Red China Blues

Covering Chinese food for this blog kind of feels like a cheat. I eat Chinese food, of some variety or another, several times a week. OK, so sometimes it comes from M&S. When you work all day, sometimes something’s gotta give.

I also like reading about China. My favourite book – Red China Blues by Jan Wong, the former Beijing correspondent for the Globe and Mail.

London’s Chinatown, as we know it today, is in Soho off Shaftesbury Avenue, slash, very close to my office. Convenient. Fact – it didn’t used to always be here. It used to be in Limehouse – god knows why, there’s shit-all there now. (Sorry Jane – I like you anyway.)

Incidentally, I have never eaten in the Chinatown of my hometown of Montreal. This is mostly because my mother took me there when I was four to see the parade on Chinese New Year and I was so scared by the dancing dragons that I never went back. They are very aggressive. The next time I had the chance to celebrate Chinese New Year was in Hualien in Taiwan, and someone accidentally set off a firecracker under my bottom. This was painful. I don’t think CNY is my thing.

My go-to for Chinese food in London is usually Jen’s Cafe, at the corner of Newport Place around the corner from Leicester Square. They make lots of things, but mostly dumplings, which they make to order, in front of you.  Harriet was in Beijing last year, and so once again she became my point person for advice on the food. What did you eat when you were in China? I asked her. Dumplings, she said. What else? I asked her. Dumplings, she said. Just lots of dumplings.

Nevermind the dumplings for now, because I can make those – if you’re lucky, I’ll show you how.

Raging hangover in hand, my work mates and I headed down to Chinatown for lunch on Friday, and, fighting off the overwhelming waves of nausea/indecision, I insisted that we try something new. The Baozi Inn, right next to Jen’s, serves Northern Chinese (read – spicy) food at non-tourist prices – it seemed like a safe bet.

Note to self – spicy food does not go down well with a hangover. Food, in general, does not go down well with a hangover. In the movie The Hangover, did you ever see those guys eat?

As its name may or may not suggest, the Baozi Inn is best known for dishing out London’s most authentic baozis, otherwise known as bao, bau, or simply steamed bun. Not to be confused with xiaolongbao – the soup filled version – the original bao, is a large, bread-like concoction usually filled with pork, eggs, sesame seed paste or “other ingredients.” In some parts of Northern China, they call this delicacy a “goubouli baozi” which literally means, “dogs will ignore.”

I was first introduced to these in Singapore, where they were rampant – they were sold at hawker centers and outdoor cafes, including the one around the corner from our apartment, which also sold frogs.  According to the guy that worked there, frogs don’t taste good.

I digress.

I pretty much demanded that everyone have one – Jon, Harriet and Stella opted for the original pork (Stella peeled the thick skin off of hers, something which I’d never seen done before, but she’s Malaysian, so she’s allowed) while I chose the egg and vegetable and Emma went for the daily special, which was chicken.

“Tastes like stuffing!” she exclaimed happily, as she dug her chopsticks deep into its core.

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As a second course (because you need a second course, obviously, after eating a giant bun midday) Emma and Harriet decided on dumplings (predictable) and wontons, respectively, if only to determine what exactly the difference was between the two. The verdict? The dumplings looked like “little shriveled brains,” whereas their cousins the wontons had a smoother, thicker skin. The taste was similar although according to the menu only Emma’s dumplings were “magnificantly seasoned.”

I went for the cold noodle salad with chicken, which had been one of my top 5 meals in Taiwan (is Taiwan China? Discuss.) – even if I did usually buy this at the 7-11. I’m sorry to say that in this instance I wasn’t particularly happy with my choice – although the hangover could have had something to do with this. I found the noodles very “squidgy” and peanut sauce which came with very thick stodgy. The lot could have used some soya sauce or sesame oil, but I’m sure the chef’s intentions were in the right place.

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As I suggested already, Northern Chinese food is known for being spicier than its southern equivalent. In this department, the Baozi Inn clearly delivers. Both Jon and Stella ordered the mapo doufu, which is one of my favourite Chinese dishes of all time. It is a popular dish made with tofu, fermented black beans, minced meat (usually pork or beef – I make it at home using chicken) and a whole lot of chili.

Watching Jon and Stella attack this dish in itself was worth the walk down to Chinatown. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Jon prevailed, if only because he got more of his down without dying. Some people just can’t take the heat!

The Baozi Inn is just enough off the tourist track – it feels far more authentic than any of the other standard Chinatown fare. However, we decided against dessert – the daily special was a sweet soup of silver earfungus and lily bulb. I’m not even joking. Maybe next time…

Other good Chinatown bets in London include The New Mayflower and the Super Star on Lisle Street for dim sum on Sundays – they have wonton wrapper-covered fried donuts. Just opened is the Opium Dim Sum and Cocktail Bar on Gerrard Street, which, housed in a former Chinese gambling den, which is meant to be the new “it” spot for oriental food in town. Apparently, the best crispy fried duck in London is at the Four Seasons – but I didn’t get around to going there, so you’ll just have to see for yourself.

And if you’re willing to go further afield, try the Lotus Floating Chinese Restaurant in Canary Wharf – it’s a restaurant, and it floats. I’VE got my swim trunks, and my flippy floppies –  need I say more?

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