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Traditional Chinese Food: Where to Eat in London

Bryan Lavery
Written by Bryan Lavery

A distinction should be made between regionally-inspired Chinese restaurants and the ubiquitous Canadian-Chinese immigrant-owned diners that until recently were the norm across Canada. Canadian-Chinese cooking grounded in Cantonese tradition was quickly adapted to the food and taste preferences of diners in whatever locale Chinese immigrants established themselves. The improvised dishes they created, like chop suey, are dismissed as “not Chinese” by experts of the culture. 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, and sweeter. The most authentic expression of Chinese cuisine is often withheld from the inexperienced non-Chinese palate.

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 onto the menu for good measure.

I grew up squeezing packets of China Lily soya sauce over deep-fried egg rolls and chicken chow mein. Over the years, I have benefited from the guidance of colleagues who seek out restaurants that don’t blatantly cater to wai guo ren — foreigners.

There are a myriad of restaurants in London that offer genuine Chinese food, with only a few that we patronize regularly offering consistency in authenticity, quality, service and price. Interestingly, the area around Wonderland and Oxford Streets has become a hub for Asian food. Due to the popularity of Canadian-Chinese food, often the most authentic Chinese restaurants pay homage to the genre. When you go out for authentic Chinese food, ask about the “traditional Chinese” dishes on (or off) the menu.

Chinese restaurant menus almost everywhere in London are wide-ranging in scope and minimalist in detail. Menus are not overwhelmingly helpful to the uninitiated and generally toned down for inexperienced palates. Stock photographs adorn menus and sometimes hang on the walls. These photos generally guide you to the Canadian-Chinese chop-suey cuisine of chicken balls, sweet-and-sour pork and sweet-and-spicy General Tao’s chicken instead of the authentic fare. Not surprisingly many Chinese restaurateurs frown on the deep-fried chop suey cuisine and if pressed will make interesting and disparaging remarks about it. Nevertheless, the take-out and delivery business is quite lucrative and does not stop them from giving the public these easily and quickly prepared versions of Chinese food.

Among the best and most consistent dim sum is at London Chinese Restaurant, located in the strip mall at Oxford and Wonderland, where the former Sears Outlet was located. It has dim sum carts and serves all day. (I will write more about the London Chinese Restaurant at a later date.) Wing’s Kitchen at Highbury near Cheapside serves some of the best dim sum in the city. I recommend you go there from Thursday to Sunday for the best experience. Golden Dragon in Byron is known for the best crisp, dark-golden skin Peking duck. Ordering the barbeque duck or Peking duck in advance is recommended to ensure that you have freshly barbequed duck. Congee House is a favourite, and known for its Cantonese dishes and congee. Jasmine House is a modest restaurant with its own local quirks and ambitions. It is an interesting offering, with a window on Sichuan cuisine and showing Londoners the nuance and variety that lies beyond garlic and the blast of heat and flavours from chilies. Located in a small plaza on Adelaide Street North (at Cheapside), it serves good Sichuan dishes in a humble and friendly environment. Five Fortune Culture House is known for its Yunnan-style home cooking with Sichuan and Guizhou influences, not formulaic Chinese restaurants serving Anglo-genres conceived by old-style Taishanese and rural Cantonese immigrants who adapted traditional Chinese recipes to suit local tastes and available ingredients.

Spring (You Yi Cun)

Spring is a mom-and-pop business operated by Jiang Quam Liu and Yue Hao Yang. Yue has been cooking professionally for over 30 years. (Don’t confuse

Spring, operated by Jiang Quam Liu and Yue Hao Yang, is just west of the Palace Theatre in London’s Old East Village.

Spring, half a block west of the Palace Theatre in Old East Village, with The Springs on Springbank Drive.) The menu is inspired by Mandarin and Cantonese cookery with a selection of Canadian-Chinese cuisine. (The term Mandarin cuisine is often used to refer to cuisine from Beijing.) Cantonese cuisine (also known as Yue or Guangdong cuisine) refers to the cookery of China’s Guangdong Province, particularly the provincial capital, Guangzhou (Canton). It is one of the Eight Culinary Traditions of Chinese cuisines. This unassuming culinary gem in the heart of Old East London offers amazing food served with pride and attention to detail. The dining room at Spring is unremarkable; it approximates the ambience of eating out in a modest home with serviceable chairs and black Arborite tables that are separated from a living area room with a hutch. The kitchen is behind the living area. Liu is gracious and quick to laugh. Signature dumplings — house-made pork and chicken – are bathed in broth with celery and bok choy. We like the sautéed Asian eggplant. Stirred Duck in Five Flavours with boiled potatoes are a commingling of sour and sweet flavours. There is a selection of dim sum offerings.

Spring
768 Dundas Street East
www.springrestaurant.ca
519-266-4421

Hours: 11:30 am–10:30 pm daily
Closed Wednesdays

Five Fortune Culture House

In downtown London Five Fortune Culture Restaurant proprietors Wenbei and Jie Liang Yin are part of a groundswell of restaurateurs offering an authentic dining experience. The cuisine, as prepared by Jie Liang and interpreted by Wenbei, is “Pure Chinese” — Yunnan with Sichuan and Guizhou influences.

Five Fortune Culture House proprietors Wenbei and Jie Liang Yin are part of the groundswell of restaurateurs offering an authentic “pure” Chinese dining experience.

Aromatic steamed pineapple rice is popular among Dai people and the perfect side dish to soothe the heat of spicy offerings. In Jie Liang’s hands the fragrant rice has a stunningly delicate balance of sour and sweetness. A ripe pineapple is scooped out and the flesh is cut into small cubes and mixed with the scented rice and other aromatics. It is served in the hollowed pineapple shell with the leaf crown acting as a lid to keep the rice hot. Yunnan is home to a vast range of fresh rice noodle soups and stir fries. Mixian (fresh rice noodles) are gluten-free with a silky texture that absorbs flavours efficiently. Yunnan’s best known dish, Crossing Bridge Noodles, is a bowl of hot broth served with a range of ingredients supplied raw to the table, including rice noodles, thinly sliced pork, poultry and fish, leafy vegetables, bean curd, aromatics and cilantro to balance out strong flavours, much like a hot pot. If you’re not familiar with these flavours, it’s an assertive dish. If you are, it’s simply enjoyably comforting. Spicy Tom Yum seafood pot has a sharp freshness and briny meatiness, deriving its pungency from lemongrass and pepper. Other specialities include thick, soft and chewy udon noodles made from wheat. The green onion pie is flavoursome and reminds me of the Japanese savoury pancake, okonomiyaki. Try the iced congee and dia bao (steamed buns). The restaurant caters to International students and gets extremely busy. When the restaurant is full the wait time for food can be long.

Five Fortune Culture House
368 Richmond Street
226-667-9873

Menu changes Friday to Sunday
Phone ahead, hours can vary.

Congee Chan

Congee Chan on Wonderland Road North at Beaverbrook

One of my favourite spots is Congee Chan on Wonderland Road. In ancient times, people named the thick congee chan, and the watery one chi or mi. The restaurant offers a large menu of Cantonese specialties prepared with fresh high-quality ingredients. A favourite traditional congee is the thick, preserved egg congee with minced duck. The shrimp dishes are a notch above most Asian-inspired restaurants in London. This is traditional Chinese regional cooking combined with Canadian-Chinese cuisine with Americanized versions of modern Asian specialties like deep-fried, sweet and piquant General Tao chicken. Congee Chan offers more than just congee and noodles. Order the lobster with ginger and green onion chow mein, and the clams with black bean sauce. Congee Chan is comparable to the good congee/noodle/rice restaurants you’d find in Toronto. There are set Chinese dinners for a reasonable price. The interior is contemporary, colourful, warmly lit and offers both booth seating and larger round tables. Servers are knowledgeable, hospitable and efficient.

Congee Chan
735 Wonderland Road North (in the plaza across from Angelo’s)
519-641-5686
congeechanrestaurant.com

Sunday to Thursday 11:30 am–10:00 pm
Friday to Saturday 11:30 am–10:30 pm

SO INVITING

With friendliness and enthusiasm, Youjin Wang and Yamei Min offer pot stickers and dumplings (cooked and frozen) at So Inviting, on Dundas at Ontario Street.

The Chinese bakery across from The Market at Western Fair District lives up to its name. Hospitable owners Yamei Min and Youjin Wang offer a variety of savoury hand-made dumplings (pot stickers) that include beef, chicken, pork, and vegetable. There are three types of sauces on offer depending on your palate. Recently, they`ve added chicken fried rice to the repertoire. There is a selection of not-too-sweet baking. The mooncakes with savoury bean paste cookies are a big hit.  Choose what you want, it’s self-serve, and priced by weight. The minimalist bakery is take away only, not dine in. The interior is exceedingly tiny and the prices more than reasonable.

 

SO INVITING
876 Dundas Street
226-781-0788
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Monday to Friday 11:00 am–6:30 pm
Saturday 9:00 am–4:00 pm

About the author

Bryan Lavery

Bryan Lavery

Eatdrink Food Editor and Writer at Large Bryan Lavery brings years of experience in the restaurant and hospitality industry, as a chef, restaurant owner and consultant. Always on the lookout for the stories that Eatdrink should be telling, he helps shape the magazine both under his byline and behind the scenes.