Tag Archive for: Dumplings

Chinatowns, I’ve done a few. From London’s Gerrard Street main drag to the more atmospheric San Francisco neighbourhood to Manchester’s own compact quarter. I’m an astrological dragon, so the Dragon Parades are for me; less so the waddling Lion Dances that come out of the woodwork during Chinese New Year.

This year’s animal is the Tiger, roaring into the limelight from February 1. In Manchester the focal point of celebration is an arty sculpture in St Ann’s Square, made from wood and recycled materials, that’s more Tiggerish than tigerish but hey we don’t want to scare the kids. For full details of the city’s Year of the Tiger schedule visit this link. (alas, due to Covid precautions, the customary parade and fireworks finale will not be taking place on the closing Sunday, February 6)

The beautiful tiger installation for St Ann’s Square, Manchester

Contrary as ever I chose Leeds, which lacks a designated Chinatown, for my advance  gustatory celebration and, to coin a phrase, the fortune cookie favours the brave. Wen’s was just splendid, earning its Tiger stripes with a flourish.

The interior is not dramatically changed from its 30 year spell as Hansa, serving Gujarati veggie food cooked by a groundbreaking female team. When inspirational founder Hansa Dhabi finally retired from the restaurant, Wen’s added their own distinctive stamp in 2019.

I could have been forgiven for thinking it was the Year of the Horse as the first thing I spotted on entering the cosy North Street restaurant was a Western saddle propped in a corner. Chao Wen, front-of-house, confessed it was a whim buy on a trip to a Manchester emporium. It signalled no equine purpose in this keen bodybuilder’s life, he assured me. Whatever, it alerted me to a distinct shift from the regular ‘go for a Chinese’ template. 

Witness the soundtrack of loungecore piano treatments of Christmas carols. Well, have you ever tackled a jellyfish salad to the tinkling strains of In The Bleak Midwinter? And who would have thought a selection of Mother Wen’s homemade fried dumplings would have brought such tidings of comfort and joy? She cooks in the basement with her husband. The two of them, both from Shandong, once ran a small restaurant in Beijing. What they certainly bring to their Leeds venture is the same no-short-cuts search for authenticity, even if the Chinese menu does roam regionally with Sichuan to the fore. Hence my Kung Po Chicken (£10.60), startlingly well balanced despite the considerable quantity of dried chillis and citrussy sharp sichuan peppercorns involved with the generous portions of marinated cubed chicken and peanuts. I’ve cooked the dish myself but never got near this quality. Thanks to Steve Nuttall of Wayward Wines and Anja Madvani of Leeds Confidential for that particular recommendation.

Wen’s was bigged up too, I discovered from a framed cutting on the wall, by Observer critic Jay Rayner in September 2020. He was rightly effusive about the house ‘dumplings in gossamer skins’. He’s aware how many Chinese restaurants buy them in. Wen’s menu offers five varieties, ranging from £5.80 to £6.90 for a half dozen – minced chicken, spicy minced beef, minced pork, king prawn and mixed seasonal greens. I had a selection (doubling up on the beef) and they were remarkably juicy inside the lightest of dough casings, their bases crisply crusted. Next time I’m heading straight for Mrs Wen’s hand-pulled noodles Dan Dan style. Think minced pork and oodles of chilli oil.

As for that marinated jellyfish with shredded Chinese leaf (£7.90) which kicked off proceedings, I chose it out of curiosity, expecting yet another Chinese riff on texture (think pig’s ears, rooster combs and chicken feet). It was a delightful surprise, dried strands rehydrated and delicately dressed in chilli oil, soy sauce, sichuan peppercorns and garlic, I suspect. Tigers are fine in their place; why can’t there be a Year of the Jellyfish?

Wen’s Chinese, 72-74 North Street, Leeds LS2 7PN. 01132444408.

Priest Stranglers and Little Sparrows are not quite the odd bedfellows they sound. Both find common ground in the North Italian city of Trento (above), glorious gateway to the Dolomites. The Trentino has always been wrangled over by Italy and Austria; reaching its blood-stained apogee during the Great War. Witness the trenches and obsolete weaponry that still litter the mountain ridges. 

A benevolent legacy, though, is the intermingling of Germanic and Italian Alpine cuisines. That’s why you’ll find Strangolapreti (stranglers) and Spätzle (sparrows) sharing equal billing on the menus. The former, also known Strozzapreti, are usually a twisty pasta made up of just flour water and salt – but no eggs. Legend has it these were taken by the Church as tithes, leaving the peasants to fulminate against ‘priest-chokers’ or ‘priest-stranglers’ in anti-clerical hotbeds such as Emilia Romagna. Or maybe it’s just a reference to how you shape them by hand.

Up in Trento my Strangolapreti turned out to be a delicious local variant – spinach gnocchi. In truth, they weren’t a far remove from the Spätzle, noodles which do benefit from the presence of eggs. In the Swabian-German dialect the name translates as ‘little sparrows’, which they resemble in flight when shaped by a spoon in the traditional way.

From its South West German birthplace the dish has flown across all the Alpine regions, establishing itself everywhere and, most handily, is now nesting in a restaurant in Manchester, paying its own homage – The Spärrows.

Up on Red Bank chef/co-owner Franco Concli stays true to his own Trentino roots by making the Spätzle the traditional way, hand scraping them off the floury board and dropping them into simmering water. They are available both as savoury and, very apres ski, as a sweet, with cinammon, brown sugar and butter.

I like both the Spätzle and Gnocchi served simply with butter and sage (£7 for 110g), but on a recent visit chose the £9 version with guanciale (cured pork cheek), which was fabulously soothing. So too was a special of beetroot-tinctured agnoletti filled with ricotta and lemon. 

Russian style pelmeni dumplings with beef/pork garlic breadcrumbs (£8.50) were less satisfying. I should have gone for the Polish pierogi, little dumplings filled with melted cottage cheese and potato with soured cream and sauerkraut, a favourite from The Spärrows’ early days in a small archway near Manchester’s Victoria Station.

Since then the drinks list has gone from strength to strength under the stewardship of co-owner, Polish-born Kasia Hitchcock. It is as focused as the cool but cosy fit-out of a much larger arch space. A sake and spirits expert, she has been very canny with a wine list that majors in the very Alpine territory occupied by most of the food. Reds such as Lagrein, Teroldego and a Pinot Nero, are all there, from the Trentino/Alto Adige with their better known country cousin, Zweigelt from Austria. Its producer Sepp Moser also supplies the well-priced house white, a moreish Gruner Veltliner (the thinking person’s Sauvignon Blanc).

It all takes me back to Trento. I was in town for the annual Mostra dei Vini, the spring festival celebrating the wines of the Trentino region. After dark I mingled with the winemakers and was astonished at the variety of styles and local grape varieties used. Among the reds I liked the chunky Marzeminos, the more ethereal Pinot Neros and the flagship Teroldegos, with Muller-Thurgau outstanding among the whites. The delicate Nosiola, grown in a small corner of Trentino only, fared better as the base for the dessert wine Vino Santo (not Vin Santo, that’s Tuscan).

The jolly fest was held in the stunning Castello del Buonconsiglio. The original 13th century Castelvecchio (“old castle”) is in contrast to all the Renaissance add-ons in different styles erected to the glory of various Prince-Bishops who ruled here in the name of the Holy Roman Empire. Cardinal Bernardio Clesio, the greatest of these, was responsible for its vast artistic treasure house, the Palazzo Magno. I liked the earlier Gothic-Venetian loggia.

The castle also houses a grim reminder of the bloody Italian campaign during the Great War – the dungeon that housed patriot martyr Cesare Battisti before he was hanged  in the castle grounds. This was Austrian territory then and they regarded him as a traitor for fighting on the Italian side. A Battisti mausoleum tops a hill outside Trento. As I write this piece on our own Remembrance Day I’ve opened a bottle of Teroldego to salute the fallen on a front that most Britons have never heard of.

The Spärrows, 16 Red Bank (Green Quarter), Manchester, M4 4HF. 0161 302 6267. Word of warning: access is via a plain door with minimal signage.