Welcome to the ninth Food Spark self-guided safari, leading you along a carefully curated route, visiting on-trend culinary hotspots to keep your finger on the pulse.
As well as breaking down the facts and exploring the trends, we’ll take you to six of London’s best regional Chinese restaurants. We highlight why each venue is interesting and what you should try when you visit, so you don’t miss out on ‘that’ signature side dish.
You could take our word for it and digest these gems on-screen, but it’s more fun – and a lot more delicious – to follow the safari and taste them first-hand.
China on a plate
Gone are the days of a questionable chop suey being the standard Soho experience: London is home to innovative and authentic regional Chinese restaurants that are bringing new energy to the dining scene. Their increased popularity is in part due to a wider trend in nuanced food culture, as chefs representing every type of cuisine strive to make their mark in the capital with original dishes and one-of-a-kind ingredients. However it’s also about consumer curiosity, a hunger for genuine food experiences, and our digital hyperconnectivity enabling ideas and recipes to cross borders instantly.
China has 23 provinces, yet most of the UK’s mainstream Chinese restaurants and takeaways have historically come from just the Guangzhou Province, serving Cantonese or ‘Hong Kong-style’ dishes. This includes ‘I’ll have the usual’ favourites like sweet and sour pork, chow mein, roast duck and dim sum. But look beyond the takeaway menu, and there is a wealth of London restaurants serving regional dishes from Shaanxi, Xinjiang or Sichuan provinces. Many of London’s excellent regional Chinese restaurants lie in residential zones 3-5, like the cluster of Desi-Chinese or Hakka-Chinese restaurants in Hounslow and Harrow, however there’s still plenty of space for underrepresented food from Manchuria, Guizhou, Fújiàn or Liaoning to make an impact across London and the rest of the UK too.
Address: 235 Hoe Street, Walthamstow, E17 9PP
Style: One of the UK’s few Uyghur specialist restaurants
About: The menu here is predominantly inspired by the owner’s native Xinjiang region and Uyghuar heritage, which is a minority Muslim ethnic group whose cusine is a curious blend of Chinese, Persian and Middle Eastern influences. Because the Uyghuar are predominantly Muslim, you’ll see no pork on the menu, but plenty of beef, mutton and lamb including traditional dishes like marinated lamb hoof, kidney skwewers, and their take on baklava for dessert. Kebabs and noodles are the region’s signature dishes, and whilst there is plenty of spice, it’s more subtle with sweet and fragrant floral flavours too. Try also Silk Road in Camberwell if you get a taste for Uyghur food.
What to order: An impressive lamb polo, like a large pilau, is great for sharing, or ox tongue in chilli and vinegar
Travel to 2nd stop: Take the Victoria line from Walthamstow to Kings Cross
Address: 125 Caledonian Road, Islington, N1 9RG
Style: Boldly authentic dishes from Shandong, Xinjiang and Sichuan in an industrial-chic London setting
About: Sichuanese food was one of the first regional Chinese cuisines to make an impact in London, as well as Manchester and Leeds with the pioneering Sichuanese micro-chain of restaurants, Red Chilli. Sichuanese tongue-numbing pepper makes its mark on the menu here, with signature spicy hot pots, dry and clay pot dishes from Northern China. Famous for its generous portions, this small restaurant on Regent’s Canal is best experienced with a group so you can work your way through specialities like Jiangsu squirrelfish, hot and spicy trotters, or egg yolk coated soft shell crab. London’s other notable Sichuanese restaurants include Barshu, Shu Xiangge, or the Holborn Whippet and Jackalope pubs for their Chongqing noodles.
What to order: Any of the dry hot pots are a must, or try the clay pot fish-flavoured aubergine with their kimchi fried rice. Order in stages to pace yourself, as food often comes at once.
Travel to 3rd stop: Take the 390 bus from Kings Cross to Goodge Street.
Address: 29 Goodge St, Bloomsbury, W1T 2PP
Style: Regional Hunan and Hubei dishes with a side order of karaoke
About: You’ll find plenty of Sichuanese dishes on the menu at Sanxia Renjia, but it’s the spicy Hunan and Hubei food that make this restaurant stand out. Hunan cuisine is slightly lighter, with more smoky preserved meats and delicate dry-hot spice (gan la) compared to the numbing-hot taste (ma la) of Sichuanese food. Sanxia Renjia’s Hunanese specialities include Mao’s braised pork, fish head and tofu soup, or steamed preserved pork slices with glutinous rice flour. Also try Hunanese restaurant Liao Wei Feng in Bethnal Green or Hunan in Belgravia.
What to order: Set menus are good if you’ve come with a group for karaoke, otherwise try the uncompromising boiled pork blood curd served Chongqing style.
Travel to 4th stop: Walk from Sanxia Renjia to Master Wei
Address: 13 Cosmo Place, Holborn, WC1N 3AP
Style: Oversized slippery noodles from Shaanxi Province
About: Talented chef Guirong Wei brings her traditional Xi’an LiangPi noodles to Holborn after the success of her much-hyped restaurant Xi’an Impression next to Arsenal Stadium. Dishes in Shaanxi tend to be both spicy and sour, similar to that of Hunan, but seasoning is more liberal with the garlic, onion and salt. Pork and mutton feature heavily on the menu here, and a lot of the regional specialities are steamed. Noodles are the star of the show, especially Wei’s speciality cold noodles, her delicate hand-pulled noodles with minced pork, or Biang Biang noodles, which get their name from the noise they make when slapped across the counter. Try Lanzhou Noodle Bar for quick, hand pulled Lamian noodles in Chinatown.
What to order: All the noodles. And if you’ve got space (or even if you don’t) their signature Xi’an pulled pork ‘burger’ which is a spiced patty in a steamed bun.
Travel to 5th stop: Take the Central line from Holborn to Liverpool Street
Address: 30 St Mary Axe, Liverpool Street EC3A
Style: Yunnanese food on the go at Liverpool Street’s KERB market
About: Claiming to be the first and only Yunnan rice noodle traders in London, this little food truck turns out handmade noodles which are the region’s ubiquitous dish for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Yunnan is also famous for its salty air-dried ham, Chinese black truffles and fresh mushrooms - but YUN is all about the noodles, their Langya fried potatoes dressed with special chilli sauce, and very cheerful service. If you miss them at the Thursday KERB lunchtime market, they’re also on deliveroo.
What to order: Guo Qiao Mi Xian rice noodles in an eight-hour soup broth, which is cooked in a traditional Yunnan copper pot with pork, vegetables, signature YUN pickles, and edible chrysanthemum petals.
Travel to 6th stop: Take the Central Line from Liverpool Street to Marble Arch
Address: 13 Montagu Place, Marylebone, W1H 2ET
Style: Old school Shanghainese food for those ‘in the know’
About: This is a more unusual inclusion in a food safari, as you can’t just turn up unannounced. Chef Lillian Luk is hailed as one-to-watch by regional Chinese food specialists as she cooks hard-to-find Shanghainese dishes like Sheng Jian Bao pan-fried pork buns or fermented glutinous rice ball soup, but she only offers occasional takeaway and supper clubs from her home. Shanghai is best known for xiao long bao soup dumplings (which are everywhere in Chinatown), but the wider region is home to delicacies like Hangzhou beggar's chicken and dongpo braised pork belly. Lillian Luk has incredible attention to detail and is dedicated to recreating authentic Shanghainese dishes inspired by her grandmother’s cooking and the street food of Shanghai. Also try the rather fancy Shanghainese Bright Courtyard Club in Baker Street or the not-so-fancy Red Sun in New Quebec Street.
What to order: Homemade pork and Jicai wontons (which Lillian makes with white wrappers rather than yellower Cantonese style ones) or her Xue Cai Rou Si noodle soup with fermented mustard leaves and pork slivers.