The liberal food world tied itself in knots last month when Girls creator Lena Dunham suggested that her alma mater serving terrible banh mi and sushi could be classed as cultural appropriation. The story is largely bollocks, of course – many have pointed out that a handful of students (quite rightly) saying that pulled pork on ciabatta with coleslaw is misrepresentative of Asian cuisine is not the same as saying white people can’t eat sushi. Others have pointed out that banh mi is itself a product of French colonialism.
It begs the question of whether cuisine can really be appropriated, given the onion-layers of influence that go into virtually every dish. Even sushi originated in south east Asia, not reaching Japan until the 8th century. Having said that, you could hardly blame a Samoan for being offended by the celebration of rampant colonialism on display in Mahiki or Trader Vic’s, the latter going so far as to feature paintings of the European ships that would pillage the land and sell the indigenous population into slavery. But where does that leave somewhere like Michelin-starred Gymkhana, which is overtly influenced by Britain’s colonial heritage, but where the food is so good, so lovingly crafted, that you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone with a bad word to say about it (also, chef-patron Karam Sethi learned his cooking skills from watching his mother).
I don’t know what the answer is, and, as a white middle-class restaurant critic, perhaps that’s not a bad thing. What I do know is that it’s into this cultural maelstrom that new Holborn restaurant Cha Chaan Teng launches itself.
Cha chaan teng, which literally means “tea restaurant”, were a phenomena in Hong Kong in the 50s and 60s. Following the migration of westerners to the region, there were plenty of restaurants serving French, Italian and British food, but they were generally too expensive, or too racist, to serve locals. So Hong Kongers opened up “western” restaurants of their own, serving a deranged take on European food, with dishes including hot and sour macaroni soup, and toast with condensed milk. It soon evolved into a cuisine in its own right, with calls for it to be included in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
Cha Chaan Teng (the Holborn restaurant) is a “reimagining” of a traditional cha chaan teng, a British take on a Chinese take on European food, which makes it an… Appropriation of an appropriation? A reappropriation?
It’s located in a basement on Kingsway: you go down a flight of nondescript steps, past a single, lonely outside table to find one of my favourite new dining spaces of the year, with a laid-back art deco bar area segueing into a lively cafe-style dining room with formica tables, decorated with lairy graffiti murals and paper lamp-shades.
It’s the brainchild of Jeremy Pang, whose grandmother ran Ho’s Bakery in Manchester, and there’s enough character and verve in his new venture to forgive the fact that much of the food is better as conversation point than it is as dinner. He takes huge artistic license, incorporating stuff you’d never find in an actual cha chaan teng; south east Asian ingredients such as lemongrass, European staples including tomato and basil.
The dishes are like a combination of last night’s Cantonese take-away and the leftovers from several dinner parties, all prepared by a chef who makes it seem kind of okay. At its best, Cha Chaan Teng makes what might be the Holy Grail of hangover food, such as the short-rib beef cooked with black beans and served on a big pile of lo mein, which would be perfect at 11am on a Sunday morning. Or the curried egg spring rolls topped with sticky-sweet chilli sauce and what may be salad cream, which would be ideal to take the edge off the bottle of viognier you had the night before. The barbecue chicken thigh hot and sour macaroni soup (a combination of words I hoped I’d never have to write) is the bastard love-child of Korean hotpot and minestrone soup; somewhere far beneath the bobbing fried egg, past the grilled chicken, beyond even the throat-bitingly spicy gochujang-flavoured stock, lies a bed of macaroni that’s far, far from home.
“Bao burgers” of beef short-rib sandwiched between slices of steamed bread are good snacking fodder but spam and quail-egg crusty rolls with Sriracha, carrot and coriander is a singularly unappealing combination of flavours and textures – the bread too tough, the spam strangely inconspicuous yet uncomfortably present.
I couldn’t face the cinnamon bun – especially after three or four outrageously sugary cocktails – but I took one home and now I’m wondering why egg-filled doughnuts aren’t widely available, because they really are something.
To use a cultural appropriation simile, Cha Chaan Teng is a bit like Miley Cyrus twerking – it’s intended as a bit of lighthearted fun, and it’ll probably get people talking, but the lack of authenticity makes you question whether it’s a very good idea.
First published in City A.M.