The UK’s Chinese food revolution | Chinese food and drink | The Guardian

In 1996, I sent my first proposal for a Sichuan cookbook to six publishers. The rejection letters came in one by one. Each of them explained, in one way or another, that a regional Chinese cookbook was too niche for British readers. Crestfallen, I was also incredulous, having spent nearly two years in Sichuan, eating widely and being amazed by the local food. Sichuan was no backwater, but a province with a population of 80 million. Within China, it was famed for its thrilling and distinctive cuisine. Could these editors not let me persuade them of the incomparable charms of fish-fragrant aubergines and mapo tofu?

In retrospect, their hesitation was understandable. Although China had embarked on its “reform and opening up” in 1992, to most Britons it still seemed remote and irrelevant. In the UK, the Chinese food scene had mainly settled into a pattern of Cantonese dishes adapted to British tastes. “Chinese food” was both so familiar that it seemed passé and hardly known at all. Practically the only visible glimmers of China’s breathtaking regional cuisines were occasional references to “Szechwan” or “Peking” flavours on the menus of otherwise Cantonese restaurants. While the pioneering cookbooks of Ken Hom, Yan-kit So and Deh-ta Hsiung had introduced British readers to classic recipes from all over China, China’s decades of introversion had offered outsiders little chance to explore its regional food traditions in the way they had the cuisines of southern Europe.

Historically, the first Chinese eating houses in Britain weren’t aimed at local customers at all, but at Chinese sailors who had settled around the docks in London’s Limehouse, Liverpool and other cities in the 19th century. The country’s small Chinese population grew in the early 20th century when a new trickle of students joined the original settlers. They all faced discrimination, exacerbated by Sax Rohmer’s 1913 novel The Mystery of Fu Manchu, which painted a lurid picture of Chinese Limehouse as a hotbed of opium and crime.

The altered palates of servicemen returning from Asia after the second world war helped to shift attitudes

It was only when Chinese restaurants started opening in central London that they began to win the affections of customers who were not Chinese. The first in the West End seems to have been the Cathay in 1908; more appeared in the 1930s and 1940s, including the popular Ley-On in Wardour Street.

By all accounts, it was the altered palates of servicemen returning from Asia after the second world war that helped to shift attitudes.

After the war, the number of Chinese restaurants in London and other cities grew steadily. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a new wave of Cantonese immigrants from Hong Kong arrived, followed in the 1970s by thousands of ethnic Chinese refugees from Vietnam: many ended up in catering. In the 1960s, clusters of Chinese restaurants appeared around Gerrard Street in central London and in central Manchester, both of which quickly became established as their cities’ Chinatowns. The old Limehouse Chinatown, largely destroyed by wartime bombing, sputtered out as Chinese restaurateurs focused their energies on Soho.

By the time I started reviewing restaurants for Time Out in the late 1990s, Chinese restaurants and takeaways were a fixture across the country. Most specialised in the lightly flavoured cuisine of the Cantonese south: dim sum, roast ducks and barbecued meats that hung enticingly in restaurant windows, steamed seafood, stir-fried vegetables and claypot stews. While authentic, traditional Cantonese cooking could be found at the much-loved Mr Kong, Poon’s and the New Mayflower in London, many Britons preferred dishes adapted to their tastes: crispy duck, sweet and sour pork and egg fried rice. More interesting delicacies were hidden away on Chinese-language menus. There was little to challenge the Cantonese dominance of the trade. Restaurants were mostly Cantonese-run, as were the importers and sellers of ingredients. Zingy Sichuan pepper and earthy Pixian chilli bean paste were nowhere to be found. Cantonese was the language of Chinatown: hardly anyone spoke fluent Mandarin.


Illustration: Blood Bros./The Observer

Over the past two decades, there has been a revolution in Chinese food in Britain, driven by the waves and ripples of China’s emergence as a new cultural and political force in the world. The old Cantonese guard have mostly retired from the catering business, their children, educated in the UK, moving into white-collar jobs. Since China began to open up in the early 1990s, a new generation of Chinese people, not only from the Cantonese south but all over the country, have had the chance to explore the world. Immigrants from other regions, particularly south-eastern Fujian province, have come to work in the kitchens of established Chinese restaurants and later to open their own. Students have flocked to British schools and universities, alongside growing numbers of Chinese tourists (the number of Chinese visits to Britain almost quadrupled between 2008 and 2018).

These twin forces of a newly diverse population of Chinese restaurant workers and an equally diverse pool of Chinese customers have been equally important in reshaping British Chinese food. In the past, Chinese restaurants could only survive by catering for the British tastes of their time; now, particularly in university cities, they have a substantial market of recent arrivals from China, many of them young people, who want to eat the kind of food they enjoy at home. And since the late 1990s, that food has overwhelmingly been the spicy cuisine of Sichuan province.

When my Sichuan cookbook was eventually published in 2001, Sichuanese food was still an unknown quantity for the vast majority of British people. Food journalists I met around that time had never experienced the arresting tingle of good Sichuan pepper on their lips or tasted a properly fiery mapo tofu. Little had been written about Sichuanese food in English: a couple of American cookbooks (Robert Delfs’s The Good Food of Szechwan and Ellen Schrecker’s Mrs Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook) had been the first to showcase the cuisine, but both were out of print. There were few Sichuanese people living in western countries, and until the 1990s, when serendipity first took me to Sichuan, it would have been impossible for a foreigner to research a regional Chinese cookbook on the ground, collecting recipes and describing at first hand local life and culture as I was able to. The culinary institute at which I’d trained in the Sichuanese capital, Chengdu, had never previously had a foreign student. In the UK, “Szechwan” (an older transliteration than the current “Sichuan’) was merely used to describe generically spicy dishes on Chinese menus.

As the new market economy emerged in China in the 1990s, the restaurant scene, in the doldrums since the Cultural Revolution, once again erupted into life. With economic revival came an appetite for one of China liveliest and most stimulating cuisines. Sichuanese restaurants and snack shops opened all over the country; dishes such as shuizhuyu (tender slices of fish in a seething sea of oil and chillies) and hotpot became wildly fashionable. It was only natural that the new wave of Chinese sojourners and immigrants making their way to Britain brought this fashion with them.

Lamb ribs with cumin at My Sichuan restaurant, Oxford

Lamb ribs with cumin at My Sichuan restaurant, Oxford.

Photograph: Sam Frost/The Observer

Already, around the time my book was published, the first shoots of a Sichuan restaurant spring had appeared in London. I began hearing rumours from Chinese friends of small restaurants in Acton and Kilburn serving authentic Sichuanese food, and was astonished when I visited Angeles on the Kilburn High Road, with its menu of traditional Sichuan dishes. It was the opening of Barshu in Soho in 2006 that really put the cuisine on the map. A businessman from Shandong province, Shao Wei, wanted to open a smart, central restaurant serving the kind of food his highly educated and often affluent Chinese friends wanted to eat. He assembled a team of five chefs from Sichuan, led by the talented Fu Wenhong, imported key seasonings from China and, before the restaurant opened, brought me on board as a consultant. From the beginning, we decided to dispense with crispy duck and other London Chinese staples, and offer a contemporary Sichuanese menu on Chinese terms.

These openings are only a taste of China’s gastronomic diversity, but have shattered stereotypes of a monolithic cuisine

Barshu was at the forefront of a broader diversification of the Chinese restaurant scene. Before long, there were Sichuan restaurants in many parts of London, as well as in Manchester, Nottingham, Birmingham, Oxford and other cities; even Cantonese restaurants began adding Sichuan dishes to their menus. Spicy Sichuan hotpot, adored throughout China, started to appear in specialist restaurants with tables cut out to hold bubbling cauldrons of chilli-laced broth.

The cuisines of Hunan, another chilli-loving province, and the Dongbei (north-eastern) region followed in Sichuan’s spicy wake. Many of the new regional restaurants started out with no English-language publicity but simply an eye for attracting Chinese customers, their menus reflecting Chinese more than local culinary fashions. The street food of Xi’an and the great north west has begun to make its mark in London with the opening of Xi’an Impression, Master Wei, Murger Han and Xi’an Biang Biang Noodles. You can even head for the Silk Road in Walthamstow, where Uyghur chef Mukaddes Yadikar cooks up the specialities of her Xinjiang home at her restaurant Etles.

XI’an Biangbang Noodles, Biang biang ribbon noodles with beef

Biang biang noodles with beef from Xi’an Biang Biang Noodles in Spitalfields, London.

Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Aside from regional flavours, the Chinese food scene has diversified in other ways. In London, diners can take their pick from a meal of shared dishes with rice, a dim sum lunch, a hotpot feast, a dumpling extravaganza at xiaolongbao specialist Din Tai Fung or an elegant mah jong dinner at Xu. Homegrown restaurants are now in competition with international brands, such as Din Tai Fung and Haidilao. In 2017, the British-born Chinese chef Andrew Wong won a Michelin star for his inventive, historically inspired cooking.

Beyond the formal dining sector, street food stalls and pop-ups have opened the kitchen door to new tastes and styles. There are toasty-bottomed Shanghainese buns on offer at Dumpling Shack in Spitalfields Market and spicy Chongqing noodles cooked up in the basement of a pub in Marylebone by Liu Xiaomian. Lillian Luk, originally from Shanghai, offers home-cooked Jiangnan food at her Shanghai Supper Clubs; another Shanghainese chef, Jason Li, hosts acclaimed dinners in Wapping under the name Dream of Shanghai. While these openings still represent only a taste of China’s extraordinary gastronomic diversity, they have shattered old stereotypes of a monolithic Chinese cuisine.

The availability of Chinese ingredients has also been transformed. Chinese supermarkets stock Sichuan chilli bean paste, fresh green Sichuan pepper, Sichuan pepper oil and facing heaven chillies. Even mainstream supermarkets sell Chinese brands favoured by Chinese customers, such as Lee Kum Kee seasonings and the addictive Laoganma chilli and black bean sauce. And while Chinatowns and Chinese superstores may have the greatest ranges of foods, a new generation of small east Asian grocers stock most of the basic ingredients for Chinese cooking.

Despite all these developments, the UK Chinese restaurant scene faces serious constraints. The tightening of immigration rules a few years ago has made it almost impossible for restaurants to bring in new chefs from China. The rapid expansion of hotpot restaurants reflects not only the popularity of the dish, but also the fact that hotpot is a relatively low-skilled business: it’s much easier to find staff to slice up raw ingredients for hotpot than chefs adept at wok cookery. There have been some attempts to introduce local training in Chinese cooking, most recently with a collaboration between Crawley College and the Tianjin School of Cuisine, but most restaurants are competing to employ Chinese chefs from the same limited pool already living in Britain.

The proliferation of exciting Chinese street food has come hand in hand with a decline in more sophisticated cuisine; in London’s Chinatown, accomplished Cantonese cooking, once the mainstay, is now almost impossible to find. Aside from these specific worries, Chinese restaurateurs, like everyone else in the business, complain of tough competition and soaring rents and rates.

When it comes to Chinese cuisine in Britain, the possibilities are almost infinite. Late 20th century convention carves China up into four or eight regional cuisines, but in truth every region, province, city and town has its own specialities. The great south-western province of Yunnan, for example, is an extraordinary patchwork of foods and flavours; even Sichuanese and Cantonese cuisines are still relatively unexplored. While Britons’ appetite for new Chinese foods may be boundless, the ability of Chinese restaurants to respond to it is tightly circumscribed. It remains to be seen whether we are at a peak of innovative Chinese cuisine in Britain, or on the brink of a multitude of new discoveries.

The Food of Sichuan by Fuchsia Dunlop (Bloomsbury Publishing, £30). To order a copy for £26.40 go to Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.