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The five best East Asian dishes and where to eat them in the UK

East Asian food is currently taking the UK by storm and we can’t get enough of bao, bibimbap and ramen. Here’s O’s guide to five of the scene’s key dishes and where to eat them across the UK


Pho – Vietnam

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To East Asian food-obsessive, David Fox, Vietnamese cuisine is distinguishable by its subtlety. Nowhere is that more apparent than in its iconic rice noodle soup, pho (pronounced, fuh), to which chicken or beef is usually added. “Thai food is hot, sour, salty and sweet, its strong flavours almost fighting each other,” says the co-founder of Manchester’s Tampopo and London’s East Street restaurants. “In contrast, Vietnamese food is lighter, delicate, more fragrant. In pho, the star anise comes through as a significant but gentle flavour in the stock. Chilli, lime, mint, Asian basil; all these flavours work in harmony.”

The exact origin of pho is hotly disputed. Similar dishes existed before French colonial rule, but pho was popularised in that period and possibly borrowed its name from the French stew, pot au feu. Adding thinly sliced rare beef was, almost undoubtedly, a direct French influence but pho is always evolving. For instance, the now common idea of serving bean sprouts, chilli and lime on the side to add-in, was originally a southern quirk. At Tampopo, David has put his own stamp on it. Although it uses the traditional onions, herbs and spices (key: cinnamon, star anise), Tampopo’s slow-cooked pho stock is made with chicken, not beef bones. It’s also served with flaked dried onions as a garnish.

In Vietnam, this breakfast street food staple comes in many different forms but it’s as popular as ever. Cultural historian Huu Ngoc described pho as Vietnam’s “contribution to human happiness”. David agrees, “A steaming bowl of pho puts you in a happy place.” Mains from £7.95; tampopo.co.uk


Get pho at…

Cây Tre, London
A sharply-styled venue, the original Hoxton Cây Tre (there’s a Soho branch, too) played a big part in turning East London on to Vietnamese food. Based on 24-hour cooked stocks, its complex phos have fathoms of flavour. Mains from £6.50; vietnamesekitchen.co.uk

Vietnam House, Edinburgh
Jodie Nguyen’s super-friendly Vietnam House serves many fascinating dishes (braised pork in caramel sauce for instance), but, naturally, it prides itself on its pho. There are seven versions here, including some with raw beef
or fish cakes. Mains from £8.99; vietnamhouse.co.uk

Vnam, Manchester
Tatty Oldham Road isn’t known for good food, but the simple, cheap, Vnam is a true dining gem. Its pho bounces with flavour, the cinnamon and star anise shining through in its great pots of beef, bean sprouts and toothsome rice noodles. Mains from £7.35; vnam.co.uk


Ramen – Japan

Japan may have exported ramen to the world but the original soups mined with bouncy, thin noodles were introduced by the Chinese to Japan. Crucially, the wheat-flour noodles are made with an alkaline mineral water, kansui. Until recently, the ramen that’s now taking the UK by storm, tonkotsu – a milky, gelatinous pork bone broth – was widely ignored as a trashy, low-rent dish.

In the early 20th century, explains Tak Tokumine, owner of Shoryu Ramen restaurants, tonkotsu was mainly eaten by dock workers in Fukuoka City’s Hakata district. “They were manual workers who needed a lot of fatty food to keep physically strong.” This super-piggy broth was cheap and served in messy, noisy canteens where “women were frightened to eat”.

Gradually, family-friendly tonkotsu restaurants opened, as well as ramen street wagons that catered to office workers, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that a number of chain restaurants turned wider Japan onto Hakata-style tonkotsu.

Poised to open his first Shoryu outside London, in Manchester, Tak prides himself on the genuine authenticity of his ramen. From the 12 hours that the pork broth simmers to the 350ml served per bowl, every detail is crucial. Ironically, at 68, Tak cannot indulge in a calorie-packed ganso tonkotsu, with its toppings of char siu barbecue pork belly and soft-boiled, soy-marinated nitamago eggs, as often as he would like. Instead, he now loves Shoryu’s vegan konbu and tofu version, which is turned white with soy milk.

“It looks exactly like tonkotsu”, he says, marvelling. Ramen from £9; shoryuramen.com


Get ramen at…

Sticks ‘n’ Broth, Bristol
This buzzing, grungily decorated ramen bar serves serious tonkotsu. For the full rib-sticking ramen experience, try the ‘phatboy’ or ‘big porky’, both meat feasts which come in a rich, opaque pork bone broth. Ramen from £11; sticksnbroth.com

Edamamé, Oxford
If you spot a queue on quaint Holywell Street, you will have found Edamamé. This tiny, family-owned restaurant is revered for its fastidious Japanese food, which, at lunch, includes bowls of lighter Tokyo-style shoyu ramen in a pork and soy broth. Ramen from £8; edamame.co.uk

Minmin, Birmingham
A bright, minimalist canteen on the edge of Brum’s Chinatown, Minmin serves noodles every which way. The kitchen prepares various ramens, but the hot minced pork and prawn ramen, with its sinus-clearing chilli oil, is a real humdinger. Mains from £6.50; twitter.com/minminnoodlebar


Som Tam – Thai

Are Thais the Italians of the East? It certainly sounds that way. “For most Thais, food is the centre of everything. They talk about it constantly,” says Sai Deethwa, owner of Birmingham street food stall, Buddha Belly. Take the potent green papaya salad, som tam. It may be Thailand’s unofficial national dish, but there are numerous versions: “every Thai family has their own and you see people at street food stalls explaining exactly how they want it – really salty, loads of sugar, less chilli. They’re fussy.”

You may have tried the Bangkok som tam, topped with dried shrimp and peanuts, but Sai prefers the fiery version from her native Isaan region. She pounds garlic and bird’s eye chillies in a pok pok (a Thai mortar and pestle), adds soy, lemon, fermented pla ra fish sauce, green beans, cherry tomatoes and, finally, shredded green papaya. At Midlands’ street food events such as Digbeth Dining Club (13-20 May) and Brum Yum Yum, Sai serves her som tam with grilled chicken and sticky rice, although it is eaten as a snack too. “It’s really sour, really hot, but balanced. That’s what Thai food is all about.”

A typical Buddha Belly menu might also include a panang pork curry or Isaan-style mackerel curry with noodles, fresh Thai herbs and soured mustard greens. Discerning Brummies love it. “I’ve got customers who eat hotter food than most Thais,” says Sai laughing. “People want authentic Thai food.” Mains around £6.50; buddhabellystreetfood.co.uk


Get som tam at…

Som Saa, London
A pop-up sensation, Som Saa has opened its first permanent site. It will serve an Isaan-style som tam and a sweeter Bangkok version made using nam pla (normal fish sauce), which can be topped with crispy pork belly or a salted duck egg. Small plates from £5; twitter.com/somsaa_london

Bangkok Café, Cardiff
Fun and fresh, the Bangkok café serves its food on wacky, multi-coloured trays as bright as its zingy Thai dishes. Its menu includes a Bangkok som tam served as a side and dressed with dried shrimp (known here as, ‘som dam’). Mains from £9.25; bangkokcafe.co.uk

Siam Smiles, Manchester
It is a basic café in a Thai supermarket, but Manchester foodies love Siam Smiles’s super-authentic, flavour-packed dishes. The dressing for its Isaan-style som tam is made with baby crabs, a classic addition. Mains from £6.50; twitter.com/SiamSmilesCafe


Bao – Taiwan

There are many varieties of steamed bao buns from Southeast Asia, but the Taiwanese version, gua bao – served split open like a roll – is fast becoming a UK cult classic. Much of that popularity is down to Bao, a London street-food trio who now run a busy, casual Soho restaurant (its queues are notorious), with a second opening in Fitzrovia this month.

Nailing the bun itself, says co-owner Shing Tat Chung, was a key battle. Using milk and wheat flour, bao (pronounced ‘bough’) wanted to create a soft and fulsome, light and creamy pocket; a hybrid of the buns they’d eaten in Taipei’s markets. “The bun is notoriously hard to crack,” says Shing. “It’s a combination of the recipe, process and technique. Unlike baking, steaming doesn’t allow for errors.”

The team’s bao fillings pay homage to the classics, such as braised pork, peanuts, fermented greens and coriander, while innovating new flavour combinations such as fried chicken in a sesame bun with Szechuan mayo and Chinese golden kimchi. Such fusion is typical of Taiwanese cuisine, says Shing: “It’s a real amalgamation of Japanese and Chinese flavours.”

Gua bao (or ‘hirata’ in Japanese) are Taiwan’s best-known export, but such buns are just one element in a food culture which is all about snacking regularly on the street. “It’s called ‘xiao chi’ which means ‘small eats’,” says Shing, a style of dining which Bao pays homage to in dishes such as pig’s blood cake with soy-cured egg yolk, or guinea fowl with specially imported shiang rice. Small plates from £3.50; baolondon.com


Get bao at…

Dim Sum Su, Manchester
Su Lee serves Hong Kong street food at events across the north, but she’s currently in-residence at The Kitchens, Manchester (thekitchensleftbank.com). Don’t miss her slow-cooked, pork belly bao with nuggets of peanut and rock sugar brittle. Bao £4 each; dimsumsu.com

Yum Bun, London
Like Bao, this street food legend was crucial in turning London onto bao. Yum Bun is a regular at food markets such as Dinerama, where you can chow down on its crispy prawn and gochujang buns or a deep-fried coconut ice cream and miso butterscotch creation. Bao £4 each; yumbun.com

Little Bao Peep, Cardiff
The Peeps pop-up around Cardiff at street food markets and in supperclub collabs (Brewdog, 12 May), and put a distinctive, creative spin on bao. Think pork belly with homemade pickled cucumber or shredded satay chicken, craft beer jelly and candied bacon. Two bao, £7; twitter.com/baopeep


Bibimbap – South Korea

For a dish historically served at ancestral rites ceremonies and lunar new year feasts, bibimbap is remarkably commonplace in modern South Korea. This endlessly versatile rice bowl topped with meats, seafood and vegetables is everywhere: served hot or cold for lunch or dinner at home or out. “At home, it’s a simple dish,” says restaurant-owner, Young Park. “It’s a convenient way to use up leftovers. In restaurants, it’s more exotic. For example, one authentic bibimbap is served cold with raw egg and raw beef.”

Young can’t go quite that far in London, but his bright, bustling Bibimbap restaurants offer a great intro to the dish. Bibimbap has two main forms. In the standard version, warm, cooked meat is served with room temperature rice and cold vegetables. Dol sot bibimbap, in contrast, comes in a sizzling hot stone bowl. The ingredients continue to cook as you eat, giving it a different flavour, and it’s prized for the crispy rice found at the bottom of the bowl.

In both cases, Koreans stir all the ingredients together and season bibimbap with gochujang chilli paste or the miso-like sauce, doenjang. Koreans believe that key foods keep different bodily organs healthy and build their bibimbap accordingly. “The food we eat has to balance the yin and yang,” says Young, whose toppings range from marinated beef or kimchi to a mix of ginseng, dates, goji berries and chestnuts. “Bibimbap is a very harmonious dish.” Mains from £7; bibimbapsoho.co.uk


Get bibimbap at…

Kimchi Cult, Glasgow
Created by London street food veterans Danny O’Sullivan and Sarah Hogg, this tiny, hip West End diner/ takeaway deals in “punk riffs on Korean classics”. Expect burgers topped with Jeonju-style kimchi, triple-fried chicken in gochujang sauce and a sizzling pork belly bibimbap. Mains from £6; kimchicult.com

Bibimbap House, Cambridge
Regulars love this small, friendly joint for its hot bowls of bulgogi beef or japchae sweet potato noodle bibimbap, served as a complete meal with sides of, say, miso soup and pickled vegetables. Enjoy with traditional Korean corn tea. Meals from £12; 60 Mill Road, 01223 506800

Namul, Brighton
Named after the Korean term for cooked vegetables, this café and takeaway serves various bimbimbap, with toppings such as spicy calamari, grilled eel or tofu. Its stuffed ‘rice powerball’, a kind of Korean arancini, sounds intriguing. Mains from £4.95; 49 Gardner Street, 01273 973878


Head to the capital for more east Asian classics

Banh mi
Vietnamese baguette sandwiches often filled with pork, pâté and pickled veg. Try Banh Mi Bay, three branches, London.

Okonomi-yaki
Osaka’s cabbage-based frittata available at Abeno, two branches, London.

Kombucha
Fermented tea served at Raw Duck, London E8.

Kushiyaki
Japanese, skewered, charcoal-grilled meats, such as the sensational ox tongue at Tosa, London W6.

Bun
Vietnamese vermicelli noodles, usually served at room temperature, topped with fragrant, slow-roasted meats. Try them at Pho, national.

Onigirazu
Nori-wrapped sandwich, but made using rice, not bread. Currently huge in Japan and now at the new Kojawan, London W2.

Bulgogi
Korean beef marinated in soy with myriad ingredients then grilled. Head to Sorabal, New Maldon, Surrey.

Yoshoku
Japan’s East-West fusion food. Think Iberico pork in miso sauce and French toast with green tea ice-cream at Shackfuyu, London.

Huo guo
Simmering Chinese hotpot broths in which diners communally cook slivers of food, as found at Shuang Shuang, London W1.

Okayu
Japanese soft rice porridge dishes (often savoury), as eaten at breakfast at Koya Bar, London W1.


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