Typography

Original and authentic cuisine from the Far East.

IT’S hard to imagine a time in Helsinki when there was nary a Chinese restaurant on offer, but this was the case in the years preceding 1973, before the establishment of Ravintola China. Serving customers for almost 40 years, the span of the restaurant’s existence parallels the evolution of the modern Finnish kitchen, transforming from the conservative norms of humble kotiruoka back in the ‘70s, to the increasingly diverse tastes on offer today.

With this in mind, it is somewhat surprising to discover there is no real fanfare to the restaurant’s exterior when I arrive, a short distance from Kamppi Shopping Centre along Annankatu. Greeted by a photo in the doorway of smiling customer Tarja Halonen from a previous visit, soon I am seated up the back of the dining area with the restaurant’s owners, husband and wife James Liong and Jenny Law.

Serving me a cup of tea, we are accompanied by their infant daughter Ella who keeps an eye on proceedings from her baby basket, as the restaurant empties of the last of its customers having enjoyed the lunchtime buffet (weekdays €9.20, weekends €12).

Guide to Chinese table manners

Ever wondered what not to do when tucking in to your
favourite dish at a Chinese restaurant? Here are a few
tips to ensure you won’t be stepping on any toes.

• Hands should never be used to handle food.

• Never leave your chopsticks sticking upright in a bowl of
rice, as it resembles the incense sticks that are burned for
the dead.

• Never pass food from your chopsticks to someone else’s.

• Don’t let the spout of a teapot face towards anyone seated
at the table.

• Don’t reach for dishes across the table, wait to be served.

• Don’t point to anyone with your chopsticks as this is
considered to be extremely rude.

A matter of taste

So, what’s on offer that’s kept the restaurant going strong for so many years and has attracted the likes of our former president?

“We serve Cantonese cuisine, from Southern China, Hong Kong,” Law explains. “It is not the spiciest. It’s not like Sichuan where it is really spicy – like with the Sichuan hot pot where you just get a whole bowl of chillies.”

“It’s not like Peking style either,” Liong observes. “It is more stir fried and steamed.”

Having grown up in Finland, Law is an old hat of the restaurant trade, with Ravintola China being the family business as she was growing up. Having met Hongkongese Liong whilst she was studying in London, it was one-and-a-half years ago that the two moved to Finland and took up the reins of the restaurant business.

Now, with some 130 items on the menu covering a wide span of dishes, Liong is still adamant that new items will continue to be introduced in future to replace those that are less popular.

“We are currently educating Finnish people about dim sum,” he explains. “These are little dumplings, often steamed and served in bamboo basket that are shared between people. Some are also deep-fried. It’s getting more popular now.”

However, given the notoriously fickle Finnish palate in terms of a chilli threshold, Liong is quick to point out that each dish can be prepared to meet the needs of individual palates. “We adjust the taste to our customers. If they are from Korea or Thai, for example, they need more chilli. Taiwanese like less chilli, but more soy sauce. We try to fit in with them.”

What’s off the menu?

As we continue chatting away, a slow procession of food arrives onto our table, dishes that are popular in the Cantonese region, but have not yet found their way onto the menu here as yet. Perhaps this is a window into the future for Ravintola China.

The first item is a serving of relatively plain looking pieces of crispy pork, bulging with fat, with only a hint of meat on each. Normally served with mustard sauce in Hong Kong, Liong returns from the kitchen with a small bowl of hoisin sauce and the chef’s unusual suggestion for a condiment: sugar. The first bite that I take quickly eradicates my less than enthusiastic first impression: the layered flavours and different textures are striking. The hoisin sauce invariably brings these mouth-watering tastes and textures alive, with the sugar providing an interesting contrast to the saltiness and fatty meat.

Next up, a plate of garlic prawns is served, providing an unexpected crunch when I take a bite and realise that the shells have been left on. Nonetheless, after my humbling faux pas, I casually peel the crustaceans and get on with the business of enjoying their chewy texture. Following this up in swift succession are two plates of eggplant, capsicum and bean curd topped with minced shrimp. These are quite tasty, with a black bean mushroom sauce on hand to further add to the flavours.

Ravintola China
Annankatu 25, Helsinki
Mon-Fri 11:00-23:00
Sat-Sun 12:00-23:00
www.ravintolachina.fi

Popular finish

When Law excuses herself to go and tend to her daughter, Liong tops up my teacup and asks if there is anything further I’d like to have. I can’t help but want to try something from the menu, their most popular dish.

In time I’m holding a small bowl of rice and spooning Chicken “Kung Po” (€13) on top, as Liong gently instructs me on ways to improve my chopstick technique. The flavour is outstanding, with diced marinated chicken stir-fried with cashews, capsicum, onion and chilli to be found amongst the tangy sauce. Wondering whether I need some more heat to the dish, Liong gestures to the container of homemade chilli oil on the table. Cooked with leek, garlic and ginger, its subtle bite is not needed, however, as the dish is suitably spicy without it.

By now we have been sitting for well over an hour, peppering our conversation with discussion about cultural differences, items on the menu, the challenges of finding good chefs (all of Ravintola China’s chefs are from China) and how Liong would like to also open a restaurant in future that serves modern Chinese cuisine. But as the post-lunch lull draws to a close with customers starting to file in for an early dinner, it’s time for me to go. I bid my hosts a warm farewell and look forward to a return visit to Finland’s first Chinese restaurant.

Text and photos James O’Sullivan