Don’t bother wearing anti-critter protection in the Outback when sleeping under the stars.
This is what Elizabeth, a nomadic Australian artist, tells me. The bugs are attracted to the slap-on gel.You are best lying out unprotected by chemicals, she claims. But take a cat with you. A cat will alert you if a snake slithers through the dusty darkness looking for blood.
Elizabeth is sitting to my right as I juggle with the etiquette and tastes of a Chinese hot pot. She has lots of splendid advice about living in the middle of bloody nowhere, mate. So a television is a waste of money. They just attract the insects at night. “And the insects are this big,” she says, stretching her thumb and index finger. “When those things hit you in the face, it’s like a brick.”
Can’t you just close the windows and switch on the air-con? “There’s no air-con, Richard,” says Elizabeth. “You just sweat.”
You also sweat if you overdo the chilli oil, like I have just done. Fortunately, neither my host Dorian Chan or my fellow guests notice that my face is going scarlet and a swift glass of sauvignon blanc quells the heat. This is what happens when a novice does hot pot.
Yes, I’d never had a hot pot before. I know, I know, and I call myself a food critic. Well, that is one of the joys of RichardMcComb.com. What you get here is an honest appraisal of cuisines I am very familiar with and some that are new to me. I am not a smart-arsed “foodie”. I am ignorant about the cooking of entire regions of the world but that does not mean I don’t want to discover them.
I had seen the hot pot thing going on plenty of times, especially in that row of Chinese restaurants in Station Street, Birmingham, but I had never taken the plunge. It’s down to the English inhibition of not wanting to look a total twit.
Well, thanks to Dorian, vice-chairwoman of Wing Wah Group, I am a twit no longer, at least when it comes to dunking all manner of flesh and veg into a steaming pot of soup.
The pot at Wing Wah in Nechells contains two sections, one for a mild soup, the other spicy. It is placed on a gas burner on the table, like indoor communal camping. Diners chose their ingredients from a chilled selection of meats, fish and vegetables. There are slices of lamb belly and beef and offal, a whole lotta offal: stomach, kidney, liver and general innards. The fish includes squid, whelks, cuttlefish tentacles, crab, mussels, cod. And there’s something called tofu.
Back at the table, everything goes in the pot. When do you eat it? When it’s ready. “You can’t blame the chef because you cook it all yourself,” says Dorian.
While the bubbling continues, attention turns to the salads selected from the self-serve chilled section – duck wings, seaweed, bean curd, the slippery crunch of wood fungus and, my favourite, the sweet beef shin.
From the pot, I love the in-house fish balls – which are streets ahead of the bought-in variety – as well as the shellfish and beef. The offal is super-ferric and takes some getting used to. It is not always a happy courtship. Something takes an age to crack and chew with my molars.
The hot food is dunked in a dipping sauce that you mix yourself from a wide selection of ingredients. It’s good fun.
If I am about 80 per cent into the hot pot, I am totally in – as in hook, line and sinker – with the clay-pot rice. The rice is cooked precisely for 23 minutes with preserved belly pork, sausage and bak choi. The dim sum is more a lunchtime vibe here and a couple of chicken claws and some tremendous glutinous rice suggest a return is called for.
Dorian orders some aubergine in black bean sauce to showcase some of the vegetarian dishes. It is silky and savoury and very good, but it doesn’t beat the joy of the beef shin salad.
Towards the end of the meal, we are joined by Bong Lam, founder and chairman of Wing Wah, which has seven restaurants in the West Midlands.
Chinese-born Mr Lam, from Guandong province, started in the restaurant trade as a 15-year-old when he moved to Macau. He graduated from pushing the dim sum trolley to becoming a dim sum head chef in Hong Kong.
Mr Lam, president of the Confederation of Chinese Business (UK), recently fulfilled his ambition of publishing a book, “A Cookbook for Popular Chinese Food,” featuring more than 100 recipes including soups, rice and noodles, dim sum, vegetables and poultry, seafood and meat dishes. I’ll have the honey roast pork on page 159, please. Or the stewed Chu-Hou beef brisket. Or the….
(Correction: I can be a little smart-arsed but that goes with the territory.)
I ate at Wing Wah as a guest of Dorian Chan. This is not a review; it is a feature.
Wing Wah, 278 Thimble Mill Lane, Nechells, Birmingham, B7 5HD
Tel: 0121 327 7879