Sichuan hotpot: the aftermath
While I was in Chengdu in March, I found myself staying in the same hotel as Michelle Obama for a couple of nights. Despite our proximity, I didn’t catch the slightest glimpse of her, although the hotel restaurant was swarming with White House people during her stay, and I was penned in at the side of the road outside the hotel one evening while her imposing motorcade swept past. As you can imagine, the question at the top of my mind was: of all the possibilities, where are they going to take the First Lady to eat?!
In the end, according to newspaper reports, the organisers settled on two restaurants: a Tibetan restaurant, and a hotpot restaurant. And while I fully understand the reasons for choosing a Tibetan restaurant, and love the riotous fun of eating hotpot from time to time, I’m sorry that Mrs Obama didn’t also have the chance to enjoy a more typical Sichuanese meal. Hotpot, after all, despite being a fun experience and an example of the mala (numbing-and-hot) exuberance of Sichuanese cooking, is hardly a showcase for the broader cuisine in all its dazzling variety. Continue reading…
File picture of Chinese banquet
Over the last year, high-end restaurants in China have been struck as if by lightning by President Xi Jinping’s ‘anti-corruption campaign’ and ban on dining out at government expense. ‘People in China are used to such political campaigns,’ one friend of mine told me, ‘But normally they drop off after a while. No one expected the ban on expense-account feasting to last this long.’
Officials in China are paranoid about being caught breaking the rules: these days, all it takes to ruin a reputation, and perhaps a career, is a meddlesome citizen with a smartphone camera, hovering outside the restaurant as you sneak out after eating your shark’s fin soup. Continue reading…
Dinner in Changsha, Hunan
You can read my article on the new Chinese regional restaurants in the Guardian here. I thought I’d use my blog to offer a bit more information.
So here are a few of the most interesting regional Chinese restaurants in London:
HUNAN: Local Friends (hu nan ren湖南人)
Chef Ren Jianjun, a native of Yueyang in northern Hunan Province used to work at the Shangri-La Hunan restaurant in Oriental City, Colindale. Ignore the entire front section of the menu and turn to the back, which is conspicuously RED because of all the chillies. Here you’ll find a wonderful selection of hearty Hunanese dishes which are among the most authentic in London.
Local Friends, 28 North End Road, Golders Green, NW11 7PT, 020 8455 9258
Local Friends, 132 Bethnal Green Rd, London E2 6DG, United Kingdom
020 7729 9954 Continue reading…
Posted by Fuchsia
on January 14, 2014
Well, I was a total shard-sceptic, but now, having been inside the building for the first time, I have to admit I’ve been converted. A friend of mine is working in the kitchens of Hutong, the Chinese restaurant on the 33rd floor, and invited me to lunch – and what a view! What a feast! We dabbled in the dim sum menu: opalesque, translucent orbs filled with colourful morsels (‘crystal crab meat dumpings’); roast puff pastries stuffed with wagyu beef instead of the usual char siu pork; and pretty little bundles tinted with spinach juice, holding a mix of carrot and shiitake mushrooms. Judging by these, the dim sum here is exquisite and at least on a par with its closest London rival, the Royal China Club. Continue reading…
Posted by Fuchsia
on October 10, 2013
I know it’s something of a cliche to giggle at Chinese menu mistranslations, but the menu I came across at lunchtime today was such a spectacular disaster that I had to share it! Here are some of the linguistic catastrophes on offer in a Shanxi restaurant in Beijing:
荞面灌肠 Buckwheat noodles enema [unfortunately the same Chinese characters are used for an enema and some sausagey-type things]
凉拌莜面 Cold you face [here, the dish is cold oaten noodles, but the character for noodle-type foods (mian) is the same as that for face; and clearly they couldn't find oats in the dictionary so they didn't bother to translate and just gave the pinyin transliteration of the character, 'you']
老醋烧带鱼 Vinegar burning octopus [the character shao can be translated both as 'burn' and as 'braise/cook': the translator clearly got confused here. Mysteriously, the main ingredient isn't octopus at all, but hairtail fish.] Continue reading…
Thanks to Cool Culinaria for sending me samples from their new collection of vintage Chinese restaurant menu prints, which date from the late nineteenth century to the 1970s! The originals come from the Harvey Spiller Collection, which is apparently the largest privately-owned Chinese menu collection in the world. They offer a fascinating glimpse not only into the food, but the imagery used to sell Chinese food in America, including ‘chop suey’ fonts and dragons. Two early examples particularly caught my eye. The cover of the Bill of Fare from the Hong Far Low, a restaurant in Boston in the 1930s, displays a black-and-white photographic portrait of a serious-looking man in a traditional Chinese gown with cloth fastenings, who is described as ‘the first man in Boston who made Chop Suey in 1879′. The menu itself is only in English and clearly aimed at American customers, with sections on fried chicken, chicken chop suey, chow mein fried noodles, chop suey, omelets and salads, and a collection of very unChinese-sounding desserts, such as chocolate cake. Continue reading…
Posted by Fuchsia
on May 13, 2013
Over dinner with some Sichuanese chef and restaurateur friends in London, this is what I was told: “The other day a Romanian woman came into my restaurant alone, and ordered several dishes. When she had eaten half the food, she called me over, and complained that one of the dishes was too sweet, and one too salty. Politely, I invited her to have a couple of other dishes to replace them, and sent out two more, complimentary dishes. Then she asked for the bill, and said it was too expensive, and she couldn’t afford it. I pointed out that all the prices were listed clearly on the menu, and she still said she couldn’t pay. Eventually I told her I would call the police – and I did. But when the police came they said there was nothing they could do, even though they agreed she had probably done the same thing at countless other restaurants. So they left, and the woman got away with her free meal.” [NB this is a fine example of the practice known as bawangcan 霸王餐, tyrannical eating, which you can read a little more about here]
The restaurateur, who has been in London for more than a decade, was shocked and amazed by this turn of events. “I really like English culture, and I do think English people deserve the word ‘gentlemen’,” he said, “But you really take human rights too far here. The government needs to be more strict, and less easy about handing out British citizenship and welfare and so on. If you are too soft, you’ll end up like the United States, with everyone carrying guns. People are too lazy here, too, and because of the prevalence of supermarkets and fast-food joints, they are forgetting how to cook. Honestly, I think Great Britain was Great a hundred or two hundred years ago [NB this is exactly when Britain was abusing China in the most ungentlemanly manner], but these days it’s just ‘Britain’”.
Interesting to hear a Chinese immigrant complaining about excessive human rights, and praising colonial-era Britain… and I appreciate that he thought the loss of cooking skills was one of the major causes of the decline of a once-Great country…
Very happy to be in the Chinatown issue of Lucky Peach, which is out now! It’s a fantastic issue, packed with interesting stuff. Londoners can find it in Foyles in Charing Cross Road.
I’m currently in Shanghai, after the end of my first gastronomic tour with WildChina! I spent ten days or so introducing a small group (ten guests) to the amazing diversity of Chinese cuisines. We began in Beijing, where we tried famous Shandong dishes, Beijing folk cookery, Mongolian hotpot and Peking duck, and then flew to Xi’an, where a trip to see the Terracotta Warriors was bookended by slap-up feasts of local specialties. In Chengdu, we sampled xiao chi (‘small eats’), hotpot and many traditional dishes, enjoyed a glorious formal banquet and attended a hands-on cooking class; and in Shanghai and Hangzhou we scoffed fabulous dumplings and many local delicacies. All in all, if you count street snacks, we tried over 300 dishes. Continue reading…
Posted by Fuchsia
on February 28, 2012
This is the best mistranslation on a Chinese menu that I’ve seen in a long time, Gong Bao chicken rendered as ‘Public explosion chicken!’ Whoever came up with this translation confused the first character with another that sounds the same, and substituted another homonym for the second character. Gong Bao chicken is originally 宫保鸡丁 – which literally means ‘Palace Protector chicken cubes’, because it’s named after a former ‘Palace Protector’, or governor-general, of Sichuan Province, Ding Baozhen. Here, they’ve confused one gong (宫 palace) for another gong (公 public), and substituted the bao that means either 1) ‘fast-fry over a high heat’ or 2) explode for the bao that means ‘protect’ (this latter mistake is a common one). It’s from a menu in southern Yunnan.
Anyway, it’s such a great name for a dish that I’m seriously tempted to use it from now on! (although perhaps it would be better suited for the explosively hot ‘chicken with chillies’ (la zi ji 辣子鸡 )）