From the heart of Sichuan to Helsinki

Person with a coffee cup in Mei Lin
Lead text
“Food in China is a social event where the table is full of food and the portions are shared with the whole party.”

Many people travelling from the West to China change planes in Helsinki. The connection between Helsinki and China is not only visible in transit terminals, however. In recent years, Chinese food culture has conquered the stomachs of many hungry Helsinki locals. One of the most important ambassadors is Helsinki-based entrepreneur Minhua Zhou, whose restaurant Mei Lin has showcased Sichuan cuisine at its most authentic. The portions are prepared under the uncompromising quality control of Minhua. “We make all our dips, for example, ourselves. Customers have even gone to Asian supermarkets to ask for our dips,” she says with a laugh.

Before moving to Finland, Minhua Zhou worked in the sales industry in China. After settling in Finland, he decided to study the hotel and restaurant industry and gained work experience in customer service in hotels. “I knew I had experience that I could utilise as an entrepreneur. I told my husband that having my own business was my dream. If I didn’t do it, I would definitely regret it,” Minhua says.

The restaurant industry seemed natural, even though Minhua herself is not a trained chef. “In China, I travelled a lot across the country on business and ate at many different restaurants. I developed a good sense of the right flavours and quality.”

Delicious dish at Restaurant Mei Lin
Show in landscape format

Like all restaurateurs, Minhua remembers to the day when her first restaurant opened its doors: Mei Lin opened on 4 November 2012. The newcomer boldly focused on spicy Sichuan cuisine, although many of the other Chinese restaurants in Helsinki offered Cantonese food. “There are many very different cuisines in China. Until a few decades ago, the Chinese themselves only knew the flavours of their own region, but as train connections improved and travel increased, many have begun to become acquainted with the different food cultures of their country,” Minhua says.

After running Mei Lin for a few years, Minhua said she “got a little tired” and started brainstorming something new. From the various concept options, she decided on a place focusing on dumplings. “In China, everyone from infants to the elderly eats dumplings. For my own birthday, my grandmother would always cook a lot of dumplings.”

The small Xiao Mei Lin restaurant on Lapinlahdenkatu was a pioneer when it opened – since then, dumplings have become trendy. But Minhua's ideas didn't end there either. She recognised the vegetarian phenomenon and opened a vegetarian Mei Lin on Lönnrotinkatu. When the corona restrictions hit, running three restaurants in the heart of Helsinki was too much. However, food lovers will not be disappointed: both dumplings and vegetarian dishes are now available from the Mei Lin restaurant on Annankatu.

Mei Lin is a perfect example of a restaurant that looks like its owner. Both the menu and the decor were designed by Minhua. “There should be some improvements here,” she says, looking at the facilities critically. A restaurant is never quite finished in the mind of the restaurateur.

In the beginning, Minhua carried ingredients, such as Sichuan pepper, from China in her suitcase, but these days there are several reliable suppliers in Helsinki. According to Minhua, the restaurant scene is also much more vibrant than before, although there is still room for improvement. “Here, you can find one quality restaurant over there, another over here. Many cities have one street where various restaurants with terraces are side by side, and tourists in particular can easily find quality places. Helsinki would need an obvious food street,” says Minhua.

A few favourable locations come to mind. A smile appears on her face as she begins to describe her visions. Who knows – maybe soon there will be something completely new in Helsinki!

What to order at Mei Lin?

“Chinese food culture involves sharing portions. I have encouraged families, for example, who have first ordered the same portion for everyone to choose different foods and taste everything. Afterwards they have been very satisfied. Sichuan cuisine can seem strong and spicy for those accustomed to a lighter Cantonese flavours. Many can shy away from ingredients such as viscera, but after tasting them, they become favourite dishes. Pork ears are another ingredient that customers love after trying them. Our flavours are very authentic. I am proud that Chinese business delegations like to come to our restaurant – they are very strict about quality.”

Show image on the left
Show created/updated
Show in search dropdown
Teaser text
Food in China is a social event where the table is full of food and the portions are shared with the whole party.