In Search Of English China

I was brought up eating what I thought was great Chinese takeaway food. Every time we ordered it was a highlight. I explored the menu, and discovered a world of sensory delights which stick with me to this day. My parents and I would sit in front of the TV, our plates piled high with food we could never work out how to cook, and love every bite. Sometimes we would even go half rice, half chips.

Yes, the vegetables were clearly from the freezer, and there was far too much onion, but I loved it all nonetheless. The mild sauces were all thickened with cornflour, while the stronger ones were all straight from a jar. They coloured my appreciation of the cuisine, and now those odd Anglo-Chinese methods and flavours are hard coded in to my puny English taste buds, never to be shaken off.

It was through these dishes that I discovered noodles thicker than the ramen to which I was used; I found egg foo yung, and then happily forgot about it; I read the names of the English dishes – with particular confusion about Chicken Maryland – and scoffed at the lack of adventure in ordering that.

But with any opinion one forms as a child, it is not long before that idea is dashed upon the rocks.

That is not real Chinese food, and I know that. I didn’t know that at the time. In the same way that it is thankfully impossible to order Spaghetti Bolognese in Italy, I doubt anyone in China would ever recognise King Prawn, Chicken and Cashew Nuts, (Fried Rice £1 extra) as anything other than British food. And that is exactly what it is: it was designed for our palettes, not anyone else’s. It is ours.

Chinese Chinese food is far more varied, more flavourful, and less meat based than the dishes which we Brits are used to drunkenly falling upon in our local takeaways. For a start there is no “Chinese” food: there is no homogenous style, rather myriad regional variations and styles. That is important.

This distinction, between what a lot of us grew up with and what a billion people have developed over countless millennia, is what makes me uncomfortable. The world has changes so much since my 1980s youth that not only has the language we use to describe our neighbours changed beyond all recognition, so has our understanding of what a good plate of food is and can be. I mean, it used to be seen as pretentious and chefy to use coriander leaf: if wasn’t meat, veg and gravy it wasn’t food.

We live nowhere near the takeaway I frequented in my youth. Reforging that relationship with a new takeaway has been impossible, and I have missed it. The problem comes when we try to order from any of the places which deliver to our house: the results are almost always truly execrable.

Having been brought up on mild, cornflour-based sauces, and freezer vegetables, I can always get a meal I enjoy. My partner, not so much. She seeks out things with claims of actual Chinese heritage: Tofu in chilli and garlic (There was tofu, but nothing much else. It tasted of neither garlic nor chilli, and it was entirely dry. It ruined our Saturday evening, singlehandedly) or Szechuan Squid (The squid itself was very poorly prepared, and inedibly tough). Her dreadful experiences, trying to get even a reasonably satisfactory Chinese meal, are precisely why we don’t order Chinese takeaway any more.

Her objection is that they have our money now, and there is nothing we can do about it. Our one down vote, a mere blip against the sea of positive, gushing, reviews from people who clearly never saw a single episode of Ken Hom’s Kitchen; people for whom speed of delivery is more important than flavour.

My favourite dish from my childhood Chinese takeaway – and the one I have been searching for from every other takeaway I have ever ordered from in all of the years since I moved away from home – is called “House Special Roast Duck”, and it is a genuine wonder of Anglo-Chinese cooperation.

The house special aspect of it is a selection of all of the meats they offer as their standard options: chicken, king prawns, char sui and beef. All of that is loosely bound in a light and savoury sauce, with garlic and some ginger. The usual fare of onion and pre-prepared vegetables are joined by a healthy handful of Chinese leaf, which points the dish out as a level above the usual Chicken and Veg dishes.

On top of all of this is a duck breast. Not cooked pink, the way I would have done, but served grey and crispy, and packed full of flavour. It has been squeezed in to the tub, atop of its funeral pyre of meat, veg and sauce, so it is almost flattened by its surroundings. It is the true centrepiece here.

Last but not least, there is a trickle of black liquid coming from the duck; a hint of depth of flavour beyond soy. It mingles with the house special below and seasons it all to absolute perfection.

There is a restaurant, not far from my mother’s house, where we meet up for lunch every so often. They provide exactly the kind of food I am looking for, but which my partner will not tolerate. And so, my mother and I do tolerate it, with the blue rinse brigade and their cheap lunches. We have soup to start – “Two soups” – and then go our separate ways for the main course choices.

The most frequent choice is one of the curry options: thick, spicy and slightly oily, but packed with a tonne of meat, and just the right amount of onions. We may break the habit and go for satay or some noodles, or some perfectly cooked meat and vegetables, draped in a slippery savoury sauce. There is no pushing of boundaries here, only a generosity of intent. The food brings smiles to faces.

The staff of this restaurant – two middle-aged women from the Far East – provide exactly what their customers are looking for. If they thought for one minute that they were leaving people in tears at a plate of abused tofu, they would do everything in their power to rectify the situation. Sadly, for my partner at least, the hope that food from an English Chinese takeaway can ever be a joy has been lost forever.