The Chinese love eating – that’s a fact. Food is an important part of the Chinese culture. It has been for thousands of years. It is usual for a Chinese to greet another with “Have you eaten?” rather than ‘How are you?” as practised in the West. Chinese do love their food! Broadly, there are eight recognized great regional cuisines in mainland China today. These come from the Han Chinese. They are the majority of the Chinese people living in mainland China today – more than 90%. There are also lesser known cuisines of the minority tribes. Additionally, there are also “spin-offs” or localized Chinese cuisines that were adapted to local tastes and available ingredients when the Chinese started emigrating in the 19 th century to countries like the U.S. and South-East Asian countries like Malaysia, Vietnam and etc. Below are five of the more popular dishes recommended for well-heeled travellers to China, and especially for those who are unfamiliar with Chinese cuisines. 1. Peking (Beijing) duck It has been said that no visit to China is complete without a visit to the Great Wall of China, and no visit to China’s capital city Beijing is complete without savouring the famous Peking (Beijing) duck. It was one of the most prominent dishes to grace the banquet table when Chairman Mao hosted a state banquet in honour of the visiting US President Richard Nixon in 1972 in what was called “the Ping-Pong diplomacy”. Prepared from specially raised 60 to 65-day old white-feathered ducks, marinated and roasted to perfection, the bird is carved right in front of the diners. A layer of fat sandwiched between the crispy golden-brown skin, and the tender, juicy and succulent duck meat is served wrapped in steamed rice pastry, sauces and condiments. 2. Hairy crabs The freshwater hairy crabs are delicacies of Shanghai which are only available during the autumn months. The best crustaceans are from Yangcheng Lake, a freshwater lake in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province not far from Shanghai. The cooking is simple; the crustaceans are just steamed – placed on a plate in a covered wok of boiling water so as to preserve their naturally sweet taste. The crab is dipped into a sauce of rice vinegar, sugar and ginger and eaten using your fingers. Female crabs are preferred for their eggs (roe), said to be superior to caviar. 3. Bird-nest soup Birds’ nests are actually formed from the dried saliva of a particular kind of swift found only in some South- East Asian countries. Dangling high up from the roof of dark caves, the nests are harvested by collectors who climb long flimsy bamboo poles risking lives and limbs to reach them. It is a hazardous calling, and thus the scarcity. The consumption of birds’ nests can be controversial. Naturalists claim that the habitats of these birds are being destroyed, thus putting them in danger of extinction. Because of the large demand which far exceeds supply, the price of this delicacy can be steep. Just a small bowl of soup can set you back by up to $100. The nest itself tastes gelatinous and jelly-like. It can be double-boiled with rock sugar and sometimes with Chinese herbs. Bird-nest soup is prized for its medicinal value, supposedly boosting your libido and aids digestion. Women in particular like the beauty-enhancing qualities, said to be good for their skin. 4. Dim sum Dim sum literally means “to touch someone’s heart”. It is a typically Cantonese cuisine and particularly popular in cities like Guangzhou in South China and Hong Kong. Many Hong Kong people love dim sum as an accompaniment to the daily morning ritual called “yum cha”, literally translated as “to drink tea”. Much pleasure and meaning are derived from partaking in this activity in the company of relatives and friends. Pots of piping-hot Chinese tea, usually of the “poo- er” variety are savoured while they engage in small talks. The most common and popular dim sum varieties are steam-cooked. They are steamed in small, circular bamboo trays. The wrapping or skin is made of very thin, almost translucent rice pastry. The stuffing can be pork, seafood, chicken and etc. The standard bearers of dim sum are arguably the Char Siew Pao (steamed buns with roasted pork filling), the Siew Mai (steamed pork wrapped in bean curd sheet) and the Har Kow (steamed prawns wrapped in translucent rice pastry). Sweet varieties like the egg tart and mango pudding are also offered. 5. Abalone The abalone is a shelled seafood found in deep seabeds. They can be fresh, dried or canned. They are imported from various parts of the world like the U.S, Australia, Japan, South Africa and etc. They are very expensive, easily costing up to hundreds of dollars each. At upmarket Chinese restaurants, the abalone is often cooked with other expensive items like sea cucumbers and scallops (both are exotic seafood), fish maw and dried shitake mushrooms. To the uninitiated, Chinese food can be downright controversial like the shark-fin soup, to the weird like the stinky tofu and the century egg. But the five recommended above are good choices to initiate a traveller into the delightful world of Chinese food. Enjoy!
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