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I remember when Chinese restaurants first began to appear in large numbers in Britain, back in the late 1950?s. Most were scruffy little backstreet dives serving food of questionable quality and zero authenticity, prepared from unidentifiable ingredients under conditions of dubious hygiene. We used to sprinkle our ?special fried rice? with pale-brown salty stuff out of bottles labelled ?soy sauce? because there was no salt and pepper.
I remember takeaways getting marginally better over the years, and then the explosion of interest in Chinese food when Ken Hom?s first TV series was broadcast. Suddenly there were two kinds of soy sauce: light and dark. I bought a wok. At least that?s what Ken Hom said it was on the box. And I bought Sharwoods? light and dark soy sauces, and sesame oil, and oyster sauce, and Chinese five-spice powder, and began stir-frying everything in sight and serving it with my microwave rice, which was very Indian because it was yellow with turmeric and had cardamoms in it. I shredded Chinese leaves and onions very finely, as instructed, and invented the trick of shaving paper-thin strips off carrots with a potato peeler so that I could stir-fry the three vegetables together in groundnut oil in which salt and garlic had been fried, and then sprinkle sesame oil over them when they came off the heat. None of it was remotely authentic, but it was very tasty and that?s what really matters. Wife Number Two and I ate my ?Chinese inventions? every Saturday evening for a couple of years.
I also remember my first visit to a Cantonese restaurant, the River Garden in Belper, near Derby. The food was several levels of sophistication above any other Oriental food I?d ever tasted. And the soy sauce on the tables was in little bottles with red tops labelled ?Kikkoman?. It was, to my amazement, brewed in Japan, and it had a superb flavour.
A little later I found the same bottles in Sainsbury?s and bought one. Then I happened to look at the label and saw that the sauce was brewed in Singapore under licence from the Kikkoman Corporation in Japan. It tasted different and - I thought - not quite as fine.
(This didn?t surprise me. I?ve always thought that brewing Stella Artois and Kronenburg beers in the City of London is a pretty daft idea - have you tasted what comes out of taps in London? And, having once or twice tasted the real Dublin article, I think brewing Guinness in Wembley - or anywhere else where the water doesn?t come from the River Liffey - is pretty sad, too.)
Later still, I discovered Hanson?s, the Chinese supermarket outside the Broadmarsh Centre in Nottingham, where for £3-odd I bought a whole litre of genuine Japanese-brewed Kikkoman soy sauce - but in a plastic bottle. Scorning the Singapore Kikkoman bottle, I bought an elegant blue-and-white rice-Pattern porcelain soy sauce dispenser and filled it with the wonderful liquid. I also bought my third wok - or my first, really, because the others didn?t count. It was the cheapest of the lot at £4.99, it was very large, it had a round bottom instead of a flat one, and its single softwood handle looked as if it had come off the end of a broom. It was made of thin spun mild steel so that it heated up and cooled down very quickly, and it rusted unless you put it back on the gas to dry it thoroughly, then oiled it, immediately after you?d washed it. That was about seven years ago. I?ve still got it and it still works a treat.
There?s a Chinese supermarket in Derby now, but until very recently it didn?t sell Kikkoman soy sauce. The next best thing, at about a quarter the price, is in a tall glass bottle and is produced by the Pearl River Trading Company. I always have a bottle in the kitchen, although I rarely cook Chinese-style these days. I find that it gives a meaty saltiness to all kinds of sauces if I don?t have real stock available.
It?s a good thing there?s a substitute for Kikkoman, because now that this brand is back in the Chinese shop it?s not even being imported from Singapore but from Holland! I know the Dutch have a long colonial history in the East Indies, but this seems crazy.
Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.
This site was transferred in June 2005 to the Sites4Doctors Site Management System, and has been developed and maintained there ever since.