Oriental expression

Delicate seafood, fragrant soups, hearty hotpots ... Mark Hix explores the myriad flavours of Chinese cuisine
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Indy Lifestyle Online

If you're reading these recipes and thinking of cooking something yourself you probably won't have realised that the Chinese takeaway is officially our favourite meal. It has overtaken Indian in popularity and last year, apparently, we ate 109.7 million Chinese meals.

If you're reading these recipes and thinking of cooking something yourself you probably won't have realised that the Chinese takeaway is officially our favourite meal. It has overtaken Indian in popularity and last year, apparently, we ate 109.7 million Chinese meals.

My experience of Oriental food was limited to sweet and sour and chow mein until I moved to London. Thai and Japanese were unheard of. Even if I'd wanted to cook anything of the sort it wasn't easy until supermarkets started stocking vegetables and spices from all over the world. Now there's no excuse not to try. Like the best cooking, it's about fresh ingredients simply cooked. Greens like pak choi, choi sum or Chinese broccoli don't need anything difficult done to them, and just dropping ginger, garlic and chilli into hot sesame oil gives you the base for an array of vegetable, meat and fish dishes.

I recall going back to Bridport where I grew up after a few years in London full of plans to cook a Chinese feast for some mates. At the local greengrocers I struggled like hell to find anything to recreate those Chinatown flavours. I ended up using spring onions, garlic and some shredded carrots and beanshoots. My friend Nigel had caught sea bass that morning, and it was as stiff as a board, and he'd got me squid and scallops straight off the boat. I had to wing it without ginger or coriander as they had not yet arrived in that part of Dorset, but no one was any the wiser.

Although you can get the vegetables in the supermarket now, you still have to go to London to experience the amazing variety of restaurants serving regional Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai food and top-notch Japanese. They serve their communities as well as those of us spoilt for choice when it comes to going out to eat. And shop. Oriental supermarkets are laden with all sorts of greens, spices, herbs and vegetables and even without a cookbook you can create interesting, tasty dishes on the spot.

In Chinese restaurants I always choose the most obscure dishes which you certainly won't get in a takeaway. At the best restaurants you'll find delicacies that are now rare anywhere else. My late father-in-law Fred was passionate about tripe, a northern speciality, and he loved to remind me of eating "thick seam" (from a certain part of the stomach lining) cold with a splash of vinegar. I was the only one he could enjoy that pleasure with. At the Yang Sing in Manchester with Fred and the rest of the family the two of us tucked into a double order of tripe with black beans and braised chicken feet while the rest of them ate from the tourist menu.

Good Chinese restaurants seem to get the most flavour from cheap cuts and offal. I always go for braised beef flank if it's on the menu, or beef frank, as I have seen it described. The best I've had is at The New Diamond in Lisle Street in London's Chinatown.

Dim sum, like afternoon tea with a difference, is another great way to experience Chinese food. And it's perfect hangover food if you've had a late one the night before. Some of the big restaurants have trolleys that constantly tour the room with steamed, fried and sweet delights. Kids really enjoy it, and I often go with my daughters Ellie and Lydia, to introduce their tastebuds to those fragrant Oriental flavours.

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