Tuesday 30 August 2011

Barrio Chino - Havana's Chinatown

Like many a Chinatown around the world, a giant archway or paifang (牌坊) welcomes visitors to Havana's Barrio Chino. Sadly, this is just a facade, and what lies behind is a mere shadow of what was what was once the largest Chinatown in Latin America.

Many of you might be surprised to discover that there is a Chinatown in Havana, but Chinese migrants first arrived in Cuba as long ago as 1847. This first wave of migration consisted of indentured labour that worked largely in the sugar plantations. After their contracts ended, many moved to Havana and the Barrio Chino was born.

Later waves of Chinese migration followed and the Barrio Chino flourished. That was until 1959 when the Cuban Revolution swept Fidel Castro to power. This saw an exodus to the United States of not just the elite but also the middle classes. Amongst those that fled were significant numbers of Chinese Cubans who as business owners felt threatened by Castro's revolutionary socialist regime. Of those that remained, most intermarried and assimilated into Cuban society.

This, consequently, led to a decline in the Chinese Cuban population and the fortunes of the Barrio Chino. So much so that by the 1990's, the Barrio Chino had contracted to a few streets and was on the brink of extinction. That it survived was due to a combination of factors: the opening up of Cuba to tourism; the efforts of the remaining Chinese Cubans to preserve their identity and culture; and improving relations between Cuba and China. And it is arguably this last factor that is the most important, as much of the redevelopment (including the giant archway) was funded by the Chinese government.

Despite regeneration, much of the Barrio Chino remains in a state of disrepair. However, there are some vestiges of its golden age. In particular, some of the architecture has a distinct Chinese feel that wouldn't be out of place in China itself. So it's a bit of a shame that some of these buildings have been so thoughtlessly redecorated. I surprised myself at how angry I felt at the positioning of a garish modern sign that obscured the beautiful original Chinese shop front of one particular building.

My mood didn't lighten when I found myself on Cuchillo, the redeveloped part of the Barrio Chino. Even by the gaudy standards of Chinatowns around the world, this street has a kitsch quality verging on pastiche. It just didn't feel like a real community, if anything, it felt more like a film set. This artificial experience was capped off by the appearance of waiters, hawking for business, who didn't look Chinese. In fairness, they could have been part-Chinese but they were unable to understand either Cantonese or Mandarin.

The menus they were hawking also made my heart sink, as the words chop suey featured prominently. Of all the restaurants that I came across, only one (Tien Tan) seemed to offer authentic dishes. It was no coincidence that it was also the only menu that I saw which had Chinese writing on it. However, I wasn't in the mood to dine in a grand restaurant. I was looking for something simple.

I thought I'd found just the place when I spied a take-away window at the side of a restaurant called El Gran Dragon. I thought that Chinese buns and dumplings would be available. I was sadly mistaken. They weren't. The only food that seemed to be on offer was pizza slices and toasted sandwiches. I decided to lunch elsewhere.

Walking away from the Barrio Chino, I experienced mixed emotions. Part of me felt profoundly sad that Havana's Chinatown is a mix of tacky redevelopment and urban deprivation. That said, history can't be rewritten, and it's unlikely that the Barrio Chino will ever recapture its glory days. So rather than dwell on the negatives, let's celebrate that Havana's Chinatown is hanging on in there. Whilst it might not be particularly big or authentic, its very existence is a tribute to the contribution of the Chinese community to Cuban society.

Friday 26 August 2011

Food Blog Bingo

I have no doubt that someone somewhere has already come up with the concept of food blog bingo. After all, it's just a variation of the famous 'wank words bingo' that people play during tedious office meetings. Anyway, here's my first stab at food blog bingo. Are there any words/phrases that you think are missing and should be on the bingo card?

Sunday 21 August 2011

WANTED: Tea Smoked Duck 樟茶鴨

I've often wondered why certain Chinese dishes are widely available in the UK while others are seemingly impossible to track down. For example, when it comes to Sichuan food, it's a given that you'll find the likes of water-boiled beef (shui zhu niu rou 水煮牛肉) and fried chicken with chillies (la zi ji 辣子雞) in any authentic Sichuan eatery. And then there are dishes such as kung po chicken (宮保雞丁) and ma po tofu (麻婆豆腐) that originate in Sichuan but can be found in generic Chinese restaurants and take-aways everywhere.

However, one classic Sichuan dish that I've never seen in the UK is tea-smoked duck (zhangcha ya 樟茶鴨). In this dish, the duck is smoked with tea and camphor before being steamed then deep-fried. It's usually served with clam-shaped steamed 'cut buns' (ge bao 割包).

The version I had in Hong Kong at the Modern China restaurant was mighty fine. Smoky tender duck with crispy skin served in a fluffy pillow of a bun. It came with accompanying dips of seasoned salt and sweet chilli sauce (I have no idea whether this is authentic or not). I've also eaten this dish in Beijing before, and I've been told that it's a very famous Sichuan speciality. So, why I can't find this dish in dear old Blighty? After all, it is so much tastier than the crispy aromatic duck with pancakes that the British adore.

Anyway, in a first for the blog, I'm offering a prize to anyone who can find tea-smoked duck in London. The first person to contact me with details of a restaurant that serves this dish will be invited to join me to sample it for free. There is some small print in that the dish has to be the one with the Chinese name: zhangcha ya 樟茶鴨.

Come to think of it, let's spread the competition to the rest of the UK. I'll attempt to offer the same prize if I can get to the restaurant easily. In other words, places like Birmingham and Manchester will be OK, but I'd probably give it a miss if the winning restaurant happens to be in the Scottish Highlands or Northern Ireland.

Update 22 August 2011: Well, we have a winner. Congratulations to @Serenak105, who tracked down tea smoked duck at the Hunan restaurant in Pimlico. She also discovered tea smoked duck salad at the Chinese Cricket Club, but being a stickler for the rules, I didn't let her have that! However, just because she's found one restaurant in London that serves tea smoked duck doesn't mean the search is over. I'd love it if all of you out there could find more places that serve this Sichuan speciality.

PS: Modern China is what's known as a jing-chuan-hu 京川滬 restaurant. This concept, popular in Hong Kong, sees restaurants serve the cuisines of Beijing, Sichuan and Shanghai (separately not fused). To be honest, other than the duck, the Sichuan dishes that we sampled were mediocre. Much better were the Shanghai dishes such as xiao long bao and stir-fried river prawns.

Modern China 金滿庭
10/F, Food Forum, Times Square, 1 Matheson Street, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
香港 銅鑼灣 勿地臣街1號時代廣場食通天10樓
Tel: +852-2506-2525
Nearest MTR: Causeway Bay 銅鑼灣

Monday 15 August 2011

Lunch @ Cây Tre Soho

Is the blingification of ethnic restaurants in Britain, a good or bad thing? Instinctively, I'm wary of trendy design-driven restaurants. Phrases like: 'style over substance', 'superficial and shallow' and 'should've spent the money on the kitchen', all spring to mind when I come across such places. But am I too hard on these trendy joints? And why?

To answer these questions, let's go back in time to the late 1980's. Way back then, the best Chinese restaurant in Manchester, quite possibly Britain, was reckoned to be Yang Sing. My family were regulars, and I remember enjoying many a fine dim sum session there, but then we stopped going. I'm not sure why, but I suspect that it was due to Pa Noodles feeling aggrieved that he was paying extra for interior design rather than for better food.

I've not been to Yang Sing in years, but from what I see on their website, it is spectacularly bling and spectacularly expensive. Suffice to say, one is more likely to see a footballer or soap star eating there than extended Chinese families. But is this a problem? It's a free country, and if I don't like it then I can lump it. Just quite what this has to do with Cây Tre, I will get to in a moment, I promise.

Fast forward twenty or so years, and I have my own run-in with blingification, at Viet Grill. This stylish Shoreditch restaurant is reckoned to be one of London's finest Vietnamese eateries, but I had a deeply unsatisfying time there. And try as hard as I might, I couldn't help but feel, rightly or wrongly, that the deficiencies in the kitchen were in someway connected to the uber-trendy interior design and flashy cocktail bar. So I can't say I was too excited when the restaurant group that operates Viet Grill and its sister restaurant, Cây Tre, opened a Soho branch of the latter.

But then I saw a very intriguing bowl of noodles on the menu: ox cheek au vin pho (phở sốt vang). Any negative thoughts of blingification were put to one side, and I popped along to Cây Tre for a spot of lunch. First impressions weren't great, as I thought the bowl was a bit on the small side for £9.50.

But appearances can be deceptive, as it was surprisingly filling with loads of ox cheeks – at least six, maybe seven chunky pieces. These cheeks were top class with tender strands of meat, but whilst perfectly braised, I thought the seasoning was a bit too subtle. That said, I'm using the citrusy anise notes of Cantonese braised beef brisket as a reference point, and this comparison may not be entirely fair.

By contrast, the broth had a great depth of flavour, and I wish there was more of it. The rice noodles were smooth and slippery, and I could have no complaints about the other toppings. The one thing that did perplex me was the whole chilli on the side. Not that the soup needed extra heat, but were you really expected to chop up the chilli yourself? Anyway, save for my blogger nitpicking, this was a mighty fine bowl of noodles, and one of the best that I've sampled in London in a long while.

Update 2 Nov 2011 – the ox cheek au vin pho has mutated into a strange almost stew like dish. Gone is the side plate of beansprouts, herbs and lime. Instead, the herbs are already in the bowl but the beansprouts have been replaced by more homely accompaniments in the form of potato and carrot. It's like the chef was inspired to tinker with this dish following a trip to Ireland. It's still tasty, but I think I will revert to more orthodox noodles on my next visit to Cây Tre.

Update 3 Nov 2011 In all fairness to Cây Tre, following a twitter exchange, they announced that they were tweaking the ox cheek au vin pho once more. The offending carrot and potato will be replaced by Thai basil and saw-tooth coriander respectively. I don't doubt their honesty, but do let me know if any rogue ingredients turn up in this, or any other, dish.

I also had some summer rolls w/steamed pork (gỏi cuốn lớn) to start. These were freshly made, and properly served at room temperature. Whilst tasty, I thought they were poor value at £5. And overall the one thing that did rankle was the price. With a drink and service, there was very little change from £20. It was at this point I also thought it a bit cheeky that for all their flashy décor, Cây Tre use disposable chopsticks.

That said, I have no problem forking out £9.50 for the ox cheek au vin pho. After all, you can't get a decent bowl of noodles at Wagamama for that price. Mind you, you can't get a decent bowl of noodles at Wagamama at any price!

So going back to my original question – is the blingification of ethnic restaurants, good or bad? Well, I've come to the conclusion that it's neither. It really isn't that important. Yes, there are some bling places that take the piss, but there are plenty that don't. Without really giving their menu a proper going over, I'm not sure which category Cây Tre falls into. Mind you, if the rest of the menu is as good as the ox cheek au vin pho then I'm willing to give this temple of bling the benefit of the doubt.

Cay Tre Soho on Urbanspoon

Cây Tre, 42-43 Dean Street, London W1D 4QD (Tel: 020-7317-9118)
Nearest tube: Leicester Square, Tottenham Court Road

Wednesday 10 August 2011

The Golden Noodle Awards 2010-11

Eat Noodles Love Noodles is two today! And to celebrate, it's hosting the awards ceremony that nobody is talking about: The Golden Noodle Awards.

The Golden Noodle – awarded to the best noodles in the world
Winner: No.1 Special Noodles (特製らー麺) by Kudan Ikaruga (九段 斑鳩)

Well OK, not necessarily the best noodles in the world, but the best I've tasted. I've decided to go global this year to encompass the amazing noodles that I've come across on my travels.

I mean it would be criminal to exclude places like Kuala Lumpur's Soo Kee where I had shan har mein, a dish of giant river prawns atop crispy noodles. And noodle joints like Mak's Noodle and Tsim Chai Kee in Hong Kong, where you can pick up a bowl of wonton noodles for less than the equivalent of £2. But as good as these places are, they fall just outside the medal positions.

Taking the bronze medal is the very posh Steamed Fresh Flower Crab with Aged Shaoxing Wine, Fragrant Chicken Oil & Flat Rice Noodles at The Chairman. This Hong Kong restaurant's signature dish has a rich Shaoxing wine based sauce that is soaked up by some very special rice noodles (chenchun fun 陳村粉). By the way, the flower crab was pretty tasty too!

We stay in Hong Kong for the silver medallist, the prawn roe noodles w/cuttlefish balls and shui jiao dumplings at Lau Sum Kee. These noodles are made the traditional way with a bamboo log and come with a prawn roe topping that is ever so addictive. In any other year, this dish would've been a certain winner.

As much as I enjoyed the noodles from Hong Kong, they're eclipsed by Tokyo's finest: No.1 Special Noodles (特製らー麺) from Kudan Ikaruga (九段 斑鳩). What's not to love about this dish? Springy ramen noodles, chashu pork, menma, nori and a perfectly boiled egg were all superb but what really made these noodles special was the amazing broth – a blend of tonkotsu (pork bone) and gyoku (fish).

The Golden Restaurant – awarded to the best London restaurant new to me
Winner: Launceston Place

I'm not what you call a dedicated follower of fashion, which is why the likes of Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, Pollen Street Social and Spuntino are absent from the shortlist. Judging by my past track record, I might end up checking these places out sometime in 2013, assuming they're still around then.

What I have been doing is sampling dim sum in unlikely corners of London. It'd be fair to say that Teddington, Earl's Court and Mayfair aren't exactly the kind of places that you'd expect to find dumplings of a higher order. But find them I did at Imperial China, Dragon Palace and Princess Garden of Mayfair respectively. Of this trio, the latter is a cut above and takes the bronze.

The trend for regional Chinese cuisine in London shows no sign of abating. In addition to the increasingly familiar flavours of Sichuan, I've checked out London restaurants specialising in the food of Beijing, Fuzhou, Hunan, and Shanghai. Of these I'm a big fan of New Aroma, whose Fuzhou offerings came close to getting a medal. However, it's the Hunan menu at Soho's Ba Shan, which deservedly picks up the silver medal in this category.

Years after every single other London blogger, I finally got round to visiting Launceston Place. To me, this classy yet understated establishment epitomises the best of British with dishes like duck egg on toast with Somerset truffle (as pictured). Quite how this superior restaurant hasn't got a Michelin star is beyond me. But you know what? Loads of places can get a Michelin star but there's only one winner of The Golden Restaurant. Take a bow, Tristan Welch!

The Golden Dish – awarded to my favourite (non-noodle) dish of the year
Winner: Fish-skin dumplings (魚皮餃) by 花好悦园酒家

To be eligible for this award, the dish has to be one that I've eaten for the first time. So for example, the typhoon shelter crab from Hong Kong's Under Bridge Spicy Crab and the chilli crab from Singapore's No Signboard Seafood are both ineligible, as I first sampled these dishes years ago.

However, one crab dish that does qualify is fried crab with sambal belachan. Now one might think that this is a dish indigenous to Malaysia, but in fact it was created in Hendon at a Malaysian Chinese restaurant by the name of Gourmet Garden. Belachan, a fermented shrimp paste, is an acquired taste but I defy anyone not to be knocked out by the fiery shrimpy flavours that makes this dish a worthy bronze medallist.

I visited Japan for the first time this year and I ate like a king. Rather surprisingly, one of my favourite dishes was kara-age aka Japanese fried chicken served with mayo and a squeeze of lime. Now I've eaten kara-age before, but to all intents and purposes, the fried chicken at Tokyo's Charari Charari might as well have been a different dish. I know I'm bending my rules, but they're my rules to be bent, so it's silver for the kara-age.

Guangzhou's 花好悦园酒家 is, in my humble opinion, one of the best restaurants that I've ever been to. Any number of dishes that I sampled there would've been a worthy winner of this award, but for the fact that I've eaten many of them before. However, there is one dish that I fell in love with: fish-skin dumplings (魚皮餃), made with a fish-skin wrapper and filled with pounded fish meat. Served in a broth with vegetables, this dish encapsulates the soul of Cantonese cuisine.

The Red Card – awarded to who or what I want to send off the field of food
Winner: 'Laksa' by The Providores & Tapa Room

I always try to be positive on my blog, but every now and then I get the hump. In particular, I got angry at Marks & Spencer's third-rate attempt at dim sum. And San Pellegrino's World's Best 50 Restaurants sent me apoplectic with rage - whilst there are some excellent restaurants on there, much of it reads like a list of where Russian oligarchs like to hang out with their arm candy.

However, the winner of The Red Card award, by a country mile, is the 'laksa' served at The Providores & Tapa Room. Or to give it its full name: smoked coconut, tamarind and liquorice laksa with a chicken lime leaf dumpling, green tea noodles, crispy shallots and coriander.

It's this kind of crap that gives fusion a bad name. Notwithstanding the incompatibility of subtle green tea noodles with a flavoursome aromatic broth, it was also poorly executed – the noodles were overcooked and the dumpling virtually had no filling.

Perhaps if I was richer and had the appetite of a quail then I wouldn't have been so pissed off at the high price tag and miniscule portion size. But for me, the laksa from The Providores & Tapa Room should be sent-off now!

Song of the Year – awarded to my favourite song of the last year
Winner: Blackout by Anna Calvi

I'll just let the music do the talking. Suffice to say, if there were any justice in the world then Anna Calvi would be a global superstar.

If you want to check out last year's Golden Noodle Awards then please click here.

Monday 8 August 2011

I'm Back from Cuba

Trinidad, Cuba
Did you miss me? I had a great couple of weeks in Cuba, but I won't be blogging too much about my break. I know I normally love to write loads about my travels but this was a holiday for both the blog and me!

Having said that, here's a quick plug for where I had my best meal in Cuba: Villa Noel, a casa particular just outside of Viñales. I didn't actually stay at Villa Noel but they do serve meals to non-residents if you contact them in advance (big thanks to our guide for arranging dinner there).

Villa Noel, Viñales
The food is simple Cuban fare that is prepared using the freshest ingredients. We started with avocado salad followed by platters of pork, chicken, red snapper and lobster served with sides of rice, beans, chicharitas (fried plantain chips), sweet potatoes and cooked bananas. For dessert, we tucked into platters of guava, mango, papaya and pineapple. It was all good.

Sadly, food of this quality is the exception rather than the rule when eating out in Cuba. However, given the privations that most Cubans have to endure, in particular, their reliance on the libreta (ration book), one shouldn't complain too much about this situation. Indeed I look back with a sense of shame that I was fretting about the quality of the food before coming to Cuba.

Anyway, I'm back home now, and after much badgering – yes, I do mean you, Aaron and Su-Lin – I've finally decided to join Twitter. I'll be honest, I'm a former Twitter-sceptic, and part of me is still unsure as to whether I should tweet. However, I'll give it a go, not least because I want to get some momentum behind my campaign for Din Tai Fung (鼎泰豐) to open in London.