Feast like a Brit in Beijing

Updated: 2013-06-09 07:36

By Ye Jun (China Daily)

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Traditional fare at Alfie's by Dunhill comes courtesy of chef Liu Xin, who went native to see just what tickles British taste buds. Ye Jun reports from Beijing.

A young Chinese chef's version of British cuisine is winning acclaim among Beijingers.

With the opening of British-style restaurant Alfie's by Dunhill, many people are asking chef Liu Xin what food constitutes British cuisine. Only four months earlier, he was asking his boss the same question.

Feast like a Brit in Beijing

You won't get more British than this: Alfie's offers traditional roast beef with gravy, and Yorkshire pudding dressed up with a few greens. Photos by Ye Jun / China Daily

That was when the restaurant was being prepared, and the management of Eclat Beijing hotel asked Liu, its executive chef, to front the menu of Alfie's.

With 20 years cooking experience, Liu is adept in Mediterranean, French and Spanish cuisines, but he was not sure what British cuisine really was.

He checked websites and read books, and found the most recognized British food is fish and chips.

The next most popular is Sunday roast beef. Ranked third are various pies - cottage pie, shepherd's pie, and fish pie.

There are also savory or sweet puddings, the best known being Yorkshire pudding, which is always prepared and eaten with roast beef.

But that wasn't quite enough.

"What Chinese chefs lack when cooking Western cuisine is a good understanding of local life and culture," he says.

"The chef must have worked in the place or country."

The 37-year-old decided to make use of his annual vacation and visited London for nine days in February. And then he ate.

At the end of the trip, he had spent about 30,000 yuan ($4,893) out of his own pocket just on food.

He made reservations on Top-table, a popular restaurant booking website in the UK. The first he visited, Hawksmoor Air Street Restaurant, was for roast beef.

"It was two beautiful chunks of beef with Yorkshire pudding," he says.

Then he went to The Wolseley for breakfast. He tried out their mixed basket and full English breakfast, with Eggs Benedict, coffee and black pudding, and spent 70 pounds ($107), although "it was too much to finish".

After that, he visited Borough Market and Billingsgate Market, bought seafood there and took some home to cook himself.

"I used smoked mackerel to make a sandwich," he says.

At a soccer game, he watched Arsenal play and enjoyed a pie at Piebery Corner, where the pastries are named after famous soccer stars.

He also went for afternoon tea, and for a beer at a pub while watching the Premier league on TV.

"I believe to improve food here in the restaurant, it has to be based on a good understanding of local life," he says. "I feel I'm more integrated into British culture after the trip."

For the last breakfast of the nine-day tour, he made a traditional English sandwich with bacon, mustard and cheddar cheese.

"Local English dishes emphasize freshness and flavors using local ingredients," Liu says.

"Another important characteristic is the big variety of ingredients."

When he returned to Beijing, the chef pondered how he was going to make British food.

"Some things you cannot change, like Cheddar, Stilton cheese, and important seasoning such as malt vinegar," he says. "But that doesn't stop me from using fresh local ingredients."

For example, he makes a salty beef sandwich with Beijing's famous Muslim beef producer Yueshengzhai. But he still uses rye bread, mustard mayonnaise and gherkins.

He says Gordon Ramsay, the three-Michelin-star chef in London, uses local cheeses, herbs and vegetables, but prepares them in a French style, thereby enhancing British cuisine.

"That's the direction we are going - local ingredients prepared in a British style," he says.

For example, the fish and chips comes with the three traditional elements - tartare sauce, malt vinegar and mashed peas.

But there are balsamic flakes on the fish, and the batter on the fish has dark beer in it.

"You need to stick to tradition, but put in local ingredients, and introduce the chef's own research," he says.

He uses codfish and traditional chips, because he thinks they taste better. "Britain is a diversified country. You can find a mixture of French, Italian and Spanish food there, besides the best Indian food outside India," he says.

He also uses wagyu beef for the Sunday roast beef, and Guinness stout to prepare lamb shank. Apart from these, he recommends the lunch set menu that costs just 118 yuan for two courses, and suckling pig with high-quality pork from Guangdong. His apple raisin crumble and Eton mess are among the best desserts in the city.

Presently his customers are half Chinese, half expats.

"My aim is to make foreigners feel the food is authentic, and make Chinese people think it is tasty and acceptable," he says.