Eat, drink, and be healthy

It's Chinese New Year: celebrate with a shopping expedition to your local Chinatown. By Roger Clarke

Buy some cherry blossom and let off a firecracker - February 19 is New Year's Day in the Chinese calendar. For the Chinese in communities all over the world, the Year of the Rat will be ushered in with the usual munching of pan-fried New Year's cake and toasted melon seeds, multiple explosions from fire crackers, waving of paper dragons and exchange of cards, sweets and good luck banners in the red and gold livery of the season.

Suddenly in Chinatown particular toys and puddings are much in evidence, complete with people buying the traditional little orange trees in pots and stocking up on special red envelopes in which to place cash gifts for family members.

There's no reason to feel left out if you aren't Chinese. Within the Chinese community of shops in central London, Manchester and Glasgow there is a Hidden City waiting to be explored - if you can only brave the sales assistants, who will greet you with anything from incomprehension to downright rudeness. Persevere, and you will probably find someone who speaks English. It also helps if you don't go on a Sunday, their busiest time.

One suggestion. If you're shopping at lunch time, stop off for dim-sum. Try some wind-dried meat in light-as-air rolls to see if you like it; it comes in little sausages of ham, duck or beef or the liquoricey black sausage. And if you don't feel like buying a whole fudge-like New Year cake, you'll find it served up in most restaurants now, wonderfully toasted.

Foods

These days, even Waitrose is selling the cabbage like Pak Choi vegetable and Delia Smith is telling us how to slice the Mooli radish. But you still need to visit a Chinese or Oriental supermarket to stock up on various key preserved products.

Basic requirements from these shops are soy sauce, fish sauce, sesame oil and chilli sauce. Sesame oil doesn't appear to vary greatly from brand to brand; I use Chee Seng. The best soy sauce is Japanese: Kikkoman. Of the fish sauces (one of the world's most ancient condiments) I always use Thai "Squid Brand" sauce (pounds 1.20) - it pictures a cuttlefish on the front but is in fact made from anchovies. A dash of this in English stews and pies can be a surprisingly good idea.

Most Hong Kong housewives wouldn't be without a few Lee Kum Kee products, especially Guilin Chilli Sauce (pounds 1.35) or Soy Chilli Sauce which is an excellent source of fiery hot flavour in marinades, so much better than powdered chilli. Lee Kum Kee's Oyster Sauce probably hasn't been near an oyster, but some like its caramelised flavour on beef or steamed greens.

Students have discovered that Chinese packs of instant noodles are better than anything made in this country; the favoured brand is Nissin, Demae Ramen (about 30p a bag). Thai instant noodles are good but spicy. When you are buying noodles, consider getting some fresh ones from the cold chill cabinets. My favourite is the flat rice noodles, Ho Fun, at about 65p a pack. Stir fry with some vegetables brought from the stands outside, or with marinaded beef and delicious pickled snow cabbage (about pounds 1 for 300g).

The Chinese love to snack on seaweed and dried meats. Try the kelp product from Hong Kong sold as Ajitsuke Nori. These little packs of dried seaweed, with a shrimpy soy sauce flavour, are sold by the hundred for pounds 5.50. Each segment has the consistency of rice paper and is the size of a piece of chewing gum. Most kinds of dried squid are surprisingly edible but have no English brand name. Watch out for dried fruit and beef, though; the Chinese have a taste for spicing it in a way that is very worrying to the English palate.

I love sticky Chinese puddings, especially the ominously titled "Glutinous Rice Balls" (about pounds 1.20 for 10) with their red bean, sesame and peanut butter fillings. You buy them frozen and boil them till they float, eating them unadorned. Wonderful.

Chilled chrysanthemum tea is sold in tins (70p), but try as I might I can never get it out of my mind that I am drinking the water out of a vase of flowers. You can also get the strangely smoky "grass jelly" drink, pleasant lychee beverages and various combination tea drinks. Best to buy your tea loose; red or oolong tea rarely has a brand name, just a variety of prices depending on quality and the odd scented curiosity like Daffodil tea. Cheap oolong is what you drink in restaurants, but the pricier varieties are a revelation, quite the equal of Darjeeling. Green tea is also popular, especially as a summer drink. In Victorian times it was suppose to induce hallucinations, but these days it has been linked to lowering cholesterol and is anti-viral to boot. "Dragon Well" is a popular green tea but it isn't cheap.

Medicinal herbs

There is a much closer link between food and medicine in Chinese culture than in our own. Whenever I asked what to do with salt preserved limes, 1,000-year-old eggs, ginseng or herbs, the answer invariably was to add it to a soup or a congee (boiled down rice soup). In fact some foods, like the delicious but tannic little raisin-like lycii, are both food and medicine.

Don't take Chinese medicinal herbs unless prescribed, but it is fun to wander into a Chinese pharmacy and wonder at the melancholy piles of dried seahorse, sponge-like fungi, bark shavings, ginseng roots (I saw one wild root selling for pounds 2,774) and the alarming sight of dried deer penis. Fiery embrocations abound and are universal fixits for anything from tummy aches to inset bites. You may be familiar with Tiger Balm or White Flower Oil, with its pungent mix of wintergreen, eucalyptus etc. Bee Brand liniment and massage oil are generically similar and very popular with dancers and athletes for muscle sprains.

Worth a try are Lotus lip balm, shampoo and face cream, containing Chinese herbs such as Radix Puerariae. For inflammations and insect bites try "Golden Yellow Ointment" (approx pounds 6.95 for 2fl oz), with trichosanthis root and red peony. For flu you might care to try Wong Lo Kat herbal tea (about pounds 1.30). Its instructions are in Chinese, but simmer gently in water for two hours and drink. "Move Mountains" liquid energy boost, about pounds 12, contains ginseng and dendrobium and, like guarana, has its devotees.

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