The chopstick effect: Celebrate Chinese food's rich history in the Year of the Dragon

From chow mein and chips to Michelin-starred mu shu pork, Chinese food has become part of British life.

Samuel Muston
Friday 20 January 2012 01:00 GMT

When in 2003 the Chinese restaurant Hakkasan won a Michelin star, some outside the world of London foodies were surprised. A Chinese restaurant? With a Michelin star? Really? If you head to the restaurant, founded by Alan Yau of Wagamama fame, on London's Hanway Place, this Chinese new year, you will find a place unlike the MSG-soaked joints most of us were weaned on.

It is certainly different to any I grew up visiting. "Having a Chinese" – you never seemed to "eat" one – in the early-Noughties Midlands meant takeaway food, often slimy, always salty, and more often than not having the words "sweet and sour" somewhere connected to it; most things came with fried rice, sometimes "special", sometimes with egg, always greasy enough to make the paper bag it invariably came in go as translucent as an icy window.

The cavernous basement at Hakkasan was something quite different. The smell of incense met you at the door. The Cantonese dim sum was unlike anything we'd seen in Britain. Peking duck came with caviar rather than a bout of heartburn. They had crab – with the shell on. And a 16m-long cocktail bar. It was the best Chinese food around.

"Hakkasan changed things," says Fuchsia Dunlop, who has written extensively about Chinese cuisine for the Financial Times and is the author of three books on the subject. "It was very much in the 'tea tradition' of China, it served dainty food (a rough translation of dim sum) and has a real glamour. Before Hakkasan and the other Michelin-starred Chinese restaurants, Chinese food was stuck in a rut that it couldn't seem to get out of."

The perception of the food, and the menus themselves, did indeed seem to atrophy in the 1980s and early 1990s. "When I did my TV series for the BBC 20-odd years ago, everyone thought Chinese food meant sweet-and-sour pork – that was it," says Ken Hom, whose new book, My Kitchen Table: 100 Easy Chinese Suppers, is out now.

"There was a formula of heavily Anglicised food which the restaurants stuck to, and non-Chinese Brits didn't complain about – so the food didn't move on. It was like an unspoken agreement," Fuchsia Dunlop says. All the more surprising when you recognise that Chinese food has a long and rich history in Britain.

The first Chinese food to be served in the UK was also probably the most authentic. Shanghainese cafés began to pop up in the Docklands around Limehouse back in the mid- to late 19th century. The fare of preserved eggs and crucian carp failed, however, to catch the imagination of imperial London. "It was seen as dodgy and alien," Dunlop says, "and really catered only for sailors on boats from China."

That all changed in 1908, when, noting the cheap rents on offer, Chung Koon, formerly a cook on the Red Funnel line, opened Maxim's in Soho. The food, drawing on colonial links to Hong Kong, was Cantonese. The most popular dish was a strange and exotic thing called "jarjow", or pork in a sweet-and-sour sauce. "This type of Cantonese food became what Brits knew, and to some extent still do know, as 'Chinese'. The notion of separate regional cooking was never particularly strong,'" Dunlop says.

It wasn't until after the Second World War that even inoffensive Cantonese got much of a toehold. In 1947, Stanley Jackson, responding to the proliferation of restaurants, wrote in his book An Indiscreet Guide to Soho that "you will find Chinese restaurants varying from chop suey places to enormous parlours", adding for worried Britons, "there is nothing sinister about them".

The next milestone came in 1958, with the first Chinese takeaway. The Lotus House, opened by Chung Koon's son, John, in London's Queensway in 1958, proved so popular that punters who were unable to get a table asked whether they could take the food home with them. Ever the entrepreneur, Koon agreed. The London sophisticate was well catered for, then, by the late 1950s, but chicken chow mein had not yet then impinged on the life of the Barnsley housewife or the Lancashire coal miner. That came only when Billy Butlin introduced chop suey and chips to his holiday camps. The odd-couple combination persisted right through to the 1970s, when people became more responsive to Cantonese noodle dishes. "I used to laugh at the Chinese-and-chips combination," Ken Hom says, "but it was largely because Chinese people from the New Territories would arrive in Britain and needed to make a living – so they played it safe with their food." Then came enterprising Cambridge graduate Yang Tzu Kune, who founded the Rendezvous restaurant chain. In a single move he – and his crispy duck and shredded beef – dragged the Chinese into the middle market. Cheap and cheerful was out; aspirational exotica was in.

We remain as smitten with the cuisine, often Anglicised Cantonese, as ever. "Chinese food plays a major role in British food culture – just think Friday night takeout," says Ching-He Huang, host of BBC series Chinese Food Made Easy. "In an Amoy survey Chinese food was voted Britain's favourite takeout over Indian and Italian – that is huge." According to the restaurant association we collectively eat 110 million Chinese meals a year.

In part this can be explained by an increase in quality and ditching the dreaded MSG. "The current trends are for authentic regional cuisine," says Lee Che Liang, head chef at Min Jiang in Kensington's Royal Garden Hotel. "China is a vast country with many speciality dishes; diners these days are more experimental."

Certainly in recent years Londoners have been able to eat across the spectrum of Sino-cuisine. The high spice of Sichuanese cooking (itself fantastically popular in China) is now nearly as well known as Hong Kong Cantonese food, while the generous portions and hearty cabbage and sweet potato stews of Dongbei food, and the airy, oyster- and rice-noodle-rich Fujianese cooking, are increasingly coming to the fore.

With China an increased international presence and more Chinese students studying in England, can we expect even more authenticity? "In real Chinese cooking there are some dishes that are made not for their taste but for texture. Gristly chicken feet, or tendons, or even the slimy sea cucumber. It may be a step too far," Fuchsia Dunlop says, "but 20 years ago, who would have thought we'd all be eating sushi now."

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