Thursday, November 18, 2010

Chinese Food in Ireland


My first encounter with Chinese food in Ireland was from a take-out in the City of Armagh in 1995. It was my first time back in Ireland as an adult, and  I was traveling with my brothers Bruce & Struan, and Struan’s wife, Sara. After eating pub food about for more than a week, we were getting a little crazy for vegetables. Much of Northern Irish cuisine seemed to have one foot in the 19th Century and the other in the 20th . It was great food for farmers, but a little heavy on the hips for the rest of us.

I once saw an Irish T-shirt: I gave up potatoes, drink and sex – it was the hardest day of my life. Okay, I substituted one word on the T-shirt. Guess which one.

Back in 1995, at the Charlemount Arms Restaurant on the main drag of Armagh, my brother Bruce placed his order and was asked, Would you be after having chips with that? He didn’t realize that his meal already included the de rigour mashed as well as baked spuds. Now, since he said yes, it also came with chips as well.

In Irish restaurants in 1995, anything green on a plate was most likely to be a sprig of parsley, so when we hit on the idea of Chinese food to address our vegetable deficit, we were already salivating.

Our order was taken by a woman of Chinese extraction who spoke with a flawless Armagh accent, and it included pork and vegetables, chicken and vegetables, and beef and vegetables. We would have ordered vegetables alone, but that was not an option. We should have known we were in big time trouble when she asked us, Would you be after having chips with that?

Sure enough, back at our B&B when we peeled back the aluminum covering, we saw pork and glutinous gravy with a padding of sliced cabbage beneath, then chicken and glutinous gravy with a padding of sliced cabbage beneath, and naturally, the same same for the beef.

Fortunately, the one foot of Irish restaurant cuisine that had been firmly anchored in the 19th Century has taken a massive stride into the 21st. Ethnic restaurants now abound and the traditional Irish restaurants have also taken their cue. It is not unusual to find – gasp – broccoli.

This time in Dublin, I ate at two Chinese restaurants. The first was a mid-week lunch special for €8.90 at Jimmy Chungs which bills itself as Scotland’s largest Chinese Buffet Chain. This seems to be a somewhat nervy claim to make in the heart of downtown Dublin. None the less, €8.90 is only one euro more than what a McDonald’s meal will set you back, so the place was understandably humming with happy customers.

Now, if you were a weightlifter in the heavy-weight division, there is enough animal protein available in this buffet to enable you to lift a Volkswagen in a clinch. There were several choices amongst the usual animal fare: chicken, pork, beef. Some of it was quite good, with a hint of anise in the seasoning. The only stand alone vegetable dish was a sort of slurry with cabbage being dominant and a few slices of carrot for colour. Perhaps Jimmy Chung knows his market and perhaps this is what sells. Oh yes, there was also the ubiquitous chips. As my vegetable option for this meal, I decided to try them with the garlic spare ribs. Not bad.

While I can recommend Jimmy Chungs for a fast, cheap, filling and reasonably satisfying meal, my most happy discovery when it came to Chinese food in Dublin was Fans Cantonese Restaurant.

I chose Fans, not because of anything that I had heard about the food but because of its address: 60 Dame Street. This is the same address that was on the 1867 wedding certificate of my great-grandfather, Thompson Browne. Both he and his father, Samuel, were merchants in the family business, the woolen trade. Their offices and Dublin residence was situated exactly where Fan’s stands now. Ironically, Thompson’s eldest son went to Hong Kong in the late 1800s to work for HSBC and then 35 years ago, Hong Kong immigrants came here to open this restaurant.

Because I am traveling on a somewhat modest budget, the €15 Early Bird Special advertised on the billboard attracted me. Four courses, count ‘em, four courses for the beyond reasonable price of €15. 

When I entered, I felt a little concern over the fact that I was apparently the only customer. The other dozen or more tables were all empty. This seemed strange. Just down the road, I had walked past a diner filled with people who were all chowing down burgers and fries and “three way chilli” for not much less than €15 all in. Were the empty chairs in Fans telling me something that I should heed?

I need not have worried. Probably, it is the ones in the diner who should be worried. They were missing out big time.

At Fans, the service was prompt, the background music was pitched loud enough to hear but not so loud as to overwhelm, the napkin was cloth and the chairs were all covered in white silk brocade. A basket of warm shrimp crackers started me off, followed by sweet and sour soup, black bean chicken, rice, ice cream with fruit, and a coconut macaroon. Fan’s black bean chicken rivaled any I have had at Hons on Robson Street in Vancouver, or at the higher end Chinese restaurant, Sun Sui Wah on Main Street. The chicken was tender, there was more than enough of it, the green peppers still had their crunch and the sauce was flavourful without committing the sin of being greasy. All in all, an unexpected treat.

60 Dame Street. Not an address to forget.

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