Great bowls of China

One of the most misrepresented cuisines in the world, a look at the cities on China’s coastline reveals a snapshot of the country’s abundant and wildly diverse food culture.
General Tso led the Qing Dynasty army during the Taiping Rebellion in the 1800s, but you’re more likely to recognize his name from your local Chinese takeaway menu. Though its origin is hotly contested—some say it came from an upmarket restaurant in Taiwan in the 1950s, while New York’s Shun Lee Palaces claims it was the first to serve it in the ‘70s—what is certain is that General Tso’s chicken, in all its sticky, deep-fried glory, does an injustice to the country’s rich, diverse and regionally complex cuisine.

Let’s begin with a familiar dish: Peking duck. Though named after the old European spelling for Beijing, this delicacy originates from Nanjing, the former capital. It is first recorded in a recipe book written in 1330 by Royal Dietary Physician Hu Sihui, who recommended roasting the duck inside the stomach of a sheep, and it soon became a mainstay at Imperial feasts.

Air is pumped under the skin to separate it from the flesh, rendering fat that bastes the meat. The bird is then hung to dry, coated with maltose syrup for extra crispiness, before roasting in either a closed oven or hung from the ceiling over burning wood. To sample the former technique, try Bianyifang restaurant in Beijing, which opened in the 15th century; for the latter, try Quanjude restaurant, where Yang Quanren first developed the hung-roasted method in 1864. You be the judge of which tastes best.

While Bianyifang and Quanjude have the heritage, be warned, they trade mostly off being ‘old, famous name’ restaurants. The best duck in town is at Da Dong, which uses a combination of apple and jujube wood to roast the ducks. It was once state-owned, but took on the name of its charismatic former Head Chef and current General Manager, Dong Zhenxiang.

While most chefs will roast a bird for around 45 minutes, Da Dong’s ducks are cooked for 75 minutes to prevent the meat from becoming greasy. Dip the dark-lacquered crispy skin in sugar and brave the fermented garlic paste. Once you have finished the main bird, cleanse your palate with the deliberately bland duck-bone soup before tucking into the prize pieces of meat: the brain and the fleshy ‘pope’s nose’ from its backside.

Time for something a little fresher. Head to Dalian—the city at the southern tip of the Liaodong Peninsula—to experience some of the best seafood China has on offer, loosely influenced by both Russia, Korea and the Shandong Province, renowned for its seafood and light, aromatic milky broths. Prawns stir-fried with ginger, scallions and spices and steamed abalone (a lantern-shaped, giant sea snail) are the catch of the day here. The adventurous should try salty sea urchin, served live with soy sauce and wasabi, or Tongtian sea cucumbers. All can be sampled at WanBao Seafood Restaurant, the most sophisticated restaurant in the area with a suitably glitzy interior.

Another great destination for super-fresh seafood is Hainan Island, the ‘Hawaii of China’. Its lush landscape also produces meat that is full of flavor, hence the popularity of the regional speciality Wenchang chicken (which you will see on your takeaway menu as Hainan chicken). The chicken is cooked in almost boiling water and cut into pieces to dip in a mixture of ginger, mashed garlic, soy sauce, salt and fresh orange juice. Order with Hainan chicken rice, which is lip-smackingly steamed with chicken soup and chicken fat. The dish is best enjoyed at Wenchang Chicken restaurant, it’s not a fancy affair but the grandparents of its current owner, Sung Shen Mei, were the first people to make a living out of the dish in the 1920s. Here it is served with blood cakes, chopped gizzards and a dipping sauce made from the tart calamansi fruit.

For upscale eateries, you’re spoilt for choice in Hong Kong. Chan Yan Tak was the first Chinese chef to be awarded three Michelin stars for his restaurant The Lung King Heen, where he specializes in traditional Cantonese cuisine revitalized with a 21st-century edge, resulting in light and intricate interpretations of classics, including crispy suckling pig and seasonal dim sum.

For more bang for your buck, there’s dumpling house Mak Kwai Pui. Run by Tim Ho Wan (who trained with Chan Yan Tak), it is the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world, and now has outposts stretching as far as Sydney and New York. His fledgling empire started out with the humble ambition of bringing quality dim sum to the community he grew up in, at an affordable price. Searching for stars in Shanghai? Try Fu He Hui, awarded a Michelin star last year and one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Chef Tony Lu has brought a vegetarian spin to Shanghainese cuisine. His food goes against the Chinese Buddhist tradition, whereby vegetarian dishes imitate meat, instead serving up pristinely executed dishes such as Lotus Seed with Honey Pea and Black Fungus.

You’ll find another famous vegetarian banquet in Xiamen at Nanputuo Temple, which dates back to the Tang Dynasty and serves over 100 different dishes. Xiamen is the place to sample Fujian cuisine, which has an emphasis on soup and seafood; there may be a few challenges along the way, such as Sea Worm Jellies and Shark Ball Soup. It’s home to Buddha Jumps Over the Wall, a pricey seafood stew cooked in a meat stock that uses shark fin, sea cucumber, fish air bladder, abalone and dried scallop. Legend has it that a travelling monk was so overcome by the smell of the dish that he jumped over the wall of his wayside inn and gave up on vegetarianism to try the dish.

Whether it’s sampling unusual ingredients or taking part in centuries-old traditions that appeals, one thing’s for certain, you’ll never be able to return to your local takeaway once you’ve got a taste for the real deal.


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