Dave wrote a series of articles on Chinese Food for the critically successful Wise Badger Magazine. Alas, the magazine had to close due to financial reasons but the articles have been transferred to this site for you to read and enjoy.

Dec 7

On Chinese Buffets

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What a crime against humanity and civilisation is an ‘eat all you can’ buffet. Thousands of years spent in developing etiquette, ritual and mannered eating, alongside an even longer amount of time developing the culinary arts and sciences, all just tossed aside in a frenzy of abandoned extravagance and self-indulgence. I exaggerate for effect of course, but only just.

Chinese buffets do offer a great opportunity to stuff yourself to bursting at a very reasonable price; it might be worth asking “How do they do it for that price when a traditional sit-down, waitress served meal would cost you three times as much?”

My observations were stimulated by a recent visit to a long established buffet in Manchester which I have a great respect for, Buffet City, on Great Portland Street. It’s utilitarian, having a cafeteria’s functionality, busy (hardly the place for a quiet romantic or reflective dinner), and it’s bright - so no dark corners to hide in. Get a window seat and watch the buses go by in a rain smudged Adolphe Vallette landscape; otherwise just watch your neighbours pile their plates high and defy all the principles of fine Chinese dining.

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Dec 7

On Noodles

How many millennia would it take for our favourite cousin the chimpanzee to invent noodles? What first gave someone noodlebyadisornfotothe idea? Obviously a product of an economic system with time on its hands, division of labour, and a history of dough or starch making. Dough balls or their starchy equivalents, made from pounded cereal or roots, are found across the basic foodstuffs of the world, baked, boiled or fried. Whoever thought of flattening them out and cutting them to ribbons, or extruding them through some primitive colander to create long pliable worms which when dried would keep for ages?

The Chinese naturally make first claim. They would and why not? Earliest finds of noodles are reputed to be 4000 years old. It has been tradition to suggest that Marco Polo brought the idea back to Italy from Cathay but it’s more likely that the Italians already had pasta by that date. Either way, noodles are a simple, flexible, economical and convenient form of carbohydrate that is eaten daily in many forms by hundreds of millions of people.

Our word ‘noodle’ is apparently German, the Chinese call it ‘mein’ (wheat noodle) or ‘fun’ (rice noodle). The most ubiquitous form of noodle is probably ramen, the dried wheat noodle bought in packets for pennies with its own instant soup mix as a quick lunch snack. Invented in Japan after the war it is common worldwide and gives our own pot noodle a much more interesting provenance than it deserves. Packaged ramen is not necessarily healthy; the noodles contain saturated fats, salt and lye water, (a form of caustic soda used in food processing) and the soup base often includes monosodium glutamate.

Noodles are eaten in a variety of forms, as soup, in sauce, or fried, and usually in combination with meat, fish and vegetable. Historically wheat or millet noodles, dumplings and buns were a staple food north of the ‘rice-line’ which divides China climatically along the Yangtse; rice and rice noodle displaced them in the hotter, wetter south.

Chow Mein with Duck and Chinese mushroom

Basically chow mein is a mixed fried noodle dish, similar to fried rice. There is a ‘Hong Kong’ version where the noodles are fried until they are crispy on one side, and a ‘soft’ noodle version where they are stir fried or braised. It can be made with combinations of chicken, duck, prawn, squid, pork, char siu (red-coated barbecued pork), mushroom, onion, bean sprout; ‘mixed meat’ or ‘special chow mein’ invariably includes a selection of them. Unlike fried rice all ingredients are shredded to matchstick or baton shapes.Read more

Dec 7

On Hot and Sour Soup

hotandsoursoupAlthough it was July it was a miserable Sunday night in Leicester, and after an unrewarding trawl of town centre pubs I set my sights on a Chinese supper at a small restaurant on London Rd.

The menu had caught my attention earlier featuring a combination of Hakka and Manchurian ‘specials’, an unusual combination. The barren, arid, harsh, cold, under-populated North East, of ‘barbarians’, livestock and wheat, and the lush densely-populated sub-tropical South East of three-cropped rice and vegetables, fruits and fish. The Hakka are those Chinese peoples of the South East Coast who, as sea-going fishermen and explorers, are to be found in long-established colonies across East Asia and beyond. Indeed the illustrious Mrs C., who had aroused my interest in Chinese cooking, is a Hakka. The Manchu lived in various degrees of conflict with their Chinese neighbours before overrunning them in 1644 to set up the Manchu dynasty, which was only displaced by the new Republic in 1912. So I was intrigued.

It was after 10.30pm and I was the only customer but it did not dim the welcome I received. Being a lousy cold damp night I settled for a hot and sour soup and a Hakka Chow Mein (which turned out to be roughly identical to any standard mixed meat Chow Mein or fried noodle). However the host initiated this article by asking if I wanted my soup served first. In Chinese cuisine, putting aside the snack or fast food soup noodle in all its forms (Lu Mein), soup is usually served not as a prelude to, but with or at the end of, the meal.

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Dec 7

On Tea

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My beverage of choice at work is invariably green tea, why this generates so much interest I’m not sure. General observations never rise much above its supposed resemblance to chopped cabbage or skunk (green cannabis). Colleagues generally assume it’s some kind of health fad or that I’m a member of a weird cult, I tell them I don’t want to sit and drink six cups of tea-bag tea a day each containing one spoon of sugar - I’ve never taken to tea without sugar (or to tea bags). However, since I’m partial to any amount of chocolate biscuits, and a daily intake of steak pies, chips or burgers, any supposed health dividend holds little water. Whereas my green tea does.Read more

Dec 7

On Sweet and Sour Pork

sweetandsourporkJust as chicken tikka masala became the signature dish of the British curry house fifty years ago, sweet and sour pork was the safe choice in the Chinese restaurant or takeaway.

In those days, when unsophisticated palates were mixed with rising living standards, the lure of the Orient was generally tempered by a desire for familiarity and comfort.

And what could be more comforting than chunks of tender meat coated in a familiar deep-fried crispy batter and smothered in a bright red sticky, gooey, sweet sauce? Put simply, it was nursery food.

Of course, that version of sweet and sour pork demonstrated yet again the entrepreneurial nous of the small restaurateur or take-away owner in providing a menu of familiar ingredients, cooked in an apparently familiar way, pandering to our universal weakness for the sweet, the sour and the savoury.

Needless to say, the original South Chinese ­– i.e. Cantonese or Hong Kong ­– version of this once-ubiquitous dish has its roots in classical banquet cuisine, and its cooking exemplifies the virtues of the art and chemistry of stir frying. Today, there is probably a 50:50 chance of getting something resembling the traditional dish from your local take-away as opposed to the deep-fried version which once dominated.

My version of sweet and sour pork owes everything to Kenneth Lo’s ‘Encyclopaedia of Chinese Cookery’, a seminal 1970s work in which the ground-breaking restaurateur strips bare the fundamentals of Chinese cuisine, from its history and philosophy to its ingredients, techniques and etiquette.Read more