It’s a shame that Chinese food has been associated with lonely nights in and hung-over dim sum brunches. The cuisine from one of the world’s most ancient societies is really quite complex, steeped in thousands of years of tradition. In fact, the Chinese are so connected with what they eat that it’s considered medicine. Look beyond the lazy Susan, and you’ll find that what’s cooking in the world’s most populated country is as varied as the regions themselves. A tour through china’s three largest cities—Beijing, Chengdu and Shanghai— showcased that directly.
Many locals proudly boast that the Chinese eat everything with legs besides the kitchen table. And it’s true; it’s not at all alarming to find locals skinning eels, deboning chickens, or hacking open juicy dragon fruit as motorbikes whiz by women huddled around mahjong tiles in the local markets.
It may seem too wild to some, but one could argue that our food system is the one that’s grotesque. Most people in the States are so far removed from our food source that it might as well have been grown on another planet. Unfortunately those American ideas are infiltrating the culture in China’s financial hubs, where you’ll see plenty of Starbucks, McDonalds and KFC chains. Still, it’s going to take a lot to undo thousands of years of history.
Food is not only essential to conducting business and family matters but for minding one’s health as well. That black mushroom you’re eating? It helps prevent cancer. All that tea you’re consuming with your meal? It aids digestion. Don’t even think of ordering cold water; that solidifies the fat in your tummy, they say. Same goes for the soup you’re served at the end of the meal.
The guides from Ker & Downey led us as we explored the unique regional cuisine of three areas in China — and managed to pick up a trick or two in the kitchen, too.
Though the days of imperial China are long gone, remnants of the old world ways can still be found in Beijing’s hutongs, or still-thriving back-alley neighborhoods centered around the Forbidden City and Tiananmen square. Stroll through the xitang hutong after taking a dumpling and hand-pulled noodle making class at the recently opened, well-appointed Waldorf Astoria Beijing, where aspiring cooks can see how their dough-working skills stack up to Three Sisters, a local lunch spot that specializes in Beijing-style dumplings.
The Peninsula Beijing also offers a culinary program for those looking to familiarize themselves with the more Cantonese-style cooking of Hong Kong, including dim sum favorites like siu mai. Chef Sam Song brought us to ren Bei Lei market to shop for supplies for the day, and I happened upon a stall that sold the culinary equivalent of yin and yang called jian bing—a giant cracked wheat crepe that balanced sweet and spicy by painting with hoisin and chili, then sprinkling with cilantro, chives and iceberg lettuce. Another must-see for adventurous street food lovers is Wangfujing snack street, where you’ll find everything from candied fruit and stinky tofu to fried scorpions.
For something a bit tamer but still sticking to traditional, Peking duck is a must. There’s a great debate over who does it best in town, and though Michelle Obama enjoys Da Dong, our wood-fired duck, complete with its signature candied crackly skin, at Made in China was fantastic. The restaurant features cuisine from many of China’s most popular provinces with a sprawling open kitchen where chefs toss hand-pulled noodles with the skills of an Olympic ribbon dancer. (Their moves are far more graceful than mine at the Waldorf Astoria’s cooking lesson, for the record.)
Another restaurant that showcases the varied cuisine of China is Lost heaven—a Yunnan-focused restaurant with stunning tribal artwork and embroidery. Their menu features dishes from the province, which borders Vietnam, Laos and Burma, and also has the highest population of ethnic minorities in China. This melting pot makes for some really interesting flavor profiles in dishes like chicken soup cooked in clay pots or aromatic veggie pancakes with willow leaves and coriander.
Food really does serve as a vehicle for cultural immersion here and, in some cases, helps preserve history. A 600-year-old Tibetan temple, restored after the Mao regime, was recently transformed into a fine dining restaurant called The Temple where first-rate service is truly a religion. The eatery showcases Chinese wines and cheeses—both industries in their infancy making headway with the growing disposable income of the upper class.
For a little less highbrow experience, make sure to hit up one of the halal snack shops like Huo Guo Shi, where locals hover over bowls of congee. The fennel-filled pancakes and freshly fried sugar dusted Chinese beignets were perfect road snacks to take on the way to the isolated and well-preserved Jinshanling portion of the Great Wall.
Just three hours from Beijing by plane and you’re in Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province and the third largest city in the country after Beijing and Shanghai. It is where the route for the ancient Southern Silk Road began. The scenic route from the airport revealed glimpses of the regions history and natural beauty. Then from the luxury and convenience of Shangri-La Chengdu, we headed into the culinary fray.
While many tourists come to check out the cuddly giant pandas at the Chengdu Research Base, adventurous eaters and heat seekers come for the cuisine. Sichuan cooking has long been associated with fiery hot dishes spiked with dried chilies, chili paste, chili powder and numbing, tongue-tingling Sichuan peppercorns. While the food is not for the faint of heart, it’s hardly going to scorch your tongue—there’s much more balance to it than that.
The perfect example of this is at Lion Pavilion, where an assortment of pig parts, seafood, beef and veggies are bathed in bubbling cauldrons of broth called hot pot. The fish mint leaf salad that’s served on the side is what did it for me—herbaceous, slightly bitter, sweet and salty—with the Sichuan fish mint herb defying the notion that Chinese wok fry all their veggies. old Chengdu Club has a version of the traditional salad too, as well as other mainstays like twice-cooked pork flecked with Sichuan peppercorns. As the trip went on, what once was a strange tingle from the Sichuan peppercorns began to make my taste buds dance in delight.
That same balance is taught to at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine, where I learned to make regional staples like mapo tofu and kung pao. The latter is actually a classic Sichuan dish that couldn’t be more different than its sad takeout stepsister in the States. The bright, ginger-studded version we made was much less goopy, with a delightful crunch from fresh peanuts and fried chilies.
Another opportunity for education further afoot is at the brand new Anantara Emei. Located in the green countryside about two and a half hours outside Chengdu, the verdant property is a peaceful retreat from the chaos of China’s large cities. The property’s Spice Spoons program pairs aspiring cooks with Chef Chris Huan, who gives a market tour through the small town center, and then does a hands-on demo with the produce back at the lush resort.
Many travelers make a pilgrimage to Emei to visit the sacred Buddhist holy site at Mount Emei, and while the space for enlightenment is indeed stunning, for a food fiend, a trip to the morning markets with chef Huan is what’s revelatory. Hawkers haggle with customers while withered farmers lug in bamboo rucksacks full of verdant veggies from the mountainside. A woman deftly works a tofu press while her neighbor arranges a rainbow of pickled vegetables. The smell of sweet, tea-smoked Sichuan duck fills the air. Li hua prepares stone bowls full of pork rice noodle soup so hot that they need to be delivered to the table with giant metal tongs. It’s a smorgasbord for the senses, and I was left wanting more.
Many people make the journey to Chengdu— once the start of the Southern Silk Road—in search of the giant pandas, but end up falling in love with the city’s unique tradition of hospitality. This is even truer at the Shangri-La Chengdu; where in true Chinese custom, guests are welcomed with a warm cup of local tea upon arrival. The modern property is a feast for the eyes, with its sweeping views of the river and roving gallery of local contemporary artists. Starting the morning out with a latte and light breakfast at the Horizon Club will make you feel like you’re at your own home away from home before you start your day of exploring.
Arriving in Shanghai after a whirlwind tour of wild eating was a godsend. The city is known for its Western influence having been a French concession for nearly 100 years. Stylish Shanghai swagger is welcome after two weeks of travel, and the luxury started off with the creature comforts at our home base at the lavish Peninsula shanghai.
The Chef’s Table at Yi Long Court restaurant operates much like the private dining rooms that are so ubiquitous in China. There are some Western touches that Chef Terrence Crandall imparts, like his sprawling French Laundry-inspired rooftop garden.
That’s not to say that you don’t feel like you’re in China, though. Dining at Ye shanghai, you can try local favorites like fired eel, sweet and sour soup (that flavor combo is traditionally Shanghainese), and shen jian bao dumplings served with a side of vinegar instead of soy sauce. At din Tai Fung, you won’t even think about dipping, though. Their delicate soup dumplings—which are definitively Shanghai’s most popular dish—are so soul-warming I almost forgot about my impending journey home. Sad as it was to depart the stunning view of The Bund, the idea of clean air was calling after days of unfortunately heavy pollution. The dumplings, though, will be sorely missed.
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