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Photo story: celebrating the characters and creations of London's Chinatown

The food found in London's Chinatown was once largely Cantonese, but in recent years it has diversified — and today, its outlets specialise in cuisines from all across Asia. The longest queues, though, are to be found outside the bubble tea cafes.

By Rob Greig
photographs by Rob Greig
Published 19 May 2020, 08:00 BST
Chinatown, London

Red lanterns festoon Gerrard Street in Chinatown, an area of central London that established itself as a business hub for Chinese immigrants in the 1970s.

Photograph by Rob Greig

Taiwanese fried chicken sits alongside Japanese pastries, Sichuan fish dishes and Malaysian roti. In the UK capital, restaurants and other businesses run by Chinese immigrants started moving west from Limehouse and the area now known as Docklands after the Second World War, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that the central London area around Lisle Street and Gerrard Street established itself as the modern Chinatown. 

Head chef Xia Zhong He and his colleagues, Y F Chen and Bee Chen, at Plum Valley on Gerrard Street.

Photograph by Rob Greig

Here, head chef Xia Zhong He and his colleagues, Y F Chen and Bee Chen, chop up pork ribs ready for dinner service at Plum Valley. In addition to meat dishes, dim sum have been introduced into the evening menu, as well as the traditional breakfast and lunch, for though labour-intensive, they’re extremely popular with diners. The dim sum comes in rainbow colours, with fillings such as prawn, scallop and spinach; chicken and sweetcorn; and mixed vegetables.

A labour of love: handmade dim sum are time-consuming for the team at Plum Valley to produce, but they're eminently popular with diners.

Photograph by Rob Greig

Taiwanese-style fried chicken is served at Monga on Macclesfield Street; this outpost is the first European opening for the Taiwanese-based restaurant chain.

Photograph by Rob Greig

While Plum Valley serves Chinese, Japanese and Thai fusion, at Monga the focus is on Tawainese-style fried chicken, dipped in batter and fried until crisp with a choice of seasonings and toppings, such as cheese. Having started off in Taiwan, the London branch is its first European opening.

Jianbing, similar to crepes, are a traditional Chinese streetfood. Here, one is served up by chef Miu at Chinese Tapas House on Little Newport Street.

Photograph by Rob Greig

Over at Chinese Tapas House, seen above, chef Miu makes jianbing. This Beijing breakfast favourite is a crepe that can be filled with a variety of ingredients, but perhaps the best is crushed baocui, a thin and crispy fried cracker. 

Nearby, Bake is a favourite for dessert, with its Japanese taiyaki — cakes shaped like tai (red seabream) — a popular choice. Sweet fillings include red bean paste (made from sweetened adzuki beans), custard and chocolate, though you can also find savoury fillings like cheese.

Taiyaki batter, similar to pancake or waffle batter, is fried within a mould in the shape of red seabream, or tai.

Photograph by Rob Greig

The end result: taiyaki are small desserts stuffed with sweet or savoury fillings — traditional options include red bean paste, custard or sweet potato.

Photograph by Rob Greig

Ellen Chew, seen below, is one of a new breed of Chinatown entrepreneurs breaking into the previously male-dominated industry here. She owns various restaurants in Chinatown and beyond, including Rasa Sayang, where she’s made a name for herself by focusing on Malaysian-Singaporean cuisine.

Singaporean entrepreneur Ellen Chew, the owner of numerous Chinatown restaurants, is making waves in a male-dominated industry.

Photograph by Rob Greig

Steamed bao buns are a popular Chinese snack all over the world. In London's Chinatown, diners seek out the squidgiest on offer — like these, at Lisle Street's Bun House.

Photograph by Rob Greig

At nearby Bun House, the bao (steamed buns) come in several different flavours, from pork and beef to the lava-like sweet custard, all kept in their own drawers. They’re best washed down with one of the many speciality teas on offer, from green tea to jasmine.

Published in Issue 8 of National Geographic Traveller Food

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