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 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

Jon Bartley
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Why I slept on the street outside Downing Street

The government is trying to stop taking child refugees. This means condemning them to the sub-zero night. 

It’s hard to sleep on concrete, with rain threatening and the winds of an approaching storm whipping around you. As the cold reaches your bones, rest evades you. Being so exposed, with no shelter or safety from the weather and the world, the idea of slipping into unconsciousness feels impossible.

This is what I learnt as I slept rough outside Downing Street last night.

In the centre of London, I bedded down on the pavement alongside 60 activists and volunteers who work with refugee children. Some had come in their onesies, others with guitars. As we sat resolute yet hopeful on cardboard boxes and under umbrellas, all were happy to share their stories.

I heard from those who have worked in the Calais and Dunkirk camps, and with children on the streets. They told of the stress and desperation of the children both inside and outside the resettlement centres in which they have been placed following the demolition of the Calais camp. The children have no faith left in our government and feel betrayed. They told me the children's stories - children who had come from conflict zones like Sudan and Afghanistan.

With us was one refugee who spent six months in the Calais camp. He told me of his reasons for fleeing Syria, how he was kidnapped and detained by the secret service because he stood up to the Assad regime. He is now using his skills as an actor, to raise awareness of what is going on with refugees here in the UK.

I didn’t get much sleep. But at least in the morning I could go home to a warm bed and a hot shower. Compare this to the youngsters sleeping rough on the edges of Calais and Dunkirk, in woods and under bridges, with only a donated sleeping bag to protect them from sub-zero temperatures. Next to that, my night outside Downing Street was five star.

For those young children and teenagers, spending the night alone, frightened, cold and wet in a country that is not their own, is a daily reality. By sleeping out last night, I got just a small taste of that reality, and it was enough to know it’s not something I would want my children to have to do. It’s not something I would want any children to have to do.

The big scandal here of course is that the bulldozed "Jungle" camp in Calais, awful as it was, sheltered many of these children. The UK government was implicit in the flattening of the huts and shelters where roughly 1,300 unaccompanied child refugees lived. It is thought at least 90,000 lone child refugees arrived in Europe in 2015. Under the Dubs Amendment to the Immigration Act, there was the expectation that the UK would step up and take 3,000 of the extremely vulnerable children. But now the government has scrapped it, with just a tenth of this number set to actually arrive.

Is it any wonder then that children with no hope of safe and legal crossing to the UK have started to return to the site of the demolished camp in Calais? The majority of the minors bussed to centres in France weren’t even considered for transfer to the UK, and this combined with the Dubs closure has left them with little alternative but to attempt to come to the UK by other, more dangerous, means. We have pushed these children into risking their lives climbing onto trucks and, in many cases, into the hands of people traffickers.

We didn’t have to end the Dubs scheme, and it is nothing short of a scandal that less than 50 miles from the coast of our country there are children sleeping rough on the streets because we are not doing the right thing. Had the government committed to giving local authorities the resources they need to welcome refugee children, we could have provided shelter to thousands. We are the fifth richest country in the world, and while I know budgets are under pressure, I also know the government could afford this if it wanted to.

In spending a night outside Downing Street with teams from Help Refugees, Hummingbird Project and Voices for Child Refugee, we aimed to raise awareness of what is facing refugee children in Europe, and to demonstrate that we will not allow them to be forgotten. But we also want to see real action, real change. This morning the campaigners went into 10 Downing Street to give Theresa May a petition calling on the Government to rethink the closure of the Dubs scheme – and to say "we must be so much better than this". The petition is just the start of the ongoing struggle to make the government listen – and we won’t stop until it does.

Jon Bartley is the co-leader of the Green Party.