Special fried rice with a little Yin Yang

As the Chinese New Year kicks in, it's almost impossible to ignore the alluring odours and exotic cuisine. And the good news, says Michael Bateman, is that it's probably the best in the world
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The Independent Culture
Celebration of Chinese New Year this Friday will not be confined to the 1,000 million inhabitants of China.

The unmistakable perfume of Chinese food - frying garlic, ginger and spring onion, with its underlying notes of five spice powder, of anise, cloves and cinnamon - has invaded every corner of the world. You will be confronted with its scent in Paris and Moscow, in New York and New Zealand; it is as oblivious of social distinctions as national differences, at home equally in the market-place of Diss, Norfolk as the grandest hotel in Park Lane, London.

Amazingly, though, this cuisine which has colonised the world did not radiate from the country boasting the world's largest population, mainland China. It came from a minuscule speck on the globe, the erstwhile (as from 30 June) British colony of Hong Kong.

The historic contribution of Chinese cooking to gastronomy cannot be ignored. But, without the open doors of Hong Kong, it's doubtful that it would have yielded its inscrutable secrets. Gourmet eating? Birds'- nest soup and sharks' fins are the least of it. Guests treated to grand banquets in Beijing tell tales of encounters of the uncomfortable kind; that they have dined on the ovaries of the female sturgeon, snake, congealed chicken blood, fish lips and ox's penis (hold the ox penis; I'll stick to the ducks' tongues and sea slug, thank you).

Happily for the world, Hong Kong has been the user-friendly conduit through which Chinese cooking has passed. And it was from Hong Kong that the first Chinese cooks (mostly seamen) came to the UK, at the beginning of the century, to London's Limehouse and Liverpool.

A hundred years later, Chinese cooking is so celebrated here that our top hotels and restaurants send out to Hong Kong, in the manner of football managers buying up European stars, to hire their top talent. This was the route taken by The Oriental in Park Lane, the only Chinese restaurant in the UK with a Michelin star.

Hong Kong's Chinese food is re-nowned as the greatest in the world. Some of the best restaurants are in the international hotels, such as the Mandarin's Man Wah, the Regent's Lai Ching Heen, the Peninsula's Spring Moon. And there are speciality restaurants like the Forum (where a dish of abalone, the mighty, meaty mollusc, can cost you pounds 400 or more), and Soon Tong Lok where you will pay around pounds 40 for a bowl of shark's-fin broth. (It's deflating to discover that shark's fin doesn't taste of anything; it's a gooey mucilage, prized for its alleged medical properties of repairing joints and improving complexion but, above all, its sheer cost.)

Given the imminent take-over, what can be the future of Hong Kong's haute cuisine? Sian Griffiths at the Peninsula told me over the phone last week that they have no reason to be other than optimistic. "The Chinese restaurants here have never depended on international visitors. China has put a huge amount of money into Hong Kong, they are the biggest investors. In Hong Kong, people live to eat. They are obsessive about food and expect it to be of a very high standard. I don't expect any change."

Hong Kong's elevated standards haven't translated to the UK, for the most part. We expect Chinese food to be cheap and cheerful, says Good Food Guide editor, Jim Ainsworth. The guide's readers give them the thumbs up, finding the food tasty, the experience enjoyable, but falling short on service and amenities (I suspect they mean the lavatories). "Evidently a lot of our readers find the attitude of some Chinese waiters abrupt." Can you blame them, hanging around for 20 minutes while half-a-dozen lager louts decide between dishes 123 and 321?

The Michelin Guide, over its 22 years' life in the UK, has singled out for honour but four Chinese restaurants; Lee Ho Fook in Soho was the first, then Poon's in Covent Garden and Tiger Lily in Earl's Court (both now closed); and five years ago The Oriental, based in The Dorchester Hotel.

You will expect to pay more for a Chinese meal at The Oriental than anywhere else in the UK, but it's the closest to the Hong Kong experience you will encounter in this country.

For a hotel restaurant, The Oriental is conceived on a pleasantly homely scale, with three lower-floor rooms dedicated to groups of six, 10 and 14. Ascend a thick-carpeted wooden stairway, and you are in a room furnished with ancient Chinese vases and robes of embroidered silk. No less silky is the reception, the urbane maitre d' in black tie looking as if he might be on the way to a diplomatic reception.

David Wilkinson, The Dorchester's resident manager was instrumental in setting it up in 1990, when the hotel re-opened after a two-year-long refurbishment. The owning company, which happens to represent the world's richest man, the Sultan of Brunei, indicated that it would like a restaurant with an oriental bias, perhaps a mixture of Malaysian, Thai and Chinese cooking.

"Three of us, including our Swiss chef de cuisine, Willi Elsener, flew to Singapore, Bang-kok, and Hong Kong for three weeks.

Hong Kong produced by far the best ideas and we decided to go for Chinese cooking."

Hong Kong-born Simon Yung was recruited with the original restaurant manager Dino Kwan. "We couldn't have found people of this standard in London," he says. The cooking is authentic Cantonese, renowned for its seafood and vegetable cooking.

Exactly how authentic is the Chin-ese food of Park Lane? What's not on the menu, he says, they can produce, if time is allowed to fly ingredients in from Hong Kong along with regular deliveries of dried abalone and shark's fin.

You might need to give advance notice for a dish of baked crab with black beans and chilli sauce, a notoriously sticky, messy dish eaten with the fingers. "It's not on the menu," says maitre d' Jimmy Man. "You must remember, some of our customers are wearing pounds 1,000 suits."

For environmental rather than gastronomic reasons they don't serve birds'- nest soup, a potage made from the spittle of a rare swallow which inhabits almost inaccessible rock-faces (hence its high cost).

Not Cantonese it's true but, responding to demand, thay serve authentic Peking duck, with its skin browned to a crisp varnish. It's a time-consuming dish which, made properly, takes 24 hours from start to finish.

We have said it's the most expensive Chinese restaurant in the country, but they do have a set lunch at pounds 28, a dim sum lunch at pounds 25 and a set dinner at pounds 37. The Chinese New Year menu, however, costs pounds 85. Traditional elements include duck, chicken, prawns, scallops, abalone, lotus root. You start, for example, with rich slices of sweet suckling pig interleaved with moist slices of fresh mango. The ingredients in every dish are chosen with traditional Chinese double-meanings; the symbol for noodles represents long life, and so on. Emphasis is on longevity, good fortune and wealth.

Some of the symbolism is elaborate and lose their allusive effect in translation, though Yin Yang prawns is self- evident. The Chinese name given to the scallop dish, for example, is belt of jade. "In mediaeval times, the rich man might wear a belt made of green jade," says Jimmy Man. "But although no one could now afford such a treasure today, you can enjoy the idea of having one to eat."

Below we give chef Simon Yung's recipe for his unique Yin Yang prawns, effectively complementary opposites. The "Yin", or crispy prawn, is a pink, shelled prawn wrapped in threads of finely cut wanton pastry, deep- fried. (You can use filo pastry). The green prawns, or "Yang", are stir- fried and served with emerald-bright sauce made with spinach. Delicious.

Simon gives new meaning to the idea of special fried rice; the Chinese name, rice fookien, alludes to the surplus of good things at harvest time, so it includes morsels of chicken, duck, pork, prawn, scallop and abalone.

YIN YANG PRAWNS

Serves 4

For 'crispy prawns':

4 whole, raw, large prawns (1 per person)

12 teaspoon potato flour

100g/4oz raw prawn meat, minced

30g/112oz spring-roll wrapper (finely shredded in strips)

vegetable oil

For 'spinach prawns':

120g/6oz cooked spinach

12 whole, large raw prawns (3 per person)

vegetable oil

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 tablespoon Shaoh Sing wine or medium sherry

pinch of sugar

pinch of salt

pinch of white pepper powder

12 teaspoon potato flour

For the crispy prawns: Shell four prawns, keeping the tail intact. Butter- fly cut them and dust with some of the potato flour. Stuff the cut with the minced prawn meat.

Sprinkle the spring-roll wrapper over the top - this should adhere to the stuffing and the dusting of potato flour. Heat the oil in a wok to a high temperature and deep-fry the stuffed prawns. Remove, then drain on kitchen paper and set aside.

For the spinach prawns: Blend the spinach with a little water. Strain off the juice and set aside for use in the sauce.

Shell the prawns. Heat the oil in a wok and stir-fry the prawns rapidly. Add the sesame oil, spinach juice, wine, sugar and season with salt and pepper. Finally, add a little potato flour to thicken the sauce slightly.

Serve the Yin Yang dish with one crispy prawn and three spinach prawns arranged on each plate.

FRIED RICE 'FOOKIEN' STYLE

Serves 4

200g/8oz basmati rice

30ml/1oz corn oil

2 eggs

pinch of salt

1 tablespoon dried black Chinese mushrooms, must be rehydrated and diced

I tablespoon bamboo shoots (tinned)

1 tablespoon raw, diced carrots

1 tablespoon raw, diced asparagus

1 tablespoon roast duck, diced

1 tablespoon raw chicken breast, diced

1 tablespoon raw prawn meat

1 tablespoon scallops, diced (discard the coral)

160ml/14 pint chicken stock

1 teaspoon oyster sauce

1 teaspoon soya sauce

1 tablespoon Shaoh Sing wine or medium sherry

1 teaspoon sesame oil

pinch of sugar

white pepper powder to taste

1 teaspoon potato flour

Wash the rice in cold water until the water runs clear. Steam with 250ml (12 pint) of water for approximately 20 minutes. Leave to cool until warm.

Heat a wok and add the corn oil. Stir-fry the eggs in half the corn oil and add the steamed rice. Season with a little salt and set aside. Cover to maintain the heat.

Add the remainder of the corn oil to the wok and heat on a high flame. First of all add the mushrooms, bamboo, carrot and stir. Then add the asparagus, followed by the duck and then the chicken. The vegetables should remain slightly crispy. Add the prawn meat and the scallop, followed shortly by the chicken stock, the oyster sauce, soya sauce, wine, sesame oil and sugar. Add white pepper and salt to taste. Thicken the sauce with the potato flour. Pour over the rice and serve immediately.

Note: All the ingredients in the sauce should be diced to the same size to achieve the right texture for this dish.

For the perfect fried rice:

2 The rice should not be too sticky.

2 The pan must be very hot before adding the oil.

2 Once the rice is in the pan, lower the flame so that the rice heats through thoroughly but does not burn.

! The Oriental at The Dorchester Hotel, Park Lane, London W1A 2HJ, 0171 317 6328

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