How the Chinese
eat - at a Tai Pan Restaurant!
is not usually associated with the
Chinese restaurant scene. But at
last something different is starting
to happen and whilst not strictly
innovative, it is at least new to
this Fair Isle. Tai Pan restaurants
along with the WH Lung oriental
supermarket chain have found a new
way of doing things that breaks the
tradition of what people have come
to expect of a Chinese restaurant
in Britain. This applies to both
Chinese and English people. Let me
Most Chinese restaurants come in one of two flavours. There are those that
cluster together as part of a recognised geographical area, which is then dubbed
Chinatown, for instance around Lisle Street in London, Faulkner Square in Manchester
and Nelson Street in Liverpool. Or, there is the lone Chinese restaurant in
the suburbs, serving "chop suey" to a safe but rather downmarket formula. The
former will attract both Chinese and English diners, as authentic Chinese cooking
will be available. However the latter type will have an almost exclusively
English clientele. The Tai Pan fits into neither category, in fact it would
not be untrue to say that it is creating its own market with an out of town
location, purpose built facilities and plenty of secure parking. This model
represents a well-tried formula for retail outlets and superstores, but for
as vertical a market as Chinese food and provisions, this is new ground indeed.
Why do the Chinese go out to eat?
is the food of the masses and the time for eating it is
the morning. The fact that, over here in Britain it tends to be more of a lunchtime
activity (particularly on a Sunday) is more a reflection of British society,
than the authentic Chinese way of eating dim sum. In Hong Kong, go for dim sum
at eight o'clock in the morning and you may well find yourself having to wait
in a queue - this is true of any day of the week. Get to the restaurant at one
o'clock in the afternoon and you could well be faced with the leftovers. Given
the nature of the Chinese population over here, i.e. small in number and of whom
the majority are still in the catering industry (posh title for a Chinese chippy),
we don't do too badly! Most major cities now have at least one restaurant that
serve dim sum that is of a high standard (both in terms of quality and
Another reason to go out and eat is to celebrate, and when Chinese celebrate,
they want to eat food that is not normally cooked in the home. The Chinese
do not go out to eat Sweet and Sour Pork, Spare Ribs in OK Sauce, Beef in Blackbean
Sauce or Chicken and Cashew nuts. Fried Rice is what you have when yesterday's
rice that has gone bit dry. The Chinese want to eat things that are not practical
for a domestic environment and are rightfully the province of a professional
kitchen. Roast Lacquered Duck, Crispy Whole Chicken, Steamed Whole Grouper,
Lobster with Ginger and Spring Onions on a bed of noodles, Crabmeat on a bed
of Straw Mushrooms. Steamed Chicken slices interleaved with salty Yunan Ham
and Choi Sum, the list of such delicaicies could go on and on.
When eating an evening meal, the Chinese have an approach that is at odds
with Western etiquette. The concept of starter, main course and pudding is
alien. A meal is a meal. Soup is an integral part of a meal or in a more formal
banquet, it could even be one of the last courses. Dishes are shared; there
is none of this malarkey "I'll have the chicken and you have the fish". Everything
is communal and each dish will give pleasure to all attending. For more informal
meals, boiled rice is the standard accompaniment, whilst more formal banquets
need no such staple, rather each course stands on its own merits. A rice or
noodle course such as Haw Yip Fan (rice with Wind Dried Sausage and
Char Sui, baked in Lotus leaves) or Yee Mein (noodles topped with shredded
pork and Chinese mushroom) may well be served last to ensure no one goes away
hungry (though usually after the best part of 12 courses, this is a purely
symbolic gesture you understand).
The Tai Pan Restaurants
In terms of decor and location, each Tai Pan is a clone, all be it a very smart,
highly skilled clone. An out of town location will be the home to a purpose built
Chinese Supermarket and above the cavernous shop floor is a very big room that
is the restaurant. A big secure car park is the icing on the cake. So far there
is a Tai Pan/WH Lung combination in Manchester and Liverpool, but plans are afoot
Birmingham and other major cities across the country.
The upstairs restaurant reflects the fact it is just a space above a warehouse.
While decor is pleasing and the sweeping staircases at the entrance, either
side of the water feature have made an attempt at grandeur, nothing can compensate
for the soulless feel that such functional design is bound to give. That said,
the interior lighting is from crystal chandeliers and the colour scheme for
both the decor and furniture is suitably understated to give a smart, yet comfortable
feel to the space. Fortunately the main reason people visit a Tai Pan is Chinese
food and not architecture or interior design.
This review has two parts: a canter through the menu of a celebratory evening
meal, and a typical dim sum lunch on a Sunday.
The Evening Out a la Chinoise
The occasion was my father's sixty-sixth birthday and there were six of us dining.
This is what we ate and jolly good it was too:
Half a Roast Lacquered Duck: well up to standard, moist, tender flesh with
a nicely lacquered, crisp skin, and plenty of it.
Half a Soy Chicken: wonderfully tender Chicken with a skin that was stained
a dark brown by the soy sauce which also gives it the distinctly sweet yet
salty taste. I always marvel at how the skin goes such a dark brown almost
caramelised colour while the flesh remains pure white.
Scallops with Choi Sum: a wonderful dish, with "just right seasoning" plus
well timed cooking of both the Scallops and the Choi Sum, but let down by being
quite a small portion despite a Stg11.50 price tag.
Fried Beancurd with Mixed Vegetables and Bamboo Fungus: a big portion and
the Bamboo Fungus were very pleasant, a sort of delicate, pale coloured version
of Wood Ear Fungus (often found in Hot and Sour Soup).
Chilli and Salt King Prawns: Prawns with head and shell on, dusted with seasoned
flour, deep fried and finished with a mixture of finely diced onion, chilli
and salt. A tad overcooked and under seasoned for my liking and the Prawns
were perhaps prince rather than king in size.
Grouper Fillet Hot Pot: hot pots were not available, but it was served on
a dish instead. Lightly battered fish fillets coated in a subtle oyster sauce
based sauce, the fillets melted in your mouth as you bit through the delicate
batter and the sweetness of the sauce giving just the right balance to the
taste and texture of the fish.
Fried Minced Prawn Balls coated in Breadcrumbs: very good indeed with a strong
taste of Prawn and hint of crunchiness provided by minced Water Chestnuts.
Salted Pork, Duck Egg Yolk and Watercress Soup: a clear stock was used to
cook the aforementioned ingredients and served as soup which was of a high
standard and a refreshing change from the cornfloury, gluten-laden Chicken
and Sweetcorn concoctions of this world. Ideal for cleansing the palate during
the course of the meal.
And as it was my father's birthday - we finished with king prawns and fried
noodles to celebrate his longevity. The prawns could have been bigger but the
bed of fried noodles was top notch. Crisp on the outside whilst suitably moist
in the centre. The total for the meal including boiled rice was just a shade
under Stg 87.00, which is probably good value in anybody's books (without service
and Chinese rarely drink anything else except for tea with a meal).
A Dim Sum feast
Dim Sum is not just food, it is atmosphere, it is a celebration of family and
the foodie things in life. A quiet mid-day repast it is not. Warning,
do not go to the Tai Pan on a Sunday if romance is on your mind. The sight of
big round tables with three generations of a family sat down contentedly devouring
columns of dim sum in steaming bamboo baskets, plates of roast meats and rice,
with the odd portion of freshly Roasted Suckling Pig thrown in, will hardly be
an aid to
love's young dream. More likely love's young nightmare!
Liverpool's Tai Pan dining room can hold 300 in one sitting and within 20
minutes of opening its doors on a Sunday morning, the place was full, with
a respectable sized queue already building up for the second sitting. Because
it is a Sunday, the Chinese are out in force and to meet the demand, the dim
sum is not ordered, rather it is pushed around the restaurant in heated trolleys
and each tables chooses what it wants as the trolley passes by.
I teach a Chinese cookery evening class and in the first term I take my students
out on a field trip. Thus with 14 students in tow, a visit to the Tai Pan for
dim sum would certainly be an eye opener for all concerned. You need a big
group, as otherwise it is not possible to try more than three or four types
of dim sum. Our party took up two large round tables and soon trolleys laden
with goodies started to mill round us as an air of expectation descended.
To kick off we had Woo Kok: deep-fried mashed yam wrapped around a
filling of diced pork and Chinese mushrooms. Next some little pastries filled
with Char Sui (barbecued pork). A waiter came by with a tray of Choi
Yuk Bau: fried triangular dumplings filled with Chinese Chives and Minced
Pork and we took a couple of portions of these delightful little tit-bits.
A convoy of trolleys laden with steaming columns of bamboo baskets approached.
Upon leaving our tables, they had deposited portions of Pai Guwt: steamed
Pork Ribs in a Garlic and Blackbean sauce. Chui Chow Fun Gow: spicy
pork, vegetable and nut wrapped in a rice flour pastry and steamed. Geung
Chuon Au Yuk: Beef wrapped in Beancurd skin and steamed with a Ginger and
Spring Onion sauce. Gai Bau: steamed bread buns filled with Chicken
and Chinese mushroom. Jun Gui Kai: tiny parcels of sticky rice with
wind dried meats and salted egg yolk wrapped in Lotus leaves. Cheung Fun or
rice roll: filled with King Prawns, Beef and Pork. Har Gow: minced Prawns
and Pork wrapped in a wafer thin rice pastry.
It was around now that I started to lose count of what we had. I can remember
that a surreptitiously ordered portion of the Chickens Feet in a Chilli and
Blackbean Sauce was universally enjoyed until I told my students the true nature
of the dish. A plate of tiny Honey Buns were also appreciated by all, but was
eaten in the middle rather than the end of the meal, which might have been
To my surprise a dish of Roast Suckling Pig, did not find universal approval.
To the Chinese this dish is symbolic of foodie heaven, a beautiful crisp skin
with a deep red sheen that covered a layer of succulent fat that gave way to
moist and tender pork. But to some Western palates that still require meat
to be trimmed of all fat, such a dish was too earthy for many of my student's
Still the meal ended on a high note, with the Tai Pan Fried House Noodles:
a wonderful melange of Grouper fillets, Scallops, Prawns, Squid, Roast Duck,
Char Sui, Crispy Belly Pork, Fish Balls, Pak Choi, Pork, Liver, and even the
odd bit of Pigs Offal sitting on a bed of perfectly fried fresh Egg Noodles.
The cost of the meal was Stg150 or Stg10 per head. Each portion of dim sum
costs between Stg2.00 to Stg3.50, whilst portion of Suckling Pig was Stg8.50
and the Noodles the same.