- The Dish: ‘Pockmark’ bean curd
- The Place: 24 Romilly Street, London W1D 5AH
- The Chef: Francis Law
What? Back in May, Soho got a flavour of Northern Chinese street food with the opening of Baozi lnn. The restaurant comes from industry name Wei Shao, who helped introduce Sichuan food to the taste buds of Londoners 12 years ago when he opened Barshu, which is still running today.
His new venture, Baozi Inn, offers dim sum, as well as dishes with Sichuan and Hunan influences.
The original menu features a range of regional Northern Chinese favourites, with dishes like Chengdu jiaozi dumplings drenched in XO Sauce, handmade dandan noodles swimming in a house-made combination of soy sauce, sesame sauce, peanut sauce and minced pork, fried prawn brioche and sea bream in fermented soya bean sauce.
Now, the team has ramped up the main course section with a selection of plates that have an interesting backstory.
Where? Head chef Francis Law is a Cantonese cook and dim sum expert, having worked at popular dumpling chain Din Tai Fung (opening in London this year) and Hong Kong’s Zen Chinese Cuisine, as well as China Dream in Hampstead and OQO in Islington. He is the man who has dreamed up the latest changes to the menu.
Among the new dishes is the legendary ‘pockmark’ bean curd (mapo dofu in Mandarin), one of Sichuan Province’s signature eats. Served with either vegetables or minced pork, it consists of tofu set in a bright red oil-based sauce with fermented broad bean and chilli paste and fermented black beans.
Where did the dish’s unappealing name come from? It’s a tribute to its inventor, the wife of a Qing dynasty restaurateur, who allegedly came up with the dish in the 19th century in a small restaurant in Chengdu. Famous for her superior technique of cooking tofu, Mrs Chen was also known for the smallpox scars on her face, giving her the nickname mapo (meaning pockmarked old woman). She is said to have prepared this spicy, aromatic dish for labourers who laid down their loads of cooking oil to eat lunch on their way to the city’s markets.
There are also other historical dishes on the menu too, like yuxiang, which is a fragrant fish sauce served up with steamed aubergine. In Chinese folklore, yuxiang originated many years ago with a family who used their leftover fish sauce – the basis of which is green onion, ginger, garlic, soy, vinegar and wine – for an aubergine dish and were pleasantly surprised. Yuxiang has since been refined, however, and is a common component in Sichuan cooking.
Another addition is the steamed prawns with chopped salted red chilli, a speciality of Hunan Province that combines spicy and sour tastes by utilising chillies that have been pickled in vinegar.
Why? There is already a huge love of Chinese food in the UK. In fact, it was the country’s favourite delivery last year with 179m servings ordered, according to NPD Group. Combine this love with the popularity of street food and high-end outfits like A Wong elevating the cuisine – as well as general curiosity about new Chinese flavours – and it’s no surprise that Baozi lnn is finding success.
Even the likes of Greater Manchester are seeing a demand for a Chinese chowdown, with new concept WowYauChow set to launch in Altrincham later this year. It will mix British Chinese favourites with a Chinese street food twist.
Plus, people love the authenticity of a dish, and stories like the one behind mapo tofu capture the imagination.