"... just come here and we will feed you proper, authentic homemade food!"
Crowded round a mobile phone, Chef Hui Liu's drawing Chinese symbols on his screen which Google is translating. Ingredient by ingredient, we're learning what goes into his centuries old recipe for Dezhou braised chicken. There are more than 20 ingredients and smart as it may be, Google can't keep up. This isn't a recipe that you'll find online — the precise proportions are dictated by look, smell, taste and consistency. Hui — who primarily speaks Mandarin— learnt it from his mother, who learnt it from her mother, who learnt it from her mother's moth... you get the idea. And ever so luckily for you, Hui has brought his family's recipe to Chinatown.
The catchily named Dezhou Style Braised Chicken restaurant has a Facebook page but its utterly lovely husband-wife owners have no idea how to use it. Constantly smiling, Dongmei tells us "A customer set it up and did some posts when we opened two years ago but we don't know about things like that — just come here and we will feed you proper, authentic homemade food!" Dongmei and Hui met in Stratford-upon-Avon, where they were both working in different Chinese restaurants. After Hui's five-year work permit was upgraded to permanent residency in the UK, the couple decided to open their own place.
"We didn't really know England," says Dongmei, "but we'd been to Birmingham more than anywhere else and thought a big city would be best for our regional style of cooking." Though the pair started off with distinct Chinese and Western menus, they now have one for all their customers, and it doesn't include sweet and sour anything. "To start with we were trying to please everyone but once people try our authentic dishes, they love them, so now we're focusing totally on those." From the number of people attempting to get into the restaurant in the brief time we're there, they really do. One young lad looks like he's going to cry when Dongmei asks him to come back when they're open tomorrow.
Making dish after dish for what we're really hoping is going to be our lunch, Chef Hui's in what Dongmei tells us is his favourite place, the kitchen. It takes less than a minute for Hui to turn a piece of dough into noodles — thins ones, thick ones, flat ones, those inbetweeny round ones, and Dongmei's favourite huge, wide "belt" ones. He rhythmically stretches, twists, folds and eventually pulls out the noodles into the required shape. You can even watch his art here. Hui's been making the joy-giving little things for more than 25 years, and let's just say it really shows when we have a go and basically end up with our hands stuck together, and a noodle count of nil.
After the one minute make, it's just sixty seconds of cooking before the noodles are ready to serve. You'll never find them pre-made in the restaurant. "Why would you do that?" asks Dongmei, "they just don't have the right texture." And she's right.
Hui grew up in Dezhou in the Shandong Province of China, which is what qualifies him to open a restaurant named after the region's most auspicious export — production of Dezhou braised chicken even gained cultural heritage status in China in 2006. And though you'll find utterly moreish soup noodles, salads, stir-fries and rice dishes, the real commitment is to the noodles and to that chicken.
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