CHINESE FOOD IN DENMARK AND POLAND, Winter 2003
by Harley Spiller
In the fall of 2003, a friend and I visited Copenhagen, Denmark and northern Poland, Baltic places not really known as hotbeds for Asian cuisine. This reputation remains intact.
Internationally speaking, Chinese food in up-market restaurants in Denmark is not bad. One could say it's on a par with the quality of food available in Buffalo, or "very average" for a big city like San Francisco. Chinese takeout food in Denmark is an altogether different story. Inexpensive "box" lunches are available from glass-walled steam tables throughout the city. The fare's not worth it, even at very low prices. The offerings appear abysmal, as if they've been sitting for days. Fried nuggets seem to shrink in their lurid sweet-and-sour sauce, looking more like plastic toy food than actual comestibles. Pitiful spare ribs tend to show more bone than meat. We never actually witnessed anyone eating the stuff. These Danish-Chinese takeouts make the omnipresent bulletproof restaurants of New York look downright delicious. There used to be many more cheap Chinese eateries in Copenhagen, but they have not done well, and many have morphed into Shawarma houses and other middle-Eastern grills. The Danes, known for their casual and restrained elegance, just don't cotton to Chinese food - it's the lowest of the low for them. There are only eight Chinese restaurants listed in local tourist guides and not a one was heartily recommended.
Her Royal Highness Princess Alexandra of Denmark likes to eat dim sum. Born and raised in Hong Kong by a Chinese father and an Austrian mother, Alexandra's choice in Copenhagen is Lai Hoo Cantonese Restaurant on Store Kongensgade 18 (telephone 33-93-93-19. Fax 33-93-06-47). On a fancy shopping street near the Castle, the immaculate Lai Hoo prepares, or rather reheat, dim sum to order. There is no takeout menu. Shrimp with ginger and scallion was properly cooked but suffered from soggy shellfish. The choy sum vegetable was also watery, although freshly grown. Shu mai dumplings were dense and flavorful but the best offering was pai guat, spare rib tips, evenly cut and cooked with a modicum of black beans and hot pepper. Foong jow, chicken feet, unlisted but available, were spicy and properly gooey but had freezer-burn.
Unexciting Chinese food notwithstanding, Copenhagen has four big Asian marketplaces. They carry many Asian products disallowed by severe U.S. import restrictions. A superb Thai and pan-Asian market on Istegade near the central train station carries green peppercorn still on the vine; fresh p'tay (strong smelling green beans favored by Malaysians); mangosteens pricey but worthy; and a variety of other fruits and vegetables from East Asia. Denmark's fully stocked larder makes home cooked Asian food a more diverse option than in the U.S.
If you really want great food, try the classic Danish specialties, smorrebrod, at elegant Ida Davidsen's on Store Kongensgade. We were fortunate one day to be served by Ida herself. She provided the most loving and lavish description of her supreme specialties, and hers is the finest restaurant representing a national cuisine I've ever enjoyed. Typical of the complex smorrebrod is "Happy Sunday," a slab of grainy brown bread completely covered in steak tartare, and squared off like a flag with four local oysters, a heap of black lumpfish caviar, and a raw egg yolk in a porcelain shell. Both the smoked duck with beet salad, and the herring sampler, which includes a gingered version, will tickle your Chinese fancy.
A nine-hour cruise across the bright-blue Baltic, under the glow of red Mars and the golden Moon, landed us in Swinoujscie, Poland, a spot long-favored by Germans for its thermal springs, fish, birds, and more. The Chinese foods to come, though, weren't much more promising than in Denmark.
There are four Chinese establishments in touristy Swinoujscie. Locals posited that the most common Chinese dishes for Poles are Wonton Soup, and pork with either curry or garlic sauce. We saw a laundry attached to China Shop and met the proprietor, a lady from Beijing who spoke in Polish, German and Mandarin about her son in San Francisco. The laundry operation appeared profitable but it seemed as if no one had bought a Chinese souvenir in many moons.
Then we passed a spot neither listed in tour books nor recommended by the Tourist Office, Bar Hoangson (ul. Konstytucji 3 Maja 4, telephone 91 321-5590). This fast-food luncheonette sells beer and vodka but does not appear to be much of a bar. Their takeout menu is unique amongst my collection of nearly 10,000 different examples in that fully one half of the handbill advertises for the local tae kwon do and kick boxing school. At lunch-hour the place was packed with hungry hordes brandishing Baedekers. There appeared to be one Chinese chef amidst the Polish staff. Although the dishes smelled OK, and appeared fresh and piping hot, we didn't sample the food because it was over-cooked for our tastes and thickly sauced, perhaps an accommodation to German preferences.
Instead we snacked at Zhong Hua, a much-advertised place recommended by the seashore touts - directly across from the ferries at ul. Wybrzeze Wladyslawa IV 19B, telephone 091-322-2016. Lured by authentic offerings such as "Chinese Hundred Year Eggs" and "Braised Hand of Pork Chinese Style," we were greeted by a Polish maitresse d' and soon struck up a conversation with the Beijing lady owner. Her husband is the chef and the menu is written in Polish, German and English. She admitted they are a long way from home.
We started with Herbata Jasminowa, or jasmine tea, and then tried "Pierozki Po Pekinsku" (Peking Style Pierogies). Traditional Polish meat dumplings, pierogies, are very similar to Chinese steamed pork and chive dumplings. Although they contain green onion instead of chives, these Polish pork bundles with finely minced cabbage, taste authentically Chinese. When we asked for hot chili oil to add to the soy and vinegar dip, the Polish lady was surprised -- not so her Chinese boss. I guess people who make good dumplings at home will find it easiest in other dumpling- friendly locales. Using a wrapper slightly thinner than the pierogi's, Zhong Hua's jao tzu were the most satisfying Chinese food we tried in two weeks on the Baltic.
One hour's drive south from Swinoujscie is the university town of Szczecin, population c. 1,000,000 - the current Pope has visited the music school at least eight times. We spotted a couple of hefty-stomached Poles eyeing a Greek restaurant and asked them to recommend one of the eight local Chinese restaurants we'd surfed on the Internet. The multi-lingual men turned out to be tour leaders and agreed we'd like Golden Dragon (ul. Jana Kazimierza 21, telephone 091-422-8777).
Custom-printed chopstick wrappers from Hiep Long Co., Ltd. In the Ba Dinh district of Hanoi provided a hint that not all was Chinese at the Golden Dragon. Another sign was the Vietnamese calendar near the kitchen. Sure enough, it turns out the shy owner of this Chinese restaurant in a foreign land is Vietnamese. He reported that there are about 100 Vietnamese natives in Szczecin, and that his wife is back home in Ho Chi Minh City. His tale recalls 19th- and 20th-century bachelor society days for Chinese men in the U.S.
Golden Dragon is tricked out like any number of "exotic" Chinese eateries outside of China. There are ceiling dragons, private rooms, pink tablecloths, traditional blue-and-white Cantonese porcelain, and placemats with reproductions of staid Chinese landscape paintings. There is the obligatory fish tank, but it is not placed dead center at the entrance, as at Chinese restaurants attempting to scare away evil spirits by adhering to the laws of feng shui
Silver "grills" on each table turn out to be candle-heated plate warmers. A blonde Polish woman in a cheongsam brought the menus, written in Polish and German. We deciphered the columns over green tea served in handled cups with saucers.
An oddity on Chinese menus, Golden Dragon offers six salads, including Korean kim chee. The salad column is an obvious nod to the Polish penchant for pickled vegetables (and it sure is fun to say soy bean sprout salad in German - sojabohnensprossen).
We started with soups, a Polish mainstay. Vietnamese Soup was mildly sweet and sour with pineapple, mushrooms and shredded chicken. Perfect for the Wisconsin-like weather, Chicken with Glass Noodles Soup contained fat shards of cabbage and was served piping hot.
The cool, moist climate makes northern Poland a haven for fungus and the like so we selected a plate of Shrimp with Mushrooms. It came with dry shitakes, fresh button mushrooms, tiny white mushrooms, and strips of onion and celery in a golden brown sauce. The mushroom flavor was pronounced but the shrimps were of average tastiness. Duck Shanghai was better, the breast of the bird fried, boned, and artfully presented atop a mound of shredded vegetables. Although we'd asked for it hot and spicy, there was very little chili. Nonetheless it was moist and oil-free, a difficult achievement with duck. Both mains were highly salted - a common trait of both Chinese and Polish cuisine.
In general, it might be said that Polish-Chinese food is fuller-bodied with more ingredients than Danish-Chinese cooking. Poles and Danes seem to use Chinese restaurants in the way my family did in the 1970s, as a special treat on limited occasions. There is very limited exposure to authentic Chinese cooking. There aren't many Chinese restaurants but there are lots of Turkish kebab houses. Such middle-eastern Oriental foods seem as close to Chinese cooking as Baltic taste buds can handle on a regular basis.
Dinner at Szczecin's highly-touted Restaurant Chata, a place serving traditional Polish food, including "devilish little dumplings" (disappointingly bland - I guess the name may be a Polish play on words) was not significantly more satisfying than the food at Golden Dragon or Zhong Hua or Lai Hoo. And nothing beats Ida-Davidsen.
The author thanks Marko Buric, Sonja Hindkjaer, Mike Pin and Carsten Tuborg. Harley's collaboration with Guggenheim-award winning artist Javier Tellez, "You Don't Have to be Chinese to Play Chop Suey" was recently exhibited as part of ArtBasel Miami, and you can see more of his nearly 10,000 Chinese menus, in Spring 2004 at both the Queens Museum and the Museum of Chinese in the Americas.