Dumplings and dandan noodles
China’s diversity is best explored through its incredible range of flavours
WHEN people talk about Chinese food, it’s easy to forget that in gastronomic terms China is more a continent than a country. Its vast terrain encompasses deserts and grasslands, high mountains and rich agricultural plains, temperate forests and tropical jungles. The differences among its regional styles of cookery are as great as among European nations. Northerners exist on a diet based on wheaten foods, while for those in the south a meal without rice doesn’t really count as a meal. The Sichuanese traditionally scorn the inhabitants of eastern China for the sweetness of their dishes, while those in the east find Sichuanese food unpalatably hot.
The Chinese often talk of their country’s culinary predilections in terms of ‘‘four great cuisines’’.
In the north, there is the grand, stately cooking of Shandong province, the home of Confucius and the bedrock of Beijing palace cooking. Shandong cuisine ( lu cai) is famed for its magnificent stocks and sauces, its widespread use of garlic and leeks as flavourings, and for its expert preparation of seafood, including banquet delicacies such as shark fin and sea cucumber. Famous Shandong dishes include roast suckling pig, sweet-andsour carp and Peking duck, with its gorgeous lacquered skin and trimmings of Chinese leek, fermented sauce and pancakes.
More everyday fare in Beijing and the north includes a rich variety of wheaten foods, such as boiled jiaozi (dumplings), commonly stuffed with minced pork and fennel, cabbage or chives, and zhajiang noodles served with a dark, intense pork sauce and a selection of crunchy vegetables. Lamb and mutton, often cooked by specialist Muslim restaurants, play an important part in the local diet, most famously in scalded mutton hotpot, a copper cauldron filled with a simmering broth in which diners blanch thin slices of mutton before dipping them in a piquant sauce made with sesame paste and flowering chives. Flavours tend to be bolder and heavier in northern China than in the rest of the country, with liberal use of salt, vinegar, fermented seasonings and garlic.
South of Beijing, in eastern China, is the ancient gastronomic capital of Yangzhou in Jiangsu province, the birthplace of Huaiyang cuisine ( Huaiyang cai), the school historically favoured by the Chinese literati. Yangzhou, along with the modern culinary centres of Hangzhou and Shanghai, lies in the fertile Lower Yangtze region, a ‘‘homeland of fish and rice’’ ( yumi zhixiang). It’s a region known for the refinement and elegance of its cooking, and for its delicate knifework.
Local chefs like to emphasise the essential tastes of their raw ingredients, using flavourings such as Jinhua ham, ginger, rice vinegar, soy sauce and Shaoxing wine with a gentle hand.
They are also experts in cooking red-brai with rich, fragrant, soy-dark sauces.
Famous local dishes of the Lower Yang include the divine dongpo pork, named af dynasty poet, stir-fried freshwater shrimp hairy crabs served with ginger and vinegar, fried rice and xiaolong dumplings filled wi pork and savoury stock. Everyday meals, e rice, usually feature a selection o vegetables, perhaps cooked w meat or stock to enha flavours. Specialities in ous bamboo shoots an shepherd’s purse an chrysanthemum leaves
In the southwest, yo the electrifying flavou uanese cuisine ( chua spice girl of the kitchen. Its mos characteristic is spiciness, derived lies and lip-ting uan pepper, bu ally a rich a cuisine that sta its incredible d flavours. Accord lore, ‘‘each dish h style, and a hund have a hundre flavours’’. Si chefs conjure complex flavou few basic season