North’s is the right way to go

There’s always something new at Chinese Northernfoods Restaurant in Cyrildene. (Delwyn Verasamy)

There’s always something new at Chinese Northernfoods Restaurant in Cyrildene. (Delwyn Verasamy)

Cyrildene has long been the real home of Chinese cuisine in Johannesburg, ever since the migration from the “bottom” of Commissioner Street — an area I have stopped going to after the closure of the Yung Chen Noodle Den, a tiny shop almost in the shadow of the old John Vorster Square that served excellent fried noodles.

There are probably about 50 restaurants in Cyrildene’s Derrick Avenue and diners may be bewildered by the choice or, once they have found a place, tend to stick with it. It could be the excellent Fisherman’s Plate, which displays its awards, framed, along the walls, or perhaps the Happy Man, or Longmen, which serve dim sum.

But I urge you to try Chinese Northernfoods Restaurant, a few steps from the Fisherman’s Plate. There are about a dozen tables, some large circular ones, each with a lazy Susan, so they can accommodate a crowd.
It’s loud in there and the voices bounce off the tiled floor. No one seems to speak English, which is fine because my Mandarin is a little rusty, but you will get by fine by repeating what’s on the large menu.

Start by ordering a whisky. There’s a vat of it at the back of the shop — a big glass urn. Floating around in it are goji berries, a root (ginseng?) and what look like plums, or prunes, and a dried seahorse. It stings a little on the way down.

Perhaps my order was lost in translation, but I was once brought an entire glass, filled to the brim.

The “salad North China style” (R38) is excellent, a plate piled high with cold noodles, thinly sliced strips of carrot, cucumber and chilli, with a sesame dressing. The North China-style spring rolls (R58) are also good and are dusted with what I think is paprika.

I can also recommend the utterly delicious fried “pie like hat” — a flaky pancake that is served folded in on itself. Also try the plate of mashed potato with gingery brown sauce, which a couple at the next table were enthusiastically feeding to their child.

There is plenty for the adventurous palate. Internal organs have their own section on the menu. There’s duck blood in chilli sauce (R68), fried pork stomach with garlic (R58) or pork intestines, either fried or roasted (R68). There are cold, dressed pigs ears, or tongue, or stomach, and something called pork skin jelly in a garlic sauce.

I have been to “North’s” dozens of times and always found something new: a whole steamed fish, arrested, as though swimming, on the plate, dotted with pieces of spring onion, or fried prawns, or fried aubergine with chilli.

There seem to be different cooks in the back, because the same dish can vary on different visits.

The spicy hot bean curd (R40) is always good. Shivering cubes of tofu arrive in a brown sauce speckled with flecks of chilli. Also try the shredded beef made up of crumbly matchsticks of meat.

But I will never order the braised sea cucumber with green onion (R178) again. These elongated beige creatures live on the sea floor, sometimes in herds of great numbers. They communicate by releasing hormones into the water and eject sticky filaments through their anuses when attacked.

The creature is able to control the production of collagen, enabling it to “liquefy” its body and squeeze through small gaps, after which the collagen is employed to stiffen the body walls.

The sea cucumber I tried had a singularly disconcerting flavour and texture: both gristly and fatty, and had the appearance of the jowls of a Komodo dragon.

Chinese Northernfoods Restaurant, 20D Derrick Avenue, Cyrildene


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