In reality, China is so large and diverse that it is often divided into as many as eight cuisines. However, my restriction of 80 cuisines (and the fact that at some point I want to get my life back) means that I have split it into just two: north and south. The major distinction I have found between the cuisines of southern and northern China is that the former relies predominantly on rice as the staple carbohydrate (steamed white rice, congee etc), while the latter features much more wheat (noodles, dumplings, breads). This is predominantly due to environment; the south has warm and rainy conditions ideal for rice, while the north is dry and colder. The north also has simpler, blander food, while the south is known for its variety of spices and ingredients, as well as abundant seafood. Chinese food, especially Cantonese cuisine, is well known in the western world, evidenced by the fact that at some point there were even more Chinese restaurants in the USA than McDonald’s. This may be partly due to the early Chinese immigration to the USA and Australia during gold rushes. The dishes served in these restaurants, however, have evolved and adapted to suit Western palates, rendering most, if not all, dishes unidentifiable from their origins. The popularity of USA television in China has led to the establishment of USA-Chinese restaurants there, where they even import ingredients from the USA to specifically achieve the right balance of fusion. Chinese food is also intrinsically linked to traditional medicine, and foods are often classified into three categories: cooling foods (such as tofu and celery), warming foods (such as chilli and onion) and neutral foods (such as rice and mushrooms). Some of these make sense to me (such as celery being cooling and chilli being warming), but I don’t know how others were classified. Certain imbalances of yin and yang, and therefore subsequent common ailments, can be diagnosed as the body being too cool and warm, and treated with the ingestion of the opposite category of food. I’m intrigued by the history of this custom, although a little intimidated that a second layer of judgement might be applied to my ingredient choices…
Steamed whole fish and san choy bau
Steamed whole fish is very popular all over China, but especially during Chinese New Year. One of the reasons for this is that the word for fish sounds a bit like “abundance”, which may portend good luck for the year ahead. I used a small snapper and steamed it covered in ginger inside and out. Once the fish was ready, I poured a sauce of soy sauce and rice wine over the top, and sprinkled some coriander, chilli and scallions over the top. I then finished the dish by pouring some piping hot oil over the top of everything, which cooks the garnishes and releases their aromas dramatically, as well as giving the outside of the fish a great texture and flavour. San choy means “lettuce” and bau means “to wrap” in Cantonese; san choy bau is therefore spiced minced meat wrapped in a lettuce leaf. I made mine by frying garlic, ginger, crushed peanuts, water chestnuts and pork mince together with soy sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil and lime juice. I stirred through some beansprouts, sesame seeds and coriander at the end, and then spooned the mixture into cups of iceberg lettuce. I’ve always loved this dish – the contrast between the hot juicy flavoursome mince and the cold crispy lettuce is truly wonderful. Maybe there’s something to this hot and cold balance idea after all?
Char siu pork with prawn fried rice
Char siu pork, also known as Chinese BBQ pork, can be recognised by its distinctive sticky red coating. The overnight marinade is made by boiling honey, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, soy sauce, five spice powder, Chinese rice wine, red food colouring and sesame oil in a saucepan. I then roasted the pork in the oven, continuing to baste all the way through the cooking process to ensure a thick sticky glaze. Fried rice is a recipe created from the desire to use up remaining leftovers, and can therefore include infinite combinations of ingredients. I made mine by frying up some shallots, garlic, Chinese sausage and carrots, then pouring in pre-cooked rice with some peas, rice wine and soy sauce. I added the prawns right at the end so that they didn’t overcook, as well as some sections of rolled-up omelette that I had cooked earlier. I could eat fried rice infinitely; it has a great combination of flavours, with every bite being a little bit different.
Salt-baked chicken with greens and rice
I’d previously heard of salt-baked chicken, but never tried it. Legend has it that it was invented by a salt-merchant who was given a chicken far from home, which he decided to preserve in salt to keep it fresh until he got back. However, as he travelled he found the call of the chicken too strong, and decided to cook it while he was still travelling, and, lacking much cooking equipment, roasted it completely immersed in salt. He was so delighted with the result that he lauded its virtues to his wife upon his return, and she, predictably, perfected the recipe and wrote it down for perpetuity. A whole chicken is first coated in Chinese rice wine, ginger powder, salt and white pepper, and then left overnight in the fridge, uncovered, to help the skin dry out, and ultimately get crispy during the cooking process. Kilos of salt are then stir fried in a wok until piping hot, and half is added to the bottom of a pot, and the chicken placed on top, wrapped securely in baking parchment to avoid excessive saltiness. More salt is then poured over the top so that the chicken is complete buried. This preparation is cooked over a low heat on top of the stove for about 40 minutes until the chicken is cooked, with a lot more time devoted to letting it all cool down before you attempt to dig it out. I’ve always adored chicken in all forms, so you know that it’s a serious claim when I tell you that this was the best chicken I’ve ever eaten, hands down. The insides are incredibly juicy and seem to taste more “chickeny” than regular chicken, while the skin is browned, a little crispy, and nicely salted. The only thing I would do differently is try it in the oven next time, as my electric stove-top isn’t great at maintaining a constant low heat, and the parchment paper got a little burnt on the bottom, while the top of the chicken wasn’t as browned. I think most recipes propose stove-top cooking because it’s more common and traditional in China, but I will see if using an oven yields superior results. I will definitely make it again, that’s for sure! I served my chicken with steamed white rice, as well as stir-fried Asian leafy greens and broccoli.
Sichuan chilli chicken
The Sichuan province is located in south western China, and is renowned for its strong, spicy food. One of the most famous flavours from this region is Sichuan pepper, which is a husk from a type of plant that is actually more related to the citrus family than chilli or black pepper, and is famous for causing a tingling, numbing sensation in the mouth, followed by extreme heat. Sichuan chilli chicken, also sometimes called kung pan chicken, is a stir-fry dish where chicken cubes are first coated in Sichuan pepper and five spice, then rolled in corn flour. This process ensures the chicken is tasty, and nicely browned and a little crispy on the outside. These are then flash fried in a wok along with garlic, ginger, dried whole chillies, peanuts, as well as Chinese rice wine and soy sauce. I served mine on a bed of steamed white rice and garnished with chopped shallots. I have been gradually building up my tolerance to spiciness, having previously ordered everything mild like a total wimp. In the last few years, I’ve started really enjoying the numbing of my mouth with moderately spicy foods, although I’m still at amateur levels in the grand scheme of things. I therefore made this dish slightly milder than the recipe prescribed, but really enjoyed it. I’ll work up to extreme levels eventually!