'Chinese restaurants in the UK always have so much variety. The trick is to figure out the chef’s regional speciality'
Advice from Sheffield's Chinese students on how to best eat your way round the city
By Mina Miller
If you walk through the city centre during term time, you’ll see all the things you might expect of a university town: pubs advertising for freshers’ week, crazy golf, bars with student shot deals, even a bucking bronco for a particularly wild night. On the weekend, a rain of chips spatters the pavement, and you can’t rule out the occasional brawl, making some parts of town a no-go zone on weekend nights.
But the area also caters to another community: Sheffield’s nearly 8000-odd students from mainland China. These students, as well as a “sizeable population” from Hong Kong and Taiwan, contribute a huge amount financially to the universities: the Times estimated their tuition makes up almost a quarter of the University of Sheffield’s income. And they find their own ways to map the city, often bypassing services like Google for social media, word of mouth and dedicated Asian delivery food apps like Hungry Panda. While the lack of easily accessible information can seem somewhat forbidding, these businesses are a huge part of Sheffield’s food scene and more often than not, provide fantastic food at good value.
As a Chinese food devotee, I immediately set out to map and identify the best places to eat around University of Sheffield, where I am a part-time student. But despite my enthusiasm, I am not an expert, and know that the world’s most populous country actually houses a huge variety of cuisines that we lump together under the umbrella of “Chinese”. I wanted some insight from Chinese nationals, so I contacted the university’s Chinese society and enlisted some strangers to come with me on a lunch date, to find out what they thought of Sheffield’s food offerings and life in Sheffield more generally, and spoke to some restaurant staff as well.
My first destination is Pepper Greenhouse (251 Glossop Rd). A casual restaurant that serves a small menu in a pleasant, modern environment, it is also one of my favourite places in Sheffield. My lunch date today is with Yujie Wang, who goes by Jessica in England. When I arrange to meet her via Whatsapp, she’s delighted by my choice of restaurants – turns out it’s highly rated by students. So highly rated, in fact, that Jessica asks if she can bring along her friend Yue Shi, a second-year finance postgrad student. We meet for a weekday lunch between seminars. It’s 12pm on a Thursday, but Pepper Greenhouse is already doing a brisk trade and we’ve all come hungry.
Jessica is already there when I arrive, sitting in the airy and bright dining room, which has plant pots dotting the room and wood effect for a soft, modern feel. A freshman engineering student with an outgoing, sunny disposition, the first thing Jessica does when we meet is apologise for her very competent English – she’s so self-conscious she won’t let me record her and eyes my notepad warily. But I think her language skills are impressive, considering she’s only been in the UK a few weeks, since the start of academic term. It’s her first time in the country, and she’s both excited to be here and homesick.
From the Yunnan province in the southwest, Jessica has found that women are in the minority on her engineering course, and she is the only Chinese person, which has forced her to hone her language skills. I ask her what she thinks of England so far. She says the buildings are very different to home, which is exciting, but the weather is not so great. In Yunnan, she says, it’s very nice the whole year round, like spring, with no snow. Nevertheless, she’s keen to discover the entire UK and the EU and learn more about other cultures. In any case, she won’t see family until next summer: she’ll be spending Christmas here, she says, looking downcast. But she promptly gathers herself and tells me it’s a good opportunity to travel or see a friend in Berlin.
Jessica’s friend Yue joins us shortly after. A second-year finance postgrad student who knows the city well, she has taken the younger Jessica under her wing, like a big sister. “I’m so happy to know her,” Jessica says. They met, improbably enough, at Mayfield Alpaca farm, which is a very popular destination with Chinese students. “You can’t pet them in China!” Jessica exclaims. Both found Mayfield via Xiaohongshu, or Red Book, a Chinese social media app likened to Instagram, which students here use to orient themselves around town and find recommendations. Apparently both Pepper Greenhouse and Noodlesta (192-194 Brook Hill) make frequent appearances as top favourites amongst the students.
Yue’s course has lots of Chinese students and possibly for this reason, her English is more halting than Jessica’s. While she’s unfailingly polite, it soon becomes apparent she’s interested in eating food, not chatting. She and Jessica have a spirited debate about what to order: from what I can gather, Jessica wants the poached fish but Yue is set on the beef. In the end, we get both. Because Pepper Greenhouse only takes cash or WePay (common and useful for students paying in renminbi), things get a bit complicated around ordering – Jessica first offers to pay and for me to BACS her, but in the end I pop out to the cash machine as international fees seem to be causing unnecessary stress.
I ask Jessica how she goes about feeding herself in Sheffield and how it differs from the student experience back home. Dining out seems pretty universally more convenient for students in China than the UK, as students living in halls usually won’t have access to a kitchen. Consequently, it’s easier to order single portions and eat alone, and the food is much cheaper. Here, eating out is more of a treat.
Jessica actually loves to cook, and seems delighted to have a kitchen. She shows me a picture of herself at a recent bun making party, sitting at a table with bowls of homemade dough and filling. When I ask about the availability of ingredients, she says she mainly shops at the Waitrose next to her accommodation, but dips into Asian shops like Taste the Orient (219 Glossop Rd) for spice pastes and other basics she can’t find in UK supermarkets. As for the cafes and noodle bars – they’re a bit hit or miss. One place has noodles that look right, she says, but when you bite down on them, you know they’re not correct!
When the food comes, both women are surprised I can eat with chopsticks. We’ve ordered some fish, which is delicately poached in a broth with pickled greens, slices of red and green chilli, coriander, soft ribbons of bamboo shoots, black (tree) fungus, fresh coriander and pink Sichuan peppercorns. It’s tart, fresh and wholesome – perfect for a cold rainy day, yet also light and refreshing. We also have the braised spare ribs, a steaming bowl of tender meat served in a sweet-salty sauce on a heap of potato, bean curd, noodles, black fungus mushrooms and seaweed. Jessica approves, saying she thinks this is close to the authentic Chengdu flavour.
We also all get individual “burgers”: shredded confit pork served in small flat buns, with thin slices of green chilli that help cut through the richness. We all agree that, while the meat filling is unctuous and flavourful, the bun is too dry. It’s a bit crumbly, and Jessica’s verdict is that overall the burger’s not juicy enough. At this point we lapse into silence, all focused on the food, and of course taking pictures of it. Shortly thereafter, the girls have to rush off to their next seminar, and when one member of staff brings me takeaway containers to pack up my leftovers, I ask her if there’s a good time to come back and ask about the restaurant – and, with the owner’s blessing, I arrange to meet Kelly, who takes orders, the next day.
Pepper Greenhouse opened in 2019, right before Covid struck. It really wasn’t the best time, Kelly says. They ended up putting a table outside and taking orders for takeaway. But now, things have settled a bit and apps like Hungry Panda and Just Eat only account for about 30% of orders, which is low by comparison to other places nearby: snack bars and fried chicken places are more evenly split. Word of mouth has really helped, and Kelly says they make the sort of food meant to be shared and eaten while taking your time, in a nice environment.
As the owner, a petite middle-aged woman, is hovering around us, I ask if it’s her first restaurant and where she learned to cook. Kelly speaks to her and translates. Her husband was a chef in China before they moved here and opened a place together in Birmingham. She learned to cook from him. He still lives there operating the business, and she moved to Sheffield to open Pepper Greenhouse. She will soon be opening a space next door called Time To Eat – a counter serving dim sum, noodles and dumplings. She and her husband have lived here 18 years and are now citizens.
For most of my visits, the clientele has seemed predominantly Chinese, so I ask Kelly, who’s half Chinese, half Korean and married to a Brit, how white people tend to like the menu at the restaurant. I say I’ve seen people leave negative reviews for Sichuan restaurants, which seem borne out of misunderstanding what the food should be like – in some cases, oily and buried in dried chillis. She responds that people in the UK are gradually changing their understanding of Chinese food. Most people are used to takeaway classics like fried rice and egg noodles or sweet and sour, but that’s not authentically Chinese. China, she adds, has a huge history and thousands of dishes, many of which even she hasn’t tried. But she feels that a new generation of English people are more adventurous and up for trying food they’ve not had before.
I ask her something I’ve wondered about for ages: why Chinese restaurants have such huge menu selections (Pepper Greenhouse’s is mercifully manageable). Personally I find this makes it hard to know what to order and whether I can ever fairly evaluate the quality of the food. Kelly nods thoughtfully. She doesn’t think it’s a great business idea, she says, and suspects owners ask their chefs to provide a multitude of options, when of course the chef will have a clear speciality. She elaborates that Chinese food in Sheffield is quite divided by location: if you want Cantonese, you need to go to the city centre, to places like Wong Ting. If you’re after hot pot or spicy Sichuan dishes, then near the uni is best.
Kelly had told me to come at 5, for the quiet time, but at around 5.20, our interview is abruptly cut short by a flood of customers streaming into the restaurant. Suddenly there are no tables left and we need to make space, so I head out, now aggressively hungry thanks to the aromas wafting from the kitchen.
Pepper Greenhouse’s pared down menu serves fiery sharing dishes and centres around the special, the grilled fish, which we didn’t order for lunch, but I’ve eaten at a different time. This consists of a whole fish served piping hot and crispy, laid on a raised tray in a bed of sauce, noodles, tofu skins, wedges of flatbread and more. You can choose different levels of spicy, from the classic Chengdu “very hot”, which is studded with Sichuan peppercorns and chilli, to milder iterations. On other visits, I also had the fantastic Sichuan poached beef, a stew served in a large enamel bowl, with delicately cooked meat in a peppery, fiery sauce rimmed in hot oil; and the fresh soya milk, which is prepared on-site. While mains hover around the £10 to £15 mark, two mains will easily serve three to four people alongside some rice and sides. Pepper Greenhouse is not particularly veggie-friendly, does not take card and closes on the early side: while Google says 10pm, they do an early trade and I’ve seen them shut down closer to 9. Really the perfect place for a meal on a cold winter’s night.
My second lunch date is Guoxi Ye, whom I meet during a midweek torrential downpour at Noodle Inn Centro. Guoxi is embarking on a PhD in aerodynamics after having finished his MA here as well. When I sit down, he says “Jessica is afraid her English wasn’t good enough!”, so I know they’ve debriefed separately. Guoxi’s been in Sheffield for many years, and is not sure if he’ll look for employment in the UK or China when he finishes his degree. He definitely seems well settled in Sheffield, and says students like the manageable size of the city – especially if they hail from one of China’s megacities. It’s easier to see friends and get around, and there’s Meadowhall for any shopping requirements.
Guoxi’s hometown is in Hainan, a series of islands in the southernmost province of China. This region is known for its mild, non-spicy food. Guoxi tells me he’s had to slowly build a tolerance to spicy food. He tells me a story about ordering some street food on a night out as an undergrad, in a different region: he asked the chef for no spice, but the residue of chilli oil in the chef’s pan was enough to set his mouth on fire. “It was the pot!” he says, laughing. When there are Sichuan restaurants in Hainan, he says, they have different spice grades on the menu: Very spicy, spicy, not spicy, and Hainese mild. It sounds a lot like Western menus here.
Guoxi tends to favour Noodle Inn Centro and Noodle Doodle as they cook Southern specialties. He goes to Noodle Doodle for Hainanese Chicken. It’s not really that good, he says wistfully, but it’s the only place to get it. We ponder Noodle Inn’s 350-odd dishes. Echoing Kelly, Guoxi says Chinese restaurants in the UK always have such big variety. The trick, he says, is to figure out the chef’s regional speciality. He strongly recommends Noodle Inn’s BBQ dishes, but they are only available on the weekend.
We try the brisket in curry sauce, which is phenomenal comfort food: soft cooked beef with globs of melting fat in a silky curry sauce with onions and slivers of red chilli. We also order the duck in plum sauce, which is a heightened version of sweet and sour, with battered meat the colour of Irn-Bru and thick slabs of fat. It’s sweet, decadent and delicious – but altogether too much for me. Finally, for veg, we have the twin eggs in choi sum. A dish I would have never known to pick out, Guoxi recommends it: it’s a cloudy broth with sauteed choi sum, delicately cooked shiitake mushrooms, goji berries, slivers of ginger and garlic, spring onion and and bite-sized pieces of pork. The broth is flavoured with preserved duck egg as well as normal egg – thus the name “twin egg”. He instructs me to not eat the pieces of egg, as they only serve to impart flavour to the greens. Together, this dish showcases how Chinese food delicately balances multiple flavours to create the perfect restorative dish.
He echoes what Jessica told me about the student experience in China: students don’t generally cook. Unis generally have one or more huge cafeterias serving hundreds of people at a time, and these provide three meals a day. He tells me they all make different types of food, so there’s plenty of variety and you’re likely to find something to your taste. Plus, there is lots of good street food. He adds that student accommodation houses up to four people in a room in a high-density block, so for safety reasons, students aren’t even allowed a microwave or electric hotpot. (I flash back almost two decades to London, when my Shanghainese flatmate Ping forgot a potato in our student accommodation’s microwave, watching Friends completely oblivious to smoke filling the entire floor, and the entire building was evacuated.)
Guoxi doesn’t cook much himself but his girlfriend does – they live together in a one-bedroom flat, and she makes really nice food. He shows me pictures of them eating at home, and we exchange pet photos: in one, his fluffy kitten is trying to crawl into a claypot set in front of the telly, no doubt trying to access the chicken feet contained therein. When we’re parting, I ask Guoxi his favourite place to eat in Sheffield. His face lights up. Turkish he says. He loves a good lamb wrap.
Chinese food has a reputation for not being particularly vegetarian-friendly, but this is largely unjustified. Almost all the places I visited had ample vegetarian options and Noodle Inn Centro (15 Westfield Terrace), which serves a heroic number of dishes, has a dedicated vegan menu. A pleasant place to dine in, it clearly does a brisk delivery trade as well, with a bell dinging every time an order comes in via the apps. This restaurant will cover all your UK Chinese faves like sweet and sour, but also has lots of regional specialities buried in its large menu. On other visits, I had a decent if not outstanding dry pot, Coca Cola chicken wings and some braised aubergine. Apparently the barbecue section, served only on weekends, is not to be missed, and on Sundays, you might get a free dessert: one a separate visit, my partner scored an ice cream, and I had warm adzuki bean soup.
Increasingly, the digital world shapes how we interact with our surroundings: from the omnipresence of satnav to quickly flicking to Google’s restaurant reviews before deciding where to eat. While these are obviously very useful tools that help us avoid becoming hopelessly lost or ordering a disastrous takeaway, there is also a trade-off.
Personally, I find that I run the risk of becoming less curious, and letting general consensus about the city I live in dictate how I move through it. And restaurants, too, let reviews and delivery app ratings dictate which items they keep on the menu and which they discontinue, often meaning less idiosyncratic food.
Yet we should celebrate local, independent trade. There are so many places to visit and discover in just a square mile of the city centre – among them the superlative skewers restaurant Ages Ago, all-you-can-eat (and drink – beware) hot pot at Bang Bang or Chilli Flow; tongue-scorching, juicy fried Taiwanese chicken (as well as a special “Volcano” chicken: fried whole with a charcoal batter); plates of deep fried crispy lotus root; creamy bubble teas; handmade pulled noodles in spicy tomato beef broth, and so much more. In fact, far more than I can cover in this piece. I have some regret about not giving them their fair due. But this should serve an exhortation to go and discover them yourselves. Some come from established institutions – some might be gone by next month – half the joy is in finding out what’s out there.