Li Bai once famously wrote that the road to Sichuan is harder than the road to Heaven. I have recently made the unhappy discovery that the same can be said for the road to a decent Sichuanese restaurant in the U.K.
It was my first visit back to my home country in two years, and I was keen to find out if I could get a good hit of ma and la while I was there. Though I never had much luck with Chinese food when I lived in the U.K., I was not deterred: I did my research, I read articles about the best Chinese restaurants around the nation, and I made a select list to try. My hopes were high.
But the best laid plans can, and often do, go awry, as I found when I went to the first restaurant on my Hit List, Red Chilli, a small franchise in the Leeds and Manchester area. First impressions from the website were promising—the menu boasted of "the finest Sichuan and Beijing dishes," and on descending to the subterranean dining room in the Leeds city-center branch, I was thrilled to hear the sounds of Mandarin coming from the tables of other lunch-time diners. I ordered a mapo tofu and Kungpao chicken and sat back with a smile on my face.
This good mood was not to last long, however. The Kungpao chicken was sickly sweet, with no discernable Sichuan pepper present and virtually indistinguishable from the sweet-and-sour chicken available from Aberdeen to Zanzibar. The mapo tofu was slightly better, clearly having a good amount of doubanjiang (chilli bean paste) in it, but again, no huajiao. My first foray into the world of Sichuan cuisine in the U.K. had not gone well.
A week or so later, I was visiting some friends in Edinburgh when I was delighted to find the self-proclaimed "only restaurant in Scotland that prepares authentic Szechuan food" outside the very doorstep of my hosts' apartment. My friends attested that The Szechuan was good, and upon chatting to the owners I was overjoyed to learn that they were actually from Chongqing. The Chinese-language menu had an almost identical selection of dishes to one in a restaurant in Chengdu, and though I unfortunately had little appetite for a big meal, I nonetheless ordered a bowl of chao shou (Sichuanese wontons) high on anticipation for some real Sichuan fare.
But again, it was not to be. The chao shou skins were a disconcerting yellow colour; the filling was rough and beef, not the authentic pork; and sad little scraps of lettuce floated in a broth entirely devoid of chili oil. It was edible; I might even go so far as to say tasty, but not nearly as good as chao shou in Chengdu. Given that the owners were from the Sichuan region, and that I'd heard that busloads of Chinese restaurant workers come here on their days off, I was even more perplexed: Did they think they should tone down the flavours for the Brits? Or perhaps it's just difficult to get the ingredients? I didn't get a chance to ask.
Finally, in my very last week in the U.K., I went to eat at Baozi Inn in London's Chinatown. This one really had great expectations—opened in 2008 to rave reviews, it employs a Chengdunese chef, and is part of a coterie of restaurants for whom Englishwoman (and Chinese-food expert) Fuchsia Dunlop consults. Baozi Inn serves a selection of some of the most famous Sichuanese snacks, from dan dan noodles to douhua, as well as its breakfast namesake.
And amazingly, unbelievably, it was the Real Thing, and, moreover, it was totally delicious. The Zhong dumplings were alive with chili oil, the tian shui noodles were lip-smackingly heavy in sesame paste, and the "three fresh slivers" salad err, fresh. Though I was going to be flying back to Chengdu in under 72 hours, I was satisfied. And not only was my stomach happy, but so was my wallet—one can eat well at Baozi Inn for under £5, which definitely counts as a cheap meal in Britain.
But despite this triumphant finish, I was also frustrated: Why is it so difficult to get decent Sichuan food outside of London? My theory is that it stems from the fact that most of the immigrants to Britain who opened the first Chinese restaurants there in the early 1950s were from Hong Kong. Indeed, the vast majority of Chinese restaurants in the U.K. are still in Cantonese hands. And as a writer on British-Chinese community website Dimsum says, "the Cantonese are excellent chefs but they cannot do spicy—or rather, they do not want ... chillies [to] 'ruin' or 'overpower' good dishes" and thus most "Sichuan food found in the U.K. is usually Cantonese versions of this unique cuisine."
So, though you can now eat really wonderful Cantonese food in the U.K., I think it'll still be some time before there are many good Sichuanese restaurants across the country. We'll just have to see I guess, but one thing is certain: When I move back to Britain, I'm bringing my own huajiao.
This article by Jessie Levene was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 31 ("success and failure"). Jessie has departed from Chengdu for new adventures in her native England. Keep up with her at her food blog
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