Category: London


Ubiquitous Chinatown

 

Chinatown.  The last bastion of a seedier part of a western city where people come to experience a glimpse of “China” and when ready, walk or drive back to a place where picket fences and doorman await them.  Every major city in this world outside of Southeast Asia has a Chinatown.  London, Paris, Melbourne, Madrid, Milan, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York come to mind quickly.  It shows the vast distances that, for the most part, countries go to take part in trading and doing business in China back in the 1800s.  In turn, the Chinese would immigrate to these foreign shores to make money of their own, and as late as the 1970s in Europe, would go and seek higher education in countries like Austria and Switzerland.  Like many immigrants, they took on vocations that is not only practical, but necessary.  Laundromats and restaurants became typical business establishments.  As their business grew, the Chinese immigrants started to bring family members from home to live a life where opportunities, at least to them, are plentiful.  This was especially the case after Mao took over China in 1949.

In London, the Chinatown is not huge, but for what it is, it is quite diverse in its cuisine offerings.  Cantonese, Sichuan, and even Vietnamese to just name a few is quite a common sight.  For those of us who are Chinese, we participate in going to Chinatown to experience ourselves what it’s like for our community to be in a foreign place.  Our expectations of the food are tempered because of ingredients, more than talentless chefs.  You would think that with today’s shipping technology, ingredients would be plentiful.  That it can reach far and wide, and the Mongolian Beef you have in Los Angeles will taste the same as it does in London.  But it doesn’t.  There’s the cost of ingredients, the limited amount of purveyors who stock items like lemongrass and Thai chilis, the demand of those kinds of dishes in a western city.  As one restaurant competes with another on a simple dish like beef with stir fried vegetables, it’s tough to offer something drastically different to entice new customers.  But Chinatown is still a place that offers a different experience for locals.  It is a place they can go and experience food and community where they may not have the opportunity otherwise.  And in that sense, Chinatown is a good thing.  It’s a cultural awareness that needs to happen for us to live in a diverse society.  Like a Little Italy, Little Saigon, Little Ethiopia, and Koreatown in Los Angeles, we get to taste a little of each cultural without having to visit a country that we might not have the means to visit.  And to experience something new is quite exhilarating, even if there’s no replacing the real thing of traveling.  Because experiencing something new brings new perspectives and values to our lives that help us grow.  And that is always a good thing.

A Pla[i]ce In History

Take a piece of cod.  Bread it.  Fry it.  Can it BE bad?  I’ve had my fair share of “fish and chips” here in the States and the answer to that question is “Yes”, you can have bad fried foods.  But the English have perfected the fish and chips like nobody’s business.  Sure, there are still bad fish and chips shops in London, but Rock and Sole Plaice in Covent Garden is not one of them.  Opened since 1871, it’s now the oldest fish and chips shop in the UK.  What I didn’t know about these shops is that during World War II, there were neighborhood meetings to see which areas of the city needed food most.  These fish and chips shops then made sure those parts of the city got food first.  Fish and chips were the only foods in the UK at the time that were not subject to being rationed, so it became a way for local restaurant owners to take part in fighting against the Nazi’s.

When we got a chance to eat at Rock and Sole Plaice this summer, that was a history lesson they never taught in school.  You go in and it’s a very tiny little restaurant with maybe 6 tables inside.  The patio had a few long tables and benches, but nothing fancy.  The cod and haddock were perfectly cooked and flaky.  I can still taste the wonderful fish flavors with the malt vinegar and chips.  The tin of tartar sauce and ketchup on the table made it to the plate time and time again.  With the wonderful food in the most adorable area of London, their food took me to a time I never knew [WWII] and helped me visualize what it must have been like to gather in the basement to see where to send the food first.  It seem straight out of the movies, but it helped a city through one of the worst bombings in history.

Fish and chips isn’t just fish and chips – at least not in the UK.  Not in London.  It is a staple in the UK for many decades for a reason.  The abundance of the fish in the English Channel helped London/UK be one of the largest fish sellers for a long time.  And in 1860, a Jewish man name Joseph Malin opened the first fish and chips shop, combining the Jewish fish fry with chips.  Ever since, it has become uniquely English, right up there with the teas.  There’s something wonderful about deep fried fish, but when it’s put into context of a city burning and besieged by aerial bombs day-in-and-day-out, it isn’t just a dish on the menu.  It’s a food that kept the city alive in its hope that it will endure and prevail against the tyranny of evil.  And these shops played a part, however small or big, in its fight.  And they still had time to perfect the deep frying of fish so that it is perfectly flaky and tender.  And that’s an achievement worth noting.

If having afternoon tea at the Grosvenor House in Hyde Park, London makes me snobby or uppity, my response would be to quote the once beloved but later maligned Marie Antoinette, “Let them eat cake [brioche]!” Which is to say, “I don’t care what you think.”

No matter how you feel about afternoon tea, you must overcome this colonial travesty of the upper crust drinking tea and eating scones with clotted cream while the oppressed locals work in the fields. That is a separate issue than the dining experience itself. When done well, like the Grosvenor House Park Room in London, it is one of the quintessential experiences of what the British has brought forth to its colonies – India, Hong Kong, just to name a couple. However, if legends be told is true, it originated in Portugal, only to be brought to England when Catherine of Braganca married Charles II in 1661. It wasn’t until Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford, transformed afternoon tea into more of a meal in the afternoon than a refreshment. Of course, many Brits don’t normally take in the afternoon tea ritual anymore, but nonetheless, it is a tradition that’s been well kept, even if the people who partake in the tea now are tourists.

History lessons aside, when the tower of morsels come to the table, one can only imagine what it must have been like to be a Duke or a Duchess back in the 17th or 18th century. The main attraction, of course, is the tea itself. To me, there’s nothing finer than eating a scone/finger sandwich/pastry and washing that down with an English Breakfast blend with the right amount of milk and sugar. That is, I’m told, the proper way of taking tea. And to be even more proper English, to drink and eat from fine china is the penultimate of enjoying afternoon tea.

We definitely got all that and more at the Park Room in the Grosvenor House. For about 2 hours, we embrace that dining experience as much as anything else on our trip. To me, it’s not just that it’s English afternoon tea, but that it has to be properly done. You can’t just throw in any type of tea. You can’t serve it with a Starbucks scone and say you’ve had English afternoon tea, although I am sure many do that nowadays. It’s got to be with fine china, loose leaf teas, finger sandwiches comprised of cucumber, salmon, and egg salad, and an assortment of scones and pastries. That’s the way a duke or duchess would have it. Anything else would be, well, uncivilized.

 

Why is it that every time I walk into a food court, almost always exclusively in a mall, I get this sense of dread. A dread that slowly turns to death. The death to foods, which ironically should be found in a food court, where battles are won by how tragically low we Americans have come to the state of a meal.

Now, the rest of the world is no stranger to the concept of food courts. You can find them in Asia and Europe. But there’s something amiss in the food courts that we so desperately hold on to as “food” that we miss the point of a food court. A food court should be a place where one can find good food. The first and foremost thing about the food court is, imagine that, the food! But we have perversed the notion of a food court to a cheap experience where food is not central, but by how fast and how cheap the food can be that has become the standard by which we contemplate our taste for anything resembling food.

The picture I took above is from Harrod’s Food Hall in London. Now, Harrods is the world’s biggest department store. It is both magnificent as it is intimidating. And for thousands of shoppers at any given time, you have to keep them happy, if not by the selection of your merchandise, then by keeping them in your store for as long as possible by offering them food. But this Food Hall is so very different than ours here in the States. There are different areas, one that serves seafood, one that serves grill foods, one that serves pizza, etc. You might say, “Well, that’s not that different than what we have here.” If you looked at the surface, you would be right. But sit down at the seafood counter and you are greeted by items such as crab and rock shrimp dumplings, seafood bouillabaisse, pan roasted halibut with seasonal vegetables and the like. Here in the States, you will find “Pretzel Wetzel” and “Hot Dog on a Stick”. Let’s not even start with the taste of the foods. We ordered the seafood bouillabaisse and it tasted like it came from a really good seafood restaurant with a bill to fit. Amazing bouillabaisse period, regardless of where it’s being served.

Now, to be fair to the cheap American substitutes we find here, the Harrod’s Food Hall is not cheap. But you can’t put lipstick on a pig and bring her to the prom. The bouillabaisse is damn good. Harrod’s could not stiff you with a £14 bouillabaisse if it were crap. You would cry bloody murder and let’s face it, the Food Hall would be empty. But look at the picture! It was taken at 4PM on a WEEKDAY. It is humming with people – people from all over the world. We sat next to a family from Italy. On the other side, a family from Russia.

That’s where the “let’s be fair” ends. Because we seem to love Auntie Anne’s more than bouillabaisse. We seem to love hot dogs on a stick served by teenagers with weird Halloween costume than eat crab and rock shrimp dumplings. Why? I think it’s because our values are different. Clearly different. We value fast, quick, cheap, so we can get to the other fast, cheap, bargain at the Gap. We don’t want to sit down and enjoy a meal at the mall, we want to shop dammit! And nothing will get in our way of totally destroying our credit line, not the least some good food! Just give us the crap you wouldn’t even serve your kids. We’ll eat it!

It’s sad really. I like Auntie Anne’s and I don’t even know who she is. Or if she’s even a woman in real life. But I just cannot be OK with the type of food we are setting a standard in our lives. It’s not OK to shove a sBarros thick crust pizza that’s nothing but frozen dough and crappy cheese so we can keep shopping. As guilty as the next person, I need to stop and enjoy a meal, no matter where I’m at. It doesn’t have to be bouillabaisse and it doesn’t have to cost a lot. But it needs to be good and fresh ingredients. My existence depends on it.