“To the ruler the people are Heaven; to the people, food is Heaven” Kwan Tze. 700 BC

Although we unwittingly manage to obfuscate many of the origins of our cuisine, usually at the expense of diversity, some in the UK have become determinedly proud of our renewed place amongst formerly dominant European cuisines. How the defense of our newly heralded regional gastronomy will play out is beyond my psychic powers, but any celebration that recognises that we have sound regional diversity is a step in the right direction. Most of us cannot be unaware of the geographic origins of the usual suspects; Jersey Royals, Lancashire Hot-Pot, Plymouth Gin, Cromer crab or Cornish pasties, but the British Isles sports so many more local, topographically-specific cuisines that equal if not surpass the diversity of many European countries.

In France, the fact that Chablis tastes very different from Sancerre or that Côtes du Rhône is unlike Madiran, Camembert different from Gruyère or Roquefort, is not due to random French enumeration but as a result of their origination in distinct areas, and subsequently named, by way of identification, after towns and villages rather than men and factories. And although Terroir may be a French expression (hardly just a word) it is by no means an exclusively French sentiment.

This was our simple method too. It is the distinction of place, dependent on climate, culture, agriculture and geography rather than vigneron, brewer, cheese-maker or marketing director, that allows us to define our expectations of original taste. Accordingly, it would appear unhelpful to generalise about the flavour of ‘French’ wine, ‘Italian’ salami or ‘British’ cheese – unless you follow the limited road map of a most supermarkets or fast food outlets that is.

And so to Kwan Tse; a Chinese sage with his hand fortuitously on the culinary tiller, his ideograms hinting at regional cuisines across China, outlining gastronomic expectations a wayfarer may realise when moving from village to village, province to province.

If one considers that China is 44 times the size of the UK, diversity is not a cute fashion statement, it is a necessity borne out of myriad time zones along with wildly varying agricultural and climatic conditions. So to summarise Chinese cuisine, as we tend to do at the local take-away, is clearly delusory.

Cookbooks by eastern authors tend to cite eight main provincial veins of Chinese cooking, followed by a dizzying number of sub-regional cuisines within these provinces. When Jonathan Meades was quizzed about Chinese food during a recent book launch he replied that although he clearly loved eating it he didn’t “understand the Chinese diet”, so was therefore wary of cooking it. I relate to that quandary so tend to seek broad-brush strokes before ‘arousing’ my wok for a stir-fry.

In the north, Peking governs the cooking style, in the south it’s Canton, to the east; Shanghai and finally in the west; Szechwan. Understanding the culture of four large areas, albeit simplified, has removed some of the inscrutable mysteries that have baffled me, and it seems, the former restaurant critic of the Times.

A go-to dish in our kitchen, assembled faster than a lost Deliveroo driver or a trip to the take-away, is Chow Mein. Often known as Lo Mein, depending on how you prepare your noodles, and originating in the Canton region, where wheat is plentiful. It’s a dish that has so much in common with simple Italian pastas I’m surprised it has failed to muster an equivalent bourgeois kudos. Perhaps because the ‘high street’ Golden Dragons, Happy Houses, Jade Gardens, China Seas or Great Walls have consistently provided us with corrupted take-out versions; the majority sporting alibis rather than ingredients and most settling on the plate with the constitution of a North Sea oil slick. Or maybe we’ve never really tried to ‘understand’ it. A simple Chow Mein, freshly made with good egg noodles and the minimum of ‘sauce’ ingredients, will soon set you back on the road to enlightenment.

From Foolproof Chinese Cookery (2000) Ken Hom

225g dried or fresh egg noodles
4 tbsp sesame oil
5 dried red chillis
100g boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into fine shred 5 cm long
2½ tbsp groundnut oil
1 tbsp finely chopped garlic
50g mange tout, finely shredded
50g cooked ham, finely shredded
2 tsp each of light soy sauce and dark soy sauce
1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
1 tsp salt
½ tsp freshly ground white pepper
½ tsp sugar
3 tbsp finely chopped spring onions
For the marinade:
2 tsp light soy sauce
2 tsp Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
1 tsp sesame oil
½ tsp salt
½ tsp freshly ground white pepper

Cook the noodles in a large pan of boiling water 3 -5 minutes, then drain and plunge them into cold water.
Drain thoroughly, toss them with three teaspoons of the sesame oil and set aside.
Combine the chicken shreds with all the marinade ingredients, mix well and then leave to marinate for about 10 minutes.
Heat a wok over a high heat, add one tablespoon of the groundnut oil and, when it is very hot and slightly smoking, add the chicken shreds.
Stir-fry for about 2 minutes and then transfer to a plate. Wipe the wok clean.
Reheat the wok until it is very hot and then add the remaining groundnut oil. When the oil is slightly smoking, add the garlic and stir fry for 10 seconds.
Then add the mangetout and ham and stir fry for about 1 minute.
Add the noodles, soy sauces, rice wine or sherry, salt, pepper, sugar and spring onions. Stir fry for 2 minutes.
Return the chicken and any juices to the noodle mixture. Stir fry for about 3-4 minutes or until the chicken is cooked.
Add the remaining sesame oil and give the mixture a few final stirs. Turn it on to a warm platter and served at once.