Restaurant operators can use Chinese New Year to their advantage, but it's vital to offer something distinctive. Will Hawkes reports
It's incredibly popular. Even in the chill of a December evening there's a queue, but in the summer, when Bubblewrap had just opened, there was a line all the way down the street. "It was really crazy," says founder and owner Sunny Wu. "We believe in the product, of course, but we never expected it to be this popular. One of our staff finished work and people were following him asking about the recipe!"
Bubblewrap, whose waffle cones have become ubiquitous on Instagram, is a great example of how 'Chinese food', as the British know it, is evolving fast. For many years Chinese food meant Cantonese cuisine, often served buffet-style - and plenty of those restaurants still exist and are succeeding.
But the rise of Sichuan cuisine has been followed by other regionally-focused restaurants, and British customers are finally beginning to get an idea of the true diversity of Chinese cuisine. With the Year of the Dog beginning on Friday 16 February (and the 'Spring Festival' - as it is known in China - lasting for two weeks) the options for celebrating Chinese New Year are greater and more varied than ever.
For Ning Ma, the owner of Mamalan, Chinese New Year is about family and food. She grew up in Beijing, and Mamalan (which has two branches, in Brixton and Clapham) is named for her mother, whose dumplings and noodles form the basis of its menu.
"China is all about the food anyway, but with the Spring Festival - when every day you eat food that means something - that's especially so," she says. "In China you get time off - it's a public holiday - and it's the biggest event of the year. It's a great chance to catch up with family from far away."
The most iconic dish of Chinese New Year is dumplings. "It's something the family will make together," she says. "It's a good time to catch up on what everyone has been doing while you cook together. The shape is like a money bag, so it's a good thing to eat; it means you'll have good fortune in the coming year, and that's the number one must-have."
Dumplings are relatively easy to make, says Ning; you can even buy the pastry in Chinese supermarkets if you don't fancy making it from scratch. "You can put any sort of stuffing inside you want," she says. "Minced beef with chopped spring onions, ginger and soy sauce would be a classic choice, but you can use anything. We did an event recently and they wanted a sweet dumpling, a coffee and cream one, and that went down really well."
Then there's fish, another classic Spring Festival dish. The pronunciation of fish in Chinese is similar to that for 'plenty', says Ning, and that's why it is eaten at this time of year. It's prepared in a very simple way. "You can steam it with spring onion and ginger, or black bean sauce," says Ning. "A lot of supermarkets have decent ingredients now, so you don't have to go out of your way to get them."
There are other traditional foods, such as noodles, which symbolise longevity in China, or tangyuan, which are glutinous rice balls served in soup. "Different regions have different ways of cooking tangyuan and different flavours," says Ning. "In Beijing we have them with stuffing inside, either sesame or red bean. You just cook the rice balls in plain water and the flavour comes from the stuffing. In the south, they have their rice balls plain and give the soup the flavour - sweet ginger soup, for example."
At Chung Ying's three traditional Cantonese restaurants in Birmingham, standard menu items will be "jazzed up" to reflect the festivities. Dishes such as conpoy (dried scallops) or pigs' trotter and tongue will have fat choy (black moss) added, because "fat choy" sounds like "prosperity" in Chinese. "It's vital to differentiate yourself," says managing director James Wong, who expects Sunday 18 February to be extremely busy. He adds that new year greetings will be used to name dishes such as "Lun ma jin sun" (the spirit of dragon and horse, signifying alertness and strength), and "Kung hei fat choy", which means "Wishing you prosperity."
Spend just two minutes inside Xu, the new restaurant from the trio behind street-food phenomenon Bao, and it's enough to realise how quickly Chinatown in London is evolving. This two-level Taiwanese restaurant is decorated in a lavish style, with an emerald tea counter, dark wood panelling, ceiling fans, hand-painted murals and green and pink leather banquettes. It's all meant to evoke 1930s Taipei. At the back are two booths called the 'Mahjong Rooms', which are named for the Chinese tile-based game. The booth's tables even have drawers where the tiles are stored.
Most visitors, though, will be eating rather than playing. The menu offers bak kwa (Taiwanese jerky), lamb sweetbreads and cuttlefish toast. Perhaps the most impressive dish, though, is char sui Iberico pork, a fat, moist, rich red fillet of pork served on sliced courgettes. It's delicious.
The signs of Chinatown's evolution are everywhere on its 14 streets. Plum Valley, a 30-year dim sum veteran, has recently been completely renovated, while Bubblewrap is lining them up around the corner. Then there's the group of restaurants run by the Barshu group, which has done so much to popularise Sichuan food in the UK since its first restaurant opened in 2006. Among them is Bai Wei ('a hundred flavours'), a cafe-style, two-floor place in Little Newport Street, whose interior is festooned with posters depicting Mao-era workers. The menu - with dishes ranging from spicy pig's ear salad to dan dan noodles - demonstrates that Sichuan cuisine's reputation for big flavours is not unearned. "Our cuisine is very strong with many different flavours and it's very hot and numbing," says Sherrie Looi, manager. "We use a lot of dried and fresh chillies."
It's a cuisine that is gradually growing in popularity, she says: "British customers can take it now, as a lot of our customers have been to China. The first time you eat Sichuan cuisine, you might think 'I'm not very sure'; the second time you think 'it's quite good'; and the third time you get addicted!"
The value of Chinese New Year to restaurant operators cannot be understated, says Maria Chong, managing director of Lee Kum Kee Europe. "Chinese New Year is a big opportunity for foodservice operatives, who should be maximising their sales with creative menu options, fusion flavours and, most importantly, traditional, quality ingredients," she says.
There's a number of ways to do that, from using Lee Kum Kee's sauces to Essential Cuisine's Asian Range stock bases. The range includes the fragrant Aromatic Stock Base, with coriander, lemongrass and star anise; a rich and meaty Master Stock Base, made with garlic and ginger and ideal for marinating meat or fish; and a traditional Miso Broth Base, made with fermented soy.
"These provide the perfect, authentic base to let a chef's creativity shine through, and can be spooned directly into sauces, blended with other flavours and ingredients, used as a marinade or poaching liquor, or as a perfect base stock for all manner of Chinese dishes," says Nigel Crane, managing director.
Then there's spice, which can be bought ready-ground from the likes of Schwartz or ground on-site with a Waring spice grinder, available from Nisbets, which can grind hard spices and process up to 1.5 cups of pastes, dressings, butters and sauces at a time.
"Why not experiment with flavours such as kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass and star anise, using them to flavour traditional Chinese New Year offerings such as spring rolls for wealth, or fish for an increase in prosperity?" says Paul Siouville, Waring brand manager for Nisbets.
Wholesaler Bidfood, meanwhile, has a range of pastes to help operators add flavour to their offering, including laksa paste with turmeric and mild curry flavours, and Korean bulgogi paste with hints of toasted sesame. Tilda's fragrant jasmine rice can be used in classic Chinese dishes, such as prawn potsticker dumplings, and will be on promotion through February in most wholesalers.
Other options include Wing Yip's stir-in sauces, Uncle Ben sauces and Huhtamaki's Eatwell range, which includes Chinese steamed halibut and Oriental sea bass cooked with ginger, garlic and spring onions.
And then there's egg waffles, which continue to fly out at Bubblewrap, but expect to see them everywhere soon. "We are planning to expand - we're looking for a second site," says Sunny. "It will be a bit different, with more seating and twists on the product." That probably won't include a crispy duck option, though.
Plum Valley plumvalleyrestaurant.co.uk
Bai Wei chinatown.co.uk/en/restaurant/baiwei
Mars (Uncle Ben's) unclebens.co.uk
Wing Yip wingyip.com
Chung Ying chungying.co.uk
Lee Kum Kee uk.lkk.com
Essential Cuisine essentialcuisine.com
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