After decades of Cantonese food adapted to sweet western tastes, British diners can now try bold, spicy specialities from Sichuan, Hunan, Shanghai and Guizhou
Kai Wang and her friends like to sniff out the latest regional Chinese restaurants: a tiny cafe in east London specialising in food from China's north-east, or one near London Bridge serving numbing and hot crayfish. Kai, 26, is a media professional who came to the UK from Beijing in 2008, first to study and then to work. "When I arrived in London I thought I was really going to miss Beijing food. I love traditional Beijing cuisine, but also the spicy regional cuisines that have become popular in recent years: Sichuan, Hunan and Hubei. When I came to the UK, the Chinese food here all seemed to be so sweet and westernised, with a focus on the Cantonese style, which is too light and delicate for Beijing tastes. But more and more authentic Chinese regional restaurants have opened in the past few years, not just in Chinatown but all over the city."
It is people like Kai who have been one of the driving forces in a revolution in Chinese cooking in London and Manchester, and increasingly all over the UK. Unlike the older generation of Cantonese immigrants who arrived decades ago, bringing with them Hong Kong flavours adapted to western tastes, Kai and her contemporaries want to eat bolder, spicier food, and the trendy dishes that remind them of home. "So many westerners order dishes such as sweet-and-sour pork, char siu buns and stir-fried rice noodles with beef, which I really don't like," she says.
In the mid-1990s, a restaurant called Baguo Buyi opened in the Sichuanese capital, Chengdu, giving a glamorous new spin to Sichuan folk cooking and setting off a nationwide craze for Sichuanese flavours that is only now beginning to cool. Since then, Hunanese food and the hearty cooking of the north-eastern or Dongbei region have also enjoyed their time in the limelight of Chinese culinary fashion. More recent Chinese arrivals to the UK, who include not only students but also businesspeople and tourists, are just as likely to come from Fujian, Shanghai or Liaoning as the Cantonese south of China, which means that Chinese restaurateurs no longer need to adapt their tastes to an old stereotype of Anglo-Cantonese food.
Many establishments, including Liao Wei Feng in Bethnal Green and Local Friends in Golders Green, have menus divided into two sections. They have one list of the usual Anglo-Canto suspects, including lemon chicken and crispy duck, and another offering some of the most authentic Hunanese food available in the capital, with dishes such as "stir-fried fragrant and hot fish" and "steamed belly pork, Chairman Mao-style".
North-eastern and Hunanese cuisines are not the only ones making gradual inroads into British restaurant culture. Large numbers of Fujianese immigrants have joined the catering trade, although they are often inconspicuous in the kitchens of Cantonese restaurants. Fujian province lies on the south-eastern Chinese coast, and is known for its delicate soups, appetising street snacks and gentle way with oysters and other seafood. A handful of Fujianese cafes have come and gone in London: only one remains, Fuzhou in Gerrard Street, which is the place to go for gorgeous fishballs stuffed with minced pork and cabbage-and-clam soup with slippery rice pasta.
Shanghainese food has traditionally been hard to find in Britain, although the city lies in one of China's richest gastronomic regions. The city itself is best known for the xiao long bao "soup dumpling" and for its sweet, soy-dark braises, but the wider region is the source of exquisite river delicacies such as crab, eel and shrimp, and famous dishes including beggar's chicken and dongpo pork. For a glimpse of Shanghainese cuisine, seek out the elegant dishes created by Shanghainese consultant chef Zhang Chichang at the Bright Courtyard Club in Baker Street, or the modest, homestyle stir-fries such as green soya beans with pork and pickled greens at Red Sun in New Quebec Street.
Sichuan and Hunan are China's best-known spice regions, but chillies are also adored in Guizhou province. Maotai Kitchen in Soho, named after the famous local liquor, offers Guizhou food. The jovial chef, Zhu Shixiu, grew up in the beautiful hills near the Guizhou-Hunan border, and, after years working in Cantonese restaurants, has been given free rein with the menu. His wife makes the "villagers' pickled Chinese cabbage", a delicious salad laced with coriander, fermented black beans and chilli. Many of his rustic dishes share the sour-hot characteristic of Hunan cooking, but the intriguing lemongrass note in some of them comes from litsea oil (mu jiang you), a Chinese medicine used as a condiment in Guizhou and a few other regions. Maotai Kitchen is part of the same group as Leong's Legends, which serves Taiwanese specialities.
While there has been a flowering of regional cuisines in London, only Sichuanese cuisine has really broken out of the capital and begun its long march all over the country - a sign, perhaps, of its decade-long status as China's trendiest style of cooking. Red N Hot has branches in Manchester and Birmingham, while Red Chilli has expanded from its original Manchester HQ into Leeds and York: the spicy menu charmingly promises to look after "your pocket, stomach and soul". And in Oxford, My Sichuan has taken over the old school house at Gloucester Green, where chef Zhou Jun from Chengdu presides over a kitchen offering all the classic Sichuanese specialities.
As China's changing culinary fashions continue to cause ripples in the restaurant scene in London, the range of regional flavours is only likely to increase and spread across the country. In the meantime, Sichuanese cuisine has already radically changed the face of Chinese food in many parts of Britain. No one, it seems, need go for long without dry-fried beans or a bowlful of sliced sea bass in a sea of sizzling chilli oil.
Photo: Chilli fish from Local Friends. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian