Ningxia is one of the country’s agricultural heartlands, and the only five-star hotel in the region’s capital takes full advantage of the bountiful produce and the delicious local lamb. Mike Peters reports from Yinchuan.
It’s no surprise that lamb steals the show at the Kempinski Yinchuan’s Chinese restaurant, Zhong. Chef K.K. Wong, after all, is running a kitchen in the heart of the Ningxia Hui autonomous region, famous for lamb prepared in a style reflecting the traditions of the Western Xia culture and the Muslim community that has thrived in the area for centuries.
While the Western Xia empire (1038-1227) is shrouded in mystery — the nomadic people are believed to have had an advanced military and writing system, but were famously annihilated by the armies of Genghis Khan— the imprint of the Hui people pervades even the elegantly European Kempinski. Those familiar with the brand may be surprised to find the famous German hotel to be a pork-free zone, even in the Paulaner Brauhaus, an oompah pub that in other cities is awash not only in traditionally crafted beer but in roasted pig knuckles and German sausages. At this Silk Road crossroads in Northwest China, however, the entire hotel is strictly halal, in accordance with local culinary custom.
IntheZhongrestaurant dining room, the star of the menu is Wong’s Xixia roasted lamb spare ribs. The grass-fed lamb comes from the nearby city of Yanchi, and the chef credits the region’s environment — where the Yellow River, the Gobi desert and the sheltering face of Helan Mountain meet to create an ideal environment for producing high-quality meat that is both tender and aromatic. Wong says his secret method of marinating the roasted lamb skin is what gives his signature dish its richly flavored crust.
Our meal starts with a European-style presentation of amuse bouche, created by the Hong Kong master chef who is now equally at home with Ningxia cuisine. On any given night, the veritable parade of nibbles may include spicy beef, pickled vegetable Sichuan style, steamed Chinese date stuffed with glutinous rice, cuttlefish with pepper, chili ring with soy sauce, fish filet with sweet sour sauce, and cabbage mustard beans.
Before the signature lamb arrives, the hotel’s general manager, Detlef Winter, takes us on a quick tour of the dining area. Beyond the public area are 24 private dining rooms that can accommodate parties of six to 20, beautifully
soya appointed with Chinese and Western elements and featuring expansive views of the city. Beyond, there is Helan Mountain, with rich farmlands on the eastern side and far-reaching desert on the other.
There is also a well-stocked wine room where, Winter notes, a top-notch selection of French Bordeaux and Burgundy wines has pride of place. Ningxia, of course, is an up-and-coming wine region itself — much of the talk at nearby tables, whether populated by local Chinese or visiting Europeans, seems to be about viticulture, and local labels have won a place on the restaurant’s wine list.
Back at our table, a series of dishes arrives: a stir-fried chicken presented in a “horn of plenty”, wok-fried prawnsSichuan style (the province with the fiery palate is not so far away), and braised spinach with wolfberry and broth. Thenthelambarrives, fragrant and steaming ribs as well as slices for wrapping in delicate pancakes a la Peking duck.
We would have been content to sit back and relax at that point, sipping the last of a pleasant burgundy. But that wouldhavemeantmissing chef Wong’s special dessert: goji chocolate cake made from famous West Lake Longjing tea, fresh milk chocolate and the “super food” known as goji berry.
Yinchuan is a top producer of this healthful fruit, credited with improving the body’s reaction to stress, strengthening the immune system, enhancingmemory and assuring healthy skin. The accompanying fruit plate also includes two kinds of fresh Chinese dates, known in the West as jujubes, which were gloriously sweet in Ningxia during our late-fall visit.
Contact the writer at michaelpeters@ chinadaily.com.cn
Xixia roasted lamb spare ribs. Center:
Wok-fried prawn Sichuan style.
Braised spinach with wolfberry and broth.