Kezhu Wang discovers where to find the authentic versions of your favourite Chinese takeout.
Everyone loves Chinese food. When it became international more than a century ago, Southern Chinese immigrants started cooking their local comfort food abroad. As foreigners became more interested in Chinese food, Chinese immigrants began to adapt their recipes to cater more for a Western palette. Most of your modern-day takeout favourites such as sweet and sour pork, crispy duck, and spring rolls are almost unrecognisable from the original dish. Most adaptations that were made were pragmatic, such as the substitution of hard to come by or expensive ingredients. Read on to discover where to find the authentic versions of your favourite Chinese takeout.
Egg Fried Rice
Rice is a staple in the diet of Southerners. Egg fried rice rose to fame in YangZhou (扬州), JiangSu (江苏) province. In FuChun ChaShe (富春茶社), a dim sum shop in the centre of YangZhou, it is eaten as a side dish accompanying the much more exciting Zhe (浙) style dim sum such as soup dumplings (汤包); dried tofu hand sliced into wisps in a clear crab roe soup (大煮干丝); pork meatballs filled with water chestnuts; and crab roe the size of a baby’s head (清蒸蟹粉狮子头). It’s no Michelin star, but the wait is an hour at least. Besides from a grandmother’s home kitchen, this is the best place for egg fried rice. This gem is easy to find on a busy main street close to most of the attractions in YangZhou. The building’s octagonal shape and traditional architectural style also makes it easy to spot.
Pork is probably the most widely eaten meat in China, and there are a variety of different ways to prepare good ribs. The Western takeout version is inspired by the Zhe honey glazed ribs: they are in fact incredibly different in appearance and taste, but all other popular methods of making ribs are even further from the takeout version. ShangHai, just a hop away from YangZhou, is famous for its local cuisine, an offshoot of Zhe. Honey glazed sweet and sour spare ribs (糖醋小排) is the star of the show in ShangHai HuiGuan (上海会馆), a restaurant expensive by local standards that serves a well-curated menu of traditional ShangHai BenBang (本帮) cuisine. These spare ribs are only the size of a ping-pong ball, sometimes even smaller: a sharp contrast to the long strips of ribs that are most popular in the West. Alongside sweet and sour spare ribs are other classics such as smoked grass carp (熏鱼) and flash fried swamp eel (响油鳝丝). Even though it is a chain, the most visit worthy location is on the Century Avenue, right in the heart of PuDong. Although it has fewer tourist attractions (beside the Oriental Pearl Tower), it more than makes up for it with its selection of tall pretty buildings that stretch into the clouds.
Queue for more than an hour for soup dumplings or Xiao Long Bao (小笼包) at Din Tai Feng (鼎泰丰). Only representative of one type of bun eaten in China, it is also one of the most popular. Others include: dumplings/gyoza (饺子); steamed buns (包子); pot stickers (锅贴); pot pie (馅饼); shu mai (烧卖); and wontons (馄饨). Gyoza (饺子) is mainly eaten in the North. The ones served in XianLaoMan – literally meaning ‘fully filled’ – are traditional, by the book, Beijing-style dumplings, filled to the seams with meat and vegetables, served boiled with vinegar and freshly made chilli oil on the side. These gyoza have a thinner casing than the ones served in the UK, and instead of fried, they are boiled in order to maintain a soft exterior. The fillings are also different to the ones typically found in takeout: options such as chives with prawns and egg are traditional in China, but difficult to find elsewhere. For sides, there are more interesting native Beijing dishes to try such as deep fried garlic sausages (炸蒜肠); pepper tofu (麻豆腐) ; and pellet soup (疙瘩汤). Northern food has a savoury, spicy and soy-based profile, whereas Southern food is fresher and sweeter. XianLaoMan is slightly more difficult to locate than the first two. It is on a main street but hidden in plain sight amongst old buildings that look identical: its location is perfect for a visit after touring the Lama Temple and the Confucian Temple, but it is crucial to be wary of the lunch and dinner rush.
It might be disappointing for visitors to discover that their favourite Chinese foods are scattered across the country, and that they look and taste significantly different to the takeout found in the UK. As the world becomes increasingly globalised, places that offer a more authentic menu are begging to pop up around London. It goes without saying though: nothing beats the Chinese food in China.