It’s the Chinese New Year and I tell my wife we’re going out to help them celebrate the Year of the Horse.
“Why not pop down to Tesco and get a packet of burgers?” she says. Oo er missus, you are a wag.
As it happens I need some more spices for braising pork. Stick half a bag of them in a saucepan with your meat, soy sauce and some rice wine, cook slowly for three hours and the result is pork heaven.
I’ve seen a new Chinese shop offering “healthy oriental food” at the West One Plaza, Fitzwilliam Street, so as we’re in town we’ll take a look at that. What with all those new Chinese restaurants in the area catering to the city’s oriental students, this part of Sheffield is taking over from London Road as the city’s Chinatown.
At Wa Ding I can have pots of noodles, sesame teriyaki, Smooze coconut and pink guava fruit ice or sachets of cook-in sauces but not the actual spices for what I want.
It caters for Chinese students yearning for a taste of home who want to take some cooking shortcuts. They’re the oriental version of the Chicken Tonight generation.
I can get them at the Tai Sun Chinese supermarket on Matilda Street, says Amy, a delightful assistant who has taken charge of us the moment we walk in.
As it happens I know that Wa Ding is owned by the same chap who runs Tai Sun. He’s Jay Wang, married to Dion Ding, and the new venture is a combination of both their names.
What’s more, says Amy, there’s a canteen upstairs where they cook the same food on sale in the shop.
We don’t need any second bidding. Besides we’re as hungry as, er, a horse.
The Wa Ding Canteen is a large bright space with refectory-style tables and an open kitchen at the far end, behind a counter where you place your order.
Large picture windows look down on the West One complex.
Two of the walls are taken up with quotations from the oddest couple you could dream up.
Well, you’d never dream them up together: former US President Richard M Nixon and Albus Dumbledore, fictional headmaster of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School. “Our destiny offers not the cup of despair . . .” says Tricky Dicky and drones on for another four lines. Dumbledore is more succinct: “There will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.”
Now I’d love to tell you why Jay has chosen those particular quotations but he just won’t return my calls.
We’ve got to choose from the menu which looks ridiculously cheap.
There are nine main courses, between £5.99 and £7.99, with soup and a starter for another £1 together. And while there is no choice over the soup there is with the rice (Korean or Thai fragrant rice) and the starters.
Turn the menu over and there are pictures of what to expect, together with a list of the main ingredients you can buy on your way out.
It takes a couple of smiling Chinese girls to explain all this and Amy drops by again to make sure we’re all right.
Our food arrives together on a tray, tapas-style. The soup is a clear broth (billed as Old Canton Soup with pork and vegetables) with a little greenery and some tofu floating in it. It clears your palate.
My wife has celery and peanut as a starter followed by the day’s special, which is king prawn with udon noodles. She’s not that keen on the celery, which tastes sharp, although I finish it up, but is pleased she has “masses of prawns” with her silky noodles.
The girl on the till has encouraged me to go large and take up an offer to mix two different dishes on the same plate so my meal is £7.99 compared to my wife’s £6.99.
My starter is cold vermicelli mixed with spinach and while there are only a few mouthfuls it tastes good in a slithery kind of way.
My dishes are king po chicken, sweet and gingery, and belly beef with red preserved beancurd, a gutsy tasting dish with a chilli hit and liquorice undertones, exactly the kind of spiciness I get in those packets of spices for braising pork.
It comes with a ball of Korean rice, every grain glistening separately, a sprig or two of pak choi and half of what looks like a preserved egg as garnish.
Having said that, it didn’t taste anything like the one I had once in a Chinese restaurant which the waitress handed me with a health warning: “Even some Chinese people won’t eat this.”
We washed it all down with cups of Oolong rose tea (£2) and we could have had dessert or “recommended afters” to finish but I was keen to hunt around the shelves downstairs.
The food was pretty sprightly and tasty and deserves four stars, particularly in view of the bill.
It was just £16.98 so you’re unlikely to drink from the cup of despair.
Wa Ding Canteen, Unit 7. The Plaza, 8 Fitzwilliam Street, Sheffield S1 4JB. Tel: 0114 272 8893. Open Mon-Sat 10am-8pm, Sun 11am-7pm. Credit cards. Vegetarian dish. Upstairs café and toilet. Street parking.