Sunday, January 26, 2014

Double Happiness - Authentic Chinese Food in London, Ontario

Double Happiness — Authentic Chinese Food in London, Ontario

Please send me a list of your contenders for the best Chinese take-out in London.

Double Happiness Redux

A distinction should be made between regionally-inspired Chinese restaurants and the ubiquitous Canadian-Chinese immigrant-owned diners that are still the norm across Canada. Canadian-Chinese cooking grounded in Chinese tradition, quickly adapted to the food and taste preferences of whatever locale Chinese immigrants established for themselves. The improvised dishes they created, like chop suey, have been dismissed as “not Chinese” by experts of the culture.

In relatively recent times, when Canada’s explicitly discriminatory race-based barriers on Chinese immigration grew less stringent, restaurants serving more authentic Chinese cuisine started to replace the hybrid Canadian-Chinese restaurants, especially in larger cities. These restaurants crossed regional borders, fusing Cantonese, Szechuan, Shanghainese and Hunan cuisines, and more often than not, tossing a few recognizable Canadian-Chinese staples on the menu for good measure.

I have colleagues who seek out restaurants that don’t cater to wai guo ren, “foreigners”. By foreigners, my colleagues are certainly not talking about themselves. Over the years, I have benefited from their guidance. I am told that the most authentic expression of Chinese cuisine is often withheld from the inexperienced non-Chinese palate. To these colleagues, Canadian-Chinese is a bastardized cuisine with a brief vocabulary of standard sauces, altered cooking times, and interloper ingredients — in general, techniques and ingredients designed to make dishes blander, thicker, sweeter, and less offensive to the Caucasian palate.

London has a myriad of Chinese-inspired restaurants. Due to the popularity of Canadian-Chinese food, even the most authentic Chinese restaurants pay homage to the genre. When you go to authentic Chinese restaurants, ask for the finest “traditional Chinese” dishes on (or off) the menu. Encourage chefs to share their authentic cuisines with us. Canadian palates, unlike those of preceding generations, are ready for the genuine, unadulterated thing.

The Chinese Barbecue

The Chinese Barbeque (aka “Gee Gai Yun” – meaning “Our Family People”) is acknowledged as the number one Chinese Barbeque restaurant in the city. The cooking is informed by the Cantonese cuisine of Hong Kong, by way of Vietnam. This family-run business is the progeny of Quan Quyet Chow Ly and her sons Quan and John Ly.

The concept of eating nose to tail has seen pork tongues and spleens, beef hearts and cheeks grace the plates of high-end restaurants around the region. John and Quan Ly’s father, To Ha Ly, was known for his “Chinese chitterlings” or Lui- Mei in Vietnamese (pork intestines – yummy, unctuous, with a unique taste) and other traditional offal like pigs’ ears, tongue and stomach. The family served these delicacies at their original restaurant, Ly Hoa Tran Barbeque and Seafood Restaurant in Windsor in the 1980s, before a stint in Toronto, back to Windsor, and finally settling in London.

Keeping with “the nose-to-tail eating” philosophy and trend, this is the perfect restaurant for the true culinary adventurer to sample Chinese barbecue (char-siu) specialties. Hanging in the window near the entrance to the restaurant you will see whole pigs (sourced locally in Mt. Brydges) that have been coated with a signature honey and molasses marinade and roasted until the skin is crisp, glistening and golden brown.

The food at The Chinese Barbecue has a fresh homemade quality with locally-sourced ingredients. No stale taro cake or premade, frozen Dim Sum here. The menu is expansive.

The meal started with a delicious delicacy of marinated and barbecued duck livers that tasted like they had been caramelized with honey (not on the menu) and followed by a bowl of clear broth (made traditionally with both chicken and pork to impart sweetness), with big slices of fresh Leamington-grown Winter melon and sweet carrots. This was followed by perfectly cooked squid, shrimps and scallops that had been lightly coated in batter, deep-fried and then stir-fried to crispy precision. Each individual bite was an unparalleled taste sensation and elevated the experience.

Fried rice is not a dish you can rush, and here it is cooked expertly. We ordered Yeung Chow, long-grain jasmine rice, with minced barbecued pork imparting sweetness, baby shrimp, scallions and egg yolk. On a few occasions here, I have been enthralled with a platter of melt-in-your-mouth barbecued pork and duck so delectably fresh that the meat practically falls off your chopsticks. My trustworthy Chinese cuisine connoisseur companions agree that the food here is top-notch. Also the service is intelligent and hospitable.

994 Huron Street, London

Hours: Sunday–Thursday – 11:00 AM – 9:00 PM
Friday & Saturday – 11:00 AM – 10:30 PM
Closed Tuesdays

The Spring (You Yi Cun)

Don’t confuse Spring, half a block west of the Palace Theatre in the Old East Village, with the newly opened Springs on Springbank Drive. If you judge authenticity by the stereotypical appraisal of Chinese restaurants, the number of Asians dining there, your expectations will be satisfied. The menu, inspired by Tianjin and Szechwan cookery, will seem transcendent to appetites familiar with typical Canadian-Chinese cuisine.

Spring is a Mom-and-Pop business operated by Oi and Baoju Wang and their daughter Ting. Oi was classically trained in traditional Chinese cookery, as was his father and his father before him. The family operated a restaurant in Tianjin near Beijing for thirteen years before immigrating and opening a successful restaurant in downtown Toronto for five years, then relocating to London.

The dining room at Spring is unremarkable; it approximates the ambience of eating out in a modest home in a remote rural province in China. The surroundings are down-market, but we are not interested in the décor, and even the uncomfortable chairs will not deter us. Don’t be surprised if the Wang’s youngest daughter is watching T.V. in the dining room or rides by your table on her tricycle. It is all part of the unique experience.

This unassuming culinary gem in the heart of Old East London offers amazingly delicious food served with pride and attention to detail. The family is gracious. This is traditional Chinese regional cooking combined with Canadian-Chinese cuisine. The signature wonton “purses” –house-made pork dumplings – are browned to pan-fried perfection. We return time and time again for the sautéed Asian eggplant with chili and sauce, a comingling of spicy, sour, and sweet flavours. The al-dente long green beans are another favourite, bathed in a fiery sauce. We love the spring rolls and crispy deep-fried wontons. My constant Spring dining companion favours the battered, sweet and spicy General Tao’s chicken with chili peppers. I am partial to the black bean dishes. The Tianjin rice is revelatory.

768 Dundas Street East
London, ON

Hours: 12:00 noon to 10:30 PM daily

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