Dumplings and dan­dan noo­dles

China’s di­ver­sity is best ex­plored through its in­cred­i­ble range of flavours

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Asia - FUCH­SIA DUN­LOP

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

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