. As well as reflecting weaker growth, reduced immigration is likely to reinforce it. Migrants pay far more in tax than they claim in benefits, with a net contribution of £7bn a year. An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent.

Brexit has in fact forced ministers to increasingly acknowledge an uncomfortable truth: Britain needs immigrants. Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. Brexit secretary David Davis, for instance, recently conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall after the UK leaves the EU. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (a level not seen since 1997), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

Alongside the new immigration figures, GDP growth in the first quarter of 2017 was revised down to 0.2 per cent - the weakest performance since Q4 2012. In recent history, there has only been one reliable means of reducing net migration: a recession. Newcomers from the EU halved after the 2008 crash. Should the UK suffer the downturn that historic trends predict, it will need immigrants more than ever. Both the government and voters may only miss migrants when they're gone.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496