Chinese food got hip again?

00:03, Dec 07 2012

When I was a kid in Timaru, all those many moons ago, one of the few takeaway options, other than fish and chips or burgers, was Chinese food. It seemed terribly exciting at that time. Exotic, even. Sweet and sour pork, crispy skinned chicken, spring rolls, dumplings, beef with black bean sauce, noodles - rice, even. It seemed impossibly alien, and sophisticated. It was really different from what we normally ate at home.

I reckon that I then knocked Chinese food on the head for the best part of a decade. There were so many other cuisines to try - Italian, Greek, Malaysian, Indian, Vietnamese, Thai - suddenly, Chinese food didn't really hold much appeal. It seemed staid and safe, and had been bastardised beyond all recognition to suit a western palate.

There was always yum cha, at which I swiftly became a strategic mastermind, a zen master, if you will. I liked yum cha, despite my reservations about sharing food. Yum cha was just, like, a thing people did, so you did it too. It wasn't consciously eating "Chinese" food. It was just yum cha.

And then, relatively recently it would seem, Chinese food became ultra, uber, unimpeachably (pun intended) cool.

Blame Lucky Peach. It is probably the coolest magazine in the world. It looks cool. The writing's great: those who write for it (Dave Chang, Anthony Bourdain, AA Gill, Mario Batali etc etc) are the most switched on and connected in the food world. And the latest issue is entirely devoted to Chinese food, in all its glory. It seems Chinese food is the food that a lot of people who cook professionally like to eat when they're off the clock.

There is also a young guy called Danny Bowien (who is of Korean-American descent) who has made giant strides with making Chinese food more modern, more accessible, more "hip", with his Mission Chinese restaurant in San Francisco (and now in NYC). He does weird stuff - fusion stuff, mishmashes of flavour that could be a culture-smash nightmare, but which are apparently sensational. I would very much like to eat there (maybe next year?).


So, in the spirit of keeping it "hip" (last night I was told I was a "pre-hipster" - huh?! It probably just means "old"), or at least trying to, I have recently been to a couple of local Chinese restaurants - one local to me in Petone, the other just off Cuba Street, in my "other" neighbourhood.

Mr Ji's Kitchen in Jackson Street, Petone, looks inauspicious, but it is well populated, and with an appealing (if kind of huge) menu. Actually, kinda scary huge. Where to start?

Well, the crispy pork pancakes look the business, so Plus 1 and I rip in: some little pancakes in which to roll strips of vinegar-sweet pork with slivers of spring onion and what are best described as tiny "pommes frites" - crispy bits of salty fried potato - a delicious combination of flavours and textures. They are rather magnificent.

We also share a sizzling hotplate of satay beef with veges (a little gluggy, truth be told), and a delicious plate of steamed bok choy with garlic - bang on. Like I say, huge menu - further investigation is going to require a larger posse, as this is resolutely food for sharing (I know, I know...). Pretty good, though. Satisfying, enjoyable.

The second visit in my whistlestop tour of "Wellington and surrounding areas" Chinese restaurants is to the Lychee Café in Arthur Street. For this lunch meal I am joined by my good buddies The Mexican and MSP - I am grateful for this. It means we can order more food.

One thing about the "shared meal" phenomenon is deciding how you are going to order - one thing each, or someone takes charge and orders for the table? I prefer the latter - someone to attribute credit or blame to depending on whether the meal is good or bad.

We share responsibility, with The Mexican ordering entrees - spicy dumplings and a hot and sour soup. The dumplings are good, and light, and spicy and flavoursome, while the soup is a revelation - the combination of tofu and fresh herbs and chicken and egg is quite delicious. Makes you wanna eat more.

MSP orders a beef with black bean sauce that is packed with fresh veges and tender meat, while I go for a dish I have eaten before, that I am pretty sure the others will dig - a pork and eggplant casserole with basil (which actually tastes kinda pesto-y. We eat them both with rice, and wash it all down with a fragrant Chinese tea, which has a great big floral bloom which opens out, spectacularly, in the boiling water, and tastes clean and fresh and light. It really compliments the food.

The winner? Well, Lychee by a nose. The hot and sour soup is the big winner, though Mr Ji's porky pancakes are mighty fine. The thing about Chinese food is I reckon it is kind of up to you to order right! And to order lots!

So, if you go out for Chinese food and don't enjoy the food, maybe it is your own fault for ordering the wrong dishes, or the wrong combination of dishes?!

Still, curious that Chinese food is hip again. Suits me fine - I love it all.

Chinese food - where is your fave? How come it has swung back into favour? And how do you go about ordering up to share?

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