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

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - TASTE - By PAULINE D LOH paulined@chi­

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.

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