Making an impression abroad
China is divided into as many culinary regions as there are different ethnic groups. Its geographical diversity and kaleidoscopic cultural profiles contribute to the unending banquet of flavors
Suddenly, it seems, the world is discovering Chinese street food. The eureka moment is a bit overdue, because street food is the real signature of any country’s culinary heritage.
Forget dumplings and hotpots, long soup, short soup, lobster sauce, sweet and sour pork, humongous spring rolls and General Tso’s Chicken. These bastardized versions of Chinese food have now been properly relegated to where they first belong, quaint restaurants in Chinatowns very far away from the source of good Chinese food: China.
And, in the past 30 years, local brands have been quietly building up their reputations at home. Finally, some are flexing their wings and ready to take flight and migrate abroad.
One of the first to show the world the successful amalgamation of cultural and culinary heritage is Nanjing Impressions, Nanjing Dapaidang, the stalwart eatery by the banks of the Qinhuai River in the ancient city.
In Nanjing, Jiangsu province, it is already legendary as an outstanding success story of a local boy made good, showcasing all the classic street food, from the city’s iconic “saltwater” duck to humble braised tofu and an amazing variety of “little eats” in between.
It is not just the food. The ambiance and decor are equally iconic: rough-hewn wooden furniture subtly polished for comfort, red oilskin lanterns literally lighting up the entire menu on the ceiling, even the costumed greeter at the door with his booming greetings as guests enter the restaurant, with the soft, dulcet tones of pingtan music in the background. All of these have become the restaurant’s calling cards, no matter where it is located.
Nanjing Impressions tested other locations within China, such as Beijing, but the first overseas Nanjing Impressions was opened last year in Singapore, a city famous for its nearfanatical gourmets. It is as good a test spot as any other. If Nanjing Impressions holds its ground there, it can make it anywhere. That was the reasoning,
The logic is not far from the truth, and Singapore is indeed taking to Nanjing street food with great enthusiasm. We hear that the big bosses are already eyeing San Fran- Delectable dishes cisco and London next.
It is a real pleasure sitting inside the restaurant, and for an hour or so, we might as well be in Nanjing, if you ignore the bustling mall traffic just outside the main door.
The chefs have kept the food as authentic as possible and a few missing ingredients meant the kitchen team had to think on their feet, and quickly.
For example, Singapore bans the sale of duck blood, and no ducks are allowed to be imported from China, for quarantine reasons. So the saltwater duck is made from birds raised locally.
Still, this is no ordinary bird. It swims in a brine that is legendary. Through war, pestilence and revolution, the Nanjing chefs have guarded their brine with their lives, sometimes literally.
Some of these have been in the family or restaurant for decades, and since each duck is cooked and marinated in the brine, it leaves behind its soul and sweetness in the pot.
The ducks, unlike their roasted Beijing relatives, are lean, dark and tightly textured. Their skins are slightly crisp but tender, not tough.
The meat is clearly layered, and the teeth pick it apart easily. At first bite, the savory intensity bursts through and you get a mouthful of pure flavor.
Every Nanjing chef has his own secret blend of dry rub that is first applied to the raw bird, which is then marinated overnight. Then there is the seasoning to the brine, a white saline solution that is very different from the usual soy-sauce-based brewing liquid in other parts of China.
The cooking process, too, takes skill and precision and demands a masterly control of heat.
You don’t want a duck that is cooked hard and fibrous, and you cannot serve up a half-raw bird. So there is a delicate balance to navigate.
Then, there is the secret to the full flavor, a long, slow simmering and macerating that may literally take days. Nanjing chefs probably never knew what osmosis is, but they use it to perfection every time.
Another specialty is the giant meatball.
There are meatballs, and there are meatballs. When Spring Festival comes around every year, my mother-in-law must have her Beijing sixi wanzi, Four Happiness Meatballs, that are quarter-pound whoppers that must be fried first, then slowly braised.
This is the northern cousin of the Lion’s Head Meatball, Nanjing’s culinary name card.
This is a meatball of right royal pedigree, a mound of meat that is surprisingly light in the mouth. A good lion’s head should dissolve in the mouth without needing any pressure from tooth or tongue.
It’s all in the knife work, the pride and professional signature of a Nanjing chef.
Of course, a good pork belly cut is essential. It must have tender skin, that layer of collagen that adds the essential bond for the meatball. Then, it must have well-distributed fat and lean layers.
A chef once whispered the secret to the cutting in my ear.
First, the meat is blanched, just enough to firm it up properly and just enough for the chef to check that no stray gristle or bristle remain.
Then the belly is shaved into paper-thin slices, which are cut into slivers, then minutely diced.
All the while, the chef must gauge the quality of meat so he knows exactly how thinly to cut. Too fine, and it all turns to mush.
After that, the meat is seasoned and beaten, by hand. Always by hand.
It is then tenderly formed into a ball and carefully pressed. Too firm, the meatball will cook hard; too lightly, and it falls apart.
After being tenderly poached in light stock, it is finally served, garnished with nothing but a few tender shoots of cabbage greens.
It is dishes like these and the stories behind them that help Nanjing Impressions impress diners abroad. And if this is Chinese street food, then the world is in for a treat.