As a Chinese child growing up in 1960s and 70s suburban London, food has always been a curiosity to me. My meals at home were nothing like my school dinners and as for the local ‘Chinese Takeaway’, well, that was as foreign to me as the local ‘Curry House’ or even our local Italian restaurant.
In those days, foreign food in London was incredibly anglicised or just simple. My father being a great lover of spicy food would take a tiffin set to the Indian restaurant near us on a Friday night and return with steaming hot ‘curry’ – just curry. It might have been chicken curry, mutton curry or prawn curry and it was usually mild to suit my infant tastes, but I have no early memories of the exotic items we see on Indian menus today. Now, even the tiniest Indian takeaway will offer a menu consisting of all sorts of exotic dishes: Bhuna, Jalfreizi, Dhansak dishes and of course the ubiquitous Chicken Tikka Masala which is now regarded as the national dish of England!
I amazed my school friends by telling them how much I disliked ‘Chinese food’, then amazed them even more when they came for ‘Tea’ at my house and were served either the usual Alphabetti Spaghetti on toast, or a traditional Chinese evening meal of soup, rice, meat and a vegetable dish! The tinned spaghetti on toast was my mother’s concession to English food and she saw nothing wrong with feeding my school friends the same food as we ate, simply because they would in turn feed me Shepherds Pie or Toad in the Hole!
Dinner time during my childhood brought chicken rice, steamed fish with Chinese mushrooms, ginger and spring onions or steamed pork with preserved vegetables. Occasionally my mother would prepare what I call ‘medicine soup’ – herbal soup for repairing the body – Dong Quai for ‘women’s things’, ginseng for energy, goji berries for repairing the eyes. This was, to my mind, Chinese food rather than that which appeared in takeaways and restaurants in every town and suburb in England.
If Indian food in England was simple in the latter part of the 20th century, Chinese food was just incredibly anglicised. My friends enjoyed a ‘chicken chop suey’ or an egg ‘foo yung’ served with ‘special fried rice’ and of course sweet and sour prawn balls! In my experience, none of these meals were ‘Chinese food’. However as a special treat, my parents would take me to Chinatown to Chuen Cheng Ku for Dim Sum, or better still to Lee Ho Fook for beef ho fun. These restaurants still exist and are probably the two best known in London. However, they now jostle with dozens of rivals which are equally good, serving truly authentic Cantonese cuisine which would not appear out of place in Hong Kong.
The British diner has over the past 30 years developed a far more educated palate due to our shrinking world created by affordable travel and we are constantly clamouring for tastes to deliver memories of fabulous holidays in exotic locations.
Many westerners travel to the Far East in search of exotic cultures and new experiences. Food is probably an enormous part of the whole travelling experience and we bring it home with us, not just as a part of our social lives when dining out, but right into our homes, or even on our supermarket shelves. Satay, tom yum soup, sushi, fresh egg noodles, ghee for Indian cooking are all found even in the small town I live in – over a hundred miles form the great metropolis that is London.
Our well loved English celebrity chefs such as Delia Smith, the high priestess of the English kitchen, Rick Stein the seafood chef who has reinvented the sleepy Cornish town of Padstow, Nigella Lawson, the domestic goddess all entice us to cook “authentic” Asian food in our country kitchens with flagstone floors and oak beams.
I remember reading one of Rick Stein’s book and finding a recipe for ‘white cooked chicken’. Amazed, I read further and found it incredibly close to authentic recipe for ‘chicken rice and white cooked chicken’ – Hainan Chicken Rice! My personal recipe for this was given to me by my uncle who ran a ‘chicken rice stall’ in what I believe is called the ‘heartlands’ of Singapore. I’ve shared this recipe with my Western friends and all love it equally. A friend of Malaysian Chinese origin and I make a chilli sauce which would in South East Asia be served with chicken rice!
Ingredients for Asian cooking are commonplace today in our supermarkets, alongside refried beans and jalapenos for Mexican cuisine, polenta and imported parmigiano reggiano cheese for Italian cuisine, dried cepes and capers for French cuisine. If I look at the exotic food aisle in my local supermarket, I will find, albeit at a price, Thai Jasmine rice, rice wine vinegar, hoi sin sauce and tofu.
The ‘weirdest’ fashion food to be found in England has to be for me as a Chinese person, the goji berry (also known as red medberry, wolfberry or lyceum berry)! This little red fruit, as fed to me by my mother stewed with chicken in soup to strengthen the eyes is now considered to be a ‘superfood’ beloved of celebrities such as Elizabeth Hurley and Madonna to banish cellulite and as a source of many vitamins and minerals. This little red berry which actually makes a delicious soup sits on shelves in health food shops alongside blueberries, tofu and ginseng.
Even more incredibly, I’m beginning to find increasing numbers of Westerners exploring Chinese provisions stores. The closest one to me is actually a wholesaler to oriental restaurants which has a retail shop as part of their business. Initially, their retail customers were Chinese people or if we saw westerners shopping, they would be with their Chinese spouses. Our global community is obvious in that westerners are sufficiently comfortable to shop where they are faced with very unusual ingredients simply because the latest recipe book tells them to, or because they want to re-create a dish they experienced on holiday.
Last year, my partner and I spent a few days in Hong Kong and were given the amazing privilege of experiencing a very unusual cuisine – that of the Xinjiang region of China – Ugyur Cuisine. To be shown such a gem in a city where one expects and sees the Han Chinese as dominant in my opinion really does show that our world is becoming smaller and our cities increasingly cosmopolitan. I live in a tiny rural English town – the sort you see in English tourist board advertisements and on chocolate boxes. Yet, we have a Chinese takeaway which serves remarkably good Cantonese food – vegetable dishes which include wood ear fungus and other such dried ingredients, a reasonable Indian restaurant, a ‘kebab house’ serving authentic middle eastern kebabs and the wonderful pastry dessert Baklava, and to me, best of all, a ‘tearoom’ which is owned by a husband and wife team. The husband is a Turk and sells authentic Turkish delight and honeyed pastries alongside tea and toasted teacakes! We also have ‘traditional English’ food – a fish and chip shop and a ‘roast dinner takeaway’ as well as pubs serving pies and steaks.
This global blending of food has reached even the furthest outposts of the English countryside where you might expect a bargain £5.95 ‘carvery’ menu or even the amazing Dorset Knob biscuits to be the height of culinary delight!