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Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 19, July 30 - August 5

by Joshua Samuel Brown
Whatever your reason for coming to Beijing,
the best reason to stay is for the food.

Of all nations, China is endowed with the greatest variety of provincial cuisines and regional dishes. Some scholars distinguish as many as eight great cuisines of China, but the Middle Kingdom's culinary regions are most conveniently categorized by the four cardinal points of the compass. Even so, an article of this size cannot hope to describe the amazing variety of fare available throughout Greater China, but this guide should give you enough basic knowledge to sound like a connoisseur at a Chinese banquet, no matter where the host is from.

Down South: Canton

Guangzhou (Canton) is the first stop on any gastronomic tour of China. Cantonese food or yuecai is celebrated as the king of Chinese cuisines, but most of the stuff that passes for Cantonese food outside China would end up in the garbage can of any self-respecting Cantonese native. But what exactly is good Cantonese food? Here is a guide to the basics of this complicated cuisine, kindly provided by chef Ou (pronounced Oh!) Weiliang of the Sampan Seafood Restaurant. The Sampan has earned a reputation as one of the finer Cantonese restaurants in Beijing, and it takes only a few mouthfuls of chef Ou's steamed prawn dumplings to see that this reputation is well deserved.

Chef Ou learned the art of Cantonese cooking in Hong Kong after what he calls 'the gourmet revolution.' During the 1950s, Hong Kong was inundated with expert chefs from all over China. The city's rapid development as an international trading center also brought new, imported ingredients.

Chefs in Hong Kong began to have access to ingredients like never before, and they began experimenting," chef Ou says as he runs his tongue along his lips for added emphasis.

Variety is a hallmark of Cantonese cuisine, befitting the varied palates of the denizens of the busiest import/export zone in Asia. A well-balanced Cantonese meal is comprised of dishes made from subtly, incongruously-matched ingredients such as steamed cod fish with preserved duck-egg yolk and minced garlic, braised fresh crab meat with eggplant, sweet and sour beancurd with BBQ pork and, of course, endless plates of smaller steamed meat buns and fried dumplings that fall under the general category of dim sum.

Like most New Yorkers, I think of dim sum as a Sunday afternoon excursion involving a few hours spent inside the Triple Eight Palace underneath the Manhattan bridge, randomly picking small dishes from buffet carts. However I have often felt oppressively full well into the evening after a Triple Eight brunch. But the dim sum served to me here is neither heavy nor greasy. This is as it should be, explains chef Ou.

"Cantonese food should be light, combining a greater variety of ingredients then other regional cuisines. If it's mediocre, you feel bloated; if it's good, you're hungry two hours later."

Anyone who has travelled through Guangdong province has noticed that many animals considered pets elsewhere are thought of as ingredients for the pot down south. There is an old Cantonese saying "fei qin zou shou," which roughly translates as 'if it flies, swims or runs, you can eat it.' Chef Ou tells me that the reputation is not necessarily deserved, and that his restaurant serves very little in the way of endangered species. "For instance," he tells me "I wouldn't serve you snake meat during the warmer months - it's strictly a winter food."

Nonetheless, most Chinese people can name at least one Cantonese dish that would not look out of place in an Indiana Jones movie: 'Tiger Fights Dragon'
(longhudou) is a delicacy consisting of a roast snake entwined around a roast cat.

Naked Lunch: Chaozhou

The next culinary stop is Chaozhou (Chiuchow), a coastal city only a few hours drive north of Guangzhou. Despite the geographical proximity, Chaozhou food is unique enough to be considered in a class by itself.

Expect dishes from this region to be extremely light and made of only the freshest ingredients. "Chaozhou cuisine utilizes the most natural of flavors, and cannot hide behind a wall of excess spices," explains Proprietress Wu, of the Chiuchow Garden Restaurant, one of the most highly regarded Chaozhou restaurants in Beijing.

Chaozhou chefs pay special attention to the presentation of their delicacies. A superb dish that appeals equally to the eye and the palate is the plain-sounding mashed vegetable with minced chicken - made to resemble a large green and white yin-yang symbol - the green being a spinach puree and the white a glutinous chicken and egg-white broth. Dumpling-like foods abound, but Chaozhou-style means no grease. Stewed diced chicken wrapped with egg white, for example, chicken wrapped in a thin skin made from egg whites. Although it is fried, it is not even faintly oily. Deep fried bean curd is also remarkably light and fresh for a dish prepared in this way.

"Chaozhou dishes require the freshest of ingredients. There is nothing to hide behind. If anything is even the least bit stale, you will know," explains Wu.

Chaozhou's most famous dishes are probably China's most expensive soups: shark's fin and bird's nest soup. While the former is really just a fancy fish soup, the latter is surprisingly sweet and subtly flavored.

The Spicy West: Sichuan and Hunan

When a person from Sichuan or Hunan asks you if you like spicy food, you'd best consider your reply well, for natives of these two southwestern provinces do not joke when it comes to liberal usage of hot red chili pepper, wild pepper and garlic. It is likely that both regional cuisines were influenced by ancient travelers from Siam (Thailand) and India.

Sichuan and Hunan are both hot and uncomfortably humid. So why is their cuisine so spicy? Eating dishes laden with red peppers induces perspiration; traditional medicine advises that sweat expels bodily toxins, purges the humors and helps equalize body temperature. Perspiration also evaporates and causes a confection effect, thereby cooling off the chili-consumer. Moreover, once your tongue gets used to the spicy fire, there is an extraordinary range of delicate flavors behind the chili barrage.

Sichuan cuisine uses chilies that have been either marinated or fried in oil, as well as Sichuan wild pepper (huajiao). This crunchy little spice is described as 'ma ' in Mandarin - the root of anesthesia - because it effectively numbs your tongue and taste buds. Although the flavor of Sichuan wild pepper has been compared to that of soap dipped in tiger balm, the hot-cool-numb sensation produced by crunching on a pepper is addictive.

The Hunanese, who claim their food is the hottest in China, prefer red peppers unmarinated and fresh producing a very spicy bite. Mao's home province produces a number of famous spicy dishes with suitably revolutionary names such as red-cooked pork (hongshao rou), and red-cooked Hunan fish (hongshao wuchangyu). Popular appetizers include fried pickled beans and minced meat, and silverfish fried with soy sauce and chili oil.

One of the most famous Chinese dishes and a perennial foreigner favorite is Kung Pao Chicken (gongbao jiding). This dish first became popular in Sichuan and its legendary origin is a good example of the willingness of Chinese chefs to improvise. However, this tendency sometimes leads to unfortunate dishes like a concoction currently popular in Beijing known as 'deep fried ice-cream on toast'. Gongbaojiding is one of the good ones though.

Ding Baozhen served under the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) Emperor Xianfeng as the governor of Shandong province. One day he arrived home with a group of friends, but his cook hadn't prepared for guests, and had but a meager chicken breast and some vegetables in the kitchen. The cook diced the chicken into tiny bits, and fried it up with cucumber, peanuts, dried red peppers, sugar, onion, garlic, bits of ginger - sundry ingredients that had been lying around the bottom of the cupboard.

Ding Baozhen and his guests really enjoyed the improvised meal, so much so that it became a regular item on the menu. Eventually, Ding Baozhen was promoted to Governor General of Sichuan province. His cook w ent with him to Sichuan where he began experimenting with the local produce, including hot broad bean sauce and Sichuan chili peppers. Soon the humble chicken dish was all the rage in the province. The people honored Ding Baozhen by naming the dish after his official name, Gongbao. (His surname 'Ding' has nothing to with the "ding" in gongbaojiding which simply means cube or piece.) The moral of this story is that if you work hard at your craft, like Ding Baozhen's chef, one day a dish will be named after your boss.

Drunken Birds and Juicy Meat Bombs: Shanghai

The rice, seafood and fresh vegetable-based cooking of the southern coastal provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu is generally known as huiyang cai. As the area's biggest city, Shanghai has made the region's best dishes famous.

If the personality of a population was to be judged by its food, Sichuan people would be described as hot tempered, people from Chaozhou as sincere and unpretentious, and the Cantonese as subtle and complicated. The Shanghainese could be summed-up in one word: 'drunk.'

Natives of China's most commercial city are not actually known for excessive drinking, but their chefs like to soak everything in Shaoxing wine: drunk chicken, drunk pigeon and drunk crab are Shanghai staples. The city's chefs are also known for an impressive selection of cold meat appetizers and checkerboard-patterned deep fried fish. Popular dishes include stir-fried fresh-water eels and finely ground white pepper, and red-stewed fish - a boiled carp in sweet and sour sauce.

Perhaps the dish most closely associated with the Pearl of the Orient are the hairy freshwater crabs that come into season in October. Poet and Essayist, Li Yu (1611-80) wrote about his passion for such crabs:
"Meat as white as jade, golden roeSŁ to try to use seasoning to improve its taste is like holding up a torch to brighten the sunshine."

Xiaolong bao (little steamer dumplings) are a Shanghai favorite with locals and outsiders alike. Similar to many Cantonese dim sum dumplings, xiaolong bao are delicate steamed packets that cause a little explosion of juice and meat in your mouth.

North: Beijing and Beyond

Peking Duck is justly famous as a major world dish. Peking Duck preparation methods were developed and refined during the early Qing dynasty (1644-1911). The fowl is cleaned and stuffed with burning millet stalks and other aromatic combustibles, and then slow-cooked in an oven heated by a fire made of fragrant wood. When the duck is fully roasted, the meat is sliced into small pieces, each one attached to a piece of crispy skin. The duck is served with pancakes, scallions and a delicious soy-based brown sauce.

Despite a famous flagship dish like Peking Duck, Beijing food is generally recognized as a close relative or even subcategory of Shandong cuisine, or lucai . Like food from China's Northeast (dongbei cai) and Shanxi Province, Shandong cuisine is wheat-based and utilizes strong-flavored vegetables like kale, cabbage and potatoes. Simple cooking techniques (steaming, stewing and stir-frying) are combined with the robust flavors of heavy soy sauce, garlic (often raw) and scallions. The proximity of the sheep- and goat-filled Mongolian plains has ensured that mutton is also an essential part of the Northern diet, although many Chinese people complain they cannot eat mutton because it has a "gagging odor" (shanwei'r).

Chinese Soul Food

The popularity of exotic ethnic cuisine is on the rise in Beijing, with a bevvy of new restaurants serving fare from the far reaches of the empire.

In addition to a vast array of different kinds of Chinese food, Beijingers
can also indulge cravings for the culinary creations of a good number of the PRC's 56 official minorities - which you may or may not recognize as 'Chinese.'

Mongolian Hotpot is a winter favorite in Beijing but tastes nothing like the food offered in Ulan Bator. Diners put thinly sliced meat and vegetables into a broth in a pot boiling away at the center of the table. A moment later, a cooked morsel is removed, dipped in a sesame paste and garlic sauce and eaten. Hotpot eaters usually give a nod to Mongolia by ordering large quantities of mutton, but you can also order a wide range of ingredients from fresh vegetables to congealed blood and pig brains.

Sichuan Hotpot is similar to Mongolian Hotpot, but the broth is made with red chilies and Sichuan wild peppers. It was originally served as a street snack, with the meat and vegetables served on skewers for easy boiling. The late 1990s have seen an ongoing craze for what is known on Beijing's streets as "malatang."

You won't find any pork at a Hui establishment, but food served by this Chinese Muslim minority is heavy on fried, spiced lamb. Delicious baked or flat breads coated in sesame seeds are a special feature.

Food served in Uighur restaurants is also pork-free, but this Muslim ethnic group from Xinjiang prefer their lamb roasted over a fire. Uighur cuisine is also noted for its fine spicy tomato salads, flat bread called naan, noodle dishes and lightly spiced soups made with bell pepper, tomato and mutton.

Tibetan cooking may not take you to Nirvana, but then you try growing fresh ingredients at 3000 meters above sea level! The staple is tsampa, ground barley usually cooked into a porridge and served with lip-smacking rancid yak butter tea. Dumplings known as momo are wholesome and filling. A Tibetan meal on the wild side might include yak penis with caterpillar fungus.

Guizhou sour fish soup is a hotpot dish rather than a proper soup. The provincial speciality is popular in Beijing, although here the fish are not put into the hotpot live, as happens in Guizhou. Some other Guizhou specialities include pickled radish, shredded dried beef (served cold), and dipping sauces made of fermented tofu. Guizhou food is very spicy.

In Taiwan, every town claims to make the best beef noodle soup, a dish that any restaurant claiming Taiwanese affiliation should serve. A Taiwanese taste worth acquiring, especially if you are a fan of cheeses like Limburger, is "stinky tofu" (chou doufu), a dish made of fermented bean curd, served with pickled vegetables and hot sauce.

The Dai people of Yunnan are ethno-linguistic cousins of the Thai and their cuisine has similarities to Thai food. Deep-fried tree moss is surprisingly delicious, as are the many rice-based dishes served in coconut shells and hollowed out pineapple halves.


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