It’s the Year of the Pig, and operators can look forward to a huge range of Asian flavours, from Sichuan spice to mellow massaman curries, to make their banqueting menus go off with a bang. Richard McComb reports
The welcome at JinLi is warm but uncompromising as the waiter cuts to the chase: “You like hot, spicy food?” he asks. And with good reason. We are in the heart of London’s Chinatown, a destination associated by many diners with flavoursome but unfiery Cantonese cuisine. But if this is your overriding perception of Chinatown – and of Chinese food – think again.
It is a bright, chilly day and customers at Jin-Li’s lunch service have come here for two things: spice – and more spice. The restaurant is among the new generation of Sichuan establishments that have grown in popularity, championing one of China’s great regional cooking styles. Chinatown now has six dedicated Sichuan restaurants, with a seventh due to open in early 2019.
More than half the district’s restaurants now feature Sichuan dishes on their menus. A sharing plate of grilled fish in chilli oil is a typical offering. The brightly coloured dish features a whole sea bass garnished with greens, a luminous red sauce and burnished dark red chillies. Trademark Sichuan peppercorns register the dish a (maximum) of three chillies on the menu’s spice guide. A second planned JinLi outlet will offer ‘hyperlocal’ Sichuan cuisine inspired by Chengdu street food, where traditional dishes such as sliced pork and sizzling rice crust will sit alongside ‘fragrant’ rabbit, referencing the abundance of bunnies in the Sichuan province as well as Chengdu’s spicy marinated rabbit.
Such is the popularity of Sichuan flavours that they are also being adopted by traditional Cantonese restaurants in Chinatown. At dim sum specialist Plum Valley, one of the best-selling dumplings among Chinese and Western diners is the Sichuanese-style spicy wonton. Head chef A Zhong says: “We recognise that palates are changing. Spice has become more popular, so we like adding it to our more traditional dishes.”
There is an exciting mix of east Asian influences, from traditional Chinese barbecue to Mamasons Dirty Ice Cream, the capital’s first Filipino ice-cream parlour. Julia Wilkinson, head of group restaurant strategy at Shaftesbury, said: “We’ve seen a number of food entrepreneurs descending on Chinatown, driving innovation and redefining traditional cuisines.”
It is a pertinent time to address UK trends in Chinese food as the world’s most populous nation prepares for its biggest annual celebration. Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival, falls on 5 February and it represents a superb opportunity for operators to showcase their businesses. This is the Year of the Pig, an animal associated with good humour, kindness and generosity – an ideal dinner companion, in fact.
Chinese food remains one of the nation’s go-to meals. Along with Indian food, Chinese has a big lead as the world cuisine most commonly eaten at home in the UK, thanks to the availability of ready meals, cooking sauces and accompaniments. Sales of Chinese food hit £392m in 2017, up from £375m in 2016, according to Mintel.
Modern Chinese restaurant Tattu will launch its third venue in 2019 in Birmingham, and it will look to incorporate key customs in contemporary style for Chinese New Year, according to managing director Adam Jones. Chefs have created celebratory sharing menus inspired by New Year feasts, such as truffle egg roll with truffle soy, cucumber and aïoli; fillet steak with shiitake noodles; and Sichuan sea bass with chilli, Shaoxing wine and garlic.
A special dessert, ‘A Gift of Oranges’, comprises a zesty orange trifle, a chocolate and orange truffle and an orange sorbet. The dish celebrates the Chinese tradition of displaying tangerines and oranges as decorations and exchanging them as symbols of good fortune.
In a crowded market, it is vital to stand out, and BaoziInn head chef Francis Law has come up with a clever way to make a mark. Law, who focuses on regional Northern Chinese cuisine with Sichuan and Hunan influences, dyes his dim sum skins with natural vegetable dyes. His ruby prawn dumplings are made using beetroot dough, which produces a stunning red skin. Barbecue pork baozi are a bright green (spinach) while watercress prawn dumplings are golden (turmeric spice). For a flavour burst, Law, who has London sites in Soho and Market Hall Victoria, wraps his Sichuan pepper pork and prawn shao mai dumplings in a chilli juice dough.
Reflecting surging demand for Chinese New Year dining, China Tang at the Dorchester will be offering a dedicated 10-course banqueting menu (£188 per person, £120 vegetarian) in February, to include siu mai dumplings with preserved oyster and sea moss, ying yang lobster, birds’ nest soup and crisp-skin chicken served with fermented tofu sauce.
Dishes have been selected for the significance of their homophone names, which translate into auspicious Chinese sayings. For example, the restaurant will offer stuffed daikon with dry scallop and sea moss, and steamed Dover sole wrapped with lotus leaf, as the Chinese name for fish, ‘Yu’, is the same as ‘yu’, meaning ‘surplus’. And a surplus – of rice or gold – is always good at Chinese New Year.
Chef Jeremy Pang of London’s School of Wok says: “The trend at the moment seems to be all about bringing tradition back into the modern world; using cleaner, clearer techniques and technology in the kitchen, with hard-working chefs at the core. Take Xu, Duddells, Kym’s, A Wong, Yu@Alderley Edge – they all seem to be bang on-trend while maintaining their own unique identity and staying true to their own brands.”
Pang, a judge of the Golden Chopsticks Award (JinLi was a 2018 winner), says operators need to have confidence in their product and service, as well as a motivated team: “If the restaurateurs and managers don’t hold the same passion for the food as the kitchen teams, and push that through to their service and front of house, it just won’t cut it when the next in line is ready to open
with their new cocktail tea house idea.”
Ennevor Yap, director at Oriental grocery giant Wing Yip, urges operators to maximise sales at New Year by introducing new dishes and flavours. Yap says: “The event creates a 15-day window of opportunity that operators can capitalise on to take advantage of increased consumer interest and expand their Oriental options, whether that’s in the form of one or two additional dishes added to an established offering, or as an entire Chinese-themed bespoke menu.
“We’re seeing huge popularity for sharing dishes, such as dim sum and dumplings, especially during key culinary occasions such as Chinese New Year, where family and friends gather to celebrate. We’re also increasingly seeing operators put a spin on a traditional dish by incorporating new flavours. It is key to ensure caterers have access to these new flavours and ingredients, which can be easily incorporated into a variety of dishes.”
For example, a spoonful of massaman curry paste gives a Thai spin to vegetables, curries and soups, while a hot pepper paste adds a Korean kick to a stir-fry. Mushroom sauce is a great addition which works as a vegetarian alternative to oyster sauce.
Wing Yip reports growing interest in its Mai Siam range because none of the products contain fish sauce or shrimp paste, making them ideal for vegans. Chef Ben Bartlett, brand ambassador for Lion sauce, says operators should make the most of the Year of the Pig by investigating the great way the namesake meat combines with garlic, ginger, spring onion, chilli and soy.
“With a world of food out there, it can be tempting to plump for the most exotic-sounding cuisine, but it’s always worth remembering that the UK’s favourites have earned that status for good reason,” says Bartlett.
“Chinese food is a familiar comfort to most UK diners. However, if we commit to quality and authentic tastes and aromas, it can still wow even the most well-travelled palates. From sweet, sticky marinades to smoky, spicy sauces and glazes, Lion’s Pan Asian sauces, such as Asian garlic and chilli sticky sauce and Chinese char sui barbecue sauce, will bring a new depth of authentic flavour to your Chinese specialities and add vibrancy across your menu.”
The sauces can be used for marinating ribs, or cubes of pork and chicken, as well as for glazing meats and vegetables before grilling. They can also be added to the pot as a cooking sauce for stir fries and rice dishes. The majority of Lion sauces are gluten- and soya-free.
Annette Coggins, head of foodservice at Tilda UK, says subtle changes can make a big difference. “For caterers looking to increase the appeal of their Oriental dishes and see profits rise, our top tip is to simply swap plain rice for a speciality variety, such as Tilda’s fragrant jasmine or basmati and wild rice,” says Coggins.
“Jasmine is the perfect sticky rice for Oriental cooking. It can be cooked and chilled to use for fried rice and because the sticky grains separate when re-heated, caterers are guaranteed to serve the best product with little to no waste.”
Thanks to wider international travel and the proliferation of social media, modern diners now seek out the “real deal” rather than dumbed-down versions of Chinese food. But a balance needs to be struck, according to Maria Chong, managing director at Lee Kum Kee Europe.
Chong says: “It is important for restaurants to understand the local Chinese tastes while adapting it to the British palate. Lee Kum Kee has developed a wide range of foodservice sauces, including premium oyster sauce, chilli bean sauce and hoisin sauce. These are concentrated products that provide chefs with the classic Chinese flavours while offering the freedom and creativity to adjust the taste with other ingredients and develop their preferred flavour profile.”
Foodservice should also pay attention to the importance of ‘story-telling’ at Chinese New Year. Celebrity chef Ken Hom, who is working with Lee Kum Kee, says: “In Chinese tradition, many food items are associated with a certain wisdom or have a special symbolic meaning.
For Chinese New Year, fish, chicken, tofu and noodles are some of the must-have items for a traditional family gathering. “For example, eating a whole chicken with family members means ‘a united front’’, tofu is associated with happiness, while eating noodles on New Year’s Day means good health and longevity in life. It is also tradition to braise mushrooms and lettuce in oyster sauce for a year of fortune ahead.”
Operators should also remember the importance of tea in Chinese culture, and premium teas provide opportunities for lucrative beverage sales. Suppliers such as Jing have a great selection with evocative titles allied to high quality. New to the Jing range is Phoenix Thunder, an oolong tea from the Phoenix Mountain range of Guangdong. It has a flavour profile that is sweet, smooth and syrupy with aromas of warm iris and orchid.
And what should you serve your Chinese New Year banquet on? Utopia’s Urchin range takes its inspiration from the sea urchin, is made from vitrified porcelain and is dishwasher safe. And for quick-service restaurants and takeaway outlets, KeCo Foodservice Packaging supplies durable disposables that are leakproof, greaseproof and heat-resistant.
KeCo Foodservice Packaging www.kecofsp.com
Lee Kum Kee www.uk.lkk.com
Lion sauces www.lionsauces.co.uk
Wing Yip www.wingyip.com or www.wingyipstore.co.uk