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Regional Chinese Cuisine: Coming To A Kitchen Near You

07/11/2016 12:30

Cheese is not exactly something you would expect from a Chinese menu, but in Yunnan, a province of China located near the Burmese border, it's a staple. Made from goat's milk, the dense cheese tastes most like halloumi. This cheese can now be sampled at A Wong in London's Pimlico, a restaurant that is far removed from the clichéd establishment serving sweet and sour pork. Other specialities include Beijing stir fried egg and Sichuanese aubergines. A Wong is popular. Getting a table there is a waiting game and the wait is long.

A Wong is not alone in serving regional cuisine in London and to such a strong reception. In today's city, what's now on the menu is an appreciation for China's rich gastronomy.

Want food from Xinjiang, the far-western province of China, head to Silk Road in Camberwell. Fan of Sichuanese? Take your pick from a variety of restaurants across town. Delicate tastes of Shanghai can be savoured at Bright Courtyard; traditional Beijing duck in Kensington. There's even a restaurant devoted to dumplings and one where a conveyor belt serves hotpot.

More Chinese living in London is partly driving this trend. Once it was mostly Cantonese who came to London as a result of Hong Kong being a former British colony. Now it's people from all across China. According to the Chinese Ministry of Education, more than half a million Chinese studied abroad in 2015, with many choosing the UK. They now make up the largest body of international students here. This new group want food that more closely reflects what they would get back home.

Take Qinzi Huang. Huang was born in Jiangxi Province, in southeast China, and was raised in Beijing. She has been living in London for five years. Huang and her friends often eat out at Chinese restaurants. Her favourite is Shu Xiangge, a hotpot place on New Oxford Street.

Huang gets lots of her tips for new places via a Chinese blog called Red Scarf, which is dedicated to introducing the latest restaurants to London's Chinese community.

"I bet every single Chinese student in the UK knows them. They usually recommend activities, good places, and they recommend good restaurants as well. At the beginning, we know restaurants from them," says Huang.

"It used to be Cantonese cooking for Brits. Now is it non-Cantonese cooking for Chinese. It's a completely different dynamic," says Fuchsia Dunlop, the leading authority on Chinese cuisine in the UK, whose recently published book explores the cuisine of the Jiangnan region near Shanghai.

This new dynamic is made easier by Britain's ever evolving larder.

"The range of ingredients available in the UK for Chinese food is so much better than it was," says Dunlop.

In addition to Asian supermarkets, big supermarkets now have aisles dedicated to foreign food and we are starting to grow food essential for these recipes, such as chillies.

"Chinese food in China is evolving too. Now you get the super-rich in China who want to see their dining evolve. They want the same experience of Western food culture back home," adds Andrew Wong, chef and owner of A Wong, of another dynamic impacting the evolution of Chinese cooking.

This is certainly evident in China's leading cities. While in the past regional food might have stayed in the regions, places like Shanghai and Beijing are now full of restaurants catering to a varied, more daring palette.

There are many factors driving this change. Plenty are internal, but some are external - as Wong highlights, the evolution of Chinese food within China didn't happen in a vacuum. An increase in Chinese travelling and living abroad has meant an increase in those who have returned. These people have brought with them new tastes and styles.

Huang talks of a friend who now lives in Zhongshan, a city in southern Guangdong province. He runs a Chinese restaurant with Chinese chefs, who all studied in France before.

"So the dishes are quite delicate, but still taste Chinese."

And of course it's not just the way food is eaten that has changed; it's the food itself.

"One ingredient I never saw 20 years ago was okra and now this is appearing on menus in China," says Dunlop.

She adds:

"China is a place obsessed with food, with a particular gastronomic culture. Food is a culture and it changes."

These new trends in China are then re-imported back to the UK.

Of course it's not just Chinese people who are enjoying the regional restaurants in London - we all are. This is partly because we are travelling to China now more than ever. Since it has opened up, China has become a top travel destination. It is currently the fourth most visited country in the world, with predictions that it could become number one shortly. We go, we discover, then we return. Suddenly the local Chinese serving up lemon chicken doesn't feel quite as exciting.

Dunlop labels what has been going on in London as a revolution. She says that not only are we more interested in Chinese cooking, Chinese cooking is more compatible with our daily lives, not least the food of Jiangnan.

"It's healthy, balanced and seasonal, so it resonates with the way people want to eat today," says Dunlop.

Wong adds:

"Customers now are very, very open to my ideas. For example, we have on the menu Anhui province red braised fermented fish belly. The reception to it has been fantastic!"

Fuchsia Dunlop will be talking about her latest book, Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China, at Asia House, London, on 22nd November. Click here for more information.

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