Tuesday 16th June 2020
One thing I miss most is eating out. My friends agree we are reaching the stage where it’s fuck the pandemic, fuck the police, let’s go out to get irradiated in the name of a kebab, a shag and skag, preferably all three. For me my vice is currently in the form of Singapore fried noodles (vermicelli), from the Tai Tip Mein palace in Woolwich. TTM is a small local chain that specialises in the cheap and cheerful. As with ‘Chinese’ food the world over it caters to local tastes, notably tweaked for a multiethnic South London population.
WARNING**** FOOD PORN ****
The outlet in Elephant & Castle is notorious for looking like the dodgiest, skankiest eating establishment ever by dint, a little unfairly, of its architecture. The one in Woolwich, marginally better, and the one in Greenwich possibly palatial insofar as you even pay after your food rather than before. Woolwich is a gem because they cater to the large African community, notably the Nigerian customers who form a solid clientele. This is a winning formula. Elsewhere round the world the ‘Chinese’ food ups the sugar and salt content for Western tastes, creating gloopy, jam-like sauces more reminiscent of a jar of chutney poured over a changing roster of meats.
Not so for Woolwich. Nigerian food reminds me of Malay -spicy, beefy, earthy with the chilli to boost, and little demand for the saccharine. Spiced rice like jollof and nasi goreng could be cousins, as could be the roast meats whether it’s beef suya with peanut coating, or satay sticks and peanut sauce. So hey presto! We now have Singapore fried noodles -not the limp, watery variety you get elsewhere, pale and inoffensive, but now the highly spiced version swimming in chilli oil and smoky flavours. It’s not the lovely lurid yellow variety that screams turmeric content, but a fuzzy warm hint of brown thrown in that shows the greater variety of spices. It’s also double a portion you’d expect and studded with the greatest hits -tender chicken, BBQ duck and two types of roast pork (one sweet, the other salty). I always add extra chilli as I’m one of those people. You can only get this version in this branch, winningly so, but do avoid their garlic sauce dishes, a flavour clash if ever there was one.
It’s often a surprise when people actually go to China and find the food tasting unrecognisable to their takeaways back home -and the variety on offer too. There are 15 distinct cuisines, of which 8 are official stand-outs, and a ninth is being added on.
Up in Northern style it’s salty, hearty fare for the colder climes, where the main staple is bread rather than rice, and influenced by the Steppe peoples, such as the Mongols. They gave rise to the wonders of open fire cooking -BBQ and roasting, normally deemed uncivilised by the rest, Beijing roast duck one famous example. Plus lots of warming soups and a surprisingly light and fresh touch by the coast, with a sideline in caramelising things in honey.
Local variations range from the wild Manchurian tribes foraging off the steppe and forest (bear paws anyone?) to the intricate haute cuisine of Imperial cooking, after the Manchus got used to the high end of 300 years in power.
Rou jia mo -‘Chinese hamburgers’, a 2,000 year old streetfood of smoky, spiced pork belly with coriander.
Beijing Roast Duck is sourced from a local breed, and cooked in a special oven over peach/ pear wood. The sweet, crackly skin should be served separately, and the meat parcelled into plum sauced pancakes. The remainder a rich broth.
Imperial menus employed delicate food carving
For the Southern style, Cantonese cooking forms the backbone of most of the Chinese diaspora round the world, and thus what many have been exposed to. However it’s not really authentic what we get here as the Cantonese rely on super fresh produce for natural flavour (all ingredients hours from the fields), imparted by the quality of produce and specific upbringing of plant or animal. Done well and it’s an unctuous, subtle play of layers of natural flavour (think steamed dim sum), done badly and it’s a bit plain. Overall, it can be likened to a subtropical version of Japanese, a cuisine of such simplicity yet finesse it has 700 varieties of salt. Rice as a staple. Although joked within China as the people who’ll eat everything with legs other than the chair and table (a famine cuisine), it’s traditionally regarded as the school of cooking par excellence. They may put something like snake or frog in it, but you’ll instead be tasting melt in the mouth chicken. The dog (now banned) will be a specially farmed variety that tastes sweet, the cane rat (a large rodent about a foot long from the rice fields, also farmed) a more expensive substitute for lamb.
The attention to detail is typical for every region -the meatballs they make in Shantou need to be pounded for 30 minutes nonstop with steel batons (different designs for different textures) that create bodybuilders; the local beef hotpot (meat served up and cooked in a broth at your table) has to be plated within 4 hrs from when the animal was mooing about and takes a year of training to carve up, some slices only 1mm thick. The fermented tofu mooncakes take a 25 step process and are designed to degrade so they can’t be transported beyond the city. Eating here’s pretty much a science, every stage exacted to break down certain types of fat, release different protein strands and get the right balance of texture that is so important for the Chinese palate -foods designed for the shape of the bolus, consistency and feel in the mouth.
Steamed dim sum
Numerous offshoots include Hainanese -tropical but historically influenced by Western food thanks to its island trade -no heavy sauces or strong flavours, simple, direct cooking styles. Another one is Teochow/ Chiu Chow, a seafood-savvy cuisine that uses even less oil and is even more delicate, incorporating steaming, but not averse to flavour punches via its sacha sauce (salty with a hint of spice). It also has that rarity in China – a dessert menu. Macanese another one, combining the flavours of old Portugal, Africa and Cantonese cooking, for example African chicken (spiced up and peanutty), or baked, cheesy seafood, spaghetti instead of noodles followed with their version of pastel de nata (custard tarts).
Hainanese chicken rice (simple steamed chicken fed on rice and peanuts, with fragrant stock rice and dips)
Due East and it’s now more reminiscent of Western takeaways due to the increase in sugar content (Suzhou more so, Shanghai less); lots of noodles and a penchant for seafood. It was historically looked down on by the rest of China for being sugary and unsubtle -but has recently seen a renaissance (thankyou Shanghai), that’s now featuring as the country’s most popular choice of restaurant when eating out. It’s come in leaps and bounds rediscovering its roots as well as reinventing the styles, from the strict regimen of the Anhui branch to the fresh flavours of Jiangsu, the smooth, ungreasy fragrance of Zhejiang to the high quality ingredients of Fujian. But beware, this is where you’ll find the ‘red style’ of cooking similar to takeout, but done much better. Though just as volcanic – you can’t do two in a row.
Squirrel-shaped fish makes use of an explosive frying technique, literally a sugar bomb.
Dongpo pork in ‘red style’.
Zhejiang’s Longjing prawns can only be eaten between April -when the Longjing tea (finest in China) is budding its best -and early summer as the local prawns are harvested. The unusual dish created accidentally when an emperor spilt his cuppa.
In central China the heat starts –Sichuan uses its native peppercorn (really a local type of flower bud) to create a different kind of spiciness, one in which the burn of the tongue is replaced by a numbing, tingling sensation in the lips and mouth, known as málà. It still liberally adds chilli on top, and may often call on an entire bottle of chilli oil (yes a whole bottle) as part of a dish, eg boiled fish soup. It relies on dual flavour combinations of spicy, sour, sweet, bitter and salty (eg hot and sour), but which can produce over 40 types of taste sensations depending on the mix.
Boiled fish + pint of chilli:
Don’t worry, not all the pepper in a standard dish has to be eaten
There are two types of cuisine -one in which the natural flavours come to the fore (eg Cantonese, Japanese, Greek), or the type where a world of flavour is added to compliment or possibly mask the natural ones (eg Indian, Thai, Turkish). Sichuan is decidedly the latter, everything looking geothermal -but it steadfastly maintains the Chinese tradition despite of having super-fresh ingredients, obsessively sourced.
Sichuan hotpot is a shared meal divided between spicy (outside of the constantly bubbling tureen) and not spicy (inside), where you dip your ingredients to cook. As the meal progresses the soup flavour intensifies.
Next door is Hunan, once considered an offshoot but more coming into its own. Instead of using peppercorn’s mala, it just throws in voluminous amounts of fresh chilli, purported to be the world’s hottest cuisine and what killed Chairman Mao off with stomach cancer. But so worth it. It is a fresh and aromatic counterpoint to Sichuan, with added onus on smoked and cured goods. Although one of China’s ‘furnaces’ in summer, the chilli is meant to open up the pores and help you cool, in the format of cold appetisers. Yeah, right.
Salad, Hunan style:
Other cuisines are the minority foods. Xinjiang, deemed quite accessible for Western tastes due to the preponderance of bread and dairy, such as cheese, but beware the nose to tail eating, such as sheep’s head. Lots of roast kebabs, spiced beef and lamb, with noodley Chinese influence and Middle Eastern piquancy via the Silk Road. Hui is another Islamic cuisine, but more sinicised with street food wonders beyond meat-on-a-stick, taking the best from both worlds in roast meat patties, date and rice cakes, crumbled bread n’ beef soups (THE definition on unctuous) and chilli lamb noodles.
Hui date, red bean syrup and rice sticks
Tibetan and Mongolian are considered beyond the pale to many. Tibetans are partial to the wind dried variety of cooking (invariably yak jerky), surprisingly spicy as everything comes doused in chilli similar to Korean gochujang and washed down with butter tea. Tibet is a high altitude desert, aka the Third Pole, as if the summit of Mont Blanc was spread out to cover Western Europe – so little veg. Doable though a bit one noted.
Their bready dumplings though are a big hit, notably having taken over India as a moreish snack.
Mongolian is about as out there as you can imagine. If you like meat this is for you, but don’t expect veg or spices or marinades -simply boiled, perhaps served in a plastic bucket. And every part is eaten, from eyeballs to tail tips to hooves. This be warrior food Stage 10.
There is a version of Mongolian BBQ – a range of meats, veg and sauces fired up teppanyaki style in different combos as spectacle to awaiting diners, said to be sourced from the way the invading Mongols would cook up their feasts on shields, accompanied by broth in upturned helmets (Mongolian hotpot, almost identical to Sichuan’s). However, it appears these formats were a Taiwanese invention, who changed the politically sensitive ‘Beijing BBQ’ to a more palatable Mongolian moniker. The dishes are popular now all over the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, but not in Mongolia itself.
The ninth cuisine people wanna add to the greats is Yunnan. The tropical, minority-happy eating of the steamy southwest. Once derided as poverty food (a jungle has less available protein than a desert), unvarnished presentation and tendency to catch any little thing trying to scurry or crawl away (river larva, snails, insects) it’s now elevated into a healthy eating bonanza, full of fresh salads, flowers, raw ingredients, open fire cooking and banana-leaf or sugar-cane steaming, all to organic sourcing. Very trendy right now, similar to Vietnamese.
Thus ends a brief rundown on the Chinese cuisines, whether divided into 4, or 8, or 15, or 40, or 400 dependent on where you split hairs. That it’s hard to find genuine Chinese food outside the country, where freshness is king and you don’t have to rely on pre-packed ingredients nor cater to local tastes.
And to cut a very, very shaggy dog story down to size, I fucking want one.