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Authentic Chinese food


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While certainly true, I think this is a rather Politically Correct view of the issue in question.  Breaking down this thoughtful reply into 3 arguments, I think first of all it's fair to say that what we outside of China know as Chinese Food has been disproportionally influenced by (or filtered through, if you like) Chinese from Guangdong, Fujian, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Straits.  Your tree analogy, in other words, is missing much of its root complex.  Whether by traditional emigration patterns of the previous centuries or modern politics, events have long conspired to keep much Chinese cuisine out of Western consciousness.  The caveat, of course, is that there are always exceptions to any argument like this and, further, as China continues to open to the global economy, no doubt these exceptions will gradually shift toward the rule.  But let's face it, walk into most any Szechwan Palace or Hunan Garden -to use 2 popular styles- and ask where the owners or cooks are from and I doubt the answer will be Sichuan or Hunan.  Furthermore, and a bit of an aside, just what percentage of the dishes on the menu are actually based on Sichuanese or Hunanese food?  Consider as well the popular personalities who have influenced what we know of Chinese food.  A brief check of their bios will likely include some variation on: born in southern China/grew up in Hong Kong/born to Chinese parents/made their way to Taiwan/now lives in (fill in Western country).  Western experts like Barbara Tropp and Nina Simonds were trained in Taiwan.  Look as well at popular cookbooks to find the Hong Kong/Taiwan influence.  The caveat again is that there are always exceptions and certainly none of this makes these people or these books any less authoritative (certainly compared with me) - just simply that there are an enormous gaps in our knowledge.

  Fortunately, with the interest growing in the U.S. in "authentic" regional styles of food and with China's increasing economic openness, we can hopefully look forward to a fresh influx of creativity.  It's happened with Indian food as waves of new immigrants have brought new regional styles with them.

exactly.

Fortunately, with the interest growing in the U.S. in "authentic" regional styles of food and with China's increasing economic openness, we can hopefully look forward to a fresh influx of creativity.  It's happened with Indian food as waves of new immigrants have brought new regional styles with them.

i believe that is the next wave. it has already started, as you mentioned, but will continue and add both depth and breadth. we're only really startng to differentiate between Provencal and Lyon, etc. and between Northern and Southern Italian.

Herb aka "herbacidal"

Tom is not my friend.

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Eddie, a thoughtful post. I do find the whole "authentic or inauthentic" debate to be a waste of time no matter which cuisine one is referring to, though if a restaurant serves mapo dofu I darn well expect it to have some huajiao in it (not always the case)!  Perhaps we can argue for the presence of "key flavors/ingredients" if not for preparation to be a standard?

I feel strongly that all through the Chinese repetoire there are classical ways of preparing and flavoring dishes and they work just like French or Italian food would. Kung Pao Chicken or Carp braised in Hot Bean Sauce are good examples of Szechuan dishes where one would expect certain basic elements, no matter what. e.g. Kung Pao contains diced chicken in a spicy brown sauce, probably, though not necessarily with scortched dried chiles and/or peanuts. A Cantonese chef may prepare it from his point of view, the same with a Shanghai trained chef, but when you ask for 'kung pao gee ding', everybody KNOWS what you're talking about, just the as if you were talking French food and mentioned coq au vin. Individual cooks may have their own versions, but we all understand what the basics mean. I have always found it useful to think about the Chinese food in this manner and like to point it out to others who may be less familiar with it.

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I especially agree with you, Ed on the adaptability of Chinese cuisine.  Though sometimes I think it gets too far afield to still be "Chinese".

I'm curious about this. Does the cuisine follow the people or the nation? eGullet has had this same discussion relative to--at a bare minimum--Italian, Greek and Indian food at one point or another.

I suppose I'm also still somewhat mystified that even after so many years of central governance, that anyone in China considers the country unified enough--at least culturally--for there to be a notion of "Chinese" cuisine as a whole. I suppose I'm bringing in a bias from a part of the world where people are fractional enough to hold desperately on to regionalism, at least in this one cultural area. There's no such thing as "American" food, I think, although there certainly are plenty of disparate "American foods".

Or one could compare with Italy--where food regionalism goes all the way down to the city/town level.

Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"

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Really interesting, Chengdude. It's silly, but I found your comments about the yogurt of particular interest, because the yogurt I remember eating was very definitely not sweet (I hate sweetened yogurt).  It was...well...yogurt. Pretty good yogurt. But this was eight years ago, and I remember being told at the time that the Yogurt Initiative was relatively new.  I guess they've added the sugar (and dumbed down the quality) in the meantime.

Not necessarily. I suppose I could have added more detail to my comments for indeed, it is still possible to find "real yogurt." It is usually sold by street vendors and in small shop stalls and is packaged in small glass carafes or ceramic jars, both of which are meant to be recycled (typically they have paper or plastic wrap covering the mouths of the containers). People usually hang around eating/drinking and hand the containers back when they are finished. I think even these have a touch of sweetness to them, but much more of a tangy flavor not nearly so sweet as the mass-produced "yogurt drinks."

Don't have direct knowledge of the cause (so why am I saying anything?), but I would suspect that the sweet yoghurt drinks that have appeared in recent years are due, at least indirectly, to the malign influence of theYakult Company, which popularized this pseudo-health drink in Japan and has spread it throughout the world. Apparently they are even popular in Mexico. Of course we buy it all the time because our kids love it.

Sun-Ki Chai
http://www2.hawaii.edu/~sunki/

Former Hawaii Forum Host

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from the Yakult site:

"Taiwan Yakult went into operation in 1964 as our first overseas base. Since then, Yakult’s global network has expanded to encompass 22 countries and territories with sixteen main companies, and a total daily consumption of 15 million bottles of Yakult. We will continue expanding the “ring of good health” until it encompasses everyone who wants to enjoy the benefits of good health."

Wow, that sounds kinda freakin ominious, sorta like SPECTRE, don't you think?

Jason Perlow

Co-Founder, The Society for Culinary Arts & Letters

offthebroiler.com - Food Blog | View my food photos on Instagram

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Chengdudude, your description of the Gourmet (April 2003) article on Chengdu food as being "well-suited to its target audience" (defined as????) has the wee-est tone of arrogance about it (though I'm sure it was not intended that way).

Your main criticism is that the article "did not delve into [the subject matter of Chendgu food] in any great detail."

Well obviously. It's a magazine article after all, space limitations and the need for beautiful accompanying photos and all, and the author wrote a book, and hopes one will read the article and purchase the book. I don't own the book myself so I can't comment on its contents. But she was the first foreigner to train at Chendgu's nationally known culinary academy, so I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt regarding her "reputed expertise".

I think it *is* fairly enlightening. How many folks acquainted with Sichuan food know about the potatoes-and-turtle dish mentioned in the article? I didn't until a friend "treated" me to it at a Chengdu restaurant in '97 .... a nostalgic return to "peasant" food was just gaining popularity in the city at the time.

I wouldn't want anyone looking to learn a little something about the all-too-misunderstood world of Sichuan cuisine to be discouraged from reading the article .... I think the woman knows what she's talking about, and after 20 yrs of experience in Sichuan I still found it interesting.

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Chengdudude, your description of the Gourmet (April 2003) article on Chengdu food as being "well-suited to its target audience" (defined as????) has the wee-est tone of arrogance about it (though I'm sure it was not intended that way).

Your main criticism is that the article "did not delve into [the subject matter of Chendgu food] in any great detail." 

Well obviously. It's a magazine article after all, space limitations and the need for beautiful accompanying photos and all, and the author wrote a book, and hopes one will read the article and purchase the book. I don't own the book myself so I can't comment on its contents. But she was the first foreigner to train at Chendgu's nationally known culinary academy, so I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt regarding her "reputed expertise"...notice that I fleshed out the publishing details of the issue...discouraging people from reading it was the last thing on my mind.

You are right, it wasn't meant as arrogant, although I do believe that GOURMET magazine has undergone a gradual dumbing-down over the many years it has been published. And by "intended audience" I meant folks who weren't acquainted with Sichuan food; in that, the article was very suitable. Finally, by "reputed expertise" I perhaps rather obtusely implied that I haven't seen her book either, as it is still forthcoming in North America. This "First foreigner to train at Chengdu's nationally known culinary academy" is a standard tag from her bio and, as yet, I haven't seen much from Ms. Dunlop to substantiate this title...thus, the "reputed expertise" quote. Sorry if I come across as arrogant.

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Now now kids ;-)

Having been able to benefit from her Dunlop-ness for a while in the UK I can vouch for the book; it is an excellent book and the one exception to my rule "never trust books about asian food by round-eyes" (actually David Thompson's Thai book would probably be the second exception)

I think it can be had from amazon.co.uk - definitely worth it (they DO deliver to China - well Shanghai at least; dunno if that really counts as "china" though ;-) )

toodle-pip

J

More Cookbooks than Sense - my new Cookbook blog!
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Well as long as we're on the topic ... I really like "Mrs. Chiang's Sichuan Kitchen (or Cooking?". Food out of that book comes closest to the simple yet amazingly tasty home-style cooking I've had in Sichuan. It may be out of print though....

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I think we've well and frequently acknowledged the fact here that "American Chinese food" is mostly Cantonese (and inferior Cantonese as well), that we are largely tired of it, that occasionally we get a real find of a restaurant which serves food from another region, and that even then the actual food served in that region frequently uses different ingredients and different preparations from something with the same name here.  Also, we know that many of our "Chinese" dishes are completely Western in origin--created by Chinese immigrants to the west.

Is that really true? Most of the things I think of as "American Chinese Food" most Cantonese I know wouldn't acknowledge them as Cantonese, inferior or not, and I don't see at the Cantonese restaurants I frequent. What dishes are you thinking of? When I think about American Chinese food I think about chop suey, beef with western broccoli, orange beef, general tso's whatever, sweet and sour pork that is breaded and deep fried and served with bright red sauce and pineapple, deep fried eggrolls with indistinguishable middles and really dark brown horrible versions of fried rice. Basically stuff people buy at those mall "Chinese" fast food places. Do you consider these Cantonese? Some of the stuff that I read about from people in the eastern US I've never run across (shrimp with lobster sauce???) so maybe "American Chinese Food" has a regional element as well.

regards,

trillium

I think it's just a case of the guise of bastardization that some would euphemise as "fusion" food. Albeit done without the sophistication that most restauranteurs command in higher class culinary establishments. As to American Chinese food, my opinion is that it is a melange of food brought to America's shores via the then unsophisticated Chinese peasantry...people who fled under repressed and starved situations (perhaps during General Tso's time). A phenomenon you will find in many "Chinese" restaurants that are not located near places with higher concentrations of ethnic Chinese, is that these "chinese" restaurants may not even be operated by owners who are trained culinarily. Perhaps construction worker by day, chinese delivery by night. For a lack of a better way to make a buck, any asian looking person could hitch a tent and toss a wok with the same dexterity of a shovel. However, as most of the American public began to assume this type of unrefined cooking as "chinese", it eventually became a product demanded by the marketplace. In my opinion, the best Chinese cuisine can be found in large cities such as NYC, and cities in California. With a more recent wave of immigration sparked by the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre thru 1997 with the "handing over" of Hong Kong to its communist motherland, it's in my opinion that chinese food in the US and Canada especially has become much more sophisticated as this time professionals (in particular CHEFs) and those with means (not peasants) emmigrated. An increase in well-to-do Chinese overseas created a demand for more refined tastes and a new array of more refined chinese restaurants filled this niche market. In the UK, I have noticed that chinese food hasn't come under as large a degree of bastardization as it has in the US. Things don't seem to retain the authentic zest of ethnicity when crossing either the Atlantic or the Pacific.

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In my opinion, the best Chinese cuisine can be found in large cities such as NYC, and cities in California.

I would add the Washington DC area to that list, due to our very large Asian population, and well-traveled general population. Most of the dishes named in the previous post are nowhere to be found in most of the restaurants around here, except for the cheapo carry-out type places.

We were pleasantly surprised to find a new Taiwanese restaurant (previously underrepresented in our area of Maryland) near us, and I can say without exaggeration that there was nothing on the menu that I recognized. The owner came to speak with us and commented that most "Europeans" (his description :smile: ) don't come there because they don't know the food.

Heather Johnson

In Good Thyme

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In my opinion, the best Chinese cuisine can be found in large cities such as NYC, and cities in California.

I have been unimpressed with the Chinese food in NYC. It does not rival Vancouver or Los Angeles.

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FuManChu, the best Chinese food I've ever had in China has *rarely* been prepared by cooks who've had culinary training. Some of (in my opinion) China's best food is, in fact, "peasant" food ... and you'll eat some truly tasty dishes in all but the very poorest areas. The rural migrant (yes, peasant) who manned the wok at a Chengdu restaurant I frequented years ago would be hailed as a purveyor of true Chinese cuisine if he went to San Francisco and served up the same delicious fare that he was serving back then in his humble restaurant-that-looks-like-a-garage.

I think the reasons for the sorry state of "Chinese" restaurant food in the US have more to do with dumbing it down for the American palate (or what the restaurant owners believe the American palate to be) than with the lack of proper culinary training in the kitchen. Case in point: I have had sweet and sour pork in Guangzhou. It was heavenly, and nothing at all like the version of this dish I had had before in the States (how did it get transformed into the overbreaded, heavy, sticky sweet concoction known to those of us unfortunate to have experienced it firsthand?). And quite often the same cooks who turn out the gloppy oversauced dishes served in the US are able to prepare a wonderful Chinese dish if you can get the point across to the waiter that you want the real deal.

Of course, culinary training can take classic Chinese dishes to new levels (I'm thinking particularly of Cantonese food) .... and some very complex dishes will not be prepared well by someone without the knowledge to do it. But quite a lot of Chinese food is simple food (the ingredients must be fine) that doesn't require a year or two at a culinary school to master.

I just think lack of sophistication in the kitchen has very little to do with the trouble I encounter finding decent Chinese food in the States. The problem is the *assumed* "lowest common denominator" that determines what the food coming out of those kitchens tastes like.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Having lived abroad, including stays in Beijing, I can honestly say that Greenwich is home to a great and authentic Chinese restaurant, Hunan Gourmet on Putnam Ave. Having just bought a home in Greenwich I have been very pleased with my several meals I have already had there. Ask for it for Hunan style and spicy and you truly get what you ask for. People have suggested Panang Grill and Asiana Cafe to us which were ok, but for selection, food quality and service, Hunan Gourmet is the place. I make sure to bring my friends there for dinners and mai tais. Another thing, the specials are truly special.

We had a dinner party at our house, on another occassion, for about 40 and the owners of the restaurant were very helpful and professional in helping us choose exactly what we were looking for. I do not think you would get that service anywhere else.

Edited by New Homeowner (log)
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Having lived abroad, including stays in Beijing, I can honestly say that Greenwich is home to a great and authentic Chinese restaurant, Hunan Gourmet on Putnam Ave.  Having just bought a home in Greenwich I have been very pleased with my several meals I have already had there.  Ask for it for Hunan style and spicy and you truly get what you ask for.  People have suggested Panang Grill and Asiana Cafe to us which were ok, but for selection, food quality and service, Hunan Gourmet is the place.  I make sure to bring my friends there for dinners and mai tais.  Another thing, the specials are truly special. 

We had a dinner party at our house, on another occassion, for about 40 and the owners of the restaurant were very helpful and professional in helping us choose exactly what we were looking for.  I do not think you would get that service anywhere else.

New Homeowner,

All of your posts--3 at the moment--are the exact same post on three different threads.

What's up with this? :blink:

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I think there is a lag on my PC, I didn't realize it posted 3 times. Sorry, I'm a rookie. Now I see them posted.

Where do you recommend for waterview dining in Fairfield County?

Ahhhhhh. Well, welcome to eGullet. :smile:

As far as Fairfield County, I've no idea. No experience.

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Well as long as we're on the topic ... I really like "Mrs. Chiang's Sichuan Kitchen (or Cooking?".  Food out of that book comes closest to the simple yet amazingly tasty home-style cooking I've had in Sichuan. It may be out of print though....

I wholeheartedly second this recommendation. Fantastic book.

I think I saw a re-issue of this in a bookstore (U.S.) not too long ago, but not sure. My copy is over 20 years old.

I'll have to check out this other when it appears over here.

My restaurant blog: Mahlzeit!

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Well as long as we're on the topic ... I really like "Mrs. Chiang's Sichuan Kitchen (or Cooking?".  Food out of that book comes closest to the simple yet amazingly tasty home-style cooking I've had in Sichuan. It may be out of print though....

I wholeheartedly second this recommendation. Fantastic book.

I think I saw a re-issue of this in a bookstore (U.S.) not too long ago, but not sure. My copy is over 20 years old.

I'll have to check out this other when it appears over here.

The title of this book is MRS. CHIANG'S SZECHWAN COOKBOOK and it is indeed out of print. There are, however, shelfloads of used copies available and you shouldn't really pay more than $5.00 for one. Check eBay, Amazon, or Half.com, as well as any used book search engine. It was first published in the mid-70's (1976, I think) and then again in the mid-80's, which makes it one of the first Sichuan cookbooks...along with Robert Delfs's THE GOOD FOOD OF SZECHWAN and Louise Stallard's COOKING SZECHUAN STYLE. Stallard's book was published in 1973 and Delfs's in 1974; I know Delfs relied heavily on Japanese translations of various sources (and was published by Kodansha) and, given the 1973 publishing date, it's likely that Stallard relied on sources far from the Mainland (unless she was a true revolutionary, Little-Red-Book-waving cook). This makes MRS. CHIANG'S the first collection in English sourced from firsthand knowledge. But the eponymous Mrs. Chiang was discovered in Taiwan, where her family had fled after Liberation. So, depending on your philosophy of "authentic," it really wasn't until Fuschia Dunlop's book of 2001 (this year for the US edition) that a collection of recipes was sourced directly from Sichuan.

I found MRS. CHIANG's a most annoyingly written book: "Mrs. Chiang says this/that..." "Mrs. Chiang does this/that..." but with some useful recipes for comparison. But there's also fodder for nitpicking, again, given your "authentic" politics...for example, for me, there are no green peppers in Twice-Cooked Pork (dammit, who started that trend, anyway???).

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  • 3 weeks later...

chaste_nosferatu: Would love that pickled garlic recipe and any others you are willing to give. :biggrin:

funcook: They traced the origin of fortune cookies to California, though they are unsure exactly by whom.

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  • 2 weeks later...

There seems to be a lot of discussion on this board of regional Chinese cuisines. I think it might help if we had some "formalized" definitions. Here are some information about more well-known regions of food. These are taken directly from South China Morning Post:

Sichuan:

Sichuanese food is distinctively spicy and pepper hot. Little Sichuan peppercorns, which give an almost-numbing menthol tingle to the palate, are liberally used, along with fiery red chillis, garlic and ginger. Even soups are chilli hot. The famous hot and sour soup is as its name suggests. And a popular snack is a bowl of soup noodles with a dollop of chilli garlic sauce.

Sichuan is landlocked, but freshwater carp is favoured, steamed or fried and smothered in a chilli sauce spiked with vinegar and hot bean paste. Sweet or hot bean pastes from fermented soy beans appear often as a flavouring.

Sichuan's signature pork dish, usually mundanely described on the menu as sliced pork with chilli sauce, uses a double cooking process. The pork is steamed, sliced very thinly and then fried until almost crisp with a sauce of hot and sweet bean pastes. The most famous dish of the area is probably chilli minced pork with beancurd, better known as ma po dofu. Smoked duck appears as a Sichuan restaurant dish. The duck is marinated in aniseed, cinnamon and pepper, steamed and then smoked over camphor wood chips and tea.

The food of nearby Hunan province is less well known but there are a number of interesting specialities including the minced chicken steamed in a bamboo tube.

Cantonese:

Cantonese food is the food of Hong Kong and the Guangdong province. Flavours are clean, subtle and refined and the triumvirate accent of ginger, spring onions and soy sauce are used in just about every dish. There is a preoccupation with freshness and top-quality ingredients - markets abound with live fish and fowl and leafy vegetables.

Seafood is highly sought after. The preferred way to cook fish is to steam it whole, flavoured with ginger and spring onions and sizzled with hot oil and soy just before serving to emphasise its zheen or sea-fresh flavours. Almost in complete contradiction is the high esteem in which dried seafood is held. Exotica like dried shark's fin, sea cucumbers, scallops and abalone are of gourmet status and much appreciated for their textural qualities. The culinary habits of the Chinese are in no small part responsible for the endangering of many of these species, and the problem grows as China increases in affluence.

Stir-fried dishes are popular and a good cook is said to have wok hay, literally "air of the wok". Soups, usually clear broths, are an essential part of a meal, and various combinations of ingredients are brewed for health-enhancing or preventative qualities.

While most Chinese homes do not have ovens, roast pork and duck are popular foods. Specialist roast meat shops that serve as convenience takeaway outlets are common and provide an instant meal with a bowl of rice.

Nearby in the Shantou area, the Chiu Chow people start their meals with tiny cups of strong Iron Buddha tea before beginning on their favourite starter of cold boiled crab or spiced goose, both served with a vinegary dipping sauce.

Shanghainese:

Shanghai has always been the most cosmopolitan and sophisticated city in China and you can expect food with savvy and style. A Shanghainese meal will usually start with a selection of small cold appetisers. These might include mock goose (beancurd sheets rolled and braised to resemble goose), drunken chicken, duck's tongue, crisp fried eel and pressed pork.

Shanghainese food is rich, oily, sweet and luscious. Rich, velvety meat or fish dishes braised with soy, sugar and vinegar are a speciality, like their famous soya braised pork leg (yuan tai) which, after lengthy cooking is much appreciated for the gelatinous quality of the pork fat and skin and the depth of flavour of the soy braise.

Shaoxing wine, fermented from glutinous rice, is drunk warm. It is also extensively used in cooking to produce "drunken dishes" where food, commonly chicken, is marinated in the wine. While the Cantonese prefer fish from the sea, the Shanghainese favour freshwater fish. Whole carp are usually fried or steamed and garnished with a piquant sweet and sour sauce. Tiny freshwater shrimps, usually plainly stir-fried, are popular. So too are eels which are often braised in a sweetish sauce pungent with garlic and ginger. In winter, freshwater crabs laden with roe, which come from the Yangtze delta, are a delicacy.

Dumplings, fried, steamed or in soup, filled with meat and vegetables are a favourite snack. Little broad beans are included in a number of dishes and the Shanghainese way of twice-cooking long beans with seasoned oil is a triumph.

Beijing:

Imperial and peasant food of the north

Beijing or northern food remains a hybrid cuisine. The lavish and refined dishes of the old imperial court are still evident, especially in restaurant banquet food, yet many Beijing dishes have their origins in the peasant food of the generally bleak countryside. Food away from the wealth of the big cities is fuel to keep one warm.

Wheat is the staple grain and fried and steamed breads, all variety of dumplings, and noodles are popular. During the winter months, fresh vegetables are a luxury and pickled and dried vegetables are used along with the ubiquitous Tientsin cabbage, often cooked in a "milky" broth.

Vinegar from Shanxi province is highly regarded and often splashed into dishes or used as a dipping sauce. Flavours tend to be intense with garlic, ginger and small leeks extensively used in dishes.

The most famous restaurant dish, not only in Beijing but around the world, is Peking duck, which originated from the kitchens of the imperial court. The crisp skin is achieved by first inflating the skin from the flesh, scalding the duck in boiling water, airdrying it, coating it with maltose and then roasting.

To the west of Beijing are vast stretches of Mongolian grassland. Here fatty sheep and goat are herded for meat and milk and favourite dishes include barbecues and hotpot stews.

Yunnan:

Yunnan, tucked away in southwest China, borders Burma, Laos and Vietnam and is home to a large number of ethnic minorities. The province is famous for salted and air-dried Yunnan ham which is much prized throughout China. Also from Yunnan comes Pu'er tea which is dark and earthy and is sold moulded into cakes. Aged teas command high prices.

The area is also famous for its wild mushrooms and, come autumn, local markets are colourful with mushroom traders that range from international buyers to peasants with their foraged horde. The names of the mushrooms are exotic and have evocative names - sheep's stomach, monkey head, chicken fungus. Fresh goat's cheese, resembling mozzarella in texture and appearance, is made by rural holdings. The cheese is usually sliced and fried as a snack. Eaten everywhere as a meal or snack is the Yunnanese dish that translates as "rice noodles crossing the bridge". A big bowl of fine rice noodles in broth is kept hot by a thick slick of melted chicken fat. The broth remains so hot that thin slices of meat, fish, beancurd and vegetables added to the bowl are instantly cooked.

Edited by cwyc (log)
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