China boasts a unique and rich culinary culture. The same food can be made into various kinds of dishes.For instance, bamboo shoots can be utilized in many different ways to create a feast of hundreds of diverse bamboo shoot dishes. Think also of the many unique dishes that all use chicken as the central ingredient. Over time, the Chinese have developed cookery into an art form.
Different provinces have different flavour preferences and use different techniques in the preparation of meals, thus creating a surprisingly diverse range of local culinary delights.
Beijing- Cuisine of Emperors
As the seat of the imperial court, Beijing attracted the greatest chefs in the land, and its cuisine combines the best of many regions, most notably neighbouring Shandong and Mongolia.
Harsh winters and cold northern winds make this area unsuitable for growing rice, so the staple crops are wheat, soybeans, and other grains, which find their way to the table in a variety of breads, dumplings and noodles.
Aromatic roots and vegetables, such as garlic, leeks, ginger, onions, peppers and cabbage are used frequently, and this is the part of China where you are most likely to find beef, lamb and pork.
Beijing Roasted Duck
Beijing Roasted Duck, traditionally known in the West as Peking Duck, is prepared using a special variety of duck raised in Beijing. According to a local story, during the Ming Dynasty the emperor ordered that a canal be dredged to allow the transport of high quality grains from the southern bank of the Yangtze River to Beijing. A tremendous amount of manpower was deployed, and the canal was constructed in no time.
Barges carrying the imperial grains were soon on their way to the northern capital along the canal. However, due to poor supervision, grains often fell into the river, and so the ducks that lived along the canal around the capital began to feed on them.
Gradually, the ducks grew fat and their meat became more tender and tasty. Later, a special variety of ducks with succulent and tender meat, a bigger body and a thin skin were raised in Beijing, and became an instant hit with local diners.
Beijing ducks are typically white-feathered, stout with long and wide bodies and thick and short legs. Their beaks are short and wide, with a colour somewhere between orange and yellow. Beijing Roast Ducks are known for their crisp skin, succulent and tender meat, and brilliant colour.
The most famous restaurant which serves this speciality is Quanjude in Beijing. Quanjude is renowned throughout the country for producing the best roast ducks. Quanjude roasts its ducks by hanging the birds on a rack in an oven, directly over the burning wood of peach, jujube or date trees.
Through the glass windows of Quanjude restaurants in Beijing, one can see a mouth-watering display of gleaming Beijing roast ducks over the ovens. It takes about 45 minutes to roast a duck. On leaving the oven, the duck should be a deep dark red, with crisp skin and tender meat and a pleasant aroma of wood and fruits.
Roast duck should be sliced into thin pieces and rolled into lotus leaf-shaped pancakes. This is because the duck is too rich to be consumed in large amounts on its own. Furthermore, since no seasoning is added during the roasting, sauces are needed to heighten the flavour of the finished dish.
There are three major sauces that may accompany the roast duck: sweet bean sauce with thin lengths of scallion, to go with cucumber and radish slices; soybean sauce with mashed garlic, to go with pieces of radish; and powdered sugar.
The sweet bean sauce is the most popular of the three. A small amount of the sauce is spread on the palm-sized lotus leaf-shaped pancakes, before the meat, cucumber and scallion are added, and then it is rolled up into a thin envelope.
The quality of the duck varies with the seasons, and the best times to enjoy it are spring, autumn and winter. Summer is less popular time to eat roasted duck, because the heat puts people off greasy food and Beijing ducks tend to lose weight in summer, compromising the taste of the roast.
Pita Bread Soaked in Mutton Soup- Xi'an
The capital of China for six dynasties, Xi’an is an ancient city full of history and culture. It is also famous for its wonderful snacks and local delicacies, of which Yang Rou Pao Mo is a good example.
Known as “Thick Mutton Soup” in ancient times, Yang Rou Pao Mo is actually broken bread soaked in mutton soup. Though it sounds simple, the preparation can be incredibly complex. There are particular steps which must be followed when brewing the soup and backing the bread. To make good soup, it is important to choose good quality mutton. The meat should be washed and then soaked for about half an hour, after which the blood should be skimmed from the surface.
Next, place the washed mutton in a wok, add water and seasoning, such as Chinese prickly ash, star anise, fennel, cassia bark, spring onions and ginger, and stew until the meat has appeared to melt into the thick broth.
Pita bread is more popular than pancakes in Xi’an, owing to the historical influence of the sizeable Muslim community. To make pita bread, the dough must be well-kneaded before being put aside for half an hour.
Pieces of dough should then be flattened into small pies and baked without oil over a low heat. They should be served just before they are fully cooked.
Yang Rou Pao Mo is served in a distinctive way. Coriander and bean vermicelli may be added to the soup according to preference, before the bread is broken into small pieces and dipped in the soup. When the bread is fully soaked, it is ready.
Tasty soup and chewy bread make up the uniquely flavoured Yang Rou Pao Mo.In the north of china, chilli sauce and sweetened garlic are often added for variety.
Old Sun’s House and Tong Sheng Xiang are the most famous among the many Yang Rou Pao Mo establishments in Xi’an.
Canton – Bounties of the Southland
Guangzhou (Canton), the capital of the southern province, Guangdong, is a bustling port along the Pearl River. This lush region is known for its rich agriculture and its pure, fresh cooking.
Over the centuries, a great variety of natural products have been produced here. Guangzhou has more restaurants than any city in China because of the abundance of fresh ingredients. Rice is plentiful here, along with a colourful array of vegetables and tropical fruits, from lychee and melon to citrus.
Fresh- and salt-water fish, shellfish, duck, squab, quail and chicken are widely used in dishes of spectacular simplicity – often steamed or stir-fried and served with light, clean sauces that show off the natural flavours and colours of the ingredients.
Rice Noodle Rolls (Chang Fen)
Chang Fen are a Cantonese snack made of rice. To make Chang Fen, put rice pulp in custom-made multi-layer steamers, where it should remain until it has hardened into thin sheets. After taking out the sheets, put in meat fillets, slices of fish or shrimp, roll them into long strips and steam once again.
The perfect Chang Fen are as white as snow and as sheets of paper, while remaining glutinous and smooth. Different types of rice noodle rolls have different fillings, such as beef, pork, fish and shrimp. Rolls can be made without any filling, and sweet rolls can be made from rice pulp laced with sugar.
Chang Fen are one of the popular snacks in south China, and are usually washed down with tea, particularly in tea houses, restaurants and snack bars in Guangdong and Hong Kong.
Shanghai – Where the River Meets the Sea
At the mouth of the mighty Yangtze River lies Shanghai, the sprawling eastern seaport that is China’s largest city. A city of infinite mystery and cosmopolitan style, it’s been called “The Paris of the East”.
Shanghai is the culinary capital of eastern China, a region known for its mild weather, and abundant freshwater fish and shellfish, seafood, produce, rice and tea.
Exquisite presentations and complex sauces, often sweetened with sugar and seasoned with dark soy sauce, are the hallmarks of Shanghainese cooking, as well as slow-simmered soups and stews of pork and poultry.
Rice wine from Shao Hsing, China’s wine capital is a prominent ingredient here, along with vinegar from Zhejiang and ham from Jinhua.
Shanghai Steamed Juicy Dumplings (Xiao Long Bao)
Xiao Long Bao are a well-known snack from Shanghai, and those made in Nanxiang Town, located in Shanghai’s Jiading District, are particularly renowned.
To make the small and exquisite Xiao Long Bao, first cut the well-kneaded dough into small pieces, which should flattened into thin flat circles. Next, add the meat filling and fold the dough over the filling toward the centre to seal the dumpling, and then put into a steamer.
Xiao Long Bao may be easy to make, but there are very special requirements concerning the dough and the filling. Though the dough does not need to be leavened, the water added into the flour and the kneading must be carried out particularly carefully to ensure that the dumplings appear thin and translucent after having been steamed.
The filling has to be even more stringently prepared to make sure that it remains soft and retains its tasty juices.
There is also a unique ritual involved in the eating of Xiao Long Bao. If you are not careful, the juices may leak out, which will not only spoil the taste, but will also ruin your clothes. As Xiao Long Bao are served steaming hot, you are advised to first pick one up carefully with chopsticks and place it on a spoon, then bite a small hole in the outer coating and slowly sip the juices.
It should be eaten while steaming hot, so be careful not to burn your tongue. Besides those in Nanxiang Town, reputed Xiao Long Bao restaurants can also be found in the City God Temples in downtown Shanghai.
Sichuan – The Spice Box of China
The climate here is hot and humid, and the landscape is rugged, with rocky mountains, wide-open plains, deep gorges and mighty rivers.
And that’s reflected in the cuisine, which relies heavily on salt and assertive spices to liven up basic ingredients and preserved foods in the subtropical climate.
Sichuan’s cooking is famous for its explosive combinations of hot, sour, sweet and salty tastes, all in a single dish – drawing on seasonings like Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, vinegar, sugar, and most notably, chiles – a trait shared by neighbouring Hunan.
Sesame seeds, peanuts, walnuts and cashews are popular here, and pickled, cured and smoked foods are a year-round mainstay.
Hot pot is similar to instant-boiled mutton, except that the term covers a wider range of recipes. You can put in any meat or vegetable of your choice. As a result, there are a wide variety of hot pots, such as Sichuan spicy hot pot, light hot pot from the South and exquisite Taiwan-style hot pot.
Sichuan hot pot is the best-known. Whether using a spicy red stock or a plain white stock, Sichuan people always manage to produce strong and rich hot pots, making sure that you will never forget it. For meat-lovers, the ingredient can include goose guts, duck guts, beef, tripe, fish heads and different kinds of game.
For vegetarians, different varieties of mushrooms are available, such as golden needle mushroom or enoki mushroom, Queen Bolete, oyster mushroom, as well as all kinds of edible fungus and matsukate. Green vegetables are also very popular choices.
The stock is the key of a good hot pot. The taste of hot pot varies from restaurant to restaurant, as each one will have its own recipe. Most common are chicken stock, pork rib stock, and seafood stock seasoned with a number of spices and flavourings. Restaurants usually consider their stock recipes trade secrets.
The pots themselves are traditionally made of copper and heated with charcoal. As charcoal pollutes the environment and copper rust is harmful to health, copper pots are now almost extinct, and have been replaced with electrical stainless steel pots, which have the added benefit of adjustable heat.
As it is rich in calories, as well as often being very spicy, hot pot is most popular in winter. When cooking meat in a hot pot, you must pay special attention to the heat, as it causes the loss of tenderness and nutrition if overcooked, and digestive problems if undercooked. Food leaving the pot is very hot, so wait for it to cool before you sample it.