Sunday, April 27, 2014

A Trio of Regionally-Inspired Chinese Restaurants in London, Ontario

Five Fortune Culture Restaurant

Jeff and Wen Bei Li’s Five Fortune Culture Restaurant opened in early March 2014, at the southeast corner of Richmond and King Street. The restaurant is a very personal expression of their former lives in China and the premises double as an arts and culture centre.  Wen Bei describes the cuisine as  "pure", a combination of Yunnan, Sichuan and Guizhou styles and influences.

According to the New York Times, “both Beijing and Shanghai have seen a Yunnan-restaurant boom, possibly inspired by a surge in tourism”. The owners are part of the wave of restaurateurs presenting a particular kind of traditional Chineseness that doesn’t adhere to the standardization of stereotypical Chinese cuisine which is not differentiated by regional categories such as Yunnan or Sichuan, but instead commercial genres such as “chow mein” or “egg foo young,” invented by early Cantonese immigrants who adapted traditional Chinese recipes to Western tastes and available ingredients.

On Saturday evenings there is traditional dancing and song on a small stage at the Five Fortune Culture Restaurant. So it is truly a cultural experience that is being offered. Five happens to be the name of their former business in China. Wen Bei tells me that she wants to extend the good fortune of that business to this restaurant.  She also wishes to impart the culture of their people with her customers, so that's how they came to name the restaurant Five Fortune Culture. Jeff belongs to "Bai" a minority group from Yunnan who traditionally adhere to Buddhist principles.

The menu states that the couple travelled 7,756 miles (four years ago) to start a new life in a strange land with the hope to live a more peaceful life. (They are learning English and have a good grasp of the language but sometimes they find it challenging to express themselves articulately. Fortunately, several of the servers are Chinese students and speak English fluently). An epigram on the menu states, "The fragrance always stays in the hand that gives the rose..." 

The cuisine of Yunnan province, in southwestern China, may not be particularly well-known in the West, yet it is touted to be one of the best regional eating experiences in China. As the northeastern part of Yunnan borders Sichuan province, many dishes are influenced the hot, spicy flavours of Sichuan cooking. Southern Yunnan borders Vietnam, Laos and Burma, and there are also other ethnic subgroups in the province, all contributing influences to Yunnan cookery. Yunnan cuisine (also known as Dian cuisine) doesn't get its own place in the traditional eight schools of Chinese cuisine; rather it's considered a subgroup of Sichuan (or Chuan) cuisine.

Foil-wrapped and grilled fish (a recipe from Jeff's grandmothers that is a 36 hour process) Tom Yum seafood pot, Mixian mini-pots, Udon noodles, green onion pie, pancake rolls and dumplings are among the signature specialties. The five good fortunes are: wealth, health, longevity, love, and virtue. Try the iced congee, pineapple rice and dia bao (steamed buns).

368 Richmond Street

Wednesday – Sunday  11:30 AM – 10:30 PM

Closed  Mondays and Tuesdays

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, Sichuan, 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)

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 Sichuan 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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