A touch of eastern authenticity

Ditch the western menu and eat like a Chinese local at this eatery – the pig’s ear is optional, writes CATHERINE CLEARY

Ditch the western menu and eat like a Chinese local at this eatery – the pig's ear is optional, writes CATHERINE CLEARY

I HAVE A vivid memory of my first taste of Chinese takeaway. I was about eight years old and keeping quiet with my brothers in the darkened depths of my dad’s office while we waited for a meeting to finish. A box appeared, and when the cardboard lid was lifted if filled the room with sweet, nose-prickling vinegar fumes. Inside were fluffy chunks of deep-fried sweet and sour pork. I can still remember the thrill of the flavour and the surprise that dinner could taste so different.

Today, with a large Chinese community in Ireland, Chinese food comes in two streams – the food served to western customers and the hardcore menus for Chinese diners. In ML Szechuan Restaurant on Dublin’s Cathedral Street, I am about to tuck into something as exotic as that 1970s sweet and sour dish. It’s a pig’s ear salad. The salad is a cucumber, fresh coriander and chilli one, made with Chinese cucumbers which are denser than watery western ones and very tasty. It is delicious. And the pig’s ear? Well it’s fascinating. You can lift up the thin, pinky-brown shards and see a white seam of cartilage running through them. Hold the pieces sideways and you can see the shape of the ear, wider at one end and wrinkling down to a narrower edge. And the taste? Well it’s inoffensive, less crispy bacon and more chewy rubber tasting of a light spice marinade; no silk purse here.

I have spent the past month learning Chinese and tonight I’m here with my teacher, Grace, to find out how the Chinese in Dublin connect to home through their food. I’m also going to give my pidgin Mandarin an outing and order a beer. She is given the Chinese menu and I get the menu in English and a large bowl of prawn crackers. The crackers are solely for western diners. They are not eaten widely in China, Grace explains, although she loved them as a child when they came as disks of different colours which were fried at home as a treat. We get a large pot of jasmine tea and set to talking about food.


Sichuan province, which is the origin for this restaurant’s cooking style, is as wet as Ireland, she explains. So they eat spicy, salty food summer and winter to ward off the dankness. The torrents have just started falling outside, so it’s very appropriate.

The restaurant is large and pleasant, with a slate tiled floor, high ceilings and a large window. The tables are dressed with yellow tablecloths and covered in glass. It’s busy.

Chinese diners typically have a cold appetiser, so we order marinated Chinese spinach with peanuts and chillies. Because we only order a single starter, everything arrives at the table in one batch. There are so many plates that by the end of the order some are balanced on top of others and we use our small sideplates to taste each dish.

The waiter understands my beer order in Mandarin and brings us two Tsingtao beers, named after Qingdao, Grace’s home city. It’s a small moment of triumph.

A dish of razor clams with ginger and spring onion is terrific, leading me to wonder again why these chewy, tasty, long clams appear so little on Irish menus. There is Chinese broccoli (or Kai-lan) simply fried with garlic, the stems crisp and clean and tasting like a cross between asparagus and celery. It’s more of a leaf vegetable than a broccoli, a spinach-like dish with these crisp tasty stems.

The cold, marinated Chinese spinach is gorgeous, a sugary rice vinegar marinade giving it a piquancy cut with the heat of chillies and finished with large toasted peanuts.

We get a plate of pork and Chinese cabbage dumplings which are earthy and moist, with a soy and vinegar dipping sauce. A huge portion of Kung Pao chicken comes with decoratively chopped (and deeply tasty) carrots, onions, green peppers, peanuts and shards of almost-chocolate-brown chilli peppers which are fiery and delicious. The table is groaning with food. I can hear the hiss and sizzle of a wok from the kitchen down the way. We ask to take some food home and a plastic box and bag are delivered to the table so we can choose which of the plates to bag up.

Dessert is not a tradition in Chinese meals – a plate of fruit would be the nearest thing to a pudding – so we don’t go down that route.

Grappling to learn Mandarin, I’ve been struck by how isolating it must be to travel so far from home to a country where so few people speak your language. It explains the tight-knit communities and the large family groups of people who come to places like this to eat together.

Westerners who go to China and learn Mandarin are feted and celebrated. Chinese people are expected to speak English as a matter of course. The evening has been like a little a trip out of Dublin to somewhere very different.

Not only is the Chinese menu more interesting, it’s also much cheaper. We don’t ask for chicken’s feet (not even on the Chinese menu, but probably available). But maybe on my next visit I will.

Dinner for two with two beers came to €53.


M&L Szechuan

13 Cathedral Street, Dublin 1, 01-8748038

Facilities: Upstairs, basic but clean

Music: Background pop

Food provenance: None given

Wheelchair access: To the restaurant, but not the bathroom

Quirks: Cash only. No cards