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  • Camille

An Improvised London Chinatown Food Tour

On my way down to London last Tuesday to attend the VisitBritain + DEFRA ‘Food Tourism Initiative’ product launch, I decided it would be a great idea to get to know the city through… Food! Though I much would have loved joining a ‘real’ food tour of the city with local guides truly knowing what they were talking about and taking me to the best places around, I sadly did not have enough time on my hands to do so and therefore decided improvisation would be best.

Despite my Archaeology background, I’m not really the one to spend an afternoon in museums or making my way through the city by ticking the sights and monuments off my list. As usual, I opted to let food be my guide. As eating my way through London is quite an impossible thing to do, I narrowed it down to satisfy my current obsession for Chinese + Asian flavours. As soon as I stepped off the train, I headed off to Chinatown.

The first thing I noticed upon entering the neighbourhood was the smell and the first thing I spotted was the bakery responsible for it. While the Chinese don’t have a terribly sweet tooth, the smells coming from their bakeries are incredibly sweet and alluring. I remember from my time in China the many times I bit into what seemed a sweet and decadent brioche only to be surprised by the sweet and savoury hit of milk bread stuffed with pork floss, red bean or other such fillings my Western palate did not expect nor appreciate.

This time however, I found myself staring at the displays, salivating with expectation and unable to make a choice. Memories of time spent in Beijing came flooding back and still, I couldn’t decide. I finally opted for a lotus-paste mooncake, a lotus-paste + salted duck egg pastry and a char-siu bun. Though the lo-paw-bang (wife cakes), custard and coconut breads were calling out to me, they are quite easy to find here in York so I left them on the shelves.

The Char-Siu bun was really quite sweet, more than I remembered it to be but it was delicious nonetheless-- typical of the Chinese bakery. The lotus-paste mooncake was, as expected, heavenly. Traditionally only eaten during the mid-Autumn festival, the mooncake is symbolic of family reunion and is gifted amongst friends + family as wishes of good luck. Its round shape harkens back to Chang’e, the moon goddess and queen of the festival. During the Ming Dynasty, it became traditional to print Chang’e’s story on the cakes, forever recounting how she had been separated from her beloved Yi by being forced into drinking an elixir of immortality. Broken-hearted, she took refuge on the moon where she could remain close to Yi.

The lotus + salted duck egg pastry was equally good, though a whole one may perhaps (surely) be a little rich when out on an improvised food tour. The contrast in textures between the outer flaky-pastry shell, the firm lotus paste and the crumbling, rich and buttery salted duck egg was the best and kept me eating far after I had had enough. While the name does hint to saltiness, the pastry is not really so. The savouriness of the egg combined to the sweetness of the lotus paste provided good contrast to the whole, preventing the treat from being fully overwhelming.

I then proceeded in making my way to the stop I had highest expectations for; Beijing Dumpling, a place which, I had read, was meant to be London's favourite haunt for the Chinese Dumplings. As quite the absolute fan of the jiaozi, those delicious little pockets of meat + vegetables wrapped inside a soft and supple dough, a stop there was not even a question. In my opinion, jiaozi are at their best freshly steamed and I could simply not wait to dig into the bamboo steamer filled with the beauties. I stepped into a small-ish restaurant with a much cozier atmosphere than the others I had passed. In the front of the restaurant cooks were busy stuffing and crimping dumplings, with by piles and piles of bamboo steaming baskets around them. Again, memories came flooding back.

I was quite disappointed however, when I realized most of the menu was made up of xiaolongbao (soup dumplings) and that the only selection of jiaozi were pan-fried rather than steamed. Though quite similar in themselves, the jiozi and soup dumpling however differ in texture and liquid content. I think the jiaozi has the perfect balance of softness + dryness, the perfect proportions of filling to dough and, when dipped in the traditional mix of vinegar + soy sauce, I think I could eat nothing else for the rest of my life. Or something close to that anyways.

Xiaolongbao are however never a bad choice at all and so I let my finger drop on the pork variety. I was far from disappointed and thoroughly rejoiced at scuffing them down. I also tried a ‘special’ xiaolongbao made up of the most delicious filling of shrimp, mushrooms and cucumber. It was really quite big, encased in a foil wrapper and when I tried to pick it with my chopsticks it exploded in a beautiful mess so that I must have made quite a fool of myself in attempting to eat it. Eating dumplings is never a thing of elegance.

The whole was, unsurprisingly, delicious.

My final stop (you really must do these improvised tours in groups as there is simply too much to eat alone) took me a little way out of Chinatown, into a little teashop filled with loose-leaf teas and beautiful ceramics. There, I met with Yin who told me all about Tea Life, a small tea shop in London with a sister shop out in Hangzhou. Every month, Yin offers tea workshops w where participants are treated to a 2-hour session which introduces a given type of tea, the culture, history and modes of production of the beverage and free for customers of the London shop to attend. Participants also get to practice brewing their own tea the Chinese way, which makes for a truly hands-on experience.

The highlight of Tea Life may however be the basement which was dubbed the largest traditional tearoom in the city. Lined with long rectangular tables, the walls are filled with intricate pottery designed by Yin’s husband and manufactured in China by the couple themselves. The styles are mostly traditional, though Yin and her husband have adapted some designs to suit the English taste. For however is a fan of the traditional tea ceremony and of beautiful pottery (*cough*me*cough*), this place is an Ali Baba’s cave. It’s a good thing I had only very limited space for them, or else I might have been tempted to go away with the whole lot!

While the afternoon was absolutely fantastic, next time I do one of these improvised food tours, I will make sure to surround myself with a few friends to help in the task of eating all this good food… If you want to join in on the adventure, join our mailing list to keep in touch with all the latest news, events and updates!

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