Friday 10 August 2012

The Golden Noodle Awards 2011-12

Eat Noodles Love Noodles is three today, and there's no better way to celebrate than with The Golden Noodle Awards. The awards are a bit slimmed down this year, but to keep things interesting I've introduced a couple of new awards.

The Golden Noodle
Winner: Phở sốt vang by Phở Thinh, Hanoi

In common with last year's contenders, all of my favourite noodle dishes over the past year are from overseas, specifically China and Vietnam. And it's from the latter that the winner hails. Quite simply, the phở sốt vang from Phở Thinh in Hanoi is one of the best bowls of noodles I've ever eaten. The combination of anise-scented broth, slippery smooth broad rice noodles and stewed beef in wine with a side of fried dough sticks was simply amazing.

phở sốt vang @ Phở Thinh
But as much as I enjoyed the noodles in Vietnam, the silver and bronze medals go to Chinese dishes I sampled in Beijing. Din Tai Fung, better known for their xiao long bao, takes the silver for a rather special steamed chicken noodle soup. While taking bronze is a massive dish of belt noodles in spicy garlic sauce (originating from Shaanxi province) from Qin Tang Fu.

The Golden Dim Sum
Winner: Wasabi prawn dumplings by Phoenix Palace

This Golden Dim Sum is awarded to my favourite dim sum dish in London. There are many contenders for this accolade, but the award goes to an old favourite with a twist: wasabi prawn dumplings. These slightly plumper har gau (prawn dumplings) with a nasal passage-clearing wasabi hit are a must-order at Phoenix Palace. They're so good that I don't mind the £4.20 price-tag that their presence on the specials menu demands.

Wasabi prawn dumplings @ Phoenix Palace
Coming in a close second is Princess Garden's golden cuttlefish cheung fun. This triple textural delight consisting of springy cuttlefish paste, crispy tofu skin, and slippery smooth rice noodle is the best cheung fun dish in London. In bronze medal position is the capital's finest sweet dim sum dish: chrysanthemum custard buns by Pearl Liang – remember to order these deep-fried, not steamed.

The London Gold Award
Winner: Eat St

This award celebrates what I love best about London's food scene. However, it isn't the number of Michelin stars that I want to shout out about, it's the grassroots as represented by Eat St. To the uninitiated, this collective of street food traders most famous for its stalls on King's Boulevard (round the back of King's Cross station). My favourite vendors include The Rib Man, Banhmi11 and Eat My Pies. I visit Eat St most lunchtimes and it has improved my quality of life no end, which is why they win the inaugural London Gold award.

Rib Man @ Eat St
I'd also like to give a quick mention (and joint-silver medals) to Maltby St Market and Brixton Market/Village where the likes of Bea's Diner, Kaosarn and Mama Lan ply their trade. Sadly, there are some contrary voices deeming the various stalls and traders to be too hipster/middle class/gentrified. While we're all entitled to our opinions, I find much of the criticism to be lazy, shrill and self-loathing, and I think all of these places are a welcome addition to the capital's food scene.

Anyway, that's all folks! It's time for my blog to take its summer break - see you all in September!

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Lies, Damn Lies and Fish Sauce

Although I was born in the northwest of England, my culinary upbringing was strictly Chinese. I didn't really have much choice. In common with many immigrants, my folks fought off homesickness through rustling up the dishes they grew up with. The food they cooked was typical of their hometown of Canton (now known as Guangzhou) as well as Hong Kong, where they lived before coming to the UK.

In particular, Sunday lunch was always a very special meal. My mum would get up at an ungodly hour to put a slow-cooked soup, made with pork bones and mysterious dried herbs, on the boil. My dad was in charge of the roast. Not beef or lamb, but a slab of pork belly or maybe a whole duck roasted in the traditional Cantonese way. Sometimes, there would be a steamed fish, other times, some stir-fried seafood. And then there were vegetables, which my mum would ALWAYS make me eat. I didn't properly appreciate it when I was younger, but I am forever grateful to my parents for instilling in me a deep love of my native cuisine.

So you can imagine my shock and horror when I discovered my folks have never ever used fish sauce when cooking. This revelation got me thinking what other liberties they were taking in the kitchen? After all, according to no less an authority than Gok Wan, fish sauce is a Chinese store cupboard staple. And it must be true because this rather special TV chef would liberally slap shedloads of crappy Squid Brand fish sauce into most of the dishes he rustled up on his comedy cookery show, Gok Cooks Chinese.

I am, of course, taking the piss. Don't get me wrong, I like fish sauce. Without it, Thai and Vietnamese food wouldn't be the same. However, when it comes to Chinese food, fish sauce isn't really that common. In fact, it is traditionally only used and manufactured in a small corner of southeast China by the local Chiu Chow (Teochew) and Hokkien communities. Even then I'm not so sure how common it is as a Chinese condiment, as the shelves of the shops I visited in London's Chinatown were full of fish sauce from Thailand or Vietnam with nary a bottle of Chinese-branded fish sauce to be seen.

So why is Gok Wan perpetuating the lie that fish sauce is essential for Chinese cooking? My theory is that fish sauce is being used as a shortcut to gain that elusive xian (鮮) or umami taste. The alternatives would be either to do it the old fashioned way, or to use the much-maligned MSG. (I don't really want to go into the MSG debate right now, but scientific evidence debunks the mass of hypocritical borderline-racist bullshit written about this subject.)

Just to be clear, I'm not saying fish sauce shouldn't be used in Chinese food outside of those traditional Chiu Chow/Hokkien dishes in which it already features. What I resent is that, along with a load of other misconceptions, fish sauce is portrayed as a traditional Chinese staple on Gok Cooks Chinese. It would have been more honest if Gok said that he was using fish sauce to give the recipe a twist, or as a bit of cheat. But no, he gave birth to a lie. It's one I want to stamp out.