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How the Chinese eat - at a Tai Pan Restaurant!

Innovation is not usually associated with the Chinese restaurant scene. But at last something different is starting to happen and whilst not strictly innovative, it is at least new to this Fair Isle. Tai Pan restaurants along with the WH Lung oriental supermarket chain have found a new way of doing things that breaks the tradition of what people have come to expect of a Chinese restaurant in Britain. This applies to both Chinese and English people. Let me explain.

Most Chinese restaurants come in one of two flavours. There are those that cluster together as part of a recognised geographical area, which is then dubbed Chinatown, for instance around Lisle Street in London, Faulkner Square in Manchester and Nelson Street in Liverpool. Or, there is the lone Chinese restaurant in the suburbs, serving "chop suey" to a safe but rather downmarket formula. The former will attract both Chinese and English diners, as authentic Chinese cooking will be available. However the latter type will have an almost exclusively English clientele. The Tai Pan fits into neither category, in fact it would not be untrue to say that it is creating its own market with an out of town location, purpose built facilities and plenty of secure parking. This model represents a well-tried formula for retail outlets and superstores, but for as vertical a market as Chinese food and provisions, this is new ground indeed.

Why do the Chinese go out to eat?

Dim Sum is the food of the masses and the time for eating it is the morning. The fact that, over here in Britain it tends to be more of a lunchtime activity (particularly on a Sunday) is more a reflection of British society, than the authentic Chinese way of eating dim sum. In Hong Kong, go for dim sum at eight o'clock in the morning and you may well find yourself having to wait in a queue - this is true of any day of the week. Get to the restaurant at one o'clock in the afternoon and you could well be faced with the leftovers. Given the nature of the Chinese population over here, i.e. small in number and of whom the majority are still in the catering industry (posh title for a Chinese chippy), we don't do too badly! Most major cities now have at least one restaurant that will serve dim sum that is of a high standard (both in terms of quality and variety).

Another reason to go out and eat is to celebrate, and when Chinese celebrate, they want to eat food that is not normally cooked in the home. The Chinese do not go out to eat Sweet and Sour Pork, Spare Ribs in OK Sauce, Beef in Blackbean Sauce or Chicken and Cashew nuts. Fried Rice is what you have when yesterday's rice that has gone bit dry. The Chinese want to eat things that are not practical for a domestic environment and are rightfully the province of a professional kitchen. Roast Lacquered Duck, Crispy Whole Chicken, Steamed Whole Grouper, Lobster with Ginger and Spring Onions on a bed of noodles, Crabmeat on a bed of Straw Mushrooms. Steamed Chicken slices interleaved with salty Yunan Ham and Choi Sum, the list of such delicaicies could go on and on.

When eating an evening meal, the Chinese have an approach that is at odds with Western etiquette. The concept of starter, main course and pudding is alien. A meal is a meal. Soup is an integral part of a meal or in a more formal banquet, it could even be one of the last courses. Dishes are shared; there is none of this malarkey "I'll have the chicken and you have the fish". Everything is communal and each dish will give pleasure to all attending. For more informal meals, boiled rice is the standard accompaniment, whilst more formal banquets need no such staple, rather each course stands on its own merits. A rice or noodle course such as Haw Yip Fan (rice with Wind Dried Sausage and Char Sui, baked in Lotus leaves) or Yee Mein (noodles topped with shredded pork and Chinese mushroom) may well be served last to ensure no one goes away hungry (though usually after the best part of 12 courses, this is a purely symbolic gesture you understand).

The Tai Pan Restaurants

In terms of decor and location, each Tai Pan is a clone, all be it a very smart, highly skilled clone. An out of town location will be the home to a purpose built Chinese Supermarket and above the cavernous shop floor is a very big room that is the restaurant. A big secure car park is the icing on the cake. So far there is a Tai Pan/WH Lung combination in Manchester and Liverpool, but plans are afoot for Birmingham and other major cities across the country.

The upstairs restaurant reflects the fact it is just a space above a warehouse. While decor is pleasing and the sweeping staircases at the entrance, either side of the water feature have made an attempt at grandeur, nothing can compensate for the soulless feel that such functional design is bound to give. That said, the interior lighting is from crystal chandeliers and the colour scheme for both the decor and furniture is suitably understated to give a smart, yet comfortable feel to the space. Fortunately the main reason people visit a Tai Pan is Chinese food and not architecture or interior design.

This review has two parts: a canter through the menu of a celebratory evening meal, and a typical dim sum lunch on a Sunday.

The Evening Out a la Chinoise

The occasion was my father's sixty-sixth birthday and there were six of us dining. This is what we ate and jolly good it was too:

Half a Roast Lacquered Duck: well up to standard, moist, tender flesh with a nicely lacquered, crisp skin, and plenty of it.

Half a Soy Chicken: wonderfully tender Chicken with a skin that was stained a dark brown by the soy sauce which also gives it the distinctly sweet yet salty taste. I always marvel at how the skin goes such a dark brown almost caramelised colour while the flesh remains pure white.

Scallops with Choi Sum: a wonderful dish, with "just right seasoning" plus well timed cooking of both the Scallops and the Choi Sum, but let down by being quite a small portion despite a Stg11.50 price tag.

Fried Beancurd with Mixed Vegetables and Bamboo Fungus: a big portion and the Bamboo Fungus were very pleasant, a sort of delicate, pale coloured version of Wood Ear Fungus (often found in Hot and Sour Soup).

Chilli and Salt King Prawns: Prawns with head and shell on, dusted with seasoned flour, deep fried and finished with a mixture of finely diced onion, chilli and salt. A tad overcooked and under seasoned for my liking and the Prawns were perhaps prince rather than king in size.

Grouper Fillet Hot Pot: hot pots were not available, but it was served on a dish instead. Lightly battered fish fillets coated in a subtle oyster sauce based sauce, the fillets melted in your mouth as you bit through the delicate batter and the sweetness of the sauce giving just the right balance to the taste and texture of the fish.

Fried Minced Prawn Balls coated in Breadcrumbs: very good indeed with a strong taste of Prawn and hint of crunchiness provided by minced Water Chestnuts.

Salted Pork, Duck Egg Yolk and Watercress Soup: a clear stock was used to cook the aforementioned ingredients and served as soup which was of a high standard and a refreshing change from the cornfloury, gluten-laden Chicken and Sweetcorn concoctions of this world. Ideal for cleansing the palate during the course of the meal.

And as it was my father's birthday - we finished with king prawns and fried noodles to celebrate his longevity. The prawns could have been bigger but the bed of fried noodles was top notch. Crisp on the outside whilst suitably moist in the centre. The total for the meal including boiled rice was just a shade under Stg 87.00, which is probably good value in anybody's books (without service and Chinese rarely drink anything else except for tea with a meal).

A Dim Sum feast

Dim Sum is not just food, it is atmosphere, it is a celebration of family and the foodie things in life. A quiet mid-day repast it is not. Warning, do not go to the Tai Pan on a Sunday if romance is on your mind. The sight of big round tables with three generations of a family sat down contentedly devouring columns of dim sum in steaming bamboo baskets, plates of roast meats and rice, with the odd portion of freshly Roasted Suckling Pig thrown in, will hardly be an aid to love's young dream. More likely love's young nightmare!

Liverpool's Tai Pan dining room can hold 300 in one sitting and within 20 minutes of opening its doors on a Sunday morning, the place was full, with a respectable sized queue already building up for the second sitting. Because it is a Sunday, the Chinese are out in force and to meet the demand, the dim sum is not ordered, rather it is pushed around the restaurant in heated trolleys and each tables chooses what it wants as the trolley passes by.

I teach a Chinese cookery evening class and in the first term I take my students out on a field trip. Thus with 14 students in tow, a visit to the Tai Pan for dim sum would certainly be an eye opener for all concerned. You need a big group, as otherwise it is not possible to try more than three or four types of dim sum. Our party took up two large round tables and soon trolleys laden with goodies started to mill round us as an air of expectation descended.

To kick off we had Woo Kok: deep-fried mashed yam wrapped around a filling of diced pork and Chinese mushrooms. Next some little pastries filled with Char Sui (barbecued pork). A waiter came by with a tray of Choi Yuk Bau: fried triangular dumplings filled with Chinese Chives and Minced Pork and we took a couple of portions of these delightful little tit-bits.

A convoy of trolleys laden with steaming columns of bamboo baskets approached. Upon leaving our tables, they had deposited portions of Pai Guwt: steamed Pork Ribs in a Garlic and Blackbean sauce. Chui Chow Fun Gow: spicy pork, vegetable and nut wrapped in a rice flour pastry and steamed. Geung Chuon Au Yuk: Beef wrapped in Beancurd skin and steamed with a Ginger and Spring Onion sauce. Gai Bau: steamed bread buns filled with Chicken and Chinese mushroom. Jun Gui Kai: tiny parcels of sticky rice with wind dried meats and salted egg yolk wrapped in Lotus leaves. Cheung Fun or rice roll: filled with King Prawns, Beef and Pork. Har Gow: minced Prawns and Pork wrapped in a wafer thin rice pastry.

It was around now that I started to lose count of what we had. I can remember that a surreptitiously ordered portion of the Chickens Feet in a Chilli and Blackbean Sauce was universally enjoyed until I told my students the true nature of the dish. A plate of tiny Honey Buns were also appreciated by all, but was eaten in the middle rather than the end of the meal, which might have been preferable.

To my surprise a dish of Roast Suckling Pig, did not find universal approval. To the Chinese this dish is symbolic of foodie heaven, a beautiful crisp skin with a deep red sheen that covered a layer of succulent fat that gave way to moist and tender pork. But to some Western palates that still require meat to be trimmed of all fat, such a dish was too earthy for many of my student's tastes.

Still the meal ended on a high note, with the Tai Pan Fried House Noodles: a wonderful melange of Grouper fillets, Scallops, Prawns, Squid, Roast Duck, Char Sui, Crispy Belly Pork, Fish Balls, Pak Choi, Pork, Liver, and even the odd bit of Pigs Offal sitting on a bed of perfectly fried fresh Egg Noodles.

The cost of the meal was Stg150 or Stg10 per head. Each portion of dim sum costs between Stg2.00 to Stg3.50, whilst portion of Suckling Pig was Stg8.50 and the Noodles the same.



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