A couple months ago, a friendly debate over cuisines led to the following statement being thrown into the conversation: Chinese food is not sophisticated. I realized after a few moments of mulling over the generalized comment made by my friend, a hospitality industry veteran, that he had probably never experienced authentic Chinese Cuisine. I don’t blame him.
Take for instance General Tso’s Chicken, a popular takeout dish, and Fortune Cookies, a parting gift after a meal at so many Chinese restaurants around the world, are actually not available in China simply because they don’t exist there. Much of the Chinese food so many of us grew up to, even the ones in Kenya, are only versions of Chinese food – dishes created over time by Chinese immigrants by adapting recipes with available ingredients to appeal to local palates.
Traditional Chinese Cuisine is full of opulence and combining layers of flavours and techniques mastered over dynasties. The famed Chinese scholar-official Li Li Weng use to go to great lengths to make the perfect bowl of steamed rice by gathering the dew from the petals of the wild rose, cassia, or citron to add enchanting aroma and flavour to an otherwise boring bowl of starch. The records of the Imperial Banqueting Court published in the late Qing period (1644 to 1912) showed there were several levels of Manchu and Chinese banquets – no less than ten courses each time- which were served in delicate and intricate plating designs, often breathing life into dramatic and poetic dish names.
Chinese Cuisine to so many of us only revolves around sweet and sour sauces, sautés, sizzlers and fried rice or noodles. It’s a shame considering Chinese Cuisine is full of history, traditions and techniques branching into eight distinct schools of cooking, representing the vast country and storied dynastic past of China.
There are a handful of Chinese restaurants in Kenya that are capable of bringing that storied dynastic past to life, and one of them is Nairobi’s Double Dragon Restaurant.
Double Dragon offers a bit of everything from most corners of China, but don’t be fooled, admittedly, it’s not for everyone (I’ve heard that it’s also weak on consistency.) However, it is for me though, and also for those who enjoy a dash of sophistication in authentic Chinese Cuisine.
The restaurant decor itself, located at the top of a quieter stretch of The Junction Mall, may be Chinese and expected: tiled floors, neutral walls, crystal chandeliers, wooden fretwork, Chinese water paintings, private rooms provide karaoke singers anonymity and a faux green bamboo wall gives the expansive space a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-feel. Tables are refreshingly spaced out – a rarity for Chinese restaurants where packing people to capacity is more of the general business strategy. Thankfully, your neighbours won’t be close enough to ask, “Oh that looks good! What’s that?” The menu, by contrast, is all Chinese-dynastic glamour.
The dishes may sound failing – Chicken Soaked In High-Grade Shaoxing Wine is exactly what it reads of course with some preparation – but luckily the picture-led menu makes choosing a little easier with photos of its palate-whetting food. It’s actually quite helpful.
The revamped menu tackles more authentic classics such as delicately butterflied fresh lobster meat cooked three ways – fried with garlic and chilli, sautéed and tossed in a sweet and sour sauce – all presented on a large wooden sushi boat; colourful steamed dumplings aptly named Four Seasons; poached fresh Snapper in a Rose-flavoured broth arrives to the table whole with a pink rose stuffed in its toothy jaw; a perfect remedy for colder months – Simmering Sichuan Beef in an oily spicy broth is slowly cooked with care and extremely flavourful – the mini wok bubbles away in front of us; and for dessert, homemade Sesame Date Balls.
Steamed, sautéed, braised, stewed, poached, fried, stuffed, crumbled, silkened, pressed and chilled. If you’re looking for unapologetically good Chinese food with attitude, far removed from sugary and gingery staples of the Indo-Chinese, then look no further. Here at Double Dragon, that’s all they serve.
Three cheers to bringing back the elegance, authenticity and diversity to Chinese cuisine in Kenya!
PHOTO CREDIT: SUSAN WONG
PHOTOS CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE…