Jimmy Tsang: Lick your lips and prepare to explore China

Tyneside businessman Jimmy Tsang on the changes in Chinese cuisine in Newcastle in the last 40 years - and what the next course will be

Jimmy Tsang owner of Tsang foods in Newcastle
Jimmy Tsang owner of Tsang foods in Newcastle

The Chinese community has grown dramatically in Newcastle over the past 10 to 20 years. When I first came to the UK over 41 years ago the city had a relatively small Chinese community, with only a few restaurants, and Chinatown did not even exist. How times have changed.

There is now reported to be over 30,000 Chinese living in Newcastle, excluding the growing student population who are not counted in the census – a staggering increase in numbers and a major factor in the changes to Chinese cuisine that people will have experienced, whether they’ve eaten out or ordered take-away.

Historically, the majority of Chinese people who came to the UK in the ’70s or earlier came from Hong Kong – not mainland China. Due to the political situation and the constraints and restrictions placed on international travel, people didn’t travel. As a consequence, Chinese food in the UK was mainly Cantonese.

Cantonese food dominated for decades, and the majority of restaurants that opened had Cantonese chefs producing classic Cantonese dishes, which are relatively mild and use limited spices. Fast forward 20 or so years and the culinary map has changed beyond all recognition.

With the growth of international travel both from the UK and around the Far East, people’s palettes have changed along with their horizons and wider exposure to regional dishes and delicacies.

China is a huge country and the geographical boundaries within its borders are marked by culinary differences between provinces – the growth of travel both within China and internationally has led to the changing face of Chinese food around the world, and certainly here in Newcastle.

Different ingredients, dishes and cooking styles are now in demand from a range of different Chinese provinces, and my company, working with large international suppliers, has stepped up to cater for this demand.

Different provinces have distinct signature dishes, styles and spices – many of them now represented in restaurants on the UK high street.

Supply and demand has changed the face of Chinese cuisine in this country, and this change is very evident in Newcastle. While there are still a lot of Cantonese restaurants, a whole host of new restaurants have opened to cater for changing tastes and the growing number of Chinese from all over the huge country all wanting a taste of home.

Like other culinary fields, trends have started to emerge in Chinese food – in Newcastle, as in other UK cities, we are experiencing a growth in “hot pot” restaurants – where food is cooked at the table in either hot oil, or in a soup-style base.

This is an extremely popular style of dining in China – on a recent visit I dined at one huge hot pot restaurant that was over 20,000sqft in size crammed full of diners with hundreds of people waiting to be seated. This style of dining is the Chinese equivalent of the European Fondue or raclette – a very social way of eating where the food is cooked at the table, but in China it is a way of life, not a passing food fad.

Again, there are clear regional differences between hot pot restaurants – Cantonese-style hot pot involves raw meats and vegetables being cooked in a soup base pot – whereas, outside Canton, the cooking is all done in oil and the difference becomes more acute when the array of spices are added. North of Canton, foods are more chilli and sour based, with Szechuan spices introduced the further West you travel.

With the growing Chinese community both resident and itinerant among the student population in Newcastle, there has been a growth of restaurants catering for the wider provincial palettes, including hot pot dining, BBQ and increasingly spicy dishes.

It’s great to see the breadth of Chinese cuisine represented here in Newcastle and I feel we have only just scratched the surface.

Having a growing number of restaurants catering for wide Chinese palettes helps make Newcastle an attractive place for international students when deciding where to study in the UK.

The city’s added vibrancy in the early evening is another major factor that helps encourage these students to choose Newcastle – before NE1’s Alive after Five initiative was introduced not much happened in the city after 5pm until bars and restaurants opened later in the evening, a difficult concept for people to fathom when they are used to 24-hour cities.

Times have changed, and for the better, both culturally and economically. Having the city open and bustling in the evenings and on Sundays with restaurants and retailers selling familiar foods and products from home helps create the right environment to encourage and retain Chinese students – it also contributes significantly to the local North East economy.

International students are a major bonus financially for our universities and also for our local businesses. China’s one child policy means that most of the Chinese students who can afford to travel and study abroad are extremely wealthy and well supported.

Now, having the city able to cater for their culinary tastes is good news for them and for native Geordie palettes and pockets.

Authentic Chinese food is here to stay and the Geordies’ palettes will continue to change to accommodate these new tastes and flavours.

  • Jimmy Tsang is owner and managing director of Tsang Foods, chairman of the North East Chinese Association and supporter of NE1 Ltd.

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