Bundles of rare delight: the flavours of dim sum in Shanghai are unlike anything you’ll discover at your local. Photo: ROB HOWARD/CORBIS
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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 write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

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

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.