Made in China... Or is it?

  • Vir Sanghvi
  • Updated: Jan 09, 2016 21:40 IST
(Photo: Shutterstock)

We don’t often realise this but there is no such thing as ‘Chinese food’ just as there is no one cuisine that can be called ‘Indian food’. ‘Chinese food’ should refer to the cuisine of the mainland but this is a problematic definition.

First of all, the mainland is vast and its cuisine has as many (if not more) regional variations than Indian cuisine. Secondly, there are significant and prosperous Chinese communities in the rest of Asia. Before Hong Kong returned to the control of the People’s Republic Of China, it was the world’s centre of Chinese cuisine because it welcomed chefs who had escaped the Communist regime and hailed from different parts of China. Even today, most people reckon that the food in Hong Kong is better than the food on the mainland.

Other overseas Chinese communities have their own traditions. The best Chinese food I have eaten was in a restaurant in Taiwan. The famous Din Tai Fung dim sum chain, for instance, is Taiwanese and not from the mainland, though outside of China, we tend to group everything together as ‘Chinese’.

In Singapore and Malaysia, the food of the overseas Chinese communities is influenced by the local culture and tends to be significantly different from the food on the mainland. Anybody who knows Chinese food well will be able to tell, after a couple of bites, whether the chef is from Malaysia/Singapore or mainland China.

There is a final factor. In nearly every non-Chinese dominated society where the overseas Chinese have settled, they have made their living by running restaurants. Till fairly recently, around 95 per cent of these ‘Chinese restaurants’ served food that the Chinese owners and chefs would not eat themselves at home.

This led to the development of new schools of ‘Chinese’ cuisine. It started with America, where overseas Chinese invented a menu (American chop suey, etc), based vaguely on the Cantonese tradition, that became the basis of Chinese restaurant menus all over the world. In India we have our own Sino-Ludhianvi, a cuisine that no Chinese person would call his own and which, in any case, is mostly cooked by non-Chinese chefs.

Britain is a curious case. The Chinese went into the restaurant trade soon after they arrived in the UK, and like Chinese restaurateurs everywhere, they served a variation on the US-style chop suey menu. Gradually, a British school of Chinese-food-for-white-people developed. Takeaway places made a few thick sauces, deep-fried everything in batter and then dunked it into those lurid, viscous sauces. At relatively more upmarket restaurants, they invented variations of classic Chinese dishes. None of them knew how to make Peking Duck, so they served Crispy Aromatic Duck, a useless dish in which the duck was deep-fried rather than roasted in the oven. But because they served it with traditional Peking Duck accompaniments (pancakes, sliced cucumber, scallions and plum – rather than hoisin – sauce), they were able to pretend that this was haute cuisine.

If you look closely enough at the top Chinese restaurants in India, you will be able to tell the difference in their styles of cuisine. The Delhi Hyatt Regency’s China Kitchen, the Chinese restaurant I eat at most often, relies on six chefs from the mainland, so the food there is entirely different from most other Chinese places. It’s been years since anyone I know has been to the Delhi Oberoi’s Taipan, but the food used to be Singapore Chinese. Bombay’s Pan Asian at the ITC Grand Maratha had mainland Chinese because chef Liang is from Beijing. The Taj’s restaurants have no clear style of cuisine and range from Punjabi Chinese (House of Ming) to Bandra Chinese (Ming Yang) to Not-Sure-If-It-Is-Chinese (Golden Dragon).

From the source: Delhi’s China Kitchen relies on six chefs from the mainland so the food there is different from most other Chinese places.

But the strongest influence on upmarket Chinese food in India is Britain. Both Hakkasan and Yauatcha are London Chinese. Chi Ni at the Dusit in Delhi is inspired by London’s Kai. The Royal China chain is originally from London. I don’t know if the microwave chain, Ping Pong, is still around in India, but it made its name in London.

So nearly every time you go out for an expensive ‘authentic’ Chinese meal in India, you are going for Chinese food as re-interpreted in the UK. There’s nothing wrong with that – Yauatcha, Hakkasan and Kai all have Michelin stars in London – but it reminds us that there is no single entity called ‘Chinese food’.

Yauatcha is London-Chinese.

At least some of the London restaurants have kitchens that are largely staffed by overseas Chinese from Singapore and Malaysia. So the food at Hakkasan, for instance, is heavily influenced by Singapore-style Chinese. One reason why the dim sum is so much better than the stir-fries at all Yauatchas is because the Malaysian chefs (overseas Chinese, though) tend to use sweeter flavours when it comes to saucing. Kai is owned by an overseas Chinese from Malaysia so the food is significantly different from anything you would get in Shanghai, for instance.

And then, the upmarket London Chinese restaurants have created their own dishes. When Alan Yau opened the hugely influential first Hakkasan, he served Wagyu stir-fries and introduced Japanese influences to the food. Many of the dishes on the Kai menu (reproduced at Delhi’s Chi Ni) were invented in London.

You can argue about whether this is a good thing or not but you can’t deny a) that it works (in London) and b) that the most devoted fans of expensive London Chinese are Indian millionaires. If LN Mittal, Naresh Goyal and a few others stopped eating out, such places as Kai would face a cash-crunch.

I was reminded of this when I went to Park Chinois, the eagerly-awaited new London venture from Alan Yau (who has long since sold Hakkasan and Yauatcha). The idea is to recreate jazz-age glamour and evoke the spirit of the 1930s in swanky surroundings in Mayfair. It is not – dare one say this? – an original idea. David Tang and Hong Kong’s Peninsula Hotels flirted with similar concepts before.

But Yau’s Park Chinois is superbly executed. Unlike his recent venture, The Duck & Rice, which combines Hong Kong roast meats with British-style cheap Chinese (for a nostalgia factor, I’m guessing), this is a class act with no hiccups of the kind that marred the opening months of The Duck & Rice.

It is an awkward, narrow room slightly reminiscent of the dining room in a cruise ship, but on the night I went, food and service were both outstanding. The central conceit of the restaurant is that you take the roast duck, shred it, put it into a pancake and then smear caviar (rather than Hoisin sauce) all over the bits of duck before rolling up the pancake. I tried it and frankly, I thought the caviar added virtually nothing to the duck – in fact, it was a waste of caviar. That said, the duck was terrific and the caviar was of good quality and not unreasonably priced. It just made more sense to eat both separately.

In case anyone doubted that rich Indians were the world’s best customers for British-Chinese food, in the middle of this extravagant, caviar-filled menu is a dish called Hakka Paneer. Yau knows who his best customers are and what they like!

The one expensive Chinese restaurant in London that gets few Indian guests is Hunan in Pimlico. It was founded in the early 1980s by a Taiwanese chef known only as Mr Peng. The food is not really very Hunanese but that doesn’t matter because you can’t order anything, anyway. Mr Peng takes one look at you and decides what you will eat. Then a procession of small plates follows and only stops when you say you are full. When the bill arrives it is not itemised and you pay what Mr Peng thinks you should. (Around 70 pounds per head usually, but it can go up.)

I’d always read good things about Hunan from its fans – and Mr Peng started doing this long before tasting menus became the rage – but had never gone because it is hard to get in. This time, chef Sriram of Quilon, who has known Mr Peng for 15 years, took me and we had an amazing meal, largely I suspect because of the respect Mr Peng has for Sriram.

I don’t remember everything we ate, but some dishes stand out: an intense pork soup, fried rice with scallions, and even (a first for me) a shredded pig’s kidney with vegetables.

It’s not food for everyone. But in this era of Malaysian sauces, Hakka Paneer and caviar with everything, it is nice to know that there’s one Chinese restaurant in London where the chef does what he wants and not what the customer demands. And it is one restaurant that won’t open a branch in India anytime soon!

From HT Brunch, January 10, 2016

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