Manchester's Chinatown is one of the few gastronomic portals that truly rival, and for many years outdid, anything that London could offer. Certainly the best cooking this side of Hong Kong. Back in the late sixties the name Kwokman resonated around the legend of great restaurants. A tiny transport cafe without the lorry drivers in its old unlicensed premises in Nicholas Street. The 1972 Good Food Guide was aghast and apprehensive when Mr Lam Fat Lai - known as Tony to everyone else - moved to Charlotte Street and threatened new and exciting things like muzak and new style service unique "in England and Europe". While the London Limehouse Chinese were still knocking out sweet and sour pork, here at Kwokman there was Peking crunch duck with pressed prawns on top and mushrooms underneath; blossom prawn and ham roll, even the as yet unheard of dim sum at 15p piece.
Ten years on, and another move - this time to Princess Street and another tier of decor - and the Kwokman was joined by the new generation of restaurant giants, the Woo Sang and the Yang Sing. Upon this triumvirate was the legend based, although in fairness, there have been others too. And a new generation announced its arrival last year with the opening of the spectacular Pacific. Nor can there be a Chinese takeaway throughout the north that does not make its weekly pilgrimage to the supermarkets around George Street for supplies. In that sense Chinatown is a true community hub.
For me Chinese cooking is the supreme of all the world's great cuisines. It can make Japanese cuisine look boringly miniature and abstract, Indian messy and soupy, French pompous and self important and perhaps only Italian cuisine can really rival it in parts. In terms of its sheer breadth of vocabulary and cooking techniques it is a monster. A dragon of a cuisine.
Also in fairness it is the only cooking that really manages to equate value, for me, with quality in anything like reasonable terms.
The biggest of those dragons is Cantonese cooking. Other regions make claims for Peking cooking - a polyglot mix up of dishes that the emperor liked best - or even for the often viscuously hot Sichuan. But very few cooks from those parts of China work here and by all accounts both these styles of cooking are in sad decline. Here we are talking Cantonese which has been looked after in exile in Hong Kong, in Manchester, in London (on the up again), Vancouver and San Francisco. It is a cooking which seems almost naturally to thrive in being misplaced, but then that is part of the culture that the Cantonese have always embraced... eating on the run, outside, in cafes, on street corners. Decor seems like a western affectation. The pleasure is on the plate and in the mouth, not the eye or the comfy chair, although there are signs that even this long-held tradition may be about to change.
I confess that not every avenue of Chinese cooking entrances me. Those sticky, luminescent, wobbly desserts I am not queuing up for. The best Chinese desserts are the bakery items like the custard tarts. And sometimes the enthusiasm for textures like chicken feet (it is said in China they used to eat parrot's feet) I can blow hot and cold about...
Many people never get to the heart of a Chinese menu because they get overwhelmed by the choice. How can anyone eat 350 dishes? And for reasons best known to the Chinese, they always insist on trying to get Westerners to mix and match the wrong dishes, and still keep the most interesting cooking written in Chinese. The set menu must have bored the pants off more would-be converts than Arsenal football club, and yet it is still widespread. Who on earth orders menu B today?
The heart of Chinese cooking revolves around how you eat - alone, with friends, in a big party, with the family or on a special occasion. It just doesn't fit snugly into the western idea of dinner for two or four with a few courses. You have to think your way through that one. A good Chinese meal needs contrasts of textures, colours, technique, all of which should be brought together around the central staple of rice or noodles.
Written by Drew Smith
(Drew Smith editied The Good Food guide, was publisher of Egon Ronay for 3 years and has won the restaurant writer of the year award for 3 years. He now specialises in food-based Internet projects)