Sunday, February 19, 2006


Living in a city that’s become home to immigrants from every corner of the planet, you’re bound to pass an ethnic market or two along the way. In theory, having these shops at your doorstep should open a world of food possibilities; the reality is that you don’t always know where to start and what to get. After years of shopping at ethnic grocers, I have decided on two rules. Rule one: be prepared for a bit of trial and error with any purchases. Rule two: go shopping with a healthy sense of adventure. You’ll need it for some of the sights and smells you may encounter.

Chinese food has been a part of our food culture for long enough that it would seem easy to know what to get in Chinese markets. Confronted with rows of noodles, aisles of spices and cartons of chicken feet, it’s doesn’t take much to feel overwhelmed by the array of possibilities. This is my simplified guide to London’s Chinatown- when to shop, what to buy and where to snack.

First off, know when to shop. Having a weekend lie-in means that I usually get to Chinatown in the afternoon when everyone decides to go too. However, on my last visit, I managed to get there by midmorning. What a difference a few hours makes! At 10:30am some of the shops weren’t yet open but it meant there was time for a cuppa at Far East Chinese Bakery. It was the Boy’s first time there so I ordered two Chinese teas, a Chinese doughnut for me and a Pork and Glutinous Rice Crispy Dough for him. My doughnut dough was like a fried cream puff- a high calorie, sugar coated delight. The Boy’s crispy dough tasted like a savoury doughnut with bits of roast pork and green onion. We found it tough to fight the urge to order more when fresh batches of everything were brought out. Another thing I love about this place are the menu posters behind that counter that offer such delicacies as meet and veg dumpling and deep-fried curry beerf bun. Total damage on the wallet- £4.80.

Half an hour or so there will pass enough time until the two main shops open. I recommend starting at New Loon Moon Supermarket (9 Gerrard Street), which offers foodstuffs from all over Asia. Outside the shop is their selection of fresh fruit and veg- mooli, pak choi, persimmon and pear are among the choices. Spices, nuts and noodles are deals at this place. Rice Vermicelli (used for making fresh spring rolls) is a steal at 55p a packet. There is a refrigerated section where you can stock up on char sui buns (those fluffy white buns filled with Chinese barbequed pork), fresh noodles and chicken feet with black bean sauce (if you feel so inclined). You can also pick up Indian curry powders, Korean kimchee and Filipino Nata de Coco too.

Across the way is Loon Fung (42-44 Gerrard Street)- the daddy of the Chinatown markets. Although it mainly sells Chinese items, you will be able to find other Asian goods. Chinese tea drinkers will rejoice at the tea selection; the aisle of loose and bag teas seems endless. Add that to the retro styling of some of the packaging and it makes a great addition to a gift for a foodie. There are also a great selection of alternative flours like rice and potato for those who have allergies to wheat. Dried goods are a feature here with bargains on dried beans and dried mushrooms. Loon Fung has a great selection of frozen goods and has the added benefit of having an in-store meat counter.

If another snack is needed to see you on your way, check out Golden Gate Cake Shop for a pork puff or almond cookie to nibble on or try Oriental Delight located right next door if a packet of crisps is more to your liking. However, if a light meal is more what you’re after stop by Laureate (64 Shaftesbury Avenue) for dim sum. Beat the crowds by arriving when they open. Top picks include Char Sui buns (Chinese BBQ is a recurring theme in my house), beef cheung fun and steamed beef with bamboo shoot dumplings.

Chinatown may feel touristy at times but it shouldn’t be forgotten that at its heart, the focus is still the Chinese community. The markets are vibrant and offer a plethora of new ingredients to experiment with. Whether you choose to stock up on Chinese greens or you decide to play it safe and simply buy a bag of lychees, don’t be afraid to check out Chinatown, you’re sense of adventure (and your wallet) will be rewarded.

If you still feel like you need a starter shopping list, try picking up some of the following to get started:

-Pak choi (or any Chinese green)- steam it and add a dash of soya sauce
-Rice vermicelli - use to make fresh spring rolls
-Char sui buns - yum- little buns of happiness!
-Jasmine tea - just like at the Chinese
-Fresh chilis - can be used in many cuisines
-Lemongrass - give the stalks a bash and add to a bowl of broth
-Galangal - used in Thai curries
-Thai Basil - use this spicy herb in a stir fry
-Soya Sauce - can't beat the bargain prices for basic ingredients like this
-Sesame Oil - another steal to be had in Chinatown
-Pocky Biscuits - these Japanese biscuits sticks are a tasty lunch treat
-Bamboo Steamers - Chinatown has more sizes and better prices!


CB said...

Brilliant! You've inspired to put my inhibitions behind me, gird my loins and venture once again into China Town for the first time in years. Thanks Xoch!

Jeri said...

I'm having visions of girded loins in China Town! I think I'll dip into my home made brew to get over it.