As the People's Republic celebrates its 60th anniversary, we search for the UAE's best Chinese restaurants.
Tomorrow is a momentous day for China, as the country marks the 60th anniversary of Chairman Mao's founding of the People's Republic. "The Chinese people have stood up!" proclaimed Mao on October 1, 1949, and what better way to be counted again than through a celebration of Chinese food. Though China is famous for many things - fireworks and a big wall not the least of them - it is perhaps fair to say that none of these is as generous a contribution to the world as its cuisine.
Rice, noodles, crispy duck, spring rolls, sweet and sour chicken, dim sum, soy sauce, salted fish? menus in Chinese restaurants can run to dozens of pages, with ingredients such as ground chicken foot, skewered seahorses and fried sparrows tucked among them. What would the world look like without Chinese food? Cities such as London, New York, Melbourne, Bangkok, Buenos Aires, San Francisco and Kuala Lumpur would be left empty of their colourful Chinatowns; meals could never be ended with a fortune cookie and the UAE's culinary landscape would be much less fertile.
The Chinese expatriate population in the UAE is approximately 200,000, so unsurprisingly we have a number of opportunities to sample the nation's cuisine. But this marks one of the problems of Chinese food - its staggering variation. Traditionally, there are eight regionalities: Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan and Zhejiang, and yet for the ignorant, it all falls into the same brackets. So where do you start, what do you tuck into first? Where do you get the best spring roll? Where can you find contemporary crispy duck served with foie gras? What if you just fancy a quick basket of dim sum? Fear not, gourmets - the UAE has answers to all of these conundrums.
But a quick scan around my colleagues reveals the first problem with tracking down the "best" Chinese restaurant in the UAE - everyone has their favourites. "Oh the spicy beef at Bam Bu," said one of his Abu Dhabi favourite. "No. What about Beijing in Madinat Zayed?" replied another, "everything there is consistently good, and inexpensive." "No, no, no, the Shang Palace," interjected yet another. "Nothing can top that." This view was chorused by several others. The Shang Palace at Abu Dhabi's Shangri-La Hotel is well loved for its food. In answer to a question as to where the Chinese ambassador, Gao Yusheng, goes to eat when not being cooked for in his official residence in Abu Dhabi, a spokesperson at the Chinese Embassy says that His Excellency is partial to dropping in there.
The executive chef Chan Yiu So has been cooking professionally for 20 years, half of which have been spent at the Shang Palace. Originally from Hong Kong, his interest in culinary matters began early. "I learnt cooking through an apprenticeship when I was a little boy," he explains. "I started out cleaning floors and washing dishes in a small Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong." The Shang Palace serves 80 covers a day on average, and Peking duck, says Yiu So, is by far the most popular dish. This is true for plenty of Chinese restaurants around the world, as diners are lured by that unbeatable combination of crispy skin and juicy meat crammed into a pancake. But for the Chinese, the love of duck is not just about its taste. As with plenty of Chinese food, there are health reasons. According to ancient dietary principles, many Chinese people believe that other types of poultry are "hot" in nature, whereas duck is thought to be "cold", thanks to its watery habitat. Hence, duck meat is believed to be beneficial for the lungs and respiratory system. Yiu So, however, says that back home in China a more exotic-sounding soup would be his pick of seasonal foods. "The weather is getting cooler," he explains. "Snake soup helps to warm the body up."
In terms of upmarket Chinese restaurants, although there is another Shang Palace in the Shangri-La Dubai, Yiu So's Abu Dhabi version is rivalled mainly by Raffles Dubai's The Noble House, which often wins out in the restaurant award stakes. Here you find contemporary morsels such as Raffles Beluga caviar dumplings for Dh80 and sweet and sour chicken served with foie gras and cherry tomatoes for Dh125. The chef, Peter Lau, who is originally from Malaysia, has been at The Noble House since its opening two years ago, but has been cooking since the age of 12. Having learnt from his mother, his career has taken him from Malaysia to Brunei and Singapore, and now to Dubai, where he happily indulges his fondness for seafood.
"I love prawns especially," he says. "Their texture, their flavour, the flesh is so tender and you can cook them any way you like. I prefer them sautéed, or with soy sauce and steamed in water and egg white sauce, which is a very traditional way of cooking them." Both the Shang Palace and The Noble House need to look out, however, for whispered rumours that London's famed Hakkasan restaurant is shortly to open its doors at Emirates Palace. In London, it was the first Chinese restaurant to earn a Michelin star, and though an Emirates Palace spokesman refused to be drawn on dates, he did admit that talks are in the offing. This a development that makes sense, given that the restaurant's creator and previous owner, the Wagamama-founder Alan Yau, last year sold both Hakkasan and his upmarket dim sum restaurant, Yauatcha, to the Abu Dhabi property group Tasameem.
In the UAE, dim sum is already making steady inroads. The trendy and modern Da Shi Dai in Mirdiff and Jumeirah Beach Residence is often championed as one of the best takeaway Chinese options in Dubai. And now Dubai Mall has a branch of Ping Pong. The European chain is planning to spread itself over the Gulf and "extended Gulf region", explains Daniel During, its managing director in the Middle East. It has 12 outlets in London alone and During says that he wants to steadily open up 25 in this part of the world. Dubai was chosen first in the Middle East, along with Sao Paulo in South America and Washington DC in America. "These cities have a common denominator," During explains. "They are all trendy, upcoming, with an upper middle class that is looking for new trends in food. They're just happening cities, and Dubai is the gateway to the Middle East."
The dim sum that one finds outside China is different to that found here, however. The Chinese generally eat the small dumplings for breakfast. So, is eating dim sum for dinner akin to ordering a cappuccino in Italy after dinner? "Yes, or like having a paella for dinner in Spain, no one would do it," he says. "Dim sum in China is for breakfast and lunch." The phrase "dim sum" literally translates as "little parcels that touch your heart". They date back to the 10th century, having started out their existence being served from a large trolley to travellers along the Silk Route when they stopped for tea. In London's Chinatown, several restaurants still serve dim sum from a traditional trolley, though During says this is less and less common. "The trolley in China is the equivalent to the conveyor belt in Japan, which is seen as very low-market. In the West, it's trendy and sophisticated but back home it's downmarket."
Ping Pong, During says, is adamant about the health credentials of the chain. Yes, there are fried and baked buns (and more of them on the menu here, developed especially for the Middle Eastern market), but there are also steamed options, such as snow crab and scallops in carrot pastry, and ones made from king prawns and bamboo shoots - and, of course, no sticky, thirst-inducing monosodium glutamate.
But what about those exotic Chinese ingredients that you hear of? Forget chicken and noodles, what about the dung beetles, iguana tails and goats' lungs that you can find as street fare in China? Well, perhaps not quite to that level but for those wanting more from their Chinese dinner, Jumeirah Beach Plaza's The Duck King is worth a visit. The restaurant is young, having opened only in June, and the first thing that visitors notice is the array of traditional Peking ducks impaled on a rack in one of the open kitchens.
As the name suggests, duck is taken seriously. The menu lists 14 different ways that it can be served. Tucked behind the duck racks are several water tanks, where lobsters and crabs await their fate. A second kitchen sits across from them, where dim sum and pudding is made. But a quick flick through the vast menu shows the variation that the chef Peter Tan is trying to introduce to the country. There is shark's fin chicken soup available for Dh80, or apple and fish soup for Dh40, four types of tofu dish, nine kinds of clay-pot dishes, including one of shark's fin, and five pages of seafood and fish. The eye is immediately drawn to prawn with dry egg sauce, lobster "with fragrance oat meal" and scallops in homemade black bean sauce. Some of the soups are not terribly popular, but the enormous menu is a work in progress, says Tan.
For the most authentic of Chinese experiences, however, a friend who lived in Beijing for 20 years tells me the place to head is Sun Tour, a restaurant at Dragon Mart, next to International City in Dubai, which has been there since the market opened in 2006. On a weekday lunchtime it looks fairly unprepossessing. The walls are covered with pictures of the food and two lone Chinese men sit quietly in a corner eating noodles with chopsticks.
The menu, however, looks more promising. There are clay pots of baked aubergine, and of chicken and mushrooms in oyster sauce. There is sliced lamb Sichuan-style, pak choi in garlic and steaming plates of noodles emerging from the kitchen. Grilled quail? "No quail today," says the waitress. No matter, though. The portions are enough for entire families. Myself and three friends eat and eat for approximately Dh50 a head. Extra, piping-hot clay pots, bamboo baskets and bowls of rice hurry from the kitchen. Then comes a plate of crispy aromatic duck. "I can't," says one of my companions, then promptly sticks a fork into a particularly large slice, and rolls it around the plate to pick up the juices. Apparently there's always room for duck.