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

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.