I haven’t seen Lemur friends R and S for far too long, especially given they only live in London. So when we finally got in touch, I was thrilled at their suggestion to eat Northeast Chinese food at Manchurian Legends in London’s Chinatown, which is as far as I know the only Dongbei restaurant in the UK. Dongbei describes the region of Northeast China that is also known in English as Manchuria, and because it’s a poor and conceptually distant region to those accustomed to Cantonese food and culture, it has been little explored in the West.
By one of those weird coincidences that seem to bring subjects forcibly to your attention, I’d just been reading about lesser-known Chinese food cultures in Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford’s book Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China. I had no idea how much of China’s vast area was inhabited by non-Han people, and it’s not hard to see a history of subjugation in the contemporary dominance of the Han regions in Chinese politics. Duguid and Alford explore a fascinating range of culinary traditions in the book, and though they don’t include much about Dongbei (since it is actually within the eastern seaboard area of the Great Wall), its native Manchu culture has much in common with the Mongol, Kazakh and other ethnicities that they do discuss. Having read about the very different ingredients and flavours found across China, I was eager to try some of them out at Manchurian Legends.
The restaurant itself is tiny, with fewer than ten tables, but the menu is extensive, with lots of Manchurian specialties, as well as a dedicated BBQ section. R and S are avid foodies themselves and were pleasantly surprised to discover that we shared their Chinese restaurant ordering priorities. I think it was when I suggested the cold pigs’ ears to S, who is Chinese, that it clicked. Oh yes, we could totally order the fun stuff! A bit of a frenzy commenced, in which we clearly ordered way too much food. But how could we stop ourselves, when there was so much goodness on offer?
First up was the BBQ section, commencing with the lamb skewers above. These were fantastic, with soft fatty meat covered with a sesame seed, cumin and chilli powder. We also had chilli skewers, which were equally magnificent. Just a little hot, but with bags of charred flavour, these were my kind of BBQ.
For cold dishes, we had the aforementioned pigs’ ears, which were beautifully pressed into fine slices, crunchy and chewy with a light soy-vinegar dipping sauce, and a refreshing dish of bean-starch noodles with raw cucumber, cilantro and little pieces of braised pork.
Funnily enough, our local favourite Lucky Star has been serving a version of this dish for a while. Although the restaurant is Sichuan in focus, owner Hong loves Northern Chinese food and there are always a few Northern standards on her menu. I guess Dongbei cuisine is creeping in, even in the seemingly distant centres of Sichuan cuisine…
We followed these openers (yes, these plus some lovely pickled vegetable and pork dumplings were just for starters) with equally successful main courses. S was insistent on a mushroom and pork hotpot, and he really called it well. The long-stemmed dried mushrooms that dominated the dish were deliciously meaty and chewy, and the rich hotpot broth was studded with green and red chillies and whole garlic cloves.
Also good was the Three Earthly Delights – potato, eggplant and green pepper– and the hot and spicy pig knuckle, which offered gelatinous chunks of pork in a dry sauce of leek, chili and garlic.
By this point it was clear that we had Gone Too Far. We couldn’t finish the hot pot and barely touched the pig knuckle – and we still had crabs coming! Luckily the kitchen agreed to cancel the crab order, and gave us doggie bags for the rest (thanks guys, that made a fab lunch and dinner the next day!) so it wasn’t too wasteful.
But there is so much on Manchurian Legends menu still to be tried. The big deep-fried wheat dumplings that look like empanadas, for a start. The wide world of Dongbei noodles for another. And, of course, the odd meat jelly cubes that I promised S we’d have next time. I’m pretty sure there’s going to be a next time.
Manchurian Legends, 12 Macclesfield St, London W1D 5BP