LONDON — Take a tour of the homes and haunts of Charles Dickens. Go ahead, explore the Cabinet War Rooms, the bunker where Winston Churchill worked during the Blitz. Check out Abbey Road with a guide. In London, you can even tour secluded courtyards and alleyways of Whitechapel, where Jack the Ripper once prowled.
My recent tour of a London neighborhood was not literary, historical, musical, or macabre. It was self-guided and culinary, a visit to restaurants in Chinatown in search of the hottest and most flavorful dan dan noodles and other dishes spiced with peppercorns or chilies from Sichuan or Hunan.
My inspiration was Fuchsia Dunlop, the British author of three Chinese cookbooks and a memoir, who in the mid-1990s broke gender and cultural barriers by being admitted to the esteemed Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine in Chengdu.
A copy of her first book, “Land of Plenty” (Norton, 2001), an exploration of Sichuan cuisine, is in our kitchen. Next to it is the borrowed copy of her “Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook” (Ebury Press, London, 2006) a celebration of even-fierier Hunan fare.
As it turns out, Dunlop provided recipes and helped design menus at three of Chinatown’s zestiest restaurants: Baozi Inn and Barshu, both Sichuan; and Bashan, Hunan. Over the course of two days, I visited them, and others, with the enthusiasm and reverence a Dickens scholar might exhibit at the Charles Dickens Museum.
London’s Chinatown is lively, compact, and easy to reach. It’s a block from Leicester Square and within walking distance of the tourist hubs of Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square. The area’s main street, Gerrard, is closed to car traffic.
In addition to restaurants the area is jammed with places to browse and patronize: from acupuncture and facial-massage shops, to Cantonese bakeries, amusement halls with video games, specialty tea and herbal stores, souvenir vendors, and groceries.
Crowd-gazing? Before noon on a cool spring day, Gerrard Street, its companion, Lisle Street, and side streets are abuzz with European tourists, students from China, London schoolchildren snapping photographs, and restaurant workers pushing carts stacked high with onions, carrots, and plastic-wrapped slabs of pork that will soon be cut for braising pots.
The dim sum parlors are filling, and customers are buying spring rolls and oyster pancakes from an open kitchen.
Chinatown originally was in the Limehouse section of the east end along the river. Early residents were the sailors who worked for the East India Company and stayed after it folded in the late 19th century.
Unlike today’s Chinatown, the one by the wharfs suffered an unfair reputation molded by a sensationalist press. It was the home of the fictional Dr. Fu Manchu, the criminal genius. In the Sherlock Holmes story “The Man With the Twisted Lip,” Limehouse has “vile alleys,” “gin shops,” and rooms “thick and heavy with brown opium smoke.”
The area was bombed in World War II, forcing a migration west to the present neighborhood, where families found cheap housing and the community began prospering. It underwent a boom in the 1990s with the arrival of immigrants from Hong Kong.
Dunlop, in a phone interview, said Chinatown’s food scene has evolved tremendously over the past two decades. “When I started writing in the mid-’90s, Chinatown was absolutely dominated by Cantonese, but now it’s diversifying; people from all across China are here,” she says. The food scene, Dunlop says, has undergone “an explosion of regional flavors.”
On a weekday noon my wife and daughter and I are seated in the Baozi Inn, a place filled with customers slurping noodles from bowls brimming with broth. I order the dan dan dish, a Dunlop re-creation of a recipe from the chef of a tiny restaurant she patronized 17 years ago in Chengdu.
In “Land of Plenty’’ she describes the dish, punctuated with whole chilies, chili oil, and peppercorns, as “not for the faint-hearted” but “utterly delicious,” and she is right. We sample other noteworthy dishes, including a “hot pot” with lamb, crab, and sausage, and steamed wontons with a chili-oil and ginger sauce.
The restaurant, with traditional street foods from Sichuan and northern China, is rustic, intimate, and, like many homes and restaurants in parts of China, especially in Mao Zedong’s home province Hunan, adorned with his portraits.
(A waiter who turned incongruously curt in a place with friendly service probably overheard remarks at our table about the atrocities during the Cultural Revolution.)
Tight dining arrangements invite conversation with strangers, and we strike up a good one with a young woman, Meng Yao Yuan, a student from Beijing. After lunch, at Meng’s suggestion, we head a few doors down to Candy Cafe, a Taiwanese sweet shop to salve our taste buds with bubble-tea (tea, milk, fruit syrup, with tiny tapioca balls that can be sipped through a straw) and other treats flavored with coconut, mango, papaya, watermelon, peach, kiwi, or lychee. A friendship is struck at this colorful shop, and amid the happy chatter, my daughter and Meng exchange e-mail addresses.
I continue my quest for heat and spice with dinners at Bashan and Barshu, both upscale versions of Baozi Inn, and both just a street over from official Chinatown. At Bashan, I happily sample some of the hottest dry-fried green beans cooked this side of Mercury, and a pork dish, braised with hints of cinnamon and star anis, based on a recipe said to have been Mao’s favorite.
At Barshu we sample many things, my favorite a water spinach dish with (what else?) chilies and Sichuan pepper. Dunlop, in the interview, mentions grilled sea bass in “sizzling oil” as a must-try.
Anyone who favors advice direct and personal should consider the guided tours offered by the School of Wok (www
.schoolofwok.co.uk), a cooking school in Covent Garden, just steps from Chinatown. Its founder and head chef, Jeremy Pang, an exuberant teacher whose parents came from Hong Kong, takes groups on visits to markets and dumpling shops where he discusses ingredients and cooking techniques. Participants should consider taking his one-, two- or three-hour, hands-on, cooking lessons.
Dirk Van Susteren can be reached at dirkpatrick@aol