Fattening up in the Chinese year of the pig
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