However the Chinese food I did eat is a world away from what I ate living in Hong Kong in the early 1980s. And that food, in turn, was very different from what passed (and I'd have to say still passes) for Chinese food in this country. There are as many styles of Chinese food as there are provinces in China; but as a broad rule, Chinese food in New Zealand tends to a westernised version of Cantonese - something considered more appealing to Western palates. The evidence lies in bland dishes such as the ubiquitous Chinese and Cashews.
In reality, Chinese food is much more adventurous. There is a saying that the Cantonese will eat anything with legs except a table, and anything with wings except an aeroplane and I pretty much found that to be true. My colleagues delighted in introducing me to new foods. Sample conversation in the lunchroom:
Colleague: Try this.
Me: What is it?
Colleague: Spinal cord of cow.
How could I resist? Often it was all in the translation, and as long as I was willing to try almost anything, I would gain collegial approval as well as find a new taste sensation - maybe.
Thirty years later I love that it is still easy to get a bowl of noodles from a street stall. or pick up takeaway breakfast Dim Sum on the way to work, but it is the new wave of "fine" dining that is exciting.
Loving spicy food, I hunt out a new Sichuan restaurant, Qi (pronounced Chi), which turns out to be situated in the same Wanchai street as 22 Ships which I wrote about recently.
Qi is sleek and modern in both its physical layout and the dishes it serves. The way the Chinese eat has always been communal - the original shared plates. The disadvantage of dining alone is it limits the range of dishes you can order - at least it does if you are exercising a modicum of restraint!
|Mala Chicken at Qi|
What he should say is it makes your mouth sing - cos it does. It is deliciously mouth tingling; I later find out the two Chinese characters making up mala translate as "numbing" (麻) and "spicy (hot)" (辣). The numbing comes from Sichuan peppercorns that are one of the main ingredients in the spice mix, which also variously comprises chili, clove, garlic, star anise, cardamom, fennel, ginger and cinnamon.
|Black fungus in its raw state|
A dish of Black Fungus, also more fetchingly known as Cloud Ear Fungus (which unfortunately sounds like an infection) is a jelly like fungus that is found growing on trees. This sounds disgusting, but served at Qi, mala spiced and cooked so it has a firm bite, yet also a soft jelly-like texture (oxymoron?) it is a different and very tasty dish.
While Sichuan food has always been zingy, in general I find the modern approach to Chinese fresher than it was: this sounds strange I know, given the freshness of the ingredients has always been excellent. I think the difference lies in cleaner sauces that pack more flavour. Now we just have to wait for this wave of cooking to make it to our shores.
P.S. I'm off to Zanzibar, then on safari in Kenya and later travelling through Jordan for August, so stand by for more travel tales.