TOAST is an events and publishing platform that celebrates the ideas and stories behind food and drink. From debates on the future of meat and the role of women in the food industry, to dinners showcasing British produce, dessert parties, and our annual food magazine, we bring together people from different industries and backgrounds – chefs, producers, writers, historians, scientists, artists, filmmakers, entrepreneurs – to look at food from a fresh perspective.
In this series of curated columns, we’re partnering with Yauatcha to connect, inspire, and celebrate the unique Chinese culture of yum cha in London. We’ll be delving into the history, science and art of Chinese food and bringing together the stories, past and present, that bring people to the table. We hope you enjoy them.
Rumours of spring are starting to surface as the days get longer and the biting cold desists. Faint but clear, it brings a smile to many a Londoner’s lips – the city always does look beautiful when the sun shines – and with brighter days come thoughts of new beginnings and plans to set in motion. Though many of us celebrated the start of the year with fizz and a bang three months past, it was of course Chinese New Year just weeks ago: a flurry of red punctuated by dragons, firecrackers and feasts.
One of the oldest traditions still celebrated, Chinese New Year, or Nian, is the most important festival in the Chinese calendar. Though usually associated with a terrifying monster with the body of a bull and the head of a lion, the old Chinese word “Nian” originally meant “ripe grains”. The word dates back more than three thousand years to oracle bone inscriptions from the 14th Century B.C. Shang Dynasty. Before the Gregorian Calendar, the cycle of a harvest was considered a year and the whole purpose of creating a calendar or keeping track of time was to facilitate agriculture. It was important to know when to till the soil and sow the seeds. The holiday therefore began as a way of celebrating the new beginnings of the spring planting season, but later became connected with myth and legend.
As each holiday season approaches, food is often the starting point when planning festivities – and it’s often what lingers in our memories long after. Which got me thinking about my own forays into Chinese cuisine. How did it all begin?
I learned to use chopsticks not long after I’d mastered the knife and fork. This isn’t to say my first experiences of Chinese food were sophisticated. Deep-fried pork balls with a slick of fluorescent sweet-and-sour sauce were my inauguration. Followed by “exotic” meals cooked by my mother from an 80’s St Michael (now Marks & Spencer) cookbook – a cookbook that explains what a wok is in minute detail. Prawn toast and Peking duck were favourites, starter platters in local restaurants were a sea of beige. Trips to Chinatown followed, where my friends and I played it safe with chicken and cashew nut stir-fries, not knowing what dim sum was. Such tourists.
Things improved as my obsession with the food world grew. I read Fuchsia Dunlop’s memoir Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper – a brilliant, thought-provoking account of her time in Chengdu, Sichuan – and discovered the joys of mapo tofu and fish fragrant aubergine. I devoured the Chinatown issue of Lucky Peach and developed an unhealthy obsession with fluffy, barbecue pork-filled char siu buns. At a recent dinner at Yauatcha Soho I tried prawn and beancurd cheung fun for the first time – the slippery rice noodles giving way to crisp beancurd around plump prawns – a perfect example of the varying textures so important in Chinese cooking.
I still feel like a newcomer to Chinese cuisine despite these experiences. Yet I’m looking forward to trying new dishes and exploring the unique tastes and textures it affords. The Yauatcha pork and preserved egg congee is high on my list – a savoury rice porridge I would’ve recoiled from in the past.
And so to today, standing on the terrace of the new Yauatcha restaurant in Broadgate Circle, gazing through the skyscrapers to a rare sliver of sky, I’m excited to see this sweeping crescent take form and become a new dim sum destination. Perhaps I’ll even order the chicken feet.