Make mine a yak ke­bab

A cook’s tour of China, from crispy cater­pil­lars to grilled ci­cadas

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Asia - SY­BIL KAPOOR THE SPEC­TA­TOR

AS I pick my way around the de­bris in Zhongyi mar­ket in Li­jiang, our guide points out the yak sec­tion. Wind­pipes, cleaned in­testines and huge wob­bly ma­genta liv­ers are neatly laid out on the filthy floor, while the more ex­pen­sive cuts are ar­ranged on tres­tles.

My eyes are drawn to a row of small boys en­thu­si­as­ti­cally slurp­ing up noo­dles swim­ming in a dark beefy­look­ing broth. ‘‘Would you like to see the dog sec­tion?’’ our guide asks po­litely. ‘‘Um, no, that won’t be nec­es­sary,’’ we say quickly, then head out to the bustling, wil­low-lined streets.

It’s Oc­to­ber and Na­tional Hol­i­day Week and the stone-paved streets of the Old Town of Li­jiang (a UNESCO World Her­itage site) are filled with Chi­nese tourists en­joy­ing them­selves. Peo­ple are munch­ing ev­ery­thing from sweet­corn and pomegranates to yak ke­babs and roast sweet pota­toes. Mu­sic is com­ing from the small restau­rants that line the pretty wa­ter­ways. In­side, din­ers play cards and sip the fa­mous lo­cal Puer tea.

Our guide stops by a stall sell­ing what look like bee grubs, grilled ci­cadas and some form of crispy cater­pil­lar. With a teas­ing smile she asks, ‘‘Would you like to try some?’’ For a sec­ond I think of Lin Yu­tang’s words in his 1969 book Chi­nese Gas­tron­omy: ‘ ‘ The in­her­ent tex­tu­ral vari­a­tion of in­nards is in­ter­est­ing to gourmets.’’ I de­cide I’m not a gourmet and de­cline.

It’s hard to be­lieve that two nights ago we were in the restau­rant at the Aman at Sum­mer Palace five-star ho­tel in Bei­jing. The soft lights and sub­tle fra­grances seem like heaven now, as I re­call one ex­quis­ite Can­tonese dish fol­low­ing another. Ev­ery course was de­li­cious, from the suc­cu­lent fried shrimps with crispy shred­ded egg with but­ter and dried chilli sauce, to the aro­matic clear soup with poached bam­boo pith and green veg­eta­bles.

It was as though we’d stepped into the rar­efied 18th-cen­tury world of Cao Xue­qin’s The Story of the Stone.

Eat­ing is one of my great plea­sures when trav­el­ling. Un­der­stand a coun­try’s food and you gain a greater insight into its cul­ture. Not that this hol­i­day is a gas­tro­nom­i­cal tour. Our aim has been to jour­ney into the beau­ti­ful moun­tain­ous area of Yun­nan known as the Three Par­al­lel Rivers re­gion, which en­com­passes Li­jiang, Shangri- la ( or Zhong­dian, as it used to be called) and De­qin, high up in the Hi­malayas, near the Ti­betan bor­der. Nat­u­rally, I have al­lowed a few days in Bei­jing and Xian.

It is im­pos­si­ble not to think about food as you travel around China: it’s there, in the raw, all around. Step into a Ti­betan farm­house near Ben­zi­lan, cra­dled be­tween high moun­tains, and you have to walk through the an­i­mals’ quar­ters be­fore climb­ing up a lad­der to the house’s court­yard where pump­kins and fruit trees grow.

A teth­ered calf looks on as we in­spect the pine cones laid out in readi­ness to ex­tract their ker­nels. Great bunches of gar­lic, marigolds and chill­ies fes­toon the eaves, and corn­cobs turn the court­yard gold as they dry in the au­tumn sun. Out­side, pigs wan­der the lane. Yun­nan’s fa­mous air-dried ham adds a rich taste to soups and stirfried dishes.

That night we eat one of the chick­ens. The staff at our ho­tel, Songt­sam Ben­zi­lan, kill it af­ter hear­ing my hus­band is suf­fer­ing from flu. It’s trans­formed into a del­i­cate broth, the per­fect cure, they say. While he sips it, I tuck into soft Ti­betan flat­bread and enough gar­lic and chilli-laden stir-fried veg­eta­bles and crispy yak ke­babs to scare away any virus.

The pa­ram­e­ters be­tween food and medicine blur in China. Many dishes are in­fused with sym­bol­ism and ev­ery in­gre­di­ent has a ben­e­fit. Bite into a crisp, lo­cally grown snow-peach and you’re munch­ing a juicy piece of longevity (pro­vided you’ve washed it in min­eral wa­ter). Drink sweet gin­ger tea at 3600m at Songt­sam Meili, near De­qin, and you’re sup­posed to be able to breathe eas­ier at al­ti­tude.

Ru­ral cook­ing in north­west Yun­nan is punchy in its flavours. It tastes of its en­vi­ron­ment — smoky, earthy, oc­ca­sion­ally acrid. It’s al­ways in­ter­est­ing, whether Naxi- style deep- fried curd cheese sprin­kled in su­gar or Ti­betan bar­ley cakes doused in moun­tain honey.

Af­ter to­tal im­mer­sion in this re­mote Hi­malayan world, it feels pos­i­tively deca­dent to be seated in the lux­u­ri­ous com­fort of Tian Xiang Ge restau­rant at the Shangri-la Ho­tel in Xian. The city is fa­mous for its dumplings, snacks and noo­dles. In front of us is a feast of lo­cal del­i­ca­cies: lightly vine­gared cu­cum­ber skins sea­soned with dried chilli and gar­lic; crunchy fun­gus with cordy­ceps; crispy chicken with a di­vine se­same soy dip­ping sauce; sauteed lo­tus root; and wok-fried cumin-spiced lamb that we stuff into the fluffi­est steamed buns.

In China, cook­ing is a form of ar­ti­fice. A chef’s skill lies in un­der­stand­ing what tastes good and what tastes bad, so that they can en­hance the for­mer and counter the lat­ter by tech­nique, vari­a­tion in tex­ture and clever flavour com­bi­na­tions. Ev­ery dish must ap­pear art­lessly to ex­press its true hsien (flavour) and hsiang (aroma).

The tra­di­tion has evolved over thou­sands of years and, af­ter we have been al­lowed to han­dle some of the ex­quis­ite an­cient ceram­ics at the Jingwen Cat­tle Cul­ture Ceram­ics Mu­seum in Xian, such ideas feel more im­me­di­ate and rel­e­vant some­how.

Back in Bei­jing, we have one more meal that per­fectly ex­presses ev­ery el­e­ment of the art of Chi­nese cook­ery. It is at Fook Lam Moon in the China World Sum­mit Wing. Ev­ery­thing from the re­fresh­ing shred­ded bean curd Yang Zho-style to the creamy deep­fried stuffed baked crab is de­li­cious.

The restau­rant is fa­mous for seek­ing out the finest in­gre­di­ents and cook­ing them in a clas­si­cal Can­tonese style. What, I won­der, would the chefs make of, say, clas­sic Bri­tish food, a mere 1000 years or so in the mak­ing?

A mar­ket ven­dor does a brisk trade in dumplings in Li­jiang, top; restau­rants in Li­jiang Old Town, above; a warm wel­come at Aman at Sum­mer Palace, Bei­jing, be­low

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