Today’s blogpost is going to be something slightly different. It’s a restaurant review with a lot of history too. I was inspired by posts from fellow BBC (British Born Chinese) bloggers, Elsa, Winnie and Michelle (ElsaEats, Diamond Canopy and Daisybutter respectively) who talked about growing up as a BBC. I want to talk a little bit about my experiences growing up as a BBC and how eating at one restaurant in Nottingham has probably made a huge impact on my university experience.
My parents, like many other Chinese families in the UK, own a Chinese takeaway. I have never known anything else other than growing up and living above the Chinese takeaway. Growing up in that foodie environment, is it any surprise that I am passionate about food today?! These days, whenever I come back home from uni over the holidays, it isn’t a relaxing break away from the stress of uni work and drama. Oh no, it’s coming back to help out in the takeaway frying the rice and stir-frying the noodles!! What’s more, being away from it for weeks, often months, at a time made me realise that I missed it – and more than I thought I would. Perhaps it’s the adrenaline rush of running around the kitchen frantically chopping the cucumber strips for the crispy duck, frying the rice and putting lids on containers! Or maybe it’s the fact that I really like cooking!
I never had friends come over, mainly because they would be in the way of the business. Many BBC’s would go to Chinese school on a weekend to learn Cantonese or Mandarin – I was never one of them, I am completely self-taught! I’ll admit, the majority of my Cantonese has come from watching TVB dramas these days… but every Chinese person in our area knows who every other Chinese person was; it was strange bumping into someone who knew loads about me and says ‘oh you’re so tall’ yet all I know about them is that their surname is Tang or Fong! We would also play mahjong every Christmas without fail. All these things summarise my childhood and I’m sure that many other BBCs would associate with these things and many more!
In my school days, I never felt the need to fit in. But one thing I always remember distinctly is anytime someone asked me to speak some Cantonese to them, I would outright refuse. It’s not like I don’t know how to speak Cantonese, in fact I’d say my speaking ability is stronger than my older sister, who went to Chinese school. I use Cantonese regularly in the takeaway to communicate with my parents. But for some reason, I didn’t want anyone to hear me speak Cantonese.
Reflecting on it now, given the fact that I am friends with so many people who speak Cantonese at university, it’s a bit strange. And I am not sure that I know why I refused. It’s not like they were testing me or would correct me if I was wrong (as my parents often do)! Perhaps there was a subconscious part of me wanting to fit in. I was never ashamed of being Chinese but in a predominantly white grammar school, it’s perhaps hard not to have to fit in and conform. If they knew the sorts of foods that we were eating for dinner each night – the salted fish and pork ‘biscuit’ (which is just a literal translation of the dish’s name, think giant burger but steamed instead of pan-fried and no bun), the preserved cabbage with pork mince, the chicken feet in black bean sauce – what would they think?
It was only until I got to university that I began to realise that I did want to fit in. This sounds stupid but I had this fear of people thinking that I was an international student. I would often get confused for being from China, whenever I walked into shops near campus or got into a taxi, they would speak slower and ask me where I was from. The shock on their faces when I tell them I am BBC is probably less shock but more embarrassment. I don’t make a big deal out of it, I just laugh it off but I really hate it. It’s the self-awareness that you are different and you don’t fit in combined with the presumption based simply on the colour of your skin, the shape of your eyes and the colour of your hair.
Nowadays, I embrace everything about Chinese culture, particularly its food. With time, I have learnt that I don’t need to fit in. I pretty much exclusively watch TVB dramas and sitcoms. I guess that’s my way of embracing culture as well as trying to improve my Cantonese. My absolute hatred of the number ’4’ makes myself laugh at times too. Since the sound of the word for the number 4 is similar to the sound of the word for death, it is considered unlucky in many Asian countries. Many apartment buildings won’t have a 4th floor for that very reason! Just the other day, I refused to buy a pack of pork belly because it cost £4.44 so the dish would go wrong.
But besides this little tradition that hardly anyone believes, I will speak up and actively try to promote Chinese culture. If someone asks me a question about Chinese culture, I could speak about it for longer than they probably want me to, e.g. why spring rolls, noodles and glutinous rice dumplings are often served at Chinese New Year meals! I am lucky to have friends who are open to learning about my culture and don’t mock me whenever I tell them about my BBC problems – like eating noodle soups but having to take your glasses off so the soup doesn’t get on the lenses but then not being able to see properly!
One thing that is disappointing about the Chinese food culture, in the UK at least, is that there still isn’t a clear distinction between the Westernised takeaway food and the traditional Chinese food that many BBCs grew up eating though there is some overlap. While chefs like Ching He Huang and Ken Hom (maybe even Gok Wan) have done good work in showing off authentic Chinese cuisine, there is still a long way to go. And it’s the food that my parents would cook for dinner that I miss having at university. With a lack of time, money, equipment, ingredients and knowledge to prepare those sorts of foods, I have spent a good portion of my university life not eating these dishes.
While not impossible (see my Homemade Salt and Pepper Tofu recipe), it’s very rare that I would make anything similar to what I would eat at home. But this semester, I experienced cooking dinner for lots of my BBC friends (numbers ranging from 4 to 11 at a time). Many of the food photos in this post are the dinners I cooked. I would cook simple dishes very similar to what we would eat at home; spam omelettes, fried green beans, beef and broccoli in oyster sauce, pan-fried chicken wings, pan-fried pork chops, vegetable soups and much more.
But it’s the dishes such as sweet and sour pork ribs, roasted pork belly (Siu Yuk) and lamb or beef brisket stews that I absolutely could not make in my uni kitchen. Whether it be there’s a certain ingredient that I have no idea what it is, how to use it or where to find it or just not knowing how to make it, I would always have to wait 3 months before I could eat it again.
Enter U Canteen, a restaurant serving up traditional authentic Chinese food at very decent prices. I’d always wanted to visit U Canteen ever since I stumbled across it when visiting the Asian supermarket located directly opposite. What’s more, the reviews I read were overwhelmingly positive so I had high expectations.
In my first year, with a lack of friends who shared the same tastes as me (both in a figurative hobby sense and a palate sense), I had nobody to go to U Canteen with. It’s not that I wouldn’t take them there, it’s just that I knew ordering something authentic probably wouldn’t go down all that well with them. However with a group of BBC friends (and non-BBC friends), I wanted to try out U Canteen to see just what I was missing out on.
The restaurant is quaint, small with probably around 20 spaces total inside. While it is a bit of a squeeze, that adds to its uniqueness and makes it feel like a true great find! It also brings your table close together and really plays on the Chinese idea of sharing a meal around a table with everyone grabbing from the same dishes of food.
The menu, both in English and with the appropriate Chinese characters, is dense and varied. Dishes range from roasted meats to fried noodles but some dishes of note are the ‘thousand year egg and spinach’, ‘pig intestine chilli pot’ and the ‘jelly fish and smoked hooks’. Now most of you would never order these unless you were feeling very adventurous, but it’s testament to the type of place that U Canteen is.
The place is unpretentious, which is absolutely why I love U Canteen. It’s not trying to appeal to the student crowd for the Instagram theme, it’s not trying to reinvent the wheel, it’s all about serving high quality authentic Chinese food for very decent prices for both the high Asian student population in Nottingham but also to everyone else too. A group of 6 of us paid £10 each, including drinks, and left feeling very full and satisfied.
Location: 7 Heathcoat Street, Nottingham, NG1 3AF, opposite Oriental Mart
Price: £8 – £10 per person, including rice and drinks
But how did this one restaurant experience make such a big impact? Well now I know that I don’t have to miss out on the foods that I would only have once every 3 months. And with such an expansive menu, I know that I’ll be returning soon to try other items, in the safe knowledge too that it won’t break the bank either! And while other places may strive for a trendy Instagrammable menu, I will happily post pictures from U Canteen to positively promote Chinese food culture.
I am really aware that the post is very different from what I usually write and I hope you enjoyed reading it also. At heart it’s a restaurant review of U Canteen but also an insight into me, the person behind the blog too. I would have found it hard to express how good U Canteen is and its impact without also writing about my backstory and Chinese culture. I hope that other BBCs reading this post can relate to some of the stuff that I have written, as I did with Elsa, Winnie and Michelle’s posts!