Passionate Foodie visits London's Chinatown

Passionate Foodie visits London's Chinatown

Writing and photo by Lucinda Frye.

Diverse and indigenous cuisine brought by the many ethnic people to St. Maarten from all over the world piques our interest. To this end, we are on a quest to find where it comes from, if it is used for celebrations, if it is exotic to some but everyday food to others. Anything to do with keeping the body and soul nourished with that which is produced from good old terra firma, is what makes the world go around. 

Now, while I know there are many Chinatowns around the globe, the one in London is the one the Passionate Foodie visited recently. Experiencing anywhere first-hand is so much better if one actually does one’s homework on the place and area, but in this case, I stumbled on it one evening after attending an art teacher’s workshop in Leicester Square.

The class was over and some mates and I were having a drink at one of the bars nearby when someone suggested we go for a bite to eat “around the corner”. Having had supper and needing to catch the tube home, I opted out but walked with them, out of interest, to see where they would be eating. You know we foodies are forever inquisitive.

I was blown away to find myself wandering with crowds of people through the area strewn with red lanterns hanging across the streets – the many, many eating places offering hotpots and dim sums, noodles, seafood, and soups. There were bakeries showing the colourful cakes in glass fronted windows and some very interesting cooking going on of fish-shaped – I could not make out what exactly as there was a line three-deep in front of this open window. Fascinating, exciting and fun – so I decided one day before leaving the UK, I would take a slow meander through this fascinating place. I also did some research before going there.

Chinatown is in the West End, the heart of London. The streets are lined with a mix of shops, restaurants, bars, and beauty parlours. I popped into a couple of the supermarkets and was blown away at the variety of goods they carried from Thailand, China, Japan and The Philippines; quite apart from the fact I had no idea what were in the many tins and bottles on the shelves.

London’s Chinatown has been around since the 18th century, although it was not always in the heart of the West End as it is today. As many Chinese sailors worked for the British East India Company that docked their ships in the harbour in East London, the sailors mostly settled in Limehouse which then became London’s first Chinatown.

By the early 20th century, Limehouse had a thriving Chinese community. But during the Second World War, the bombing and destruction of most of East London saw many Chinese immigrants relocating to the West End. Of course, very quickly, they turned the new area into a thriving community and by the late 1980s, the area was bustling with authentic restaurants and shops. Many Chinese residents live elsewhere now and commute into work. It really is a hive of activity.

On this visit, I passed through one of the Four Gates (three of which were built in the 80’s) set around the perimeter of Chinatown. I don’t remember seeing any gate the evening earlier as we walked up a small alley, nor on a previous visit so many years ago. (Actually, come to think of it, it was before the 80’s, so no wonder I don’t remember any!) The fourth and largest, most impressive gate was constructed in 2016.

I approached Chinatown from Leicester Square and walked under this ornately beautiful gate. All of a sudden, the vibe changed completely – on the one side, there were sounds of a busker playing his guitar and singing to the crowd in the square; on the other side, the chatter in a different language filled my ears; the place was teeming with many Asian people. Exploring Chinatown was so much fun, but next time I think I will take a walking tour because there will be someone to answer my many queries. There were places showing incredible Chinese art work; there was a theatre; a community hall; bubble tea parlours; and those interesting cakes.

I bought a wobbly green slice of cake, made with pandan leaf, I think – tasty and not too sweet and so soft and pillowy. I then stood in line for the fish that were a dough shape, cooked in cast-iron fish-shaped moulds on a sort of conveyor belt in an open window. As I paid for it, she said something about it being hot so be careful. Yup, I waited a bit realizing it would be hot as it had just come out of the mould, but what I did not realize was that it was filled with a sweet custard, which was incredibly hot. I made quick work of these delicious morsels hot and dripping down my chin and fingers, ow, ow, ow – which end to eat first; the tail or the head?

Research tells me the fish are a “waffle” – a unique fish-shaped waffle. One apparently should have a cone of vanilla ice-cream and the waffle perched on top. I saw no ice cream being sold there – or perhaps I did not look properly through the throng!

I was looking for a place to enjoy some dim sum and popped into a few bars and restaurants before finding one that felt right for me that day. One place I popped into was called “Opium.” It was crowded with folk and looked very appealing, if unassuming, but there were no single folk, so I decided to go to eat dim sum at a restaurant next door.

I was greeted and seated and brought a sheet of paper with little squares and description of the dishes and a menu with many small pictures of the food. Not so different to Chinese restaurants here or around the world.

I marked the corresponding numbers down and soon received a prawn, wonton soup which was fairly bland. After living in the Caribbean, I find I do like a little spice in my food. I also had some seafood spring rolls, a squid ball (minced and fried), some steamed rice paper gyoza filled with prawns and spring onions (those had a little zing to them) and some pork dumplings – Bao buns filled with pulled pork, steamed and then grilled both sides; I have not seen steamed, then fried Bao buns anywhere before.

It is best to go with a group to places like this, so that one can share the plates. I certainly had an elegant sufficiency (I was filled to bustin’). All in all, the food was some of the best Chinese food I had eaten in a long time – next visit, though, I want to go to a HotPot restaurant.

RECIPES

 

Bao Buns – I have not made these yet. This recipe has an interesting use of active dried yeast and baking powder. You will need a steamer (bamboo is nice).

Ingredients

525g plain flour, plus extra for dusting

1½ TBL caster sugar, plus a pinch

1 tsp fast-action dried yeast

50ml milk

1TBLsunflower oil, plus extra for brushing and for the bowl

1TBL rice vinegar

1tsp baking powder

Method

Mix flour, caster sugar, ½ tsp salt together.

Dissolve yeast and a pinch of sugar in 1 TBL warm water.

Add to the flour with the milk, sunflower oil, rice vinegar and 200ml water.

Mix into a dough, adding a little extra water if needed.

Tip dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead 10-15 mins, until smooth.

Put in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a damp cloth.

Allow to rise two hours in a warm place.

Tip dough out onto counter top and punch down.

Flatten dough with your hands.

Sprinkle the baking powder over and then knead for 5 mins.

Roll out the dough into a long sausage shape – about 3cm thick.

Cut into pieces about 3cm wide – makes about 18.

Roll each piece of dough into a ball – set aside to rest for 2-3 mins.

Roll each ball out with a rolling pin into and oval shape about 4 mm thick.

Rub surface of the dough ovals with oil and brush a little oil over a chopstick.

Place the oiled chopstick in the centre of each oval.

Fold the dough over the chopstick, then slowly pull out the chopstick.

Cut 18 squares of baking parchment and put a bun on each square.

Transfer to a baking tray, cover with a clean tea towel and leave to prove in a warm place for 1½ hours.

Heat a large steamer over water in a wok.

Steam buns – in batches – for 8 mins until puffed up.

Tip: There are two ways of filling these buns – either fold over and fill once cooked, or roll out round shapes, fill and fold the dough over. Continue with steaming as above, and eat while warm.

Fillings: Pickled carrots, coriander, pickled daikon, quick pickled red onion slices PLUS pulled pork cooked with Chinese spices (stir in a little oyster sauce and chili flakes), OR grated sweet potato sautéed with finely cut lemon grass, shallots, soaked and chopped wood ear mushrooms, garlic and a shake of chili flakes, soya sauce, salt and pepper. Leave fillings to cool before adding.

The Daily Herald

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