Chinese Laundry: Nostalgic Dining in North London

Chinese Laundry: Nostalgic Dining in North London

Creating something unique in London is a tall order, but Tongtong and Peiran have done it. Here, they tell us how. While we try to keep our eyes off their buns.

old Upper Street. Islington’s main drag has no shortage of
places to fill up on great food, earning it the nickname ‘Supper
Street’. And amid the ramen bars, Turkish grills and elegant little
bistros, a new spot has opened its doors. With an interior that
would make Wes Anderson drool its candy pink exterior sign,
Chinese Laundry is
hard to miss. Run by best friends Tongtong and Peiran, the
restaurant specialises in the regional Chinese home cooking which
they grew up eating. Like stepping into the cosy living room of the
Chinese grandmother you never had, the interior is awash with
various kitschy antiques and patterned wallpaper.

Sharing is order of the day, with food designed to be grabbed,
torn and slurped: lobster tail with Chinese pancakes, caviar and
orange; sweet, basil-chicken popcorn; pillowy mantou buns;
northeast-style glass noodles. Brunch is also a winner, with
freshly made rice and peanut milk, stuffed steamed buns and purple
sweet potato omelette with mustard green and creme fraiche. This is
not the kind of Chinese cooking that Londoners are used to. As well
as punchy ingredients and imagination, Chinese Laundry’s food is
cooked with a nostalgia for the country its owners left behind.
Creating something unique in London is a tall order, but Tongtong
and Peiran have done it. Here, they tell us how. While we try to
keep our eyes off their buns.

Tell us how you two became friends?

Peiran: We were introduced by my tutor, who thought we would get
on so organised for us to meet in a cafe near my university in
Beijing. Tongtong: We then moved
to London together and both studied at the Royal College of Art. We
were roommates and started to cook together.

Was food always something which connected you?

T: Yes. We eat and cook and explore ingredients together, so now
we understand each other’s food language very well! I sometimes
describe an imaginary flavour in an abstract way and Peiran will
understand me.

Where did you both grow up? What was the food like during that

T: I grew up in Hubei in Jingzhou, an ancient town in the middle
of China. With lots of rivers and
lakes in my hometown, rice and fresh-water fish are the main
ingredients. Even in winter, we also had access to really special
vegetables which can’t be found in other parts China. Every family
had their own pickle jars and would make their own cured meat, fish
or sausages at home, while my grandparents also made fermented rice
wine. Home is the best place to eat. We also have a very big
breakfast culture – fresh handmade noodles made in local workshop
then cooked in a braised spicy beef stock.

P: I was born and brought up in Dalian, a coastal city in
Northeast China. Food was limited because it was before there was
any food transportation between north and south. Every winter big
trucks drove into our neighbourhood and they always carried the
same thing; one brought daikons, the other napa cabbages. We lived
in the old block built in the era of Soviet occupation and you
could see all the huge fermenting ceramic pots along the hallway of
every neighbourhood. That’s the basics of winter supply in
Northeast China – dried and pickled daikon, fermented napa cabbage,
a box of apples and potatoes. I went to my grandmother’s city a lot
when I was little, which is even further north and takes over 30
hours by train. Normally in winter it’s around minus 30 degrees and
the only fruit we had was ‘frozen pear’, which is incredibly unique
and delicious. It’s black on the outside from the frost and
fermentation process of nature – you can’t find it anywhere else.
In the summer it’s a totally different scene. I would go foraging
with my dad every Sunday, into the hills or by the sea. I grew up
eating seaweed and mushrooms, wild plants and flowers – anything
edible that we could find.

Were your childhoods similar, in terms of food and

T: It was completely different. Where I was from we had lots of
vegetables which couldn’t be found in Peiran’s hometown. While
Peiran got to eat a lot of seafood, I can’t name more than five sea
fish. Her hometown is very cold, so they have lots of preserved,
pickled and salted things. My childhood was more about street food,
much which I couldn’t find when I moved to Beijing, and some which
isn’t on the street at all anymore.

Who taught you about food growing up?

T: My grandparents, street-food sellers, my aunt and the head
chef at my father’s restaurant. My mother didn’t teach me because
she didn’t want me to be a housewife.

P: My grandmother, my parents and my stepdad, who owned a
Chinese restaurant in a small town in the US.

What do you think are the main differences between China and
England’s cooking and eating cultures?

T: Priority of eating and cooking in people’s life. It’s the
most important thing for Chinese people.

P: Cooking is very family oriented in China. Every family has
their own secret recipes passed from one generation to the next.
People there are mad about food. Most Chinese people can cook, so
eating out is fairly cheap.

How did the idea for the restaurant come about?

T: Originally, we wanted to do a fun thing in a street food
market. We had a lot of crazy, imaginary conversations. Since I
grow up in my father’s restaurant, I always loved the idea of
sharing the food we love with different people and creating a great
scene for an event and moment in their life.

What inspired the decor?

T: Our childhood memory of home.

P: An 80s and 90s home in China, which we hoped would be
interesting to our customers and transport them to a China they may
not know – a playful and happy place to dine.

What is it about the 1980s that made you want to recreate

T: We always hear about the 80s from our parents, who say that
it was the best decade in recent Chinese history. It was just
before China’s economy boost and everybody lived like an artist.
With a shortage of material goods, spiritual pursuits were a trend
among young people’s. According to my father, if you couldn’t write
a poem or you don’t know about photography (or something arty), it
was difficult to attract a girl. By the time we grew up it was just
the end of that beautiful period. Food was mainly handmade by local
farmers and workshop owners: noodles, tofu, pickles, pastries
(including steamed buns, bao, dumpling pastries and glutinous rice
balls) could be bought from farmers markets in the morning and had
to be consumed the same day. This is what we’re trying to recreate
at Chinese Laundry.

P: Young people were obsessed with new poems and they went to
ballrooms after work and school, or played guitar in the park. It
was a vacuum in space and time, very pure and idealistic.

Tell us about the food. Is it traditional Chinese? Is any of it
particularly unusual for Londoners?

T: Yes, most of the dishes are traditional Chinese. I think the
Mei Cai Kou Rou (twice-cooked pork belly, sliced into 3mm pieces
then steamed for hours with preserved vegetables and served upside
down) is very unusual for Londoners.

P: We serve Chinese-style brekkie, which is probably also quite
unusual here.

What have been the high and low points of opening a restaurant
so far?

T: Low point is physically it’s quite challenging and we need a
bit more sleep! High point is that we are cooking everyday.

What are you excited about in the future of Chinese

T: We want to produce our own cured meat, pickles, noodle and
rice cakes, like the market in my childhood memory, as well as our
own vegetable farm. We dreamt of being farmers as well as chefs and
we hope to bring more hidden treasures from China – it’s so big and
most of the food doesn’t travel out of that region.

Where are your favourite places to eat when you go to

T: My father’s restaurant, Hong Fan Qie in Beijing.

P: My last experience in China was in Shanghai, where I had my old
studio. I love Jia Jia soup dumplings on Xin Zha Road, Lao Ji Shi.
There are just so many super delicious spots in Shanghai.

Pieran and Tongtong’s Guide to London

Where do you go for dim sum?

T: To be honest, I’ve only had twice dim sum in my six years in
London, so can’t really recommend any!

P: A Wong

Favourite place for Chinese breakfast?

T: Chinatown Bakery do the kind of bread I had when I was a
child – early 90s style, very tasty. They open at midday but if I
go to Chinatown I will buy some to take home. I’m also really good
at making myself a breakfast feast. I need to eat a lot in the

P: I go to Pavilion Café in Victoria Park a lot as it’s so close
to me. I love my breakfast by the lake.

Best place for tea?

T: Rose Bakery in Dover Street Market

P: Tea room in the V&A

Favourite shop for ingredients?

T: Whole Foods and Chinatown’s Chinese supermarket. Also Chapel
Market near Angel.

P: See Woo, Long Fung and New Loon Moon – they’re all in

Favourite cheap dinner?

T: Murger Han

P: Black Axe

And for something a little more pricey?

T: The Clove Club

P: The Clove Club!

Best bar at the moment?

T: 69 Colebrooke Row

P: Opium

Favourite market?

T: Brockley Market

Where do you take friends and family when they visit?

T: The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

P: Alfies Antique Market

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