I am lunching in the only 2 Michelin star Chinese restaurant outside China – A. Wong, just down from London’s Victoria Station. My 15-course dim sum-centric tasting menu, Touch Of The Heart, costs £175 and the sophisticated package includes five splendid matching wines. Curated by chef patron and Oxford-educated chemist and later social anthropologist Andrew Wong, this is no ordinary dumpling experience.
The menu, based on Andrew’s extensive explorations, has this mission statement: “The world of Chinese cuisine is limitless and exciting, a journey of tasteful cultures and flavoursome histories, from Buddhist temple cuisines of the Tang Dynasty Silk Road and the lantern-lit teahouses of bustling Ming Dynasty Suzhou to the cocktail hour of Hong Kong and Shanghai’s jazz age. We are honoured to have you join us on this culinary journey, with a menu that celebrates Chinese food heritage, historical recipes, and kitchen crafts that evolved over 4000 years.”
I hope Fuchsia Dunlop approves. She too is a standard bearer. Her new book, Invitation To The Banquet: The Story of Chinese Food (Particular Books, £25) explores through 30 widely disparate dishes/food styles the extraordinary culinary universe of that vast nation. Not the dumbed down version of Cantonese cuisine that has been long peddled in the West. Now thankfully changing at the top end, if not in takeaways.
Invitation seems the logical progression from a series of cookbooks that have earned her an authoritative reputation, not least in China, commencing with the groundbreaking Sichuan Cookery (2001). Even Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, her 2008 memoir of how she trained as a chef in its capital, Chengdu, came with a recipe at the end of each chapter. Her latest doesn’t. Both evocative and encyclopaedic, part travelogue, part social history, it’s not a stoveside tome. Instead you are by proxy by the side of local food producers, chefs, gourmets and home cooks spread across a homeland of over 1.4 billion people. Ultimately you are worshipping at the shrine of Fuchsia’s foodie hero, one A Dai, proprietor of Dragon Well Manor in the city of Hangzhou, whose ‘cooking rooted in the local terroir’ mirrors that of forward-thinking chefs in the West.
Before reading it I knew something about Dongpo pork, named after an 11th century Song Dynasty poet and governor of that same Hanghzou, and about Pockmarked Mrs Chen’s mapo tofu from Fuchsia’s wellspring, Sichuan, but pomelo with shrimp eggs or the trophy dish of the mega-rich maverick even today – bear’s paw? Emperors had that rarity served with the tiny tongues of crucian carp fish. Like serving pangolin or shark’s fin, all very arcane subject matter, but the book’s mission is less about the exotic, more about dispelling the scariness of many regional specialities and explaining how more recognisable delicacies came about.
Take the procession of dim sum I’m enjoying from Andrew Wong’s buzzing kitchen. In Invitation Fuchsia devotes a couple of chapters to dim sum, dumplings, noodles and baos and they are among the most enchanting, firmly pinning down their Turkic Silk Road origins. ‘Transforming Dough knife-scraped noodles/dao xoao mian’ and ‘Kindling The Spirits: steamed soup dumplings/xialong bao’ trumpet the skills that put many non-Chinese chefs to shame. Well, that culinary triumphalism is a constant trope from stalwart Sinophile Fuchsia. Still I do get her point as midway through my steady Wongathon I’m actually purring.
Dim sum at 2 star Michelin level? Pull up a lunchtime stool
I’m perched at the end of a shiny green-tiled counter, marvelling at the sheer elan of the operation and the warmth of welcome not always apparent in either Michelin places or old school Chinatown. What was once a standard Cantonese, run by Andrew’s parents in one of Pimlico’s less fashionable streets, has been transformed over the last decade thanks to his ambitions.
While evening service centres around The Collections of China, a wide-ranging three hour banquet, this Touch Of The Heart tasting menu of smaller dishes is available only at lunch alongside an à la carte dim sum offering. The title springs from a translation of these between meals snacks – ‘dian xin’ in Mandarin – which first came into use during the Tang Dynasty.
Fuchsia writes: “In its literal meaning dim sum is ambiguous; the two characters which compose it can mean ‘dot’ or ‘press’ and ‘heart’ or ‘mind’, which is why some people translate it into English’ as ‘touch the heart’…
“Food scholar Wang Zihu suggests that the emergence of this new term for a kind of ‘edible pick-me-up’ reflected a whole new era in Chinese gastronomy, in which eating was increasingly seen not just in terms of sustenance, with pleasure a a secondary goal, but as something that could be done mainly for fun, as was the case with dainty snacks that were designed to appeal to the senses as much as fill the belly.”
Cut to me at 70 Wilton Road, SW1V 1DE on a Thursday lunchtime. So which components appealed to my senses most?
Chilled ‘smacked’ cucumber with trout roe, chilli and garlic vinegar was an appetiser before a glorious trio of dumplings, dim sum and wontons served together. Pick of the bunch was an incredibly delicate Shanghai steamed pork dumpling with a sharp ginger infused broth, the quintessence of xiao long bao. Equally classic was an almost transparent shrimp dumpling, sweet chilli sauce, topped with a cloud of rice vinegar foam. Sturdier, with a more compact dough, was a pork and prawn dumpling crowned with pork crackling.
Perhaps the ‘rabbit and carrot glutinous puff’ proved less delicious than it sounded but its fellow puff, the ‘999 layered scallop puff’ with powerful XO oil was a convincing bite, ahead of a dish (main image) that was a genius level artful deconstruction. ‘Memories of Peking duck’ arrived in a swirling nest of feathers and straw, the classic thin pancake encasing duck and foie gras. It’s a two bite experience. Go left and the topping is caviar, right and it’s a shaving of truffle.
Further stand-outs were a cheung fun, that Cantonese rice noodle sandwich, here matching an Isle of Mull seared scallop with honey-glazed Iberico pork, then ultra delicate ‘bamboo pole’ noodles with king crab and spring onion oil (my server first showing me a video at table of the deft noodle-making process) and the main pudding, a fluffy steamed duck yolk custard bun that benefited from not being over-sweet.
Before that, though, a skillet arrived bearing the component parts of our Xian lamb burger – a dish at odds with the rest of the culinary parade, its inspiration the pork-free Muslim-centric north west vastness that is Xianjing province. The author mentions in passing “the plight of its Ugyhur people” that ”has been well documented in the international media” and that’s it. Food takes precedence over geopolitics.
Here at A.Wong the mix and match presence of sesame, coriander, chilli and pomegranate alongside the lamb pattie transported me along the Silk Road – the route west. What better way to conclude a remarkable pilgrimage through the world’s most diverse cuisine?Thank you, via your different routes, Andrew and Fuchsia.
Chewy, bouncy, slippery, crunchy? I settle for century-old eggs
The menu was a sublime procession of flavours, but none of it was challenging – the kind of macho Chinatown ‘take me off piste’ stuff that ‘old China hand’ critics such as Jay Rayner and Giles Coren occasionally indulge in… and Fuchsia Dunlop has grown to relish after her first tentative coming to terms with a nation of eaters that value food for mouthfeel as much as flavour. “They want chewy, bouncy, slippery and even crunchy ingredients which ‘feel beautiful’.”
Tripe I do, even slippery pig brains, but I gag on chicken feet or tendons. Still, broadening my horizons, I’m now a convert to century old eggs. My recent dish of the month for Manchester Confidential came from Noodle Alley in the city’s Chinatown. They were done Sichuanese style. Here’s what I wrote: “Smoked beers? I’d sampled a few at Smokefest, niche celebration at Torrside Brewing in New Mills, so what perils could a surfeit of Sichuan pepper hold for kippered me? Hence it was a ballast of ‘Burning Noodles’ all round at Ken and Wendy Chen’s Chinatown basement homage to her native province. This version of the classic dish featuring minced pork is not the tonsil-cauterising challenge you might encounter in the back alleys of Chengdu, but it is the most authentic manifestation ever to pop up in Faulkner Street. Numbing enough to need the quenching (unsmoked) neutrality of a Tsingtao lager or two.
“My foodie focus, though, was more left field. I am currently working my way through Invitation To A Banquet, Fuchsia Dunlop’s newly published introduction to Chinese cuisine, so I felt I had to order £6.80 small plates of Sichuan starch jelly with house chilli sauce and charred green chilli with century old eggs. The former was testimony to the Chinese love of texture, the latter proof that an ammoniac whiff doesn’t have to be off-putting.
“The wedges of egg fanned around the plate, resembled on first glance, streaked dark green tomatoes. The Chinese see a pine pattern, so another name beyond the usual pidan issonghua dan, or pine-patterned egg. That look is the result of several weeks’ fermentation. Traditionally this consisted of pickling duck eggs in brine and then burying them in a mixture of coals, chalk, mud and alkaline clay. Result – they can last unrefrigerated for months but not long years. Bite through the gelatinous coating and the taste is uncompromisingly ripe. Think blue cheese on steroids. The impact at Noodle Alley certainly skittled any lingering ashtray beer tastes.”