Chinese cuisine has gone through thousands of years of refinement and development, and cultural exchanges between China and the outside world have taken place ever since the time of the Roman Empire...
China being an ancient civilization, and Chinese food culture developed with it through its over 5,000 years of recorded history.
It can be safely assumed that in the remote beginnings of mankind’s existence, our primeval ancestors across the face of the earth, all led a life eating what has been described as ‘raw meat with fur and blood’ (茹毛飲血). There was no such thing as cooking until much later, when fire was discovered, and food was then ‘cooked’ but without any seasonings to speak of.
So it was many, many millennium later that cultivated plants and domesticated animals began to provide the bulk foodstuff for people, and the gathering of wild fruits, nuts, berries and other edible materials as supplements to the human diet became commonplace. Only then was a different ‘food culture’ said to have been created, with regional variations, which was based on the natural distribution of plants and animals from area to area.
Not until much later, when early civilisation began to develop in some parts of the world, did a form of cooking style start to emerge. Eventually, we had three main types of cuisine: Chinese or Oriental – which includes practically all of South-East Asia and Japan; Central Asian or Middle Eastern – which includes the India sub-continent and most part of Africa as well as the Caribbean; and European or Western – which nowadays also includes the New Worlds and the Oceanic. Each of these cuisines not only has its own distinct cooking styles, but also the way the foods are prepared before cooking and the manner in which the meals are served differ. For instance, the Orientals traditionally use chopsticks as eating utensils, while the Central Asians and Africans usually use their fingers and the Westerners always use knives and forks.
Chinese cuisine has gone through thousands of years of refinement and development, and cultural exchanges between China and the outside world have taken place ever since the time of the Roman Empire; and for hundreds of years many aspects of Chinese civilisation have been admired in the West and have influenced its cultural development. However, until very recent times, one of China’s greatest traditions, its culinary art, has been comparatively unknown. A gulf between Eastern and Western cultures has given rise to certain misunderstandings and confusions about exactly what Chinese food and cooking actually means.
In the early days of exchanges between the East and West, the few linguists there were could not be expected to be specialists in all the different fields, least of all in food and cooking. Given the advance and sophisticated development of the Chinese language; over many years the vocabulary of the West soon proved to be inadequate. Once a definition had been struck and passed into common usage it very quickly became established as fact, however misconceived its origin may have been.
Take, for instance, the very basic Chinese condiment known in English as ‘soy sauce’, I’m afraid that this is a big misnomer. It must have been a real puzzle for whoever was given the task of translating the Chinese term jiang (醬) into English, for there is no equivalent in any European language; to confuse the issue yet further, nor is there an equivalent term for ‘sauce’ in the Chinese language! Thus we have a series of misinterpreted terms from soy sauce right through to oyster sauce, shrimp sauce, mushroom sauce and so on.
In fact, the history of jiang or soy sauce can be traced back more than two thousand years ago. For centuries, it was considered one of the seven basic daily necessities for any household – the other six being fuel, rice, oil, salt, vinegar and tea (柴、米、油、鹽、醋、茶).
Now, if you substitute bread for rice on the list, you will see immediately how closely it resembles thecontents of the store cupboard in a modern Western kitchen. But you may say that you don’t always have a bottle of soy sauce at home – at any rate, you do not regard it as an indispensable item; I would suggest that if you substitute tomato ketchup, or Worcestershire sauce (both of which have an oriental origin), then you do use jiang as one of your daily necessities.
The translation of cooking techniques is another language minefield. Already the English language has to borrow foreign terms from the French, such as sauté and blanche to describe various cooking methods. Now when confronted with the unique Chinese cooking method chao (炒), generally rendered as 'stir-fry', most cookery books gave only the basic techniques without going into the finer points. However there are at least half a dozen different method of stir-frying in China, each requiring a particular process of preparation and a par-cooking beforehand, and the same is true for deep-frying, shallow-frying, braising and steaming.
What distinguishes Chinese cooking from all other food cultures lies not only in the preparation and cooking, but also in the serving and eating the food. A Chinese meal does not follow the conventional Western sequence of soup-fish-meat-dessert and cheese course. An everyday Chinese meal, whether served at home or in a restaurant, is like a buffet, with all the dishes (including soup) placed in the centre of the table together; everyone just helps themselves to whatever they like – not from every single dish on the table, but from one or two dishes at a time, and each person will be given a bowl of rice to accompany these dishes. Only on a formal occasion are the dishes served course by course, but even then they will appear in groups rather than singly, and with the exception of the soup course, never is an individual dish served to one person.
The reason for serving Chinese food this way is the Chinese division between fan (飯), grains and other starch food known as staples, and cai (菜), cooked meat and vegetable dishes. Grains in the various forms of rice or wheat flour (bread, pancakes, noodles or dumplings), make up the fan part of the meal; vegetables and meats (which includes poultry and fish), cut up and mixed in various combinations into individual dishes constitute the cai part. It is in the successful combining of various ingredients and the blending of different flavours for the preparation of the cai that the fine art and skill of Chinese cookery, its haute cuisine, lie.
While an everyday meal must be equally balanced between fan and simply prepared cai dishes, for a formal banquet the emphasis is shifted very much on to the cai dishes which are mostly lavish and elaborate. The rice at a formal banquet is only served at the end of the meal as a token offering, for by then, everyone is too full to want any starchy food.
There was no record of the exact date when the first Chinese restaurant opened in Britain, but the general belief seemed to be that it could be around the end of the nineteenth or early twentieth century, and that it was opened by a Chinese seaman in the Limen House in the East End of London. It served a few simple dishes primarily for the small Chinese community, and it wasn’t until after WWI that a few Chinese restaurants opened in the West End.
When I first arrived in England at the end of 1949, there were no more than half dozen Chinese restaurants serving Cantonese food in London’s West End; they were Cathay near Piccadilly Circles, Hong Kong in Shaftsbury Avenue, the Universal in Denmark Street, the Nam Tim near Charlotte Street, the Ley On’s in Charing Cross Road, and another one in Wardour Street. There were a number of Friends in the Dockland, and there might well be a few more dotted about in other parts of London that I was not aware of.
Then early in 1950, when Britain recognized the new Chinese Government, the old Chinese Embassy in London was shut down, and all the staff including the Ambassador were given the choice of either return to Taiwan to await for new postings, or be dismissed from the services with a sum of money; I believe that everyone took the money and stayed behind. At that time, Britain was still recovering from WWII, none of the diplomats were qualified for any particular jobs, so most of them decided to join together in partnership to open a chain of Chinese restaurants.
Partly because of the lack of ingredients, and partly because of the shortage of highly skilled chefs available at the time, the menus of the Chinese restaurants were very limited. I believe some of these new restaurants were struggling to survive, and the saving grace arrived in 1951 when The Festival of Britain brought a large number of visitors to London, which helped most of them to turn round.
From mid-fifties, Britain’s economy started to recover, and people started to travel abroad as well as large number of immigrants arriving from all over the world, in particular from the Caribbean, the India continent, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong. Chinese and Indian restaurants and take-aways mushroomed all over the place.
Here, I would like to pause for a moment and go back to China to give you a brief description of the type of restaurants there. We have basically four categories of restaurants or eateries in China: large establishments that cater for big banquets as well as small informal parties; restaurants without banqueting facilities but which offer food of high quality; then there are bistro-style small eateries with a limited menu; finally, the tea-houses and mess-halls or canteens.
When it comes to visiting a tea-house (the nearest equivalent to a café or snack bar), the main objective is to drink tea, usually without any food (although it is possible to order a snack or light meal in the form of dumplings, noodles or wantons and so on, in some of these establishments). But the Cantonese have developed ‘tea and snacks’ into a fine art known as dim sum (點心), literally meaning ‘dot on the heart’ i.e. a snack or refreshment, not a proper meal.
When the first wave of Chinese restaurants opened in the West, they were run by people who had migrated from the southern region of China (Guangdong and Fujian). Very few of these establishments employed really good chefs, or properly trained waiting staff, with the result that when a non-Chinese dined out at a Chinese restaurant there was never anybody with a deep understanding of Chinese food to advise you.
To go back to my earlier remarks about the misunderstanding of certain Chinese food and cooking terms; plus the fact the Chinese penchant for hyperbole, thus the humble chicken feet became Phoenix claws (鳳爪); the dried tiger lily buds became Golden needles (金針); sweet corn is known as jade (玉) or pearl rice (珍珠米); and the simple soup of tofu (豆腐) and spinach has been given the rather poetic name of Emerald (綠寶石) and white jade soup (白玉湯), and so on.
By the late fifties and early sixties, things started to improve in a big way, but only in the kitchens with Master Chefs and dim sum Chefs, but not the waiting staff, who seldom had formal training in services, let alone a good command of English. Furthermore, they were sometimes arrogant and rude-mannered. Somehow, well established names such as Lee Ho Fook, Chuen Cheng Ku, and Jade Garden opened in the West End of London, with Cheong-Leen the provision store in Lisle Street, Hong Kong Emporium, and Bombay Emporium nearby, this area soon became known as London’s Chinatown.
The growth of Chinese eateries did not just confine in London, but all over Britain, and not just in places like Liverpool and Manchester, but almost every single city and town all over Britain. Including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as Isle of Wight, Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands. Of course well over 95% if not 99% of these establishments served Cantonese cooking, with a few proclaiming they also serve Peking and Sichuan cuisine, but in reality, the chefs were either from Hong Kong or Singapore or Malaysia. Then a group of Chinese businessman pressured the Chef from the Chinese Embassy to defect, and set him up in a small restaurant in Willesden Lane, north-west of London, its speciality was Peking Duck, (but in fact it was Aromatic & Crispy Duck.) It soon became very popular, especially after Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon were photographed leaving the restaurant.
Around the same time, the first of the Rendezvous chain of ‘Peking’ restaurants opened in Soho, this was followed by Lee Yuan in Earls Court Road in Kensington, which was owned by Mr E.K. Lee, a Manchurian and the former Military Attaché of the old Chinese Embassy. Lee Yuan served authentic Peking Duck, which was far more difficult to prepare and cook than the Aromatic & Crispy Duck; but the general public didn’t seem to know the difference between the two.
There were a very few restaurants supposed to be serving Sichuan cuisine, but the one I visited called Red Pepper in early ‘80s had nothing like real Sichuan cooking. In the late ‘70s, a businessman called Mr Lui brought a Sichuan chef named Tsao Bin over from Hong Kong and opened the Dragon Gate in Gerrard Street, which proved to be very popular. Mr Tsao trained several Cantonese chefs the fine art of Sichuan cuisine, and they subsequently opened new restaurants all over Britain.
Going back to late fifties and early sixties, when the fine art publisher Kenneth Lo started to write about Chinese food, it coincided with the new wave of superior Chinese restaurants, and Ken Lo formed the Chinese Gourmet Club, which held regular dinners in these new restaurants with menus selected by him. These dinners proved to be very popular, and they helped a great number of people to have a deeper understanding and appreciation of Chinese cuisine.
Although almost every Chinese restaurant has set menus for two or more people. I regret to say that the majority of these menus have been put together purely for the ‘foreigners’ (i.e. non-Chinese), without much regard to the structure of a genuine Chinese meal. I shall explain:
The standard set menu always starts with a soup – usually Sweetcorn & Crabmeat/Chicken, Hot and Sour, or Wanton; it is sometimes followed by one or two starters such as Spare-ribs, Spring Rolls, Crispy Seaweed and Sesame Prawn Toasts etc; then there will be a number of stir-fried dishes which invariably will include the ubiquitous Sweet & Sour Pork/Chicken or whatever, served almost always with Fried Rice; ending up with a dessert.
So what‘s wrong with that, you may wonder, for these are all the most popular dishes people enjoy eating. Let’s analyse the content of such a menu – to start with the Sweetcorn & Crabmeat/Chicken Soup is not actually Chinese – like Chop Suey, it is American in origin – and although both the Hot and Sour and Wanton Soups are the genuine article, all three are really too ‘heavy’ for a first course.
In China, soup is seldom served at the beginning of a meal. The customary practice is to serve a light, simply made soup throughout the meal – it is meant to act as a lubricant to help wash down the bulky and savoury foods, since we do not have the habit of drinking water (nor tea for that matter except in certain areas in China) with an everyday meal. Only on special or formal occasions, would soup be served as a separate course. Even then, it would only be served at the end of the meal, or between the starter and main courses, in order to cleanse the palate for the next course, so for that reason, the soup should always be very light and not too strongly flavoured or seasoned.
Although we do have ‘Sweet & Sour’ dishes in China, they should be very subtlety flavoured – never too sweet or too sour, and definitely not with chicken nor vegetables! Plain rice rather than fried rice should be served with the main courses. In China, fried rice (and Chow Mein) are never served with an everyday meal, only at a banquet.
In 1980, Ken Lo opened his first Memories of China restaurant in Belgravia, and he recruited Kam Po But as the Executive Chef; born in Shanghai, Chef But came from a family of distinguished chefs originated from Shandong, and was trained in the leading restaurants in China and Hong Kong, including the highly regarded Mandarin Hotel before moving to London in the late ‘70s, where he worked briefly in the Golden Duck before being spotted by Ken Lo, and together they devised the menu for Memories of China, and soon it became established as the leading Chinese restaurant in London.
In the following year, Ken Lo opened a cookery school adjacent to the restaurant, and he invited me to be one of the tutors, as I’d by then had written several Chinese cookery books, including one for Marks & Spencer. Around the same time, I was approached by the BBC with the view of doing a series of Chinese cookery programmes. I cooked two simple stir-fried dishes at their studio, and they seemed to love them, but a few weeks later, they told me that somewhere down the line, they decided that my English wasn’t clear enough for the average viewers to understand, so went to the USA and got Ken Hom instead. Years later, I met Ken Hom at a food exhibition in London, and he told everyone that he actually used my recipes - which was very flattering indeed!
While almost all the establishments were owned and operated by man or jointly by couples, it’s rare to find a woman as the sole proprietor of a restaurant. So Christine Yau is unique in that she owns the very successful Yming in Greek Street in London’s Soho. Her menu is quite unorthodox – she would introduce a new selection of dishes each month, and if any items proved to be popular with her customers, then she would include them to the regular menu. Christine was also much involved with the Chinese community, and she was the driving force behind forming the Chinese cookery school at Westminster Kingsway College.
Tribute must be made here about the very enterprising Mr Wing Yip, who came to Britain from Hong Kong as a young man in the early sixties; although well educated, the only job he could find was working as a waiter in the Chinese restaurant. He sent for his brothers and tighter they opened a take-away in Clacton in Essex, and he noticed that almost every day, new Chinese eateries were opening all over the place, but there weren’t enough suppliers to provide raw materials and ingredients for them. So they opened their first Wing Yip super stores in Birmingham, the second one in Manchester soon followed, then eventually two more opened in London – the first one in north London, and a second one in Croydon.
What’s so unusual about these stores is that it is not just a big store, but a centre for all sort of amenities such as restaurants, shops, and other services. People come from far and near not just to shop for food, but also to eat, have a hair-cut, and buy clothes or other items etc. In my opinion, Mr Wing Yip’s contribution to the Chinese food culture in Britain far outstripped anybody else, because without his foresight of importing all the essential commodities, the Chinese food scene in Britain would not have be the same.