To the people, food is heaven (民以食為天)

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This saying, 民以食為天 mín yǐ shí wéi tiān, is a good indication that the Chinese are pretty serious about food and eating. I have written previously on this blog about food terminology in the Chinese language. Suffice it to say, the Chinese love to eat, and when they are not eating,  they are talking about eating, or planning what to eat next. China is truly one of the great cuisines of the world, and one of the ancient cuisines that has been around for a very long time. In fact, during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.) one could find more than 200 dishes served at a banquet, including 41 dishes of fish, shrimp, snails, pork, goose, duck mutton, pideon, etc., 42 dishes of fruits and sweetmeats, 20 dishes of vegetables, 9 of boiled rice, 29 dishes of dried fish, 17 different drinks, 19 kinds of pies, and 57 desserts. In the capitol city of of Hangzhou you could find 18 different kinds of beans and soya beans, 9 kinds of rice, 11 kinds of apricots, 8 of pears, and so on.  (See Gernet, Jacques. Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250-1276). Think about what was going on in Europe during this time.

In China’s ancient book of poetry, The Book of Songs (shī jīng 詩經), published around the 5th century B.C., there are 130 references to plants, 200 to animals, 19 fishes, 38 types of poultry, the seasonings mentioned include salt, honey, malt sugar, ginger, cinnamon, and pepper. By contrast, the Bible only mentions 29 food items.

There are at least three reasons we can contribute to China’s long obsession with food. One, there has been a very long, sustained civilization. In other words, there has been a long time to develop the many food sources. Two, geographical diversity. China is a land of many geographical features, from desert to jungle to fertile river plains. And three, for much of China’s history the people have been threatened with famine. This has resulted in the Chinese being very creative with all food sources.

三大菜系 sān dà cài xì: Three General Food Categories

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The first and biggest category is Han/Man 汉/满 which refers to the Han or Chinese majority and Manchurian (the rulers of the last imperial dynasty. This accounts for the vast majority of all Chinese food in China.

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The second category is Muslim or kosher cuisine, referred to in Chinese as 清真, and the third category is vegetarianism 素 which is often associated with Buddhism.

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八大菜系 bā dà cài xì: The Eight Culinary Tradtions

Chinese food, represented under the broad Han/Man category is often broken down into eight distinct culinary categories, which are generally divided by geographical region.

1. Chuān     川  Sichuan

2. Huì          徽  Anhui

3. Lǔ           鲁  Shandong

4. Mín         闽  Fujian

5. Sū           苏  Jiangsu

6. Yuè         粤  Guangdong,   Hong Kong

7.Xiāng       湘  Hunan

8. Zhè          浙  Zhejiang

四大菜系 sì dà cài xì: The Four Major Culinary Traditions

This list can be further simplified into four main geographical areas that incorporate the eight ares listed above. They are:

Lǔ                    鲁  Northern China

Huáiyáng         淮扬  Eastern China

                        (Lower Yangtze River Basin, incl. Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui)

Chuān              川  Western China (Sichuan, Chongqing, Guizhou, Yunnan)

Yuè                  粤  Guangdong, Hong Kong

Northern Cuisine 鲁菜 lǔ cài (Shandong Cuisine)

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• Wheat-based foods: noodles, steamed buns, fried flat breads

• Seasonings: garlic, chives, leeks, star anise, sweet plum sauces

• Poultry , especially duck, lamb, beef, pork

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Eastern Cuisine 淮扬菜 huáiyáng cài (Jiangsu Cuisine)

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• Land of fish and rice

• Light flavors that emphasize the natural flavor of the food; not too salty or sweet

• Famous for soy sauces, vinegars, and rice wines

• Stir-frying and steaming most common

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Western Cuisine 川菜 chuān cài (Sichuan Cuisine)

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• Land of abundance

• Liberal use of spice (chili peppers, Sichuan peppercorns)

• Lots of garlic, ginger, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, pork, chicken

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Southern Cuisine 粤菜 yuè cài (Guangdong/Cantonese Cuisine)

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• China’s haute cuisine

• Tastes and techniques a blend of China and the West

• Light flavors; delicate, fresh, tender, crisp

• Known for roasted meats: suckling pig, duck, chicken, BBQ pork

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Dining in Yangzhou

wànjiā měishí Restaurant in Yangzhou

The city of Yangzhou sits on the Northern banks of the Yangtze River (长江 chángjiāng) a short distance down river from Nanjing and a couple hours upriver from Shanghai. The city has approximately 4.5 million people and is often described as a quaint Chinese town or city. And guess what? It does feel smallish and quaint compared to China’s other massive, sprawling cities.

Yangzhou is a culinary hotspot. If you like to eat, you will love Yangzhou. It is a foodie’s paradise. In an earlier post I talked about Yangzhou’s famous and fabulous dimsum. (https://intothemiddlekingdom.com/2012/06/29/yangzhou-dimsum/). Yangzhou is one of the culinary centers of Huaiyang cuisine (淮扬菜 huáiyáng cài), one of the Eight major cuisines in China (八大菜系 bādàcàixī). The name comes from the Huai and Yangtze Rivers that cut through this fertile region. The Yangtze River is also called in Chinese the 扬子江 yángzi jiāng. Huaiyang Cuisine is characterized by super fresh ingredients with delicate seasoning. It is felt that you don’t want to overpower the freshness of the ingredients with heavy sauces or spices. Along with Cantonese (粤菜 yuècài), Sichuan (川菜 chuāncài), and Northern (鲁菜 lǔcài) cuisines, Huaiyang Cuisine is highly celebrated in China and for good reason.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, I was in Yangzhou for a couple days in February of this year and sampled some of the famous dishes of the city. It was truly a memorable culinary experience. Fortunately, I have my friend, and colleague from Nanjing University, and fellow foodie along with me. He knows the city well as he spent much time there as a child visting his grandmother.

One night we selected a small restaurant down an alley off a main street. It is pictured above and was called 万家美食 wànjiā měishí and specialized in Yangzhou’s specialties which is what the smaller characters on the sign say, 扬州特色菜 yángzhōu tèsè cài. It was a cold rainy night, and as many of you know, there is seldom central heat in buildings in this part of China so you get used to eating with your coat and hat on.

Yangzhou cuisine is famous for its “three heads” dishes. This includes fish head (鱼头 yǔtóu), lion’s head (狮子头 shīzitóu), and pig’s head (猪头 zhùtóu). I tried the first of the two, which were exceptional. The pig’s head is basically a braised pig face, which I decided to pass on.

Delicious fish head steamed with a slightly sweet sauce

I know what many of you are thinking, fish head??? Trust me, it is delicious. The most tender and delicious meat from a fish comes from the cheek area, and the area just below the gills. Have you ever had halibut cheeks? I ate them once at a seafood restaurant in Seattle and they were to die for. This fish dish was exceptionally fresh, with a delicate sweet and slightly sour sauce with a few chopped scallions sprinkled on top. It was really good.

清蒸狮子头 qīngzhēng shīzitóu “fresh steamed lion’s head”

This dish contains no part of any lion. The Chinese have many creative names for dishes that have nothing to do with the ingredients. This dish is actually made with beef. However, it is not cheap ground beef. Prime cuts of beef are actually chopped with two large cleavers until the meat is minced into teeny tiny pieces. It is then seasoned with ginger and some onion, then steamed to perfection. The meat is so tender and succulent it can only be described as velvet-like. It was fantastic. The flavors were delicate, subtle, perfect. I really enjoyed this dish. It was ever better than the similar beef balls you get on Cantonese dimsum menus. I am not a big beef eater, but this dish was outstanding and I would order it again, and again.

大煮干丝 dàzhǔ gānsī “boiled shredded tofu”

This is another famous Yangzhou dish. The noodle-looking things are actually a type of dried tofu called 豆腐干 dòufugān, which literally means “dry tofu.” It has a firm, chewy texture similar to noodles. Like all tofu dishes the tofu soaks up all the flavors it is mixed with. This dish contains some greens and bamboo shoots all cooked in a delicious, light chicken based stock. It is a wonderful dish and can be found all over Yangzhou.

扬州炒饭 yángzhōu chǎofàn “Yangzhou fried rice”

This is not the greasy slop that you get at Chinese-American restaurants in the U.S. The first time I encountered Yangzhou style fried rice I had just arrived in Guangzhou after many hours on a plane. I finally got to my hotel around midnight and I was ravenous, but way too tired to go out and find a restaurant still open. So I ordered a plate of Yangzhou fried rice from room service. It was delicious!

Yangzhou fried rice is famous all over China. As with most Huaiyang cuisine it is lightly and delicately flavored, and is neither greasy nor smothered in salty soy sauce. It is seasoned with little bits of very fresh vegetables such as carrots, greens, maybe a bit of garlic. It almost always has freshly scrambled eggs and ham. I very seldom order fried rice; actually I never order fried rice, much preferring steamed rice. But Yangzhou style fried rice is the exception. It really is outstanding and the pinnacle of fried rice dishes in China.

After this wonderful meal I was feeling very sleeping, and very chubby. In fact, on this trip I had been eating way too much as I was doing research (i.e. eating) on Huaiyang cuisine. Several of my friends and colleagues knew this so they were very eager to take me to their favorite restaurants and order way more food than we could possibly eat.

Feeling a bit chubby after an excellent meal in Yangzhou

In the future I’ll be posting more about Huaiyang cuisine as well as China’s other cuisines as I continue my research on China’s famous regional cuisines. Let’s just say that authentic Chinese food is more varied, more delicious, and much more exciting than anything you can find here in the U.S.

 

Tofu Brains (豆腐脑 dòufu nǎo)

豆腐脑 dòufu nǎo (Tofu Brains)

It was a cold, rainy night in Yangzhou this past March. I was out walking in the old town section of Yangzhou looking for something quick, and hot to eat for dinner. When you are in an area that does not have central heating in its buildings, 40 degrees feels much, much colder. And after several days, the cold seems to wear you down a bit.

I passed a very small restaurant crowded with people. This is always a good sign that good, fresh food is being served. In fact, I would suggest that you avoid empty restaurants no matter how good the food looks. There’s a reason why restaurants are crowded. At the entrance to the restaurant, outside, was a table with dozens of white bowls arranged on it. In each bowl was a ceramic spoon with some broth in it, freshly chopped garlic, finely chopped chili pepper, cilantro, and a few other ingredients that I am not sure of.

Bowls waiting for tofu

I asked the woman working there what this dish was called. She looked at me like I was an idiot and replied, “dòufu nǎo (豆腐脑).” Her tone was like, “duh.” Well, I admit that as much as I love Chinese food, and have been eating it all over China for 25+ years, I had never seen or heard of this dish.

After diners paid for the bowl of Tofu Brains, the women would then take a large flat ladle and scoop out several thin layers of soft, hot tofu from a large crock and ladle it into the bowl. You then took your bowl, and found a place to sit down inside. You then gently stir the tofu up into the other ingredients to make a soup as seen in the first photograph.

Preparing the dish

Wow! It was amazing. The tofu was soft, silky, and hot, and the broth was deep and complex. The heat of the tofu gently cooked the freshly chopped vegetables, and it had just the right amount of salt. The wonderful thing about tofu is its ability to absorb the flavors of whatever it is cooked with. This dish was exceptional. It really hit the spot on this cold, wet night.

I admit the name of this dish, Tofu Brains, is a bit graphic, but who cares when it is so delicious (and the fact that there are no real brains in it). I was beginning to have recollections of a soft tofu dish sort of like this common in Southern China, called 豆腐花 dòufu huā or 豆花 dòuhuā for short. This dish uses the same kind of soft, silky tofu but it is sweet and eaten cold, particularly in the summer when it is hot. It is pretty refreshing. This can be translated as ‘jellied tofu’ even though it literally means ‘tofu flower.’

I wish I would have spent more time analyzing the dish to figure out exactly what was in it. I guess I could also have asked the woman working there what was in it. But I was cold, and hungry, and I gobbled down the bowl without giving it a whole lot of thought. I then scurried off in the rain back to my hotel.

If you don’t like tofu, you probably wouldn’t like this dish, but if you do, I highly recommend it. There are quite a few variations of this dish all around China. For example, in Sichuan Province, it will likely be spiked with lots of fresh chili peppers and be very spicy. The Yangzhou variety had a hint of spice, but like most Huaiyang Cuisine, tasted fresh with delicate flavors. This certainly won’t be my last bowl of Tofu Brains

Yangzhou Dimsum

蒸饺 zhēngjiǎo (Steamed dumplings)

In late February and early March of this year I was in Nanjing doing some work for our language program there. I extended my stay a few days to do some food and eating research. This area of China, the lower Yangtze River valley, is where you find Huaiyang Cuisine (淮扬菜 huáiyáng cài). The name comes from the Yangtze and Huai Rivers. This is one of the eight major cuisines of China (八大菜系 bādà càixì). I have spent quite a bit of time in Nanjing, and have traveled to Shanghai on occasion. I have also been to Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Yangzhou, but I had never really explored in much depth real Huaiyang Cuisine. On this trip, in addition to visiting the city of Huai’an, I spent a couple days in Yangzhou, eating. I had a Chinese colleague and good friend with me. Not only is he a real Chinese foodie, but he is also very familiar with the city of Yangzhou.

Yechun Teahouse, Yangzhou

In this post I want to focus only on Yangzhou style dimsum (点心 diǎnxīn), or breakfast food. I am quite familiar with Cantonese style dimsum from my time in Hong Kong and Guangzhou. To be honest I didn’t know that dimsum (even using this term) existed outside Cantonese food (粤菜 yuècài). On our first morning in Yangzhou, my friend took me to probably the second most famous restaurant (at least for dimsum) in Yangzhou, 冶春茶社 yěchūn cháshè. I was completely blown away, and have to rank this as one of the most spectacular meals I have eaten in China, and I have eaten countless meals in China.

Yechun Teahouse in Yangzhou

Though the restaurant has a very long history, it had been remodeled in traditional style. It sits on one the many canals in Yangzhou and was a favorite stop for emperors touring the Southern part of the kingdom. Unlike some Chinese restaurants, it was clean and very nice, bordering on swanky.

Yechun Teahouse

Decor at Yechun Teahouse

We started with a couple appetizers. My mother always told me that you can tell a good restaurant by the little things like appetizers and side dishes. A good quality restaurant will spend time to make excellent little dishes, not just the main dishes. We had boiled peanuts and red peppers with garlic. The peppers had a fantastic flavor seasoned with fresh garlic and a hint of vinegar. The peanuts were crunchy, just a little salty, and had a faint hint of vinegar. It’s hard to describe this very simple dish. Who would think eating plain old peanuts would be very good, but I assure you the Chinese have elevated the peanut to haute cuisine. The were so good we had our little appetizer dishes refilled twice.

Peanuts and red pepper appetizers

One of the first things that struck me about the dumplings were how big they were. Most Cantonese dimsum dishes are quite small. The steamed jiaozi were enormous in comparison. The were freshly made right next to the dining room and were succulent and full of flavor. They had just the right amount of oil, being tender and juicy without feeling the least bit greasy.

Making 蒸饺 zhēngjiǎo (steamed dumplings)

蒸饺 zhēngjiǎo

Fabulous!

I also had a kind up dumpling that I had not eaten before, though I had heard about them. Think of a very large dumpling filled with a delicious broth and tiny bits of minced meat and you have Yangzhou style 汤包 tāngbāo. It is served with a small straw. Simply poke the straw into the dumpling and slurp out the rich, flavorful broth. Then eat the dumpling. Not only is it a creative way to serve a rich broth, it was absolutely delicious. The menu name of those that we ate were called, 蟹黄汤包 xìehuáng tāngbāo. In this case it was a rich crab-based broth. They reminded me a bit of Shanghai style 小笼包 xiǎolóngbāo.

汤包 tāngbāo (Soup dumpling)

Slurping up the rich broth

Yangzhou is famous for their pastries, though they are not much like what we call pastries in the West. They are called 酥饼 sūbǐng and have a flaky and crispy, yet tender texture. They can be sweet or savory. We ordered  萝卜丝酥饼 luóbosī sūbǐng or shredded carrot sūbǐng. Yangzhou Subing are made with white sesame seeds on the outside, both the sweet and savory kinds.

萝卜丝酥饼 luóbosī sūbǐng (Shredded carrot cakes)

The pastry was wonderfully crispy and flaky. In addition to shredded carrots, there was also some turnips and green onion. They were addictively good. In fact each dish was so good, I would have been happy just eating more of the same.

We next had a beautiful and delicious 烧麦 shāomài. This is a common Cantonese dimsum dish, usually written as siumai. They are a stuffed steamed dumpling. We ordered 翡翠烧麦 fěicuì shāomài, which basically means jade or emerald shaomai. They were exquisite to look at and to eat. It was obviousl that this restaurant took great pride in using very fresh ingredients. One of the ways you can tell nicer Chinese restaurants from others is the amount of grease in the food. Crummier restaurants tend to have pretty greasy, oily dishes, but since nicer restaurants use higher quality ingredients they don’t need to hide things in a lot of oil.

翡翠烧麦 fěicuì shāomài (Green steamed dumplings)

Finally, we ordered 千层油糕 qīancéng yóugāo, which was a layered cake. The Chinese are not too fond of sweets so their desserts tend to be much less sweet than what we are used to in the West. This was a slightly sweet layered cake, that was pretty good, as long as you were not expecting Western-cake-sweet. It was light and airy.

千层油糕 qīancéng yóugāo (Layered cake)

This was truly a spectacular meal for me. And it was a revelation to eat such wonderful dimsum outside of Hong Kong and Guangdong Province. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Yangzhou. In fact, I loved this dimsum so much, I went to another pretty well-known restaurant by myself the next morning to try some more dishes. I was not disappointed.

Chinese food is so varied and delicious that eating is what I most look forward to when I travel to China.