Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Middle and Little Brother went back to school yesterday. Until the Easter Holidays, they're resigned to a fate which, if not worth than death, definitely involves the consumption of more bland, stodgy food than is recommendable. Family tradition dictates that the day before they catch the school train, we head to the Royal China in Queensway and ordering enough dim sum to sink a battleship. 

I'm half Chinese, and we were raised by my Ma with a smattering of Chinese customs. We celebrate Chinese New Year, give our first paypackets to our Grandmother... and we're all fanatical about dim sum. My family are die-hard veterans at the Queensway branch of the Royal China (some of the staff  remember me in my highchair), and despite foody friends dragging me to almost every dim sum outlet in London, and in the Far East, I can still put my hand on my heart and say that this is where you will get the best dim sum in the World.

I'm considered very useful by my friends, as I am fluent in Restaurant Cantonese. I can politely and charmingly converse with a waiter, and without uttering a word in English, can order everything we want to eat and drink, thank them profusely, and get the bill. It's pretty impressive (little do they know, that's literally the full extent of my Cantonese. Ssh, our little secret, ok?).

I thought I'd show you my hit list - these are my very favourite things to order, in ascending order. This may be useful to any dim sum noobs, where as connoisseurs can feel free to shake their heads and sigh at my blurry food porn (camera issues).


This is amazing. It's let down by it's description though, which most first time eaters are put off by. It's a pan-fried turnip cake. When done wrong, it's either stodgy, or watery. But at the Royal China it's always right, and excellent at that.


Little clouds of heaven. Char Siu is saucy barbecued pork, cushioned in fluffy sweet dough. When I lived in Beijing, a woman sold these from a market stall outside my flat. They were a daily staple. My waistline suffered, but it was totally worth it.


The same filling as the Char Siu Bao, but this time encased in sesame-flavoured puff pastry with a sweet glaze. I can't tell you which one I prefer based on taste. However, these are smaller, therefore taking up less tummy room, therefore you can eat more. Boom! Logic.


Ha Gao is, to my family, the yardstick by which you judge the overall quality of a dim sum restaurant. Prawn cooked in thin, translucent skins, they are delicious, but very tricky to cook correctly (I struggle to steam frozen ones). The mark of good Ha Gao is that the skins shouldn't stick to the basket, and they shouldn't fall apart when you pick them up with your chopsticks.


Another prawn-based treat, Ha Cheung Fun is very popular with my family (we tend to order a dish each). It's served with a thick soy sauce, and I recommend you hold on to your dish when finished for dipping other dumplings. The main reason that this is such a popular restaurant dish is that it is utterly impossible to make yourself - trust me, I've tried. Order lots, eat it fast while it's still hot, and regret nothing.


My all-time favourite dim sum dish, Xiao Long Bao are a Shanghainese specialty - soup-filled dumplings. The first time I ever encountered them, I bit straight in, unawares, and covered my dining partner in soup. It was very embarrassing.

To eat these bad boys without showering your loved ones in soup, carefully pick one up with your chopsticks, and put it onto your spoon (CAREFULLY! Tearing a dumpling is the second worse way to  lose your soup).

You'll be provided with some vinegar with shredded ginger. Pour a little onto your dumpling, and then take a small bite out of the bottom and suck out all of your soup. You may then eat the rest of your dumpling, and then sit quietly in wondrous refection for a couple of minutes.

The Queensway Royal China has the best Xiao Long Bao I've ever eaten outside of Shanghai, and that is high praise. These little dumplings of joy are, officially, my favourite. Dim sum. Ever.

By this stage of the meal, you'll be feeling that you cannot possibly eat another bite. This is where you're wrong.

Say hello to my little puddin' friends...


These are deep fried egg-custard buns. They are so good. I say I'm full. I concede when my brothers ask if I want any. I always say I'll have one. I always steal a second from one of my brothers, because they are just that good.

There isn't really a western dish I can compare these to. Crisper, and somehow less oily than anything we have deep-fried (in no way here am I belittling deep-fried Mars Bars, which are a guilty pleasure of mine), they save you from getting pudding guilt because they're tiny and really not too sweet. Sometimes when I'm walking past the Royal China, I cannot help myself, and pop in to pick up a takeaway portion, which I run away with and eat in Hyde Park, Whatsapping pictures to my brothers to give them ultimate food envy.

So here you have it. My most indulgent meal (it's reserved for holidays, birthdays and the like, so it's allowed). If you're hankering for some dim sum, I cannot recommend the Royal China highly enough. It always has a lovely buzzy atmosphere from the families, dates, and business parties, the staff provide impeccably good (if a little impersonal) service, and I think that the dim sum is unrivalled. They serve dim sum from 12-5 seven days a week, but be prepared to queue if you come at the weekend, as you can only book Monday-Friday.

You can find the Royal China at 13 Queensway, W2 4QJ, or make a reservation at 0207 221 2535.

I have to go and prepare myself some lunch now, writing this has made me hungry.



Thursday, 14 February 2013

Hello! Happy Valentine's Day!

Unfortunately this year I haven't found anyone mad enough to want to go out with me, so I thought that I'd share the story of my weirdest Valentine's Day ever with you. 

To set the scene - the year was 2009, I was nineteen, and had just moved to Shanghai, by myself, which was quite scary.  I had recently fallen victim to a mad hairdresser and her designs to give me a (very unsuccessful) pixie crop, so I had mad hair. I'd also just broken up with my boyfriend of two and a half years. Suffice to say, I was in a bit of a weird place.

I also looked a little odd.
When you move to an entirely new city, know no one and can't speak the language, you tend to really quickly bond with anyone who you can communicate with. This happened to me with one of the first people I met out there (which took a while as my first week in Shanghai was spent crying alone in my room and wondering if I should just hop on a plane and go home). He was an 26 year old American. Let's call him Rufus, as that was emphatically not his name. 

Rufus and I met on the 4th of February. He lived in my building, so we started going out to eat together, and exploring the city. So far, so normal. In hindsight, however, there were warning signs. He talked about guns. He talked about guns a lot. Not having had much previous acquaintance with Americans, however, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and wrote it off as having something to do with the Fifth Amendment. 

A few days before Valentine's, there was a particularly awkward supper which, to my mind, marked the end of my friendship with Rufus. I like to call it Racistgate. It was bad. Really bad. I'm pretty sure some of the food dropped out of my mouth due to my total shock as the most disgustingly bigoted, misogynistic and racist monologue I have ever had the misfortune to hear was delivered to me across a table in a noodle bar. 

As soon as it became apparent that Rufus wasn't joking (which, frankly, would still have been totally unacceptable in my book), I dealt with it in the only way I knew how. I paid for my food, and in the most measured tones I could muster, told my super-patriot dining companion that due to some pretty fundamental differences in our belief systems, I didn't think we should be friends any more. It was pretty dignified, until I added that he was a disgusting human being and if he ever came near me again I would react with physical violence. 

There the story should end. To be fair, I never again saw Rufus after that encounter. I started spending more time with the other English-speaking non-racists who lived in my building, and forgot about the whole thing.

Valentine's Day of 2009 was a very fun day for me. I spent the day with a lovely Londoner called Nick, rollerskating around Shanghai, taking in the sights and chowing down on all of the delicious street-food we could get our hands on. 

At the end of the day, exhausted, stuffed full of dumplings and covered in bruises (navigating the Subway on skates is pretty challenging), we returned home. Being a gent, Nick insisted on walking me to my door, where we were met with one of the strangest, and most ominous sights I have ever encountered.

There was a single rose nailed into my door, a post-it bearing the legend "Happy Valentine's Day, Mona. Love from Rufus", and a hammer on the floor. 

"Wow," said Nick. "That's only really one step short of leaving a dead cat outside your room."

It was really, really weird. I couldn't decide if nailing was (A) the only way he could get it to stick, or (B) a veiled threat. And did he forget to take his hammer away with him, or was it left deliberately on my doormat to send some kind of message? 

"Who says romance is dead?" I asked.

"It looks a bit like he wants you dead, to be honest." 

I'm one of those 'give everyone the benefit of the doubt' kind of girls to be honest. To this day, I still like to think that it was just a simple romantic gesture that Nick and my dumpling-fuzzied minds misconstrued.

Either way though, I packed my bags and moved out of the building the very next day. Just to be safe, you know. 

Do you have any Valentine's Day stories for me? If so, leave me a link in the comments section! 

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