Lulu Chai – China girl

LULU1 Lulu Chai’sdesire to cook ultra-authentic Chinese street food means spice-gathering trips home. Rosie McGlade explains

Lulu Chai’s first foray into street food was a disastrous trip to Newcastle’s Sunday Quayside Market in February two years ago, when her generator was so loud that neighbouring stall holders couldn’t hear their customers, and the rain and wind were so vicious her boyfriend Chris and friend Richard had to hang from her pop-up tent to keep it from blowing into the Tyne.

Like she says, it was a learning curve. Her second foray was to a food festival in Leeds, having bought a van thinking that touring the country was the way forward. She took along her mother, who was over from China, boyfriend Chris, and another friend, and with petrol and accommodation accounted for, she made a dramatic loss.

LULU2More learning of lessons and the selling of the van took place before Lulu decided that the North East, and indoor venues, was where her fortunes lay.  She’s not rich – that’s not why she’s doing this, but Lulu can put her hand on her heart and say she gets tremendous personal satisfaction from Lulu Cooks Chinese, her street food and catering business. Nearing 30, she is enchanting company, full of wonderful stories of her home town in China, the ancient city of Xi’an with its 5,000-year history and 1,000-year-old city walls you can drive four trucks side by side around before coming back to the start 13km later. Her house stands 20 minutes from the celebrated Terracotta Army built for China’s first emperor – Xi’an being the ancient capital.

Twice a year she flies back there for cookery lessons from her mother and grandmother, along with a street food vendor-cum-cookery teacher she has befriended. When she flies home, her suitcase is packed full of spices unavailable here; essential if she’s to achieve the flavours she wants. “It’s very heavy and it stinks!” she laughs.

“Xi’an was the starting point for the ancient Silk Route,” Lulu elaborates, “the hub of the spice trade between China and Arabia. This history has greatly influenced the food that we eat there.”

Lulu arrived in Newcastle as a Northumbria University student to study international business management. She met her boyfriend Chris, and at the end of her course they had to choose between settling here or in China.

Lulu’s Chinese golden crispy dumplings with Chinese chives and pork mince filling


“I absolutely love Newcastle. I’ve just always felt a wonderful connection here. If I’d have studied in London I know I would be back in Xi’an now,” she says.

It was hard to get a job related to her studies, and in the end she waitressed at a succession of Pizza Expresses around the region. “But I always had this dream of cooking. It’s a passion I’ve had since a child, when food and cooking would unite the family for hours on end,” Lulu says.

“Eventually Chris told me that if I didn’t take the plunge, I would regret it forever. “I used to dream about the slow cooked spiced pork sandwiches that are one of the oldest street foods in Xi’an. Every household has their own recipe. I’ve been told it was Chairman Mao’s favourite dish.”


Her recipes require 16 spices, many of which she can only source in Xi’an. They go into a bag along with the pork, and everything is shaken. Next, she makes stock from boiled pork bones and secret ingredients and simmers it for four hours. The liquid is filtered, and into it goes the pork belly, which is cooked for another four hours. “So it’s really time-consuming, but this is the traditional way. I’m not interested in taking short-cuts.”

While it’s cooking, Lulu makes the bread – small, puffy, circular flatbreads found everywhere in this part of China, in which the pork is served. Her pop-ups at festivals around the region also now feature hand-made steam dumplings stuffed with pork mince, dried shitake mushrooms and spices, steamed over a special cooking wine. “I always think it’s quite healthy,” she smiles.

Her goal is to run her own home cooking Chinese cafe and deli, the first of its kind in the UK, she laughs, where she would continue to make everything from scratch.

Yes, we did tell her the Settle Down Cafe news. Wouldn’t that be nice?

For more about Lulu, go to 

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