Ask many of Barcelona’s chefs, critics and the food obsessed what the next big thing is likely to be and chances are they’ll say one of two things: South American or regional Chinese. The former hasn’t quite hit Barcelona yet, though my money’s on a rash of modern Peruvian places in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, as the Chinese community here grows apace, so too do the fascinating dishes and talented cooks that come with them.
Nanit doesn’t sound terribly Chinese and until recently you could easily miss it. But the husband-wife team who run it have brought mama into the fold who now hand makes dumplings and noodles in the window; the ultimate ‘show cooking’, which inevitably is drawing a crowd. This besides, Nanit is a small, basement restaurant in the Eixample boasting unremarkable décor and tables crammed together down a short flight of stairs. Yet they’re serving some of the best Chinese cooking in the city.
The couple hail from Shanghai, the culinary heart of China, known as the place that invented yum cha (literally meaning ‘drink tea’ but which also involves eating dumplings) and a style of ‘red cooking’ that essentially translates to carefully constructed dishes that have been slowly cooked in big, pungent sauces based on soy, sugar and spices. In between these two extremes, the aim is to ensure the diner gets all taste sensations—sweet, salty, soft, hard, spicy, cooling, hot, cold, crunchy, gooey—and once properly combined you have, for very little money, a feast worthy of royalty. Indeed many of the dishes at Nanit would have been invented many moons ago in the imperial courts of Shanghai.
The trick is in knowing what to order, particularly if your main experience of Chinese food has been the cheap buffet restaurants where tepid and terrible troughs of food slowly congeal into something nasty. Authentic Chinese by contrast is freshly made, bursting with flavour and often surprising like Nanit’s daily special on my last visit, which was a sticky stew of slow braised beef in honey liberally spiked with Szechuan pepper: tender,earthy, sweet, with a clever shot of lip-numbing heat at the end.
Dishes served in small portions straight from the grill, steamer or wok appeal to the Spanish love of grazing, while the self-fill menu card split into dumplings, hot, cold and sweet dishes makes navigating fairly easy. And it’s best enjoyed with a large group of friends or at least someone with a Herculean appetite so you can spread the wealth so to speak; at the very least aim for a spread of each of the menu ‘categories’ with a couple of specials on the side.
I went with Australian friends who know a thing or two about food and let them do the ordering, which resulted in a couple of bamboo steamers of pork shuijiao (boiled dumplings) and prawn shao mai (pleated, steamed, open-topped dumplings) as well as some steamed Chinese buns plump as babies’ fists and a magnificently cooling dish of ‘la saliva de pollo’ (chicken saliva). If you can get past the name, you’ll be treated to tender steamed chicken in a light, cool soy broth topped off with fresh chillies and coriander. Buttery pork ribs tossed in a deeply aromatic black bean sauce, made a solid counterpart.
To these we added side dishes of char siu (a style of barbecuing mainly meat, but sometimes tofu), rice with tofu and bamboo shoots, tallarines a la campesina (peasant noodles) tossed with vegetables that tasted like they’d just been plucked from the field, and a fragrant raw cabbage salad to give crunch.
Try as I might I struggle to love Asian desserts—give me sticky toffee pudding any time—but the coconut-soya flan was a light, not-too-sweet way to finish and has all the makings of a classic. Traditionally, the ultimate goal in Chinese cuisine was to nourish without overstuffing in order to achieve a healthier physical and, by degrees, emotional state.I can report mild feelings of euphoria heading home.
Nanit—Balmes 79 (with València). Tel. 93 451 9839. Open daily: 1 to 4.30pm and 8pm-midnight. €20-€25 per person for several shared dishes and a beer. Tara’s rating: ✪✪✪✪
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