Celtic tiger, hidden dragon


CHINATOWN:An explosion of immigrants from halfway across the world has totally transformed a neglected inner-city area into a vibrant, bustling street scene that could just as easily be New York, San Francisco or London, as Dublin. Welcome to Chinatown, writes Claire Ryan 

THERE ARE an estimated 60,000 Chinese people in Ireland, with the vast majority working or studying in the capital. With so many young people looking for a "taste of home", the market for authentic Chinese restaurants in Dublin is enormous. Thanks to the influx of immigrants from every corner of Asia, Parnell Street has been slowly transformed into Dublin's very own Chinatown. It's been a few years coming, but now all that remains is for Dublin City Council - and perhaps Bord Fáilte - to acknowledge the ebullience of the culture and erect an appropriate gateway.

The area certainly works as a central hub for Asians in Ireland, and many who have come to study or work across the country will regularly come back to Dublin for the weekend to meet with friends from their home towns and cities. The area is helping to keep their culture and traditions alive while they spend years learning English thousands of miles from home.

You only have to take a quick stroll down Parnell Street to see the influence that Asian cuisine has had on the area. Exotic cooking smells fill the air, and Asians and Irish alike can be seen milling in and out of the countless shops and restaurants that line both sides of the street.

The streets and lanes north of O'Connell Street now have enough Asian restaurants to put Dublin's Chinatown on the map. Parnell Street alone boasts almost 20 authentic Asian restaurants, serving everything from Chinese, Mongolian and Vietnamese specialities to Korean, Indonesian and Malaysian cuisine.

The once run-down shopfronts are a riot of colour, and the new generation of restaurants serve up a completely different menu to what we used to define as "Chinese food". Foodies and critics alike are increasingly heaping praise on the area. "I think it's really exciting," says food writer Ernie Whalley. "All of a sudden, you have a couple of people coming along to an area of town, putting in a no-fuss restaurant with formica-topped tables, little or no extraneous décor, and amazing food. These days, we're getting to taste real Chinese cooking, as it should be. The new ethnic restaurants are breaking down the barriers."

It's a big contrast to the food culture in Dublin only 25 years ago, when the likes of Luna, Sunflower and Universal were among the best-known Chinese restaurants in the capital. From small beginnings, the Chinese community in Dublin has flourished, and these days, walking down Parnell Street, you find names such as Kimchi, where they serve the traditional favourite dish of Korea; Charming Noodles, where they serve noodle-based dishes, and Alilang, which serves a mixture of Chinese and Korean cuisine, to name but a few.

For the owners and managers of these new businesses, providing an authentic Chinese, Korean or Thai meal is paramount to their success. There will be no harsher critics than new Asian residents themselves, who know exactly how the food should taste. Word of mouth spreads quickly and will have an important impact on the numbers coming through the door.

Business owners on Parnell Street have petitioned Dublin City Council to let them turn the area into an "official Chinatown" by building a giant archway, flanked by golden dragons, at the entrance to Parnell Street. If the council agrees to the project, it will be a real sign of just how diverse Ireland has become in a relatively short period of time. Here are but a few of the Chinese food purveyors who have chosen to make Ireland their home.

Charming Noodles

Charming Noodles has been open on Parnell Street since April 2005 and is popular with Irish and Asian customers alike. In fact, manager Wei Pan, who finds it easier to go by the name Ricky, says that about 65 per cent of her customers are Irish. Ricky worked in a pub and as a beautician before managing Charming Noodles full time. She came to Ireland from the city of Anshan in northern China almost seven years ago.

"I've been here six and a half years. I came here to learn English and I was qualified as a beautician. The first six months were very hard - I didn't know what people were saying. But people were so nice, so friendly and very helpful, and after six months, I got used to it. I like Ireland a lot.

"The most popular dish on the menu for Chinese people is braised beef noodles. It has braised beef with pak choi, spring onion and noodles. We have over 100 types of noodles. For Irish people - it's usually curry or sweet and sour. They do try other things but eventually they go back to curry. They like chow mein as well. I like the dish with tofu with spring onions, it has a prawn paste with black bean sauce, and it's very nice. Like most Chinese restaurants, we get a lot of our ingredients from the Asian markets, and we also have suppliers from Newbridge, Co Kildare.

"When I first came to Ireland, I have to say I thought many of the Chinese restaurants here were awful. They were catering to Irish tastes, not Chinese. But it started changing on this street about two years ago, when a lot of restaurants and takeaways opened up, so now you can taste real Chinese food. But I do like some Irish food - I like mashed potatoes and roast beef, for instance!

"As for my plans . . . Since the end of April I have been in this restaurant every day, 12 or 13 hours a day, seven days a week, so hopefully I can get my personal life back and take a break."

Sichuan House

Sichuan House is one of the newest additions to Parnell Street's Chinatown area, having been open just under a year. Wallace Wu has been working at the restaurant since it opened, and says his reason for working there was to bring real Chinese food to Dublin so that the Chinese population in Ireland would have a taste of home. The restaurant also has three private karaoke rooms upstairs, with widescreen televisions and traditional Chinese revolving tables, which Wu says are very popular with Irish customers. He comes from the city of Dalian, in northern China.

"I came to Ireland a few years ago. It is an English-speaking country, and I felt that it would be a nice part of Europe to come to.

"When people came to Ireland from Hong Kong years ago, they made Chinese food that was very mild, in the European style. Now with more and more Chinese people coming to Ireland from the north part of China, there is a demand for a different style of cooking. We opened this restaurant to provide a different type of Chinese food for people living here now, instead of the European style.

"We actually get lots of Irish customers, too. More and more Irish people like the real Chinese style of cooking. We cook in the traditional style and Irish people like that. The most popular dish is a spicy chicken, or fish in a spicy sauce. My favourite is the fish. We don't have any trouble getting the ingredients we need; we get everything from the Asian Market here in Dublin."

Hop House

The owner of the Hop House, Kyoung Hee Lee, came to Ireland from South Korea in 2001 and has run the restaurant for the past two years. Hop House serves traditional Korean and Japanese cuisine and also has a sake bar. The restaurant also has a beer garden which is decorated with traditional Japanese murals. Kyoung Hee introduced sushi to Parnell Street, which is very popular with the younger generation of Irish customers.

He admits that his expectations of Ireland were different from the reality. "I thought I would like it immediately but it took some time. I was brought up and lived in a very big city in Korea, so Ireland was a lot smaller than I thought it would be. It took some time to catch up with but now I like it.

"I was looking for an opportunity to run a business in Ireland because it is less competitive than Korea, and I came across this restaurant business. In everyday life I like cooking, I am interested in all types of cooking."

He finds that more and more Irish people, especially younger ones, are coming to appreciate traditional Korean food. "They like Korean food and they like adventure. I give them some education about Korean food and they take it, they're eating it. When we say Irish, they are not all Irish, there are many French, Italian, Spanish people. I think they like the traditional Korean cooking.

"As for our ingredients, we have two big suppliers. One is called the Korean Food Company and the other is called the Japanese Food Company. Both are based in London. Once or twice we had to import some Korean wares, plates and that kind of thing, we had to bring them from Korea."

With so many Asian restaurants on this street, does he find it difficult to attract business? "No, because we are totally different. The other restaurants, they are Chinese, or they sell Korean food that is not genuinely Korean. But we sell genuine Korean food and Japanese food. We have our competitors, like Wagamama, but we are doing real Korean food."

Abacus Chinese Restaurant

Abacus is part of the Best Western Academy Plaza Hotel, and boasts an extensive Asian fusion menu. The restaurant opened in July 2007 as part of a €30 million investment in the hotel. Chef Jackie Lam came to Ireland from Hong Kong in 2002 and has been working in Abacus for the 10 months since it opened.

"I came to Ireland because my parents wanted me to." He thinks he will stay here now.

The most popular item on his menu, or at least his favourite, is tiger prawns in garlic sauce. "We use Irish meats. I get Asian spices and vegetables from the Asian markets."

He says the competition on Parnell Street works well for everyone. Does he think there is much competition on Parnell Street between all the Asian restaurants? "We don't have trouble attracting business because what we do is very different to other Asian restaurants."

Mandarin House

Mandarin House is one of the few Asian restaurants on the west side of Parnell Street, a little removed from the main drag. The restaurant has been open for three years, and operates both a sit-down and takeaway service. It's open seven days a week, from noon until midnight. The restaurant is deceptively big, with a large seating area downstairs. Sean Zhang is the restaurant manager.

"We have more Asian customers, because we do very traditional Chinese food, but Irish customers are developing a taste for authentic Chinese cooking. The most popular item on the menu is perhaps aubergine in hot garlic sauce. And when people come in, they also like the seafood. We have a lot of specials; every day we have a special. We are busiest in the evening time."

Claire Ryan is a journalist with Hospitality Ireland