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This week see’s Chinese New Year celebrations across the country, from Liverpool to London, as we usher in the year of the sheep. As one of the lucky flock born in this year of the Chinese lunar cycle, I supposedly share the fine qualities of gentility, calmness and creativity with the likes of Mark Twain and Michelangelo. Whether I consistently reflect a pool of serenity is maybe a bit questionable, and as is my love-hate relationship with Chinese cuisine, which will undoubtedly be eaten in its shed loads on Thursday.

salmon and spicedblackricevinegar

As officially the nations favourite takeaway, cities and towns up and down the country are filled with Chinese restaurants – sometimes great, but often dire. A result of our colonial roots, the initial influx of Chinese immigrants in 19th century sped up significantly in the 60’s and 70’s, as swathes of mostly Cantonese immigrants brought with them the flavours of the east. As the light and delicate flavours of Canton were initiated into the British food scene, the cuisine became increasingly adapted to the sweet westernised versions of Anglo-Cantonese food we see so often in Chinese restaurants that all all too often double up as chippies. Much like tikka masala, dishes like chop suey are solely created for Western tastes, and can’t be found in China itself. Sweet and sour pork, lemon chicken, and gristly spare ribs conjure up in my mind stomach churning food nightmares of late night trips to the Great Wall, or ill advised Friday night takeaways from Wok This Way. In my opinion this does Chinese cuisine a disservice, as authentic Chinese food is a complex and diverse cuisine with a deep tradition for bold flavours. It does appear however, that once again much like Indian cuisine, this Anglo-Cantonese brand of Chinese cookery is being supplanted in the UK by authentic regional cuisine.

Authentic Cantonese Dim Sum, which fits nicely into the small plates trend, is emerging as a firm favourite for the British public, as outfits like Ping Pong serve up the delicious, as well as healthy steamed parcels. However, it is cuisine from the other of China’s 8 regional traditions of food that are now emerging, all of which have unique and interesting variations. For fans of spice, Sichuan flavours, with its pungent use of chilli and of course Sichuan pepper, offer up bold combinations like that of its fiery hotpot. Pushing the heat levels higher, a string of restaurants serving up Hunanese food in the capital can now be found. With a focus on chilli and garlic, this tradition also makes heavy use of curing and smoking to add depth to the heat. Jiangsu cuisine is also being seen with it’s hearty focus on braising and stewing, as well as Fujian food, which as well as being known for its umami flavours, produces delicate seafood and soups. Other cuisines such as Shandong, Dongbei, Guangdong are also growing in popularity.

As China continues on its march to become a dominant economic powerhouse, the spread of Chinese culture follows, as it’s people continue to make the UK home. Now expat communities, as well as discerning British foodies, demand true tastes of China, the UK food scene will be exposed more and more to the cultural variations of Chinese food. Even the sovereign state of Taiwan is getting culinary recognition in the UK, as a street food favourite, Gua Bao (steamed buns), is soon to take permanent residence at Bao in Soho in March. Despite being the gastronomical capital of the country, Beijing food is said to be a vastly underrepresented cuisine globally. Similarly to London, it’s melting pot nature as a city produces unique flavour fusions. It’s fresh and zingy food is represented at a personal favourite of mine, Mama Lan, where authentic Beijing street food is on the menu. Exciting combinations are being experimented with by the likes of Larkin Cen, who plans to serve up pulled pork dim sum at his restaurant Hokkei in March; and unusual ingredients such as Lap Cheong, a Chinese salami, are becoming popular on many a menu. With restaurants like Kai and Hakkasan carrying the Michelin starred banner for China in London, the cuisine looks set to continue on a path to refinement and sophistication.

Rare Beef Ramen 4

It is clear to see that Chinese cuisine suffers from a Jekyll and Hyde like representation in the UK. So often it is a greasy lacklustre imitation of Chinese cuisine that relies on poor ingredients and MSG. However, as the new breed of regionally diverse authentic Chinese food continues to rise in popularity, it offers so much more to a British public craving the fresh and bold flavours of east.  As well as being bigger on flavour, delicious noodles soups and dumplings provide a frugal Asian delight for even the most penny pinching of us to enjoy. On top of this, its reliance on vegetable stir fries and steaming offers lovers of the cuisine healthy alternatives. Resting on the holy trinity of chilli, garlic and ginger, dishes are elevated to new levels in a healthy way, whilst allowing connoisseurs of Chinese food to recreate their favourite dishes at home easily. It is no wonder then that the interest in such a diverse food culture is increasing, especially in the run up to Chinese New Year. It is believed that on Thursday the consuming of certain foods will provide symbolic meaning for the rest of the year. Noodles for a long life, spring rolls for wealth, and citrus fruit for luck. Therefore with all this tasty authentic Chinese food on offer, we best all fill our boots for a prosperous New Year.

Author – Jack Cliffe – Marketing and NPD Assistant