An ongoing festival in Beijing lets foodies sample a Chinese cuisine that was greatly influenced by businessmen who traveled around the country and beyond to seek their fortunes
Anhui cuisine offers flavors influenced by businessmen.
In China, there are few places that are so closely linked with businessmen than Anhui province. The only possible rival is Shanxi province with its so-called Jin merchants.
Nearly all aspects of life in the so-called Huizhou area, as it was known in ancient times, and which is now the southern part of Anhui province, were greatly influenced by businessmen who traveled around the country and beyond to seek their fortunes.
From food and architecture to the values of honesty and diligence, the Huizhou merchants had a unique lifestyle, and their “Hui culture” is now one of the three distinctive regional cultures in China. The other two cultures are Tibetan and Dunhuang.
For Beijingers, a rare opportunity has come up to sample Anhui fare and experience its culture.
Minzu Hotel is running a festival till Nov 14 offering Anhui fare and a chance to experienceHui culture.
“We often say food is culture and Anhui food is among the most representative of this,” says Zhai Lijun, the general manager of the hotel.
“Almost every dish from Anhui has a story, or is related to the area’s history and geography.”
The festival is not only a feast for the palate but is also a treat for those seeking something for the mind— it offers historical and cultural nuggets related to the food — and there are also Huangmei Opera performances to enjoy.
Anhui food, one of the eight major cuisines of China, comprises three parts — dominant Wannan fare from South Anhui that originates from the ancientHuizhou area; Yanjiang fare from near theYangtze River and Yanhuai fare from near the Huaihe River.
The cuisine reached it zenith during theMing and theQing dynasties (1368-1912), because as Huizhou’s merchants prospered, they became particular about the flavor and presentation of their food, which helped the cuisine to develop.
The growing influence of Anhui’s merchants on the national scene also led to Anhui restaurants outside the Huizhou area. This was where Huizhou’s merchants entertained their clients, friends and themselves, I was told during the festival.
The festival has top chefs from Anhui preparing delicacies for Beijing’s diners, and the culinary team uses the best and freshest ingredients it can access, and cooks the food following authentic recipes and traditional methods.
The delicacies offered the day I was at a tasting were very impressive
We often say food is culture and Anhui food is among the most representative of this. Almost every dish from Anhui has a story ...” Zhai Lijun, Minzu Hotel general manager
and showcased the essence of Anhui cuisine. The dishes had ingredients sourced from Anhui, and many foods were cooked and served in the same pots.
The cuisine is characterized by cooking techniques that go beyond frying — such as simmering, stewing and steaming. It features oil and soy sauce, but is very good at preserving the ingredient’s original flavors.
The cuisine is also involves heating different foods to different temperatures to bring out the best flavors.
When you speak of Anhui cuisine, you cannot avoid the smelly mandarin fish, which as its name suggests, smells awful.
Legend has it that the dish originated about 200 years ago when businessmen transported the expensive fish from the Yangtze River in wooden casks to sell it in the mountains.
To keep the fish from going bad, they marinated the fish in salt and accidentally created the signature dish of Anhui cuisine.
After the fish was marinated in the casks for a few days it gradually developed a chewy texture and its distinct powerful aroma.
Among Chinese foodies, there is a belief that the smelly mandarin fish has magic powers.
So, if you like it the first time you eat it, they say you will like it always and will miss it from time to time.
Of course, some people cannot bear the special aroma of the fish. But I love the smelly fish. And despite its name and smell, it tastes great.
Another dish I enjoyed very much was “maofeng prawn”.
Maofeng tea from Huangan Mountain, which ranks among the top 10 Chinese teas, gives the boiled river prawns a hint of the tea’s flavor.
The prawns were so fresh that they had a pleasant sweetness when I sampled them without any sauce. When eaten with the sauce they have a savory taste.
Other must-haves also include hairy tofu, dried fish, and stewed frog with shi’er lichen (Umbilicaria esculenta).
The Anhui Fare Festival in Beijing offers diners not only a myriad of authentic dishes from Anhui province, but also a chance to experience the local culture.