London’s Chinese quarter, located in the heart of the capital city and beloved by locals and tourists alike, has a curious history that is traceable to Britain’s colonial past and the opium dens of the East End. Vibrant contemporary Chinatown is something else altogether, a thriving cultural epicentre that is widely recognised as a go-to destination for lovers of delicious and, crucially, authentic Oriental cuisine. Sophie Morris is our guide to Gerrard Street and its environs.
“People think sweet and sour isn’t special anymore”, opines restaurateur Geoff Leong, “because you can buy it ready-made in jars in supermarkets.” He’s right, of course. Nothing says outmoded, 1980s, anglicised Cantonese cooking like an order of sweet‘n’sour chicken. “But if you go to a restaurant kitchen and see a massive vat of sweet oranges and chopped chillies, and then get to enjoy that authentic Peking taste, you’ll know why it became so popular,” Leong insists.
He should know. The Hong Kong-born, British public school-educated Londoner is part of a dynasty with a long history of opening restaurants and developing the Asian food scene in London’s Chinatown and beyond. He estimates the family has opened over 50 restaurants since the 1970s, when his uncle Lawrence Leong got a foothold in the industry after studying at the London School of Economics. This first restaurant, on Chelsea’s King’s Road, was called Zen. It developed into an upmarket mini chain with other branches in Mayfair and Hampstead, serving high-end Chinese dishes within minimalist interiors. It was the precursor to enduring upscale Asian restaurants such as Hakkasan and Nobu.
But it’s the other, cheaper, end of the market that proves most popular with diners in the capital, a phenomenon that goes some way to explaining how Chinatown became the cultural destination it is today. London’s first Chinatown emerged in the docklands area of Limehouse, where Chinese sailors from the East India Company disembarked and kept the infamous (and then legal) opium dens in business throughout much of the 19th century. Increasing numbers of Chinese immigrants made their way to London after Britain took Hong Kong as a colony in the 1840s. By the turn of the 20th century, Limehouse was a thriving centre for the Chinese community.
Although settled in the East End, destruction from heavy bombing during the Second World War drove the Chinese west towards Soho, where the boundaries of today’s Chinatown began to be drawn in and around Gerrard Street. By 1950 there were around two thousand Chinese in the UK, many working in the new restaurants that were opening up in this then rather shabby quarter, feeding, among others, British soldiers who had first tasted Chinese food while posted in the Far East.
By the end of the 1970s – the formative days of contemporary Chinatown – Hong Kong families were investing in freehold properties in the area, using the compensation paid from the compulsory purchase of their farms in the northern New Territories of Hong Kong, as Britain prepared to return the colony to China. The Chinese Community Centre opened in 1979 and in 1985 the area’s first official Chinese New Year celebrations took place. By the late 1980s, the Chinese gates had been erected and Gerrard Street, and some of the adjoining Newport Place and Macclesfield Street, had become pedestrianised – Westminster City Council helping to lend the area a distinct, recognisable identity for residents and hordes of Chinese food lovers alike.
Leong is the founder of Dumplings’ Legend, at 15-16 Gerrard Street, and Leong’s Legend & Hotpot, at 39 Gerrard Street (formerly Leong’s Legends on Macclesfield Street). Both flourish by offering dishes from a wide range of Chinese regions. The habitually epic length of menus in these and other Chinese restaurants might be off-putting to some, but Leong points out that they are catering for an area with six principal regions and over 120 dialects, so in fact the choice is quite conservative. The mistake made by restaurants in the 1980s, he observes, is that anglicised, Cantonese-style menus were offered to please British diners, instead of introducing them to the depth and breadth of Chinese cuisine now available in the area. “The food you get today has really evolved. What’s incredible is that you get groups of Westerners who are very well travelled and speak fluent Mandarin who have done everything from banqueting to street food. They go for spicy trotter and Sichuan hotpot. When we founded Leong’s Legends, in 2008, it had a very Taiwanese focus to please Londoners as well as tourists, and a handful of key dishes were very popular, such as xiao long bao (Shanghainese soup dumplings), pork belly bao, three cup chicken (a stir-fry dish made with a cup each of soy, rice wine and vinegar) and oyster omelette. Over the years, the menu has evolved to bring in different types of regional cuisines, thanks to our experience of serving the Chinese community and testing different recipes”.
Leong has also noticed that he’s feeding a growing community of young Chinese – students and professionals – who come from affluent families and are after a taste of home. Dumplings’ Legend has also evolved over the past decade, from traditional Cantonese fare to more regional dishes, everything from Cantonese dim sum through to authentic Sichuan hotpot, seabass with peppercorn and the classic duck. “We’ve got every sort of duck”, he confides. “Your crispy, aromatic Westernised deep-fried duck is still very popular, but people are now getting Peking duck with thin crispy skin, which costs a little more.”
So our tastes have broadened. Where should we go from here? “Be adventurous,” advises Leong, who is also an enthusiastic patron of the arts, acting as a cultural ambassador between China and the UK. “Go to Chinese restaurants with an open mind, and order something you don’t normally eat. Diners look at a European menu with an open mind, but I think they go to a Chinese restaurant and have already decided they want duck before they’ve even looked at the menu.”
Historically, the Chinese fondness for nose-to-tail eating was thought to have turned off Europeans, but given the revival for cooking the whole beast, we should welcome sinew, snout, offal and feet. “What’s really fascinating is how the English are so good at camouflaging food, disguising dishes with names such as parson’s nose and tripe,” says Leong. “The Chinese are blunt. Probably the only exception is the sea slug which we call a sea cucumber.”
Despite the appetite for authentic regional dishes, Leong points out it can be hard to find and train chefs. Unlike a typical European restaurant, where there is one head chef, he needs to find head chefs for roasting, dim sum, wok and other specialisms. What’s more, they tend to train on the job; there’s no catering college pumping out highly-skilled Chinese chefs.
Chinatown may have matured as the local nightclubs and dive bars have closed down, but it still has a dish to match every budget. Leong predicts even busier times ahead for Chinatown thanks to the newly introduced 24-hour Tube. “People cannot always remember which restaurant they went to or all the dishes they tried, but the culture of sharing is very important and they remember exploring new dishes. Now you can have xiao long bao at 2:30am in Dumplings’ Legend. Surely that’s healthier than a kebab?”