A cuisine that doesn’t wok my world

Potential for rotten puns notwithstanding, I’ve never been a fan of Chinese food. That is, not sober, anyway. And even when intoxicated, I’ve only ever been able to manage a couple of bites of that cloyingly sticky, syrupy sauce that everything seems to be drenched in before accepting defeat and going to bed. For a good long while I was convinced lemon chicken was an evil combination, having eaten a takeaway once that tasted like misery soaked in Fairy liquid. It was only when I squeezed fresh lemon juice over crispy roasted chicken thighs that I realised it was the stuff of dreams.

I feel the MSG hangover already

But given that I’m so rude about fussy eaters, it didn’t seem right that I could write off an entire cuisine based on a few takeaways and pot luck dinners in Chinatown. After all, you’d be forgiven for thinking British food was beyond the pale if you only ever ate at Wetherspoon’s. And I’ve mentioned before how I feel about La Tasca

So when I was invited to try out Min Jiang – a very upmarket Chinese restaurant at the top of the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington, I accepted immediately. With a new chef straight from Hakkasan and side dishes whose price would make Abramovich shudder, this, I thought would change my mind about Chinese food.

Except that it didn’t.

It started well enough – the restaurant has that expensive hotel air to it that makes you feel like you’re in Lost in Translation – a sort of timelessness that means it’s ok to sit up all night drinking. Couple that with a 10th floor view over Hyde Park, an excellent watermelon mojito and Matt le Blanc sitting next to us and I was practically Scarlett Johanssen.

The menu caused us few problems, although I did note that I wasn’t thrilled by the sound of any of it and we settled for crispy squid, and crab steamed dumplings with pork broth to start. It may well be my palate’s lack of sophistication but I honestly couldn’t taste the difference between these dumplings and the ones from Ping Pong. They were a little lighter, but the flavours tasted exactly the same to me. And the crispy squid, though perfectly cooked was utterly bland, until you bit into a dried chilli at which point your head nearly came off. These courses were followed by ostrich in Mongolian sauce (made with curry leaves) and double cooked Sichuan pork belly with Chinese leek. We were told we’d need side dishes so we also ordered egg fried rice, four seasons vegetables and noodles with chives.

My first observation when everything came out was that it was all, down to the last stick of celery, fried or coated in oil. This is my main problem with Chinese food – there isn’t the balance of flavour you get with, say, Vietnamese, where their sticky, rich sauces are off-set by pickled vegetables, fresh herbs and limes. There’s no let up, nothing fresh to counterbalance the sickliness and very soon everything starts to taste the same. The dishes were technically well executed – the ostrich incredibly tender and the pork belly thinly sliced to exacting uniformity, and there was something interestingly seaweedy amongst the veg that gave me some relief, but after eating less than half I was already feeling rather sick. The boy fared a little better, but he gave up soon after me. By the time it came to pudding I devoured the faultless passion fruit ice cream, mainly happy that it didn’t taste like the inside of a wok.

So what to conclude…I don’t want to do the restaurant down, because aside from my prejudices the staff were helpful, the wine was delicious and it was so squeaky clean I would have eaten in the loos. I can’t fault it for not being authentic either and it was quite buzzy for a fancypants place on a drizzly recession Monday, and not just with expense account diners. I think that, however unwillingly, I have to surmise that I just don’t like Chinese food. And this doesn’t make me picky, it just makes me really like fresh herbs. And salads. And citrus juice. And steamed vegetables…

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10 Comments

Filed under London, Recipes, Restaurants, Savoury

10 responses to “A cuisine that doesn’t wok my world

  1. Pingback: A rather wonderful salad | Truefoodie

  2. Kate

    A fellow Chinese food hater – at last! I’ve never liked the stuff and while I appreciate that might be down to my veggie tendencies (and feeling left out at duck pancake time), I totally agree about the lack of fresh veg. Couple that with a horrific bout of food poisoning my husband experienced last weekend in Singapore’s China Town and I’m writing the cuisine off for good. Bleeugh.

  3. A Chinese local

    Chinese restaurant food is quite different from home food. Actually, many of the older Chinese lament that there isn’t a decent place to eat in Chinatowns in the UK. Takeaways don’t even register. Much of the food is based on Cantonese style, but many of the cooks doing the cooking are Mandarin. Short cuts are rife and many do not know how to cook from scratch. It is a pity that gloopy, oily and MSG is what prevails on the streets and even in many homes nowadays.

  4. Jo K, there are dire cooks in every country. Don’t write all Chinese cooks off because of somebody who has an oil and salt fetish.

    Truefoodie, here’s what I will undertake to do:
    My posts are far too organised for my own good. I have cooked, shot and written weekly posts up until the middle of December. I guarantee that after that, I will post a few Chinese themed posts that are easy both easy and tasty. My problem now is picking from Diamond Cut Pork Belly, Char Sui Roast Beef, Steamed Trout with Mushrooms, Red Cooked Chicken, Dry Fried Beef, Salt and Pepper Prawns or any of a thousand other wonderful dishes. I guarantee I will convert you. I will let you know the first date as soon as I know myself. Stay well,
    Conor

  5. Jo K

    I’ve cooked traditional Chinese food with Chinese people and I have to say that experience changed my view on thier cuisine.. Chinese food is really quite unhealthy – the women I was cooking with used a litre of oil and they weren’t even deep-frying anything (we were making food for 5 people). A lot of salt went into the food as well and everything (rice, vegetables) was fried. We made dumplings, which are boiled, but the amount of oil, salt and sugar that went inside them (along with a fatty pork mince) was enough to put me off. I have to say that I agree with you and prefer other Asian cuisines.

  6. I have been cooking Chinese food for over 20 years. There is a daft notion that so many of us in the west seem to have about the vast range of cuisines that are ‘Chinese’. One can not judge the cuisine of such a vast country by what is sold in take-aways and westernised restaurants (often to well oiled after pub crowds who just want carbs and lots of flavour before fighting each other and falling over in the gutter).
    A traditional Chinese banquet will have one more main course than diners at the table. Ideally one should cook different meats, fish, vegetable and rice dishes. There should be savory, sweet, sour, hot (chili) and cold (temperature). There should be a range of cooking methods: oven, wok, steam, deep fried, uncooked. It is hugely complex and offers a vast range textures, flavours and cooking styles. Don’t diss the cuisine of a country that covers over 9 million square kilometers based on the after pub experience, tourist traps in Chinatown in London and one adventure in a hotel restaurant.
    Trust me, there are some fantastic recipes and really interesting cooking methods that can produce truly wonderful healthy food, without MSG or sweet gloop sauce.

    • Thanks for your reply Conor. Of course I am not writing off the cuisine of a whole country, but given that it is incredibly easy to find excellent (or what I deem to be excellent) Vietnamese, Thai, Indian and Japanese food in the capital, and yet despite quite a few recommendations from those in the know I am yet to find a Chinese place that serves food I really enjoy, I must conclude that their general style of cooking is not as palatable to me as those of other countries.

      However, I am always keen to learn, so perhaps you could share your favourites with me?

  7. Doughface

    TOTALLY agree! I spent a week in a small hotel on an island in Malaysia that prided itself on being the only Chinese restaurant on the island…in fact it was the only restaurant and it proved the theory of gloopy sauces covering a multitude of sins.

    I have a Chinese friend that cooked me a meal and I thought that home cooked Chinese food would be way better but it was still so gloopy.

    There is one place I stumbled across recently that was a nice surprise – My Old Place in Liverpool St. We asked the lady sitting next to us for recommendations and she suggested the tripe, lungs and chicken feet. We ignored her and tried some great crispy squid and non-gloopy dishes that I’m desperate to go back for.

    Having said all that, i won’t have anyone saying they don’t like dim sum. They just clearly have no taste. Siu long bao are the stuff of dreams.

  8. Maureen

    Have to disagree TF! I love chinese food especially the sweet and sickly sauces. I take the point about lack of fresh stuff but think some form of non-fried rice (often simply boiled) provides enough contrast. I think maybe it’s a comfort thing for me too – it reminds me of being a child and being introduced to more exotic cuisine in the form of chinese takeaway as a treat.

    I wonder if it’s personal palette thing, too. I have a terrible sweet tooth and always favour sweet or fruity sauces….

  9. Lyndsay

    I will now forever rib you for being a fussy eater. FOREVER.

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