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新浪首页 > 新浪教育 > 中国周刊(2002年10月号) > Dining Around Beijing

Dining Around Beijing
http://www.sina.com.cn 2003/03/25 11:58  中国周刊
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  As all roads in China lead to Beijing, so can the cuisines of China's many regions be found in the capital of China.

  Of all the reasons to visit Beijing, perhaps the most compelling is the amazing culinary variety to be found in China's capital. As Beijing is herself built along the cardinal points of the compass, we decided to structure our gastronomical tour of China along the same lines. Best of all, you needn't leave Beijing to be able to sample cuisine from China's farthest provinces. As all roads in China lead to Beijing, so can the cuisines of China's many regions be found in the capital of China.

  Down South: Canton & Chaozhou cuisine

  The first stop on our culinary tour brings us to Guangdong. 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 bean curd 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. One of the finer Cantonese restaurants in Beijing is the Sampan Seafood Restaurant. According to the Sampan's chef Ou, discerning between the excellent and mediocre is easy.

  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.

  The next logical stop on our culinary tour is the lesser known, but delicious, cuisine of Chaozhou. 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'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

  Our next stop on our gastronomical tour of the middle kingdom brings us to China's spicy west. 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 According to traditional medical thinking, 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.

  People in Hunan Province, who claim their food is the hottest in China, prefer red peppers unmarinated and fresh producing a very spicy bite. Chairman 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). There are many restaurants in Beijing that have created a brisk trade in serving up Chairman Mao's favorite dishes. Expect these places to be unpretentious and reasonably affordable (After all, The Great Helmsman was a man of the people,) serving up Hunanese classics like fried pickled beans and minced meat, silverfish fried with soy sauce and chili oil, and, of course, red-cooked pork.

  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. According to the legend, this dish is named after Ding Baozhen, who served under the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) Emperor Xianfeng as the governor of Shandong province. One day he arrived East China's home with asgroupsof 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, and his cook went with him to Sichuan//where//he began experimenting with the local product, 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.  The moral of this story 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

  Of the many cities lying on China's east coast, none is so well known to foreign guests as Shanghai, jewel of the orient. The rice, seafood and fresh vegetable-based cooking of the southern coastal provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu is generally known as huiyang cai. 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 roe 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.

  Another popular food from China's far east is dishes from Taiwan. Beef noodle soup is a dish that any carnivore can enjoy, while the adventurous vegetarian might like to try some stinky tofu(chou doufu), a dish made of fermented bean curd, served with pickled vegetables and hot sauce. The latter dish is best suited for someone with a taste for strong cheeses, such as limburger. The best way to find a restaurant serving stinky tofu is to close your eyes and open your nostrils. When you're found one, you'll know it.

  North: Beijing and Beyond

  Our tour brings us back to Beijing, home of the justly famous Beijing (or Peking) Duck. 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. Another perennial favorite among Beijingers on the go is Yang ro Chwa'r, or lamb-on-a-stick. Any street market in the capital will have at least one, if not more restaurant (or even just a small stand)//where//you can buy a few sticks of lamb and a cold bottle of beer for under 20 yuan (US.4).

  If you happen to visit Beijing in the cooler months, don't be surprised if your hosts ask you out to a Mongolian Hotpot dinner. While Mongolian Hotpot is favorite in Beijing, it bears only a passing resemblance to 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//group//a wide range of ingredients from fresh vegetables to congealed blood and pig brains.

  Having been the capital of China for so long has conferred certain advantages on Beijing, especially in the variety of more obscure regional cuisines available throughout the city, certainly not the sort of stuff you'd expect to see at your local Chinese restaurant back home. In addition to more well-known cuisine, Beijingers can also indulge cravings for the culinary creations of a good number of the PRC's 55 ethnic groups, and another group-Han. To mention a few:* Uyghers from China's Xinjiang province enjoy fire-roasted lamb, fine spicy tomato salads, flat bread called naan, noodle dishes and lightly spiced soups made with bell pepper, tomato and mutton.

  * A Tibetan 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.

  * 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.

  If we're done our jobs here, your mouth should be watering and your appetite sufficiently whetted to send you in search of some truly exceptional food. Your only difficulties now are choosing a cuisine and finding a restaurant. We're provided a list of restaurants to help you with the latter problem, but we can't help you with the first one. But with so much to chose from, we hardly think you can make a wrong decision. Bon Appetite, or as the Chinese say, Chur Hao.

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