One indication that you’ve been an expat in China for too long is when you’re away on holiday, and you start craving some local Beijing delicacies. Every summer I go back to the UK, and once I’ve had my fill of Sunday roasts, proper bacon, and fish and chips, I start to miss my Ayi’s jiaozi, and the kids are the same. Having not yet mastered the skill of making them myself, we have to be content with going to a Chinese restaurant or getting take-out.
At the moment we’re staying with my parents in Bournemouth. For those of you unfamiliar with this location, here is a short geography lesson – it’s a large coastal resort town on the south coast of England, directly to the east of the Jurassic Coast, a 95 mile World Heritage Site. To the west is Sandbanks peninsula, which is one of the most expensive places to live in Europe, just because of the sea views. Bournemouth has a population of less than 200,000, enjoys 7.7 hours of summer sunshine a day, and serves up more than 2,000 ice creams a day on its seven miles of seafront.
It has many Chinese restaurants, but the authenticity of the food served in most would be questionable. Then someone told me about The Mandarin. It claims to have been serving authentic Chinese cuisine since 1969, and invites you to “experience the true taste of modern China”. The menu incorporates the contrasting tastes of Canton, Beijing and Sichuan cuisine. Considering it is packed out during lunchtimes and evenings, it’s got to be pretty good. Having failed on several attempts to secure a table, we decided to do take-out instead.
We started with some Bang Bang Chicken, a popular Sichuan dish of cold shredded chicken dressed with a salty, sweet, sour, nutty, and hot sauce. It was fabulous and with superb flavor. We were off to a great start. The grilled pork dumplings, or “potstickers”, were delightful tasting wonton dumplings, stuffed full of minced pork, with chopped chives and scallions. They were crispy and crunchy on the fried side and soft and fleshy on the broth simmered side. The kids were grinning from ear to ear. We all dived into a bowl of spare ribs “Peking Style”, which were perhaps not as meaty as ones you’d get in Beijing, but they had the same wonderful sweet and sticky glaze.
Kung Pao chicken, also known as Kung Po or Gong Bao, is that fabulous spicy stir-fry dish of chicken, peanuts, vegetables, and chili peppers. This classic dish is one of my favorites to enjoy in Beijing, so I was a little disappointed to find the version served at The Mandarin was not nearly fiery enough. The chicken was good, there were plenty of scallions, and it had a tasty sauce, but the chilies were not hot ones. For some reason they used cashews instead of peanuts, so this dish really didn’t meet my expectations at all.
Mapo doufu is another Sichuan dish, a combination of tofu set in a spicy chili and bean based sauce, cooked with minced meat. In this case it was minced beef and it was superb. It was a fiery little number, which made me wonder why they’d held back on the Kung Pao. The tofu was perfectly prepared and cooked despite being characterized by its thin oily sauce, the dish still managed to taste somehow light. The final dish was stir-fried shredded chicken in XO sauce, a spicy seafood sauce that originated in Hong Kong. This dish was very well done, and proved a hit with everyone. Steamed rice was served alongside, but no pulled noodles unfortunately.
Outside of major UK cities it’s quite hard to find authentic tasting Chinese food. So I was pleasantly surprised that The Mandarin gets it just about right. For us anyway, my Chinese friends and colleagues may disagree of course. For a restaurant outside of London it is quite expensive, but the chefs clearly know what they’re doing, the ingredients were fresh, great quality, and the cooking techniques superb.
They also have Peking duck on the menu, carved at your table, the skin served first. A part of me is tempted to give it a try. But I really don’t think a restaurant in Bournemouth, no matter how authentic, can ever reach the standards of Běijīng kǎo yā served in a Beijing restaurant.
beijingkids Shunyi Correspondent Sally Wilson moved to Beijing in 2010 from the UK with her husband and son. Her daughter was born here in 2011 and both her kids keep her happily busy. In her spare time, Sally loves to stroll through Beijing’s hutongs and parks. She is a (most of the time) keen runner and loves reading: books, magazines, news, and celeb websites – anything really. Sally is also a bit of a foodie and loves trying out new restaurants.
Photos: Sally Wilson and courtesy of The Mandarin