Since the Weasel's research budget for this special issue on China did not stretch to a business class return to Shanghai, I settled for Croydon. No 544 Purley Way may seem an unlikely spot to plumb the mysteries of the Orient, but my friend Malcolm maintains that a visit here is "like a little holiday". It's not every address on the periphery of south London that boasts a massive pagoda-style entrance arch decorated with dragons in green porcelain. Inside, you find more quasi-Chinese architecture housing a number of Asian restaurants, but a utilitarian structure of corrugated aluminium just visible behind the pyramid of roofs was the real goal of our (very) short-haul journey.
In an atmosphere lightly perfumed with soy sauce, Mrs W and I surveyed the seemingly infinite cornucopia of Asian provender in the Wing Yip superstore, one of four around the UK. A swift exploration of the vast library of sauces endowed our trolley with bottles of Woh Hup Sesame Sauce ("Makes real exciting dishes") and UFC Banana Sauce ("Excellent source of vitamin B6"). Lured by the Buddha-like figure on the logo, I urged the purchase of a 2-litre bottle of Healthy Boy Thin Soy Sauce, but Mrs W insisted this was slightly surplus to requirements so we settled for 500ml of Pearl River Bridge Golden Label Superior Light Soy Sauce ("authentic Chinese flavour enhancer"). My propensity to be seduced by odd labels caused a culinary faux pas a few years ago when I snapped up a mysterious tin from a Chinese supermarket that bore a logo of five chicks in a nest. When I opened the tin I found the corpses of five tiny birds inside sitting upright in congealed fat.
As we prowled the aisles, Mrs W waged a valiant battle against my unquenchable desire for gastronomic adventure. Though I pointed out that a kilo of frozen duck tongues was a snip at £3.45, likewise a kilo of frog legs for £6.20, she was unswayed. When I produced 400g of frozen pig uterus (£1.05), her thumbs-down was notably swift. Here, Mrs W might have had a point. Even that dauntless omnivore Fergus Henderson of St John restaurant eschews this delicacy in his book Nose to Tail Eating. An American website notes that porcine uterus is "not a pretty sight" when raw and looks "even more horrible" when cooked. However, Mrs W agreed to 1.2 kilos of squid "fingers" (a kind of fish cake) for £4.95 and a gleaming, brown, pointy-looking item from an oriental kitchen in France described as "oreille de porc laquée" (£2.05).
For those with sufficient appetite, there are bargains aplenty at Wing Yip. Who could resist chicken feet at £1.80 per kilo, Lucky Brand bamboo shoots at £1.95 for 1.8 kilos or 3 kilos of bicarbonate of soda at £1.98? You can get 500g of skewered baby barracuda for £2.15 and 400g of frozen pig fat for £1.20. Considering the modest cost of most items, it came as a surprise to discover that we had run up a bill of £74.58. Still, a feast worthy of a Tang Emperor was in store on the following evening. Or, rather, several feasts. The mixed dim sum we had for supper proved to be a piquant nibble and the shark's fin dumpling (the name refers to the shape rather than the content) of pork and prawn was a most toothsome marriage. The sesame sauce drew applause from Mrs W, unlike Wing Yip's Mushroom Sauce (containing a parsimonious 0.3 per cent of dried mushroom): "Coo, that's salty."
Our slightly unusual breakfast of the volcano-shaped dumplings known as pau, erupting with a dark-red stuffing of spicy pork, was a highlight. "Fantastically light, melt-in-the-mouth dough," declared Mrs W. Tasting somewhat of lychees, guyabano nectar (from the prickly green fruit we know as soursop) was tart and refreshing. A tin of roast coconut juice, rich in juicy lumps, was equally acceptable. Sadly, our lunch did not maintain this high standard. Though attractively packaged, Nourishing Kidney Soup (since the dried contents were vegetarian, the name apparently refers to its medical property) tasted like sweet, weak tea. "That is disgusting and horrible," said Mrs W, not a tea lover. "I may be sick if I eat it." Tinned won-ton soup was little better. "Very salty. Not nice." Though edible, the squid fingers were not an experience I would be eager to repeat. There might have been a distant tinge of cephalopod but they were more like cushion foam. We'd bought 80 squid fingers when two would have been more than ample.
Our haul from Wing Yip produced dishes of very variable quality. Many merited a detour to Croydon. I'd happily re-visit Purley Way for dim-sum (£2.95), pork pau (£1.85), shark's fin dumplings (£1.75), wine-infused sausages (£5.25) and fresh, tasty Chinese greens (£2.60). There was also a bewilderingly vast choice of crustaceans, frozen, fresh and, in some cases, alive. But other items were reminiscent of the gruesome Fifties foods, such as Heinz Sandwich Spread and Sainsbury's Salmon and Shrimp Paste, that I recently sampled for this magazine's nostalgia issue. From different ends of the planet, such over-salted, highly processed fare emerged from an era of austerity when a little protein had to go a long way. It is hard to imagine the new Chinese bourgeoisie eating squid fingers or tinned won-ton soup unless they have the urge for a meal of nostalgic awfulness. Talking of which, you don't happen to know anyone who's looking for a lacquered pig's ear?