The Chinese kitchen

The Chinese kitchen

By
Antony Suvalko, Leanne Kitchen
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742705309
Photographer
Leanne Kitchen

Can there be a subject in the entire culinary world more vast than that of Chinese cuisine? After regularly visiting this great country for nearly twenty years, we don’t think so. At once familiar and confoundingly foreign, the notions of ‘China’ and ‘Chinese food’ are not easy to define or neatly quantify. After all, we’re talking about one of the world’s oldest civilisations, and a nation today of over 1.3 billion people, five time zones, twenty-two provinces and five autonomous regions. It has over fifty distinct ethnic groups, dozens of languages and dialects, and fourteen direct neighbours as disparate as India, Tajikistan, North Korea, Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Russia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. A mind-blowing diversity of plants and animals are found there and China’s climatic regions span the chilling arctic blasts of the far north and the lush tropical languor of the south. In between are epic mountain ranges, deserts, fertile plateaus, river lowlands and vast lakes, plus more than 14,000 kilometres of coastline abundant with fish and seafood. To say this is one diverse country, with a rich, complex and lengthy history of culinary refinement, is as colossal an understatement as the place itself.

To travel around China today, even for a short spell, is to grasp how much there is to learn about the myriad ways this nation cooks and eats. The ‘Chinese’ food we’re most familiar with in the West is actually Cantonese food — peoples from that one, southern province were the earliest Chinese immigrants to places such as Canada, America, Australia and New Zealand. With them, the Cantonese brought their distinctive cooking style and insinuated it marvellously into our own — their barbecued and roasted meats, their morning yum cha habit, and dishes such as sweet and sour pork, wonton noodle soup, whole steamed fish and chow mein. While Cantonese cuisine is considered the pinnacle in China, it’s only part of the story; there are eight officially recognised culinary styles in all, namely Shandong, Sichuan, Guangdong (Cantonese), Fujian, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Hunan and Anhui.

While these eight styles represent a bountiful and wide-ranging canon, they don’t even begin to take into account the distinct cuisines of the many ethnic minorities, nor the rustic dishes of places such as Inner Mongolia, the sprawling northeast region of Dongbei or western parts of the country such as Xinjiang, Qinghai and Tibet, these days subsumed into China proper. Nor do they account for the specialties and styles that exist within a region — seemingly each city has its own unique dishes, ingredients or ways of cooking that differ from the next. Sometimes, as happens in other food-rich countries, this divergence even occurs at the village level.

From the sweetish grilled rubing (goat’s milk cheese) of Yunnan and her incredible species of edible wild mushrooms; the artisanal smoked pork of Hunan; the stone-cooked flatbreads of Shandong; the fermented, ‘stinky’ foods of Shaoxing; and the cumin-encrusted lamb skewers of Xinjiang; to the diverse noodle culture of Shanxi; the tenderest spring bamboo shoots of Zhejiang; the extraordinary treatment of seafood in Fujian; the simple grain congees of the centre and north; and the sublime duck dishes of Nanjing … Chinese food takes you on one hell of a tasty ride.

In all of this mind-bending gustatory variance, though, there are common strands that bind the country together. There’s a saying that the Chinese people ‘regard food as their heaven’. If you take that to mean, as we do, that they adore good food and that the preparing, cooking and enjoying of it are vitally important in their daily lives, you’ll start to build a picture. Whether dining takes place on the street (China surely has one of the world’s richest street-food cultures), in restaurants or in the home, there’s a joy and exuberance around the act of eating that is infectious. As anywhere, people will grab a quick, solo refuel if they need to, but, generally, eating is a communal act where diners share dishes from large serving bowls or plates. The notions of ‘harmony’ (he in Chinese) and family relationships are central to life here and nowhere is this expressed more clearly than in a strong desire to eat together. Meals are composed of a careful mix of ingredients, cooking techniques and textures, where hot and cold, sweet and savoury, carbs and proteins, vegetables and meat, oily and lean, steamed and fried are kept in rigorous balance. Achieving a harmony of salty, sour, bitter, spicy and sweet notes is also key, as is an observance of the health-giving properties of many ingredients.

Take a wander down any of China’s streets or tangle of small alleyways and you’ll find culinary adventures galore. There, the streets are permeated not just with tantalising food smells, but also with the loud sizzle, hiss, whoosh and spit from woks, steamers and coal-fuelled grills spewing out dumplings, rice, soups, meats and flatbreads. And, in the wheat-eating northern parts, streets ring with the rhythmic thwack of hand-made noodles being belted out against tabletops and benches.

Internally, some of China’s regional cooking styles are considered more refined than others. Those of Shandong, Fujian, the afore-mentioned Guangdong (Canton) and the Imperial cuisine of Beijing, for example, are lauded for their complex techniques and dainty presentation that show a highly evolved culinary aesthetic. For us, though, the real draw of Chinese food is found in its simplest expressions — in a bowl of knife-cut noodles doused in chilli and vinegar; in a plate of springy, boiled dumplings; or a shared serve of succulent roast duck with a side of just-steamed greens — and the near-religious respect Chinese people have for perfectly fresh ingredients. We love scratching around Chinese produce markets and marvelling at the enticing layers of fat on their pork, the piles of fresher-than-fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables, and the diversity of ingredients, such as the huge range of tofu or grades of dried chilli available. We love the way the Chinese insist on purchasing poultry and fish live and having it dispatched to order; perhaps over time, with growing wealth and the inevitable increase in the number of supermarkets, this may change but, for now, ‘fresh’ and ‘seasonal’ define the way the country shops. We’re fascinated, too, that everything is fair dining game: frogs, duck’s tongues, cock’s combs, donkey, turtles, bee larvae, raw pig skin, rats, snake and every style of innards you could possibly imagine.

About the recipes

While you won’t discover anything quite so exotic in this book, what you will find are recipes that celebrate what we’ve come to love the most about this incredible cuisine: easy cooking techniques, punchy flavours, everyday ingredients (you’ll find most of what you need in a Chinese supermarket or your local Asian market) and a generous approach to the shared table. We’ve in no way intended to exhaustively document the depth and breadth of the country and its fare — that would require several lifetimes — and much that is so unique about Chinese food needs to be appreciated in situ. There simply is no way to experience the handmade fermented sausages of Anchang, the catfish of Sichuan, the hams of Jinhua, the bamboo-cooked rice of Guilin, the gooey, sweet fire crystal persimmons of Xi’an, the hairy crabs of Shanghai, the raw pork skin of Dali, the unique street snacks of Chaozhou or the celebrated rice flour noodles of Nanchang unless you go there yourself …

Failing that, your next best bet is to cook! Which is where this book comes in. We’ve deliberately chosen dishes that, in the main, are achievable at home; we’re aware that complete proficiency in the Chinese kitchen demands mastery of the cleaver and wok plus dexterity at tasks such as filling dumplings and slapping noodles around — all skills that require practice. The majority of these recipes can be made with basic proficiency and equipment; we’ve actually avoided too many stir-fries, for example, as we find most domestic stoves lack the fire power to truly give good results (which isn’t to say you don’t need a wok; in fact, having a few different sized ones is useful). Quite a number of the dishes involve simmering, stewing and steaming, all homey cooking methods that produce the sort of no-fuss, full-flavoured food we love. Those that do get you rolling wrappers, cutting up chicken or folding lotus leaves are doable even for the novice, so rarely should you come unstuck. Neat cutting for even cooking and tidy presentation is helpful for many of the dishes, but if your knife work isn’t so exact, no worries — common sense with cooking times will cover a multitude of inexact slicing sins!

For convenience, this book is parcelled up into chapters based on main ingredients — ‘pork’, ‘noodles and rice’ and ‘vegetables and tofu’, for example. We want you to be able to easily dip in and out of sections to build a meal, whether simple or sumptuous. Choose a few meat and/or fish dishes, throw in a good number of cold ones (many of these can conveniently be done in advance) and a vegetable option or two and you’ve got a banquet on your hands. Note that just about all the recipes here are designed to share, in keeping with how the Chinese dine. Select across the various cooking techniques (deep-frying, steaming, simmering) for textural interest and feel free to substitute vegetables in dishes depending on what’s in season.

Many of the vegetable, rice, noodle and dumpling recipes are perfect to serve as standalone, easy meal ideas, and so are rustic dishes such as Xingjiang ‘big bowl’ chicken and beer fish. Others such as soy sauce chicken, beef ribs with vinegar and honey dates or, our favourite, crisp roast pork belly, just need a pot of steamed rice and some wok-fried greens to constitute an effortless meal. Cook as many, or as few, dishes as the occasion, available time and hunger levels dictate.

And, although the Chinese don’t usually end a meal with a pudding as such, we’ve gone the laowai (foreigner) route and fashioned some of our sweet favourites from the street and the Chinese snacking repertoire into recipes that we call ‘dessert’. As for drinks, we think the spicy, heavier dishes here demand beer, and Chinese Tsingtao, developed in 1904 in Shandong Province on the back of German brewing know-how, is an admirable choice. Otherwise we like tea … as do the Chinese. ‘Better to be deprived of food for three days than tea for one,’ as another Chinese saying goes. Tie guanyin (a semi-fermented tea that’s a type of oolong from Fujian) or longjing (the famous green ‘dragon well’ tea from Hangzhou) are our favourites, although for yum cha we choose puerh, a dark, smoky fermented tea from Yunnan that’s said to aid digestion.

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