Fat­ten­ing up in the Chi­nese year of the pig

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - A. A. Gill

WE are, as I’m sure you’re aware, bask­ing in the balmy benef­i­cence of the Chi­nese year of the pig. And not just any old sty-born porker but the pro­pi­tious golden pig, a gilded swine that comes around only once in a hu­man life­time. Those born in its year can ex­pect wealth, luck and fre­quent sunny in­ter­vals.

I was born in the year of the horse. Horses are good with chips and use­ful for grow­ing roses.

Peo­ple of­ten won­der how a na­tion as so­phis­ti­cated as China came up with the frankly ridicu­lous idea of pin­ning an­i­mals to the cal­en­dar. They copied it from a bes­tial al­manac that came orig­i­nally from south York­shire and was taken to China by the now largely forgotten Wilf Rams­bot­tom, an ap­pren­tice ex­plorer and trav­el­ling sales­man of high-end foun­da­tion gar­ments. He took a wrong turn while look­ing for fat women in Mi­lan and ended up east of the Yangtze, where he gave the lo­cals the bone­less corset­garter combo, sausage rolls (which came back as spring rolls) and the an­thro­po­mor­phic cal­en­dar, which in York­shire has been sadly forgotten in the fog of self-sat­is­fac­tion that is Bri­tain.

Un­til now, that is. Thanks to the Don­caster Folk Mu­seum and Strike Ex­pe­ri­ence Ed­u­ca­tion Cen­tre, I have re­dis­cov­ered the old beastly horoscope. No­body ac­tu­ally knows why it died out, to be re­placed by the Euro­pean horoscope. It’s thought that it was be­cause the an­i­mal years, such as the year of the fer­ret, were so re­lent­lessly ac­cu­rate.

As it was not so long ago the be­gin­ning of the Chi­nese year of the golden pig, my part­ner the Blonde’s thoughts turned, as ever, to spare ribs.

But where to go and find ed­i­ble, let alone en­joy­able or mem­o­rable, Chi­nese food in Lon­don? The rise of ev­ery other cui­sine in the English cap­i­tal has been ac­com­pa­nied by a mir­ror­ing demise in Chi­nese food. Bri­tain’s first na­tional eth­nic food is van­ish­ing, in qual­ity if not quan­tity. Chi­na­town, in Soho, once an ex­cit­ing gam­ble of lit­tle restau­rants, is a cyn­i­cal squalor of health and hy­giene fi­nal warn­ings.

There are a cou­ple of ex­pen­sive, so­cial restau­rants, such as Hakkasan and China Tang at the Dorch­ester, but the gen­eral, de­pend­able, lo­cal Chi­nese is go­ing the way of the Jewish deli and maybe for the same rea­son. Small fam­ily restau­rants are what first-gen­er­a­tion mi­grants do. They work hard so that their chil­dren can do some­thing bet­ter.

The new Royal China Club in Baker Street is packed and noisy, with round ta­bles of Chi­nese fam­i­lies spin­ning lazy Su­sans like roulette wheels, try­ing to eat good luck and pro­pi­tious times. The Chi­nese are ob­sessed with get­ting and in­creas­ing their luck. The room is typ­i­cally and un­equiv­o­cally Chi­nese: lac­quered and glossy, with a fish tank that barely con­tains ter­ri­fy­ing lob­sters, which beckon the wait­ers and point out the cus­tomers they want to eat.

There is a tea bar, where you can have a del­i­cate dish of green tea pre­pared with a dex­trous com­plex­ity that makes you won­der if it is any re­la­tion to a tea bag or an elab­o­rate con­jur­ing trick. I think it’s highly civilised and so­phis­ti­cated.

Af­ter 10 min­utes of star­ing in­tently at the menu, I — as usual — give up and beg the waiter to feed me. We start with spe­cial New Year Make Me Rich and Make It Quick soup, al­legedly made from moss and con­tain­ing stuff that looks like an­cient Chi­nese Lego. It tastes good, though. Then, Five Ways with Meat, which could have been a 1970s porn movie but is four ways with meat and one way with jel­ly­fish, which would have been a bet­ter porn movie. The suck­ling pig is par­tic­u­larly good.

Then comes baby bok choy in a broth so in­tense it is like suck­ing the con­cen­trated melted essence of chick­ens’ souls. And then a Dover sole, fil­leted and gou­joned two ways— once with chilli, once with baby veg­eta­bles — the bones deep-fried and curled up like a television ae­rial. The Blonde eats ev­ery­thing like a be­atific Pac-Man, in­clud­ing the fish skele­ton, which is strangely like mor­phed fish and chips. Pud­dings are good: ripe fruit and bean­paste balls. The Chi­nese can make tea seem like nu­clear physics, but they can’t do af­ters to save their lives.

It’s also an in­vi­o­lable rule of hos­pi­tal­ity that Chi­nese wait­ers are dis­mis­sive, cruel and un­car­ing, deign­ing to be rude only if they can be both­ered and you tip them. Well, here they aren’t just help­ful and charm­ing but they are prop­erly friendly. No, more than friendly; they are bor­na­gain, evan­gel­i­cally neigh­bourly. The year of the golden pig has cast a gilded glow of nicely, nicely magic over the Chi­nese wait­ers of Lon­don. Oh, that the year of the fer­ret might do the same for Hud­der­s­field, in deep­est dark­est York­shire.

www.roy­alchi­na­club.co.uk The Sun­day Times

Il­lus­tra­tion: Paul New­man

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