Requiescat Fung Shing

The notice on the website is brief: “Fung Shing Chinese Restaurant is
now closed due to the retirement of the owner. We would like to thank
all our customers for their loyalty over the years.” It’s like a cloud
passing over the sun.

Some years ago I sat in Fung Shing listening for more than 20
minutes to two Chinese gentlemen
discussing the texture of chicken skin in one dish. Apparently, it took five days to prepare this particular
classic, and its success or otherwise depended on the exact quality of
the skin. If the skin was not just so, these judges indicated, the
dish just wasn’t worth eating and the fowl might as well be thrown
away. That’s what I call taking food seriously.

That was the thing about Fung Shing: it took Chinese cooking very
seriously at a time when very few Chinese restaurants here did. At one
point, it was, along with YMing in Soho and the Yang Sing in
Manchester, one of the three Chinese restaurants of any note in the
country, and even now I suspect its menu would be classed as one of
the more testing. Deep-fried pig’s oesophagus anyone? Eel with pickled
plum? Braised sea cucumber? I never really came to terms with sea
cucumber, but the eel and pickled plum combo was masterly, and the
pig’s oesophagus tasted like the most delicate and exquisite porky
scratchings. At least, I thought so. Alan Rusbridger, my companion on
that occasion, wasn’t so persuaded.

In those days, the presiding spirit in the kitchen was a man
universally known as Uncle Wu. A milder, gentler man in daily matters
it would be hard to imagine. When it came to cooking, however, it was another matter. Uncle Wu was a stickler. He had reason to be. He was
a classically trained Cantonese chef, possibly the only one in the UK.
He told me that he had started his training at the age of 12, and for
the first four years of his apprenticeship all he was allowed to do
was clean the floor of the kitchen and polish his master’s boots. It
was small wonder that he referred to most Chinese chefs in this
country as being mere “wok bashers”. At least, I think that was his
term. I had to rely on someone to translate when I spoke to him – although he had lived in this country for over 30 years, Uncle Wu
spoke not a word of English.

I spent three days in the kitchen of Fung Shing in its heyday in the
early-1990s. The only way Chinese restaurants made it into the pages
of newspapers in those days was in one of those “half an alsatian in
the fridge” stories, so it took me a little time to persuade Fung
Shing’s owners that I wasn’t interested in writing a stitch-up piece.
It was one of the most pleasurable and fascinating periods I have ever
passed in a kitchen.

For one thing, it was set up completely
differently from what I was used to. Everyone, from Uncle Wu downwards, was involved in preparing the ingredients for the service to come. Then, as customers began to arrive, two or three chefs would assemble the ingredients needed for each dish in small metal bowls, and place them in the order in which they needed to go into the wok, stacked up on a table behind Uncle Wu and the other chef manning the stove. All they had to do was reach behind them and tip the contents of each dish into the superheated wok. There would be a hiss and crackle as they hit the heat, a deft flick of the wrist to send them spinning over the surface, and then, probably no more than 90 seconds or two minutes later, they were tipped into the serving bowl, and away it went. In this way, a kitchen team of just five could crack out 250-300 dishes a night.

The cleanliness of the place left other professional
kitchens I had seen far behind. Water flowed continuously over the
surface of the cooker, with its eight superheating gas burners – if it
hadn’t, the cooker would have melted. This had the added benefit
of automatically keeping the cooker’s surface spotless. All
chopping preparation was done on circular wooden boards the size of
reasonable tree trunks, the surfaces of which were removed at the end
of each day, and sometimes during it, simply by using the blade of the
cleavers used for chopping.

I learned about making stock, about short cooking times, about the
importance of texture and, above all, how heat is an active ingredient
in Chinese cooking. That is, knowing how the precise temperature for a
precise length of time affects each ingredient you put into a wok. I
learned, too, about professional humility: Uncle Wu would help wash
the floor before and between services; and he would cook the staff
lunch. I remember him slitting open an enormous, silvery-grey herring,
cleaning out its guts and gills with a few flicks of the cleaver,
smashing some cloves of garlic and a thumb of ginger with the same and
then popping them inside the fish, which was simply steamed for about
10 minutes. We ate it with some lightly steamed lettuce splashed with
oyster sauce, and it was as satisfying to eat as it was so seemingly
easy to prepare.

It was the ease that comes from complete mastery of
what you do. Uncle Wu was one of the three or four greatest chefs I
have ever seen at work.
You know how certain sportsmen – footballers, rugby players,
cricketers, boxers – seem to be able to suspend the laws of time,
remain still when everyone else is racing around at a furious pace.
Uncle Wu at the wok was like that. He must have been in his late 60s
or early 70s when I met him. He stood at the cooker, a ladle like an
arm extension in one hand, controlling with his knee the levers that
controlled the jets of flame that burst from the burners with the
force of rockets. He seemed hardly to move, and when he did it was
with an elegant minimalism, each slight shift reduced to its most
productive essence. It was mesmerising, made the more so by the hiss
and crackle of the ingredients as they hit the surface of one of three
woks he kept on the go, and by the roaring of the gas jets and the
flurry of the chefs collecting the elements for each dish that flew
from his section.

And what dishes: soft-shelled crabs, sweet and scrunchy inside, their
light crust decked out with chillies, spring onions and shards of
fried garlic; crisp belly pork years before it began decorating the
menus of smarter European restaurants; steamed scallops with ginger;
suckling pig; lobster; abalone braised in chicken stock, all dense and
chewy; shredded eel with coriander; and on one memorable occasion what
Uncle Wu called “rice-fed sparrows”, tiny birds netted over the paddy
fields, which he had smuggled into the country. They were served, like
little dark plums, complete with heads attached as if they were
stalks, and had a pronounced dark, nutty, flavour.
Uncle Wu died some years ago, and although Uncle Wu-trained chefs
struggled to keep faithful to the standards of authentic cooking and
the more esoteric dishes at Fung Shing, for me, the light dimmed. I
have to admit that I hadn’t been back for a good many years.
Perhaps some new Fung Shing will rise from the ashes of the old, like
a phoenix. There’s got to be a Chinese recipe for phoenix, hasn’t
there?

For the recipe for Uncle Wu’s basic meat stock, see Eating In.

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About Matt

Food writer, television presenter and big eater.
This entry was posted in Food for Fort. Bookmark the permalink.

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