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China's Many Diverse Cuisines


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Just to add that there is a China Royal Cuisine Museum (中国皇家菜博物馆 - zhōng guó huáng jiā cài bó wù guǎn) in Beijing at 117 Xisihuanbei Road, Haidian District, Beijing.


The museum covers an area of 3,250 m² and has over 1,000 items on display such as food vessels and historical records. There are interactive rooms and opportunities to taste the food.
According to the museum's own publicity in Chinese:
"The Royal Cuisine Museum is divided into a historical and cultural display of royal cuisine area, a tasting and experience of royal cuisine area, and a lively sightseeing area. The living sightseeing area is an innovative, modern central kitchen that is open and transparent, low-carbon and energy-saving and green and environmentally friendly. The entire kitchen is made of glass curtain walls, and each stove is equipped with a camera, so that the whole process of food processing and production in the kitchen can be seen, and sightseers and diners can watch the dishes in real time through video. In addition, the museum also has an information centre


At the Royal Cuisine Museum you can learn about the food related anecdotes of the emperors of the past dynasties, allusions to famous dishes and celebrity chef stories."


My translation.


Address in Chinese: 北京市海淀区西四环北路117号
Opening Hours: 10:00-14:00 and 17:00-21:00
Tel: 010-88494069, 010-88495181, 010-88495185
No website.



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蒙菜 (méng cài) Inner Mongolia 内蒙古 (nèi měng gǔ) Cuisine


China’s administrative system divides places into four main categories: Municipalities, Provinces, Special Administrative Regions, and Autonomous Regions. Wthin each there are many sub-categories.


There are currently four municipalities. These are among the largest cities and are controlled directly by the central government. They are Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Tianjin.


The question of how many provinces there are is complicated by Taiwan still officially being considered a ‘renegade’ province. When it is included, there are 23 provinces, otherwise 22.


Hong Kong and Macao make up the two special administrative regions.


Then we have the five autonomous regions. These have provincial status but because of their large populations of one particular ethnic minority or another. The have negligible real autonomy. I live not in Guangxi Province but in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The other four are Xinjiang Uighur, Ningxia Hui, Tibet Xizang and Inner Mongolia Mongol Autonomous Region, the second words in each indicating the relevant ethnic minority.


Inner Mongolia is in central-north China bordering Mongolia, the independent country formerly known as Outer Mongolia. It also borders Russia and eight other Chinese provinces. The Great Wall, built to keep the Mongols out of China, partly runs by its southern border. It was never finished and didn't stop anyone. The capital is 呼和浩特 (hū hé hào tè), Hohhot, home to almost half the population. Famous for its grasslands (steppes), it can be a bleak place, especially in winter. Many Inner Mongolians are nomadic at least part of the year and there are five times more horses than people, but even the horses are outnumbered by sheep with around 30 sheep for every human. Good place for insomniacs, I suppose. With a population of around 25 million in an area of 1,177,500 km² / 454,600 square miles, it has one of the world’s lowest population density.


The cuisine is very much determined by its Mongol traditions and geography and is mostly unlike anything you would normally consider Chinese. Wheat is the main grain, although buckwheat is also often used to make noodles. Rice can be bought in Hohhot, it is very much a minority interest. The main proteins are, of course, mutton but also, beef, goat, horse, camel, venison, chicken and ostrich These are usually roasted with spices, Mongolians’ most common cooking method.


Historically they had very few vegetables, but in recent years, at least in cities, modern logistics do supply imported vegetables from other provinces. They also rely a lot of dairy products including milk, yoghurt and cheese.



Inner Mongolian Cheese


Koumiss, ayrag in Mongolian is fermented mare’s milk, a popular beverage. A common hot drink is an unusual salty milk tea made by cooking black tea then adding it and salt to milk and blending it well. Not my cup of tea! They also make milk wine, which I was offered but declined.




One notable dish is 烤全羊 (kǎo quán yáng), Whole Roast Sheep. This festive dish is cooked using a three-year old sheep, stuffed with spices, then roasted on its back over coals or in an oven. When done it is flipped over and presented to be carved at the table. Guests are served in order of rank, status or age. Served at banquets, New Year dinners, and wedding receptions. I ate it in 2002 at a friend’s wedding in Hohhot.



Whole Roast Sheep.


羊杂碎 (yáng zá suì), Lamb Offal Soup is a popular street food. The animal’s heart, liver, lungs, tripe, intestines, head meat, and hooves are all put into the pot and boiled. It is served with sides of coriander leaf / cilantro, chilli powder and salt to be added to the diner’s taste.



Mutton Offal Soup


小肥羊 (xiǎo féi yáng) was an Inner Mongolian chain of restaurants all over China, then opened branches in first, Canada then the USA. In 2011, it was acquired by Yum! Foods Inc., owners of KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, etc. The word ‘fat’ was dropped from the English name for fear of scaring the fat-phobic, but the Chinese remains unaltered in the logo.




It specialises in the most famous Mongolian dish outside of either Mongolia, 羊肉火锅 (yáng ròu huǒ guō), Lamb Hot Pot. Traditionally this is cooked in a special pot with a central funnel rising from the centre. This chimney contains the fuel. Ingredients are cooked by the diners in the broth in the pan around the funnel. Those are traditionally mutton, but today almost anything can be cooked quickly enough (one to two minutes)

when sliced thinly enough.



Traditional Mongolian Hotpot  - image China Daily


Little Sheep eschews the traditional pot and goes for the Sichuan style 阴阳(yīn yáng) style with a divided pot containing two broths, one side chilli hot and the other plain. The mutton is served in thinly sliced rolls. A wide range of vegetables of your choice are available. Despite the owners reputation, the food remains otherwise authentically Mongolian.



Lamb Rolls


烧麦 (shāo mài) Shaomai are a popular staple in Hohhot. These are small steamed dumplings containing minced mutton and scallions with other flavourings. Originally a breakfast food, they are now served in diners at anytime and often made at home.



Mongolian Shaomai


As is usual in so many Asian countries, probably the best place to eat is in Hohhot’s many food streets  or street food stalls which can be found all over the city.



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冀菜 (jì cài), Hebei (河北) Cuisine


Hebei is south-east of Inner Mongolia, located on the Bohai Gulf of the Yellow Sea. Besides that, it is bordered by Liaoning to the north-east, Shandong to the south-east, Henan to the south, and Shanxi to the west. Hebei means ‘North of the River’, that being the Yellow river. The province almost surrounds the adjacent municipalities, Beijing and Tianjin only being interrupted by the latter being on the coast. That said, Tianjin was the capital of Hebei until being elevated to municipality status in 1911, so Hebei did surround Beijing until then. After bouncing around for a bit, the capital was finally settled in Shijiazhuang.


Its location means that it is heavily influenced by Beijing and the cuisine there, to the extent that they might taken to be the same, but that wouldn't be entirely true. Hebei does have some interesting foods of its own. Nevertheless, this will be a shorter read than usual.


For many people, especially visitors, its most fascinating culinary attraction is that the people have a penchant for donkey meat. Every foreign visitor goes straight for the 驴肉火烧 (lǘ ròu huǒ shāo), Donkey Burgers. Donkey meat is slow stewed with up to twenty ‘secret’ spices (according to the vendors) and served in a sort of bun, either round (Baoding style) or rectangular (Hefei style). They taste the same.



Donkey Burger


However, donkey meat (my favourite red meat), is used in many other ways. It is used in noodle dishes, stir-fries, stews, soups etc. Although undoubtedly having originated in Hebei, donkey restaurants can be found everywhere. There are at least ten here in Liuzhou.



Donkey with Green Peppers



Donkey Noodles


Unsurprisingly, Hebei cuisine features a lot of fish and other seafoods. Despite being coastal, they seem to prefer freshwater fish but sea fish are easily found. Common examples include bream, Mandarin fish, eel, turtle, giant salamander, crab, shrimp, clams etc. Freshwater fish from 白洋淀 (bái yáng diàn), Baiyangdian Lake in central Hubei is especially valued for its fish and freshwater ‘seafood’. These are often steamed or simmered gently.



Mandarin Fish


Popular dishes include steamed bream (without soy sauce as used in most other parts of China), turtle with wax gourd, boiled fish with tangerine pulp.



Steamed Bream


This unusual pairing of ingredients which seem incompatible is a well-noted feature of Hebei cuisine. 海龟猪脊 (hǎi guī zhū jǐ), turtle with pig’s spine; 炒三丝 (chǎo sān sī) is slivers of pork tenderloin, chicken and pig’s stomach, and 龙凤婚 (lóng fèng hūn), dragon and phoenix marriage is a mixture of eels and chicken.


莲藕排骨汤 (lián ǒu pái gǔ tāng), pork rib and lotus root soup is believed to have originated in Hebei, but is now available everywhere in China, having been burdened with claims of its TCM ability to cure everything but naivety.



Pork Ribs and Lotus Root Soup



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川菜 (chuān cài) - Sichuan (四川)  Cuisine Part One


After Cantonese, this is probably the most famous Chinese cuisine internationally, although until relatively recently, only a handful of its dishes appeared on most American or British Chinese restaurants menus. Mapo Tofu (actually 麻婆豆腐 (má pó dòu fǔ) in Sichuan – ‘tofu’ is the Japanese pronunciation) and Kung-po (or kungpao) Chinese (actually 宫保鸡丁 (gōng bǎo jī dīng) in Sichuan) were and are still the only Sichuan dishes on many menus. These non-Mandarin names can be attributed to the restaurants still being Cantonese.



Mapo Tofu


However, that is changing. When I left Britain in 1996, there were zero real Sichuanese restaurants anywhere in the country. Bar Shu opened at 28 Frith Street, Soho, London, W1D 5LF in 2006, near but significantly not in the Cantonese enclave that was Chinatown. Tel: (+44) 2072878822. They wanted to distinguish themselves, I guess. Fuchsia Dunlop consulted with the restaurant’s opening and menu.


Bar Shu Sichuan Restaurant, London


Her book 2019 The Food of Sichuan (eG-friendly Amazon.com link), a revised and expanded version of her original 2001 book, Sichuan Cookery (published as Land of Plenty in 2003 in the USA), is an excellent introduction to the cuisine and the culture behind it. Remember all these three are essentially the same book. Don’t do what one friend did and bought all three, thinking they were different. I suggest the 2019 version. It has even been translated into Chinese and is available here, an extremely rare honour.


Much as I recommend the book, I do have one issue with Ms Dunlop, though. In all her books, she gives the Chinese name for ingredients and dishes, but then gives the Pinyin transliteration without the tone marks which are essential for correct meaning and pronunciation in Chinese, making them useless. She also mixes Mandarin and Sichuan dialects without ever saying so. She even gives a few Vietnamese names without the essential diacritics; Vietnamese fish mint, she tells us is diep ca in Vietnamese – no; it’s diếp cá. This may seem pedantic but it’s essential in both languages. Not using them or getting them wrong can often change the meaning. My favourite example is shui jiao. Do you mean boiled jiaozi dumplings (水饺 - shuǐ jiǎo) or go to bed (睡觉 - shuì jiào) or several other possibilities?


Sichuanese restaurants had opened in the US slightly earlier, apparently following the publication of two cookbooks: Robert Delf’s 1974 The Good Food of Szechwan (eG-friendly Amazon.com link)* and Ellen Shrecker’s 1974 Mrs Chiang’s Szechwan (eG-friendly Amazon.com link).


* Few people in China, including Sichuan knows what Szechwan means; it was never pronounced that way in China. They’ll maybe guess you are speaking German or Polish for some unimaginable reason.


Today Sichuan restaurants are to be found in many of the world’s major cities, if not in the suburbs or smaller towns, yet. But it’s Sichuan food in Sichuan this is about.


Sichuan is normally all about big, bold, spicy flavours and these are achieved using some ingredients only introduced in the west recently, if at all. The stand out ingredients are, of course, Sichuan peppercorns, chilli and doubajiang, which I’ll take one by one.


花椒 (huā jiāo, literally ‘flower pepper’), Sichuan peppercorns, Zanthoxylum simulans, ain’t necessarily from Sichuan. They are often from neighbouring provinces such as Yunnan and Gansu and can be found in Nepal, but it is in Sichuan they are used most. There are two varieties – red and green. The first are much more common. The second are not unripe red ones, but from a different cultivar of Zanthoxylum. The Japanese sansho (actually 山椒- kona-zanshō), Zanthoxylum piperitum is a closely related cousin.



Red Sichuan Peppercorns


They are neither flowers or true peppers, but berries of the prickly ash tree. They have a citric and floral taste but their unique feature is that they impart an intense sense of numbness (-má) in the mouth. This is known scientifically as paresthesia and is caused by a compound they contain called hydroxy-alpha-sanshool. The more? fresh the berries, the stronger the sensation.


The peppercorns should have had their seeds removed before sale, but a few may linger. They are unpleasant and sand-like. One well known food website which shall remain nameless, recommends using ground peppercorns which I recommend to people who have lost their sense of taste or like musty, stale flavours! They also say they keep for years, to which I say <censored>! I buy them in 50 gram / 1¾ oz bags and can easily tell the difference as I reach the end of the bag a week or two later. They lose potency quickly.


Sichuan peppercorn oil is widely used as a condiment. Also known as prickly ash oil, it holds the numbing for longer (but not forever). I occasionally sprinkle some over dishes or into hotpots.


The green variety, either 青花椒 (qīng huā jiāo) or 藤椒 (téng jiāo) are green Sichuan peppercorns, referred to in English as rattan vine peppers. These are even more numbing and citric, especially when fresh, the way I usually buy them, though that’s difficult to do outside the immediate area. In fact, they only became available in China recently. When I arrived they were unheard of.




Fresh Green Sichuan Peppercorns



Dried Green Sichuan Peppercorns


For 40 years, Sichuan peppercorns were banned from the US, supposedly due to concerns that they may carry a disease known as canker which attacks citrus trees. There was little, if anything to back up those fears. In 2005, the ban was lifted provided that the berries were heated to 60 ℃ / 140℉ for at least 10 minutes. Unfortunately, despite destroying the non-existent canker, this also negatively affected the flavour and numbing qualities. I understand the ban has now been totally lifted (?), but the Chinese producers didn’t get the e-mail and most still routinely carry on doing what they have been doing for the US market for almost 60 years.


In the US, Mala Market carries both varieties (dried only) at a price. The red can be found in most larger supermarkets in the UK, but the green are scarcer. Chinese supermarkets and Chinatowns may have.


Mention of Sichuan peppercorns naturally leads me on to 辣椒 (là jiāo), literally ‘hot peppers’, chilli peppers. Again not, not true peppers but the fruit of small trees, They were called peppers by the Spanish and Portuguese invaders as they tasted hot. Introduced from the Americas into China in the 16th or 17th centuries (reports vary, although the first written record is in 1617) by the Portuguese. They didn’t arrive to Sichuan until 1749 and were, even then, not taken up as food for a long time, but were thought of as ornamental plants.


China has hundreds of different chilli cultivars but Sichuan prefers 朝天椒 (cháo tiān jiāo, facing heaven chillies) aka 指天椒 (zhǐ tiān jiāo), ‘pointing to heaven chillies’. 七星椒 (qī xīng jiāo), 7 star chillies are also used. Guizhou chillies make a good substitute if you can find them, but Thai bird chillies do not. They are too hot and the flavour will be quite different. But possibly the most widely used chillies are 二荆条 (èr jīng tiáo) chillies, used fresh and dried and used in Sichuan’s favourite sauce below. Most chillies are used dried in Sichuan, although they also employ er jing tao make use of in their pickled form.



Fresh Facing Heaven Chiilies



Dried Facing Heaven Chillies



Dried Erjingtao Chillies - detail.1688.com


Together, Sichuan peppercorns and chilli make Sichuan’s near ubiquitous signature flavour, 麻辣 (má là) mala, with (má) meaning numb and (là) meaning hot: hot and numbing. The combination is used in literally hundreds, if not thousands of dishes.


Despite the reputation, Sichuan does not have China’s hottest food, as explained here. I suppose the reputation arises because Sichuan food is the hottest you are like to find in most restaurants outside China.


The third key ingredient is 豆瓣酱 (dòu bàn jiàng, literally ‘bean bits sauce’). This is a thick sauce made from broad beans aka fava beans, which are fermented with 二荆条 (èr jīng tiáo) chillies, salt, wheat flour and water. Known in America as tobanjiang, the sauce is pungent, spicy and salty.





The best is said to come from 郫县 (pí xiàn), a county just outside Sichuan's capital, 成都 (chéng dū) Chengdu. If you want the ‘authentic’ flavour of Sichuan, 郫县豆瓣酱 (pí xiàn dòu bàn jiàng) will be on the label. Beware of anything containing soy beans – these are cheap fakes. Also, the widely distributed Lee Kum Kee version is near universally rejected as being the worst of their numerous products – flat and the wrong flavour. Cantonese (LKK is Cantonese) and Taiwanese doubanjiang are not the same thing. Avoid them if it’s Sichuan you want to taste.


The sauce is best fermented in large jars under the sun for up to five years, being stirred frequently, but modern methods have reduced that time considerably. Aficionados still insist on the traditional method. Basically the darker it is, the longer it has been aged and developed flavour. These two brands are highly reputable and available overseas.



Dandan Doubanjiang



Juancheng Doubanjiang


A couple of other ingredients Ms Dunlop briefly mentions but doesn't give much detail on are:


山胡椒 (shān hú jiāo, literally ‘mountain pepper’) or 木姜子 (mù jiāng zǐ, literally ‘tree ginger seeds’) are Litsea seeds, Litsea cubeba (Lour.) Pers.). Not native to Sichuan, they are nevertheless used there, particularly in the south of the province. From Guizhou and western Hunan, the trees are a member of the laurel family and the seeds intensely citric in taste. The seeds are available, both fresh and dried, but most is made into litsea oil, used as a condiment. It is similar in taste to lemongrass.



Litsea seeds



Litsea Oil


If you search for it online you will be directed to dozens of sites proclaiming it the greatest thing ever, but not for food use. The wellness charlatans are leaping all over it when they need a rest from their vagina-scented candles.


The other ingredient is 保宁醋 (bǎo nìng cù), Baoning vinegar, as opposed to Zhenjiang (often Chinkiang in America) vinegar, the default choice in the rest of China, Baoning is the one Sichuan prefers. They must be locavores. This local black vinegar dates to the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Unlike most Chinese vinegars which are made using rice as the main grain, Baoning uses wheat. It also includes many herbs in the preparation but these are strained out before you buy it. It can be aged from anywhere from 1 to 10 years – the longer the better and more expensive, of course.



Baoning Vinegar

Now you've got the main ingredients sorted out, it's time to look at some dishes. However, I am going to be busy the next week or two. So the next part of this may be delayed. I worked out this is the 21st cuisine I’ve written about (including sub-categories). Many more to come. Eight cuisines in China? Bah! Humbug!



Edited by liuzhou (log)
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川菜 (chuān cài) - Sichuan 四川 (sì chuān) Cuisine Part Two


I have no intention (or ability) to outshine Fuchsia Dunlop or anyone else, but I would like to make some observations on a few Sichuan dishes I know and love.


I am fairly certain that the most eaten Sichuan dish is what is usually referred to as Kung-po or Kung-pao chicken. In China, including Sichuan it is 宫保鸡丁 (gōng bǎo jī dīng), Gong Bao (pronounced ‘bow’ as in what you should do to the king, (baʊ) in IPA) Ji (as in Gee!, the expression of surprise (dʒiː)) Ding. It literally means ‘palace guardian chicken cubes’ and is said to be named after one 丁宝桢 (dīng bǎo zhēn), Ding Baozhen who was tutor to the emperor’s children, a job that carried the honorary title of ‘palace guardian’. This happened far away in Shandong and Tutor Ding was from Guizhou province, although he did move to Sichuan in 1876. The dish is certainly Sichuanese (and supposedly Ding’s favourite) but most versions in the west are noticeably sweeter than in Sichuan. The peanuts are sometimes replaced by cashews in western restaurants but this is not traditional, although I have seen them replaced by carrot in Sichuan – again not traditional.



Gong Bao Chicken



Gongbao Chicken with Carrots instead of Peanuts


The other popular dish internationally is 麻婆豆腐 (má pó dòu fǔ). Known in the west as Mapo Tofu, it is often made using pork outside China, but traditionally is a beef and tofu dish. Vegetarian versions are called 麻辣豆腐 (má là dòu fu). Those who complain that tofu is bland and boring haven’t eaten mapo tofu.. The unrestrained use of chilli, doubanjiang and Sichuan peppercorns permeates the mouth melting tofu.



Mapo Tofu


Other classic dishes using a Sichuanese technique are called 回锅 (huí guō) which literally means ‘back to the pan’ but is usually translated as ‘twice cooked’ or ‘double cooked’. By far the most common is 回锅肉 (huí guō ròu), Twice Cooked Pork. The technique is believed to date back to the Song dynasty, (960–1279), but the dish would have been very different then; chillies were still 500 years away from arriving in Sichuan. Doubanjiang contains chillies, so it wasn’t available either.


Today, chunks of fatty pork belly are first simmered in water for around 30 minutes with garlic, garlic shoots, ginger, Sichuan peppercorns, green onions and Shaoxing wine, then left to cool before being thinly sliced. It is then stir-fried with more garlic, ginger, green onion, green chilli, doubanjiang, fermented back beans, soy sauce and a touch of sugar.



Twice-Cooked Pork Belly


鱼香 (yú xiāng) is another Sichuan technique of note. Literally if means ‘fish fragrant’, but contains no fish. Rather fish fragrant dishes are made using ingredients and flavours more commonly used in cooking fish. It employs a seasoning that typically contains garlic, scallions, ginger, sugar, salt and chilli. 鱼香肉片 (yú xiāng ròu piān), fish fragrant pork slices and 鱼香茄子 (yú xiāng qié zi), fish flavour eggplant are the most common dishes using this technique.



Fish Fragrant Pork


水煮 (shuǐ zhū) is yet another Sichuan technique. It literally means ‘water boiled‘, but is much more than that. Some websites claim it is ‘boiling in oil’ – total nonsense. The two favourite dishes to use the technique are 水煮鱼 (shuǐ zhǔ yú) and 水猪牛 (shuǐ zhū niú). The relevant proteins are boiled in chicken stock, flavoured with chilli, Sichuan peppercorns, chilli oil and doubanjiang along with vegetables (especially bean sprouts in the fish version). The ’boiling in oil’ myth arises from the dish having hot oil poured over it immediately before serving, resulting in a sizzling sound when it is presented to the table. Fuchsia Dunlop calls the fish version ‘Boiled Fish in a Seething Sea of Chillies’ and the beef version ‘Boiled Beef Slices in a Fiery Sauce’. Her book (see below for link) has recipes for both.



'Water Boiled' Beef


My favourite Sichuan dish is not actually from Sichuan, but Chongqing next door. However, it was part of Sichuan until 1997 when it was made a Municipality of its own, coming under the direct control of Beijing. It remains however inextricably linked to Sichuan cuisine. The dish is 辣子鸡 (là zi jī), chilli chicken. Fuchsia Dunlop refers to it as 'Chongqing chicken with chillies'. This formidable looking dish uses 50 grams or more of chillies to 500 grams of chicken meat, preferably dark meat from the legs, but sometimes breast. The chillies are not to be eaten, but it is fun digging out the cubes of meat hiding in the mountain of chillies which have imparted their flavour to the dish. This is a dish I often make at home.





兔子 (tù zi), rabbit is incredibly popular in Sichuan. 70% of China’s rabbits end up in Sichuan stomachs and have to be supplemented by imported rabbits, mainly from France. I have made a version of 辣子鸡 (là zi jī) using rabbit instead of the usual chicken. 辣子兔 (là zi tù), I suppose. It is roasted and also used in many dishes. I ate rabbit noodles in Sichuan a few years ago. But a huge favourite, especially in the capital, Chengdu is 麻辣兔头 (má là tù tóu), hot and numbing rabbit head. This street food is hugely popular and can also be found in restaurants.



Roast Rabbit



Mala Rabbit Head


夫妻肺片 (fū qī fèi piàn), literally ‘husband and wife lung slices’, despite the name, does not include any lungs. It is a cold dish of sliced beef with sliced heart, tongue, and tripe finished with peanuts, Chinese celery, chilli oil and Sichuan peppercorns. Supposedly invented by Guo Chaohua and his wife in the 1930s, it was originally a Chengdu street food but later made its way to the dining table.




自贡 (zì gòng) Zigong, a city in southern Sichuan has been a major salt producing area for around 2,000 years and is well known as such throughout China. It is also known for having some of Sichuan's spiciest food. 自贡盐煎肉 (zì gòng yán jiān ròu), Zigong Salt Fried Pork is lean pork slices marinated with onion and fresh green chillies, then pan fried with dried red chillies, rice wine, fermented black beans, doubanjiang bean paste, salt and sesame seeds, then finished with red chilli oil.


My favourite Sichuan restaurant in Liuzhou is near my old second home in the countryside north of the city. It is a husband and wife operation with the man doing the cooking and the wife handling front of house assisted by young students from the nearby colleges. Lovely couple from a small village in Sichuan. I remember well the day I noticed a strange dish on their menu. 外婆飘香骨 (wài pó piāo xiāng gǔ) translates as ‘Maternal Grandmothers Fluttering Fragrant Bones'! I was baffled, so immediately ordered it, as you do. It was of course pork ribs with chilli and more chilli along with the usual Sichuan peppercorns etc. And absolutely delicious. I ordered it often.



Granny's Bones


However, probably the favourite Sichuan food in China is 四川火锅 (sì chuān huǒ guō), Sichuan Hotpot , also described as 重庆火锅 (chóng qìng huǒ guō), Chongqing Hotpot. There is some justification in Chongqing claiming to own it. It originated among boatmen on the Yangtze River which does flow past Chongqing, but the concept rapidly spread throughout Sichuan and then the rest of China, then the world. Hotpot dining is very much a communal affair; friends and families gather together round a table containing a large 阴阳 (yīn yáng) pot containing two broths, one spicy, one plainer. They gather or are brought sticks of thinly sliced meats, offal, tofu, mushrooms and vegetables and cook these themselves in the broth of their choice. There is a basic charge for the broth, then the number of empty sticks you have on the table is used to calculate the final bill, over which everyone fights to pay. All great fun. The last time I had it was with friends in Guilin and I could feel the chilli and Sichuan Peppercorns running through my veins for days!



Enjoying Hotpot



Yin-Yang Pot



Things on Sticks



The Bill


Recipes for most of the dishes I have mentioned can be found in Fuchsia Dunlop's The Food of Sichuan (eG-friendly Amazon.com link). No mention of Granny's bones, though.



Edited by liuzhou (log)
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新菜 (xīn cài) - Xinjiang (新疆) Cuisine


新疆维吾尔自治区 (xīn jiāng wéi wú ěr zì zhì qū), Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is China’s westernmost region, bordering within China on Qinghai, Gansu and Tibet to its south-east and internationally bordering Mongolia to the north-east, a tiny part of Russia to the north, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to the west. Its capital is Ürümqi (Chinese: 乌鲁木齐 - wū lǔ mù qí). It is China’s largest administrative region.


Its autonomous region status is by virtue of its large population of Uygur (also spelled Uighur), Chinese: 维吾尔 (wéi wú ěr),  Muslim ethnic minority people. Its real autonomy is virtually zero. The Uygur are a Turkic people and their language and culture is much closer to Turkish than to Chinese. Their food is strongly influenced by Turkic cuisine, too and especially by its immediate neighbours, especially the ‘-stans’.


Xinjiang, literally means ‘new border’ and has been part of China since 1884 during the Qing dynasty. Its historic name is East Turkistan, although that name has been denied them by the communist regime. It remains a troubled region. There are tensions between the ethnic minorities and the many Han Chinese immigrants, especially in recent years. But I’m not getting into the politics here.


Its food, despite being far from what most people consider to be Chinese cuisine, is very popular across China, today. Xinjiang was a major part of the Silk Road linking China to the west and that brought spices and techniques from the west, but it also absorbed influences from its eastern neighbours in China while still retaining its own unique identity. Although ‘regular’ Chinese food is widely available there now, I intend to focus more on the native ethnic minorities’ cuisine


For religious regions, they do not eat pork; instead lamb/mutton is their main protein, supplemented by beef, horse and chicken. Much of the food is halal. Saltwater fish is far, far away, so what fish etc there is is mostly freshwater. Whereas the Chinese use chopsticks for most of their eating, in Xinjiang it’s hands.


The Xinjiang food most widely found around China is certainly 羊肉串 (yáng ròu chuàn), or in Beijing dialect 羊肉串儿 (yáng ròu chuàn ér), exactly the same thing. These are fatty lamb cubes on sticks, grilled over charcoal and spiced with Xinjiang’s favourite spice, cumin and chilli along with other spices. All over Xinjiang and in every city I’ve visited in China, night markets have the Xinjiang kebab people, mostly street food but also available in many restaurants. And they are damned delicious. Cubes of fat, ideally from the sheep’s tail, are interspersed with lean lamb; the fat renders flavouring the meat. Sold by the stick in the streets. I ate them nearly evening in Xi’an, outside North-West University. Excellent beer food. I must have eaten thousands of them in the year I lived there. I still eat them here, around 3,000 km/1,864 miles from Xinjiang.




Lamb Skewers


Another lamb favourite is 孜然羊肉 (zī rán yáng ròu), Cumin lamb, a simple dish of fried lamb flavoured with whole toasted cumin seeds, chilli peppers, and coriander leaf/cilantro. It is similar to the kebabs above, but stir fried rather than grilled and is flavoured with soy sauce and Shaoxing wine.



Cumin Lamb


Also popular is 羊肉抓饭 (yáng ròu zhuā fàn). In Uygur language, this is known as polo and is a form of pilaf or pilao and is rice flavoured with cumin, onions, carrots and lamb. In some versions it is sweetened with raisins. The Chinese name means ‘hand-grasped mutton rice’, referring to it traditionally being eaten using the hands. It is usually served as a lunch dish.




Before leaving lamb behind, I should mention that a good Xinjiang snack food is 烤包子 (kǎo bāo zi). These are bao buns containing lamb but instead of being steamed in the usual Chinese manner, are fried or grilled.



Roasted Bao Buns


The most famous Xinjiang chicken dish has been mentioned here several times in the past. 大盘鸡 (dà pán jī), literally ‘big plate chicken’. Many of visitors assume that they are eating some ancient, traditional Muslim dish but they are wrong. The most widely accepted story of its origin is that the dish was invented in the north Xinjiang county of Shawan (沙湾县 - shā wān xiàn) in the early 1990s by an immigrant named Li Shilin from Sichuan who was trying to recreate his home town flavours, but using locally available chicken and potatoes. The inclusion of Sichuan peppercorns in nearly all recipes supports this theory as Sichuan peppercorns are not otherwise part of Xinjiang cuisine. I remember being introduced to it in Xi'an in 1997, when it was described as a 'new dish'. The dish caught on in its birthplace, then spread out along what was the Silk Road to Xi'an, then all over China. Some say it was aided in this by its popularity with long distance truck drivers.


Warning: When they ‘big’, they mean BIG. A normal serving is easily enough for four to five hungry people and, if they get through that, they will be served extra noodles to ‘soak up the juices’. Most restaurants offer a smaller version, which is what a friend and I normally share. It, too is more than enough.



Big Plate Chicken

Alternatively, instead of the noodles, some restaurants serve Xinjiang’s famous bread - (náng). Linguistically related to naan bread, this usually circular bread made from a fermeted dough, is often flavoured with, you guessed, cumin and chilli and there is a saying "One can go without eating meat for three days, but can't live one day without nang".



Nang Bread


Xinjiang is also famous for its fruit, especially 哈密瓜 (hā mì guā), Hami melon, a sweet type of large musk melon. These are ‘exported’ all over China and are highly prized. Dried fruits, especially raisins are sold on the streets of many Chinese cities by travelling vendors. This man turned up here every summer until he retired and sent his son instead.



Xinjiang Raisin Seller



and his dried grapes



Hami Melons


Also, sold on the street from carts or tricycles is 新疆切糕 (xīn jiāng qiē gāo), a type of cake made from nuts, glutinous rice, dried fruit and melon seeds. I always buy this when I see it. The main nuts used are walnuts and peanuts (technically not a nut).




Here, I can only give a brief introduction but I hope it gives an idea of the very different foods and flavours from this part of China. Why it wasn’t included in the list of eight cuisines I started from, I have no idea. It is one of the best and enjoyed everywhere.

Next? Another very different Chinese cuisine.


Edited by liuzhou (log)
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藏菜 (zàng cài) / Tibetan: བོད་ཀྱི་ཟས་མཆོག, Tibetan (西藏) Cuisine Part One


Cue the Mississippi Sheiks’ Sitting on Top of the World and sit back.


藏菜 (zàng cài), Tibetan cuisine is one of the least well known, even within China. Internet information is sparse and often inaccurate. There are very few Tibetan restaurants outside Tibet itself. There are a few in Beijing, of which again few are authentically Tibetan. There are no Tibetan restaurants in this province, so far as I can determine.

So, I have little experience of the cuisine, although some years ago, I did go to one of the better Tibetan restaurants in Beijing. I know it was authentic as I was taken there by a Tibetan I knew and trusted.

Tibet, བོད་ལྗོངས། in Tibetan, 西藏 (xī zàng) in Chinese, is overall the highest inhabited place in the world, with an average elevation of 4,500 meters/ 14,750 ft above sea level. The capital Lhasa, Tibetan:  ལྷ་ས, Chinese 拉萨 (lā sà) sits at 3,650 m / 12,000 ft. It borders India, Nepal and Bhutan to the south and south-west. It also borders Yunnan, Sichuan, and Gansu to the west, and to the north are Qinghai Province and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Its population is around only four million, but another three million ethnic Tibetans live in neighbouring provinces of China as well as in other countries, especially in India.

The elevation is boosted by the Himalayas on its southern side. Tibetan: ཇོ་མོ་གླང་མ། (Qomolangma), which Chinese borrowed as 珠穆朗玛 (zhū mù lǎng mǎ), is what the west calls Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak at around 8,850 metres / 29,000 feet and so named by Colonel Sir George Everest (1790-1866), British Surveyor-General of India (1830-1843) who, being an entitled imperialist moron, sensibly decided to name it after himself. The peak lies on the border of Tibet and Nepal. In Nepalese, it is सगरमाथा। (Sagarmatha).




I have never been to Tibet. Two reasons.

a) It difficult to go. Despite having a residence permit supposedly covering all of China, I still require a separate permit to enter Tibet. This can only obtained by travel agents in certain cities; none where I live. Even those permits can be suspended any moment depending on the political whim of the paranoid communists. Local holidays and anniversaries are a prime target.


b) All travellers there are troubled to some degree by altitude sickness. My idea of an enjoyable vacation does not include gasping for air with every breath.


However, I have seen Tibet (and Everest). Many years ago, when I was much younger and fitter, I did visit Nepal and India and saw them from there. At that time, all of China was closed.


Being so high the land is mainly grasslands and mountains, cool to very cold. Little grows there, so the people, despite their strong Buddhist culture, depend very heavily on meat and dairy products. Many Tibetan Buddhists are not vegetarian as so many people presume; the Dalai Lama states in his autobiography that he eats meat. However, there are rules about what meat they can eat. Only hoofed animals are allowed. Small animals are prohibited as they are seen as wasteful. A rabbit doesn’t feed many people.


Vegetables, until very recently were rare. Main proteins are yak, cattle, sheep, deer, antelopes and gazelles. Fish is extremely rarely eaten. Yak predominates; it is eaten raw, cooked in many ways, dried and as sausages.



Yak - image 51miz.com



Tibetan Yak Sausages

Yak butter is ubiquitous and is used to make ཇ་མར, yak butter tea, a bit of an acquired taste. It's sweet and gamey at the same time, with a creamy milk flavour following it. Yak yogurt is thick and pleasant, thanks to its high fat content.



Tibetan Butter Tea


Their main grain is barley which does grow in these extreme conditions. A roasted barley flour known as རྩམ་པ tsampa in Tibetan, 糌粑 (zān bā) in Chinese is ground into flour which is made into bread cakes and buns, eaten as a breakfast cereal, mixed with yak butter and tea to make a kind of meatball and also made into beer and a type of barley wine called chang.





Mushrooms do grow there, as everywhere. The most important mushrooms economically are caterpillar fungus, Cordysep sinensis and matsutake, tricholoma matsutake, which are harvested from the wild. The locals rarely ear them. Too valuable. Most are exported to Japan where they fetch high prices.



Cordycep sinensis


Tibet has not only influenced its neighbours, but the traffic is two way. Indian curries are found, especially in Lhasa. There is also Nepalese spilt-pea pancakes and several noodle dishes from China.


Next time, I’ll look at some specific dishes.


Note all images are mine or public domain, unless stated otherwise.



Edited by liuzhou (log)
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