China

China

By
Luke Nguyen
Contains
16 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742705125
Photographer
Stuart Scott

Of all the countries I’ve visited in Asia, it is the people of China who have impressed me most with their knowledge of and reverence for their regional food specialties. I witnessed many passionate debates about food and ingredients, and learnt that in the story of food, you’ll also find the stories of love, war, deceit, comedy, tragedy, triumph and celebration. With such a rich and long history, it is little wonder China remains such a master of Asian cuisine.

One of the many things I love about China is its tradition of storytelling, which holds little gems of history and memories of times past.

By discovering a dish or item of produce, I’d often uncover with it a story dating back centuries — a wonderful way of keeping the past locked into the present, and recognising history in the everyday food that is still grown and traded.

I’d felt a lot of pressure starting to film this new cooking series in China, as I couldn’t speak the language, and the ethnic cuisines in this vast country are so different from what we know of in the West as ‘Chinese’ — a huge contrast for me to Vietnam where, in comparison, I’d felt protected and comfortable within my own heritage and language.

China, to me, is the grandmother of all Asian cuisines, and the source of so many other Asian ‘ways’ and authenticities.

Every day in China, I would learn of new medicinal herbs, spices, green vegetables, oils, cooking techniques and flavors. Meeting the people and wandering through the markets would take me on an exciting culinary journey, educating me about ‘real’ Chinese cooking and ingredients. I immersed myself so deeply in the culture, eating everything on offer and doing my best to speak the language, that I began to feel like a local.

I started my journey in the Yunnan capital, Kunming, affectionately known as the City of Eternal Spring, where I€ discovered the iconic dishes and old-world stories of this great metropolis.

Yunnan province in southern China is the most ethnically diverse area in the country. It is also the region that has long been known as ‘Shangri La’ — the remote, mythical long-lost paradise on earth. The landscape here is dramatic and beautiful, and home to interesting and sometimes rare€ ingredients.

I then made my way to the Dali and Shaxi regions, where I €discovered the unique culinary flavours and traditions of the Bai and Yi people, and spent time along the historic ‘Tea Horse Trail’.

From there I took a long drive to the fabled old town of Lijiang, where I met up with a Naxi family who kindly taught me their local specialties.

My trip in China wound up in Xishuangbanna, the gateway to South-East Asia, where I experienced the Dai culture and€cuisine.

It was a fascinating journey indeed.

Kunming

Kunming is known as the City of Eternal Spring, as the air is clean and crisp, and the soil is very fertile. Most of China’s flowers, fresh herbs and vegetables are grown here, and that’s what I’d come to explore. Kunming feels at ease merging the new with the old, perhaps because of its youthful population of university students, who are ever adapting and evolving with all the new fashions and technology.

Since my first visit to Kunming, over seven years ago, the city has become modernised: electric motorbikes and cars fill the streets and, for the first time ever, the road rules are actually obeyed, and street-food vendors, who once offered delicious Muslim and Chinese snacks, can no longer trade wherever they feel like on the streets.

My flight arrived early in the morning, so I made my way to the Golden Horse Gates in the centre of town, where I watched hundreds of elderly ladies exercising and dancing in the public square, following traditional old moves set to contemporary music. I couldn’t help but join in.

Afterwards, the ladies told me of a favourite local dish called ‘crossing the bridge noodles’. Like so many dishes in China, this noodle soup had history. They pointed out a restaurant called Brothers Jiang that had been serving this dish for 60“ years. When a dish has a great story behind it, I have to say it adds so much more to the dining“ experience.

After breakfast I was already thinking about lunch, so I asked people on the streets what I should eat and where. A university student told me of a hidden laneway where I could find the best chargrilled halal beef skewers, cooked by a guy named Mr Shwee. He is part of the largest minority group in China, the Uyghur people — also known as Muslim Chinese. They are famous for their skewers, but because this popular street food is now illegal, only the best cooks remain, hidden from public sight.

The next day, I drove to the Stone Forest, where 400,000 square kilometres of limestone karsts have been skilfully sculpted by nature over the past 200 million years. Bu  first I had to visit one of the best roast duck restaurants in China, in the town of Yiliang, where master chef Pan has been roasting duck for 25“ years. He marinates the ducks, then air-dries them for 24 hours, ensuring a lovely crisp skin. They are then cooked over burning dried pine needles, giving them an amazing smoky rosemary aroma. It was better than the roast duck in Beijing everyone raves about!

Dali and Shaxi

The rural town of Dali was settled by the Bai people 3000 years ago. About 300 kilometres north-west of Kunming, Dali is the economic and cultural centre of the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture. The area is surrounded by mountains to the east, west and south, with Erhai Lake in its centre. Here you will find 25 ethnic minorities, who have created a unique culture and cuisine.

Dali is famous for its rice noodles, which have a unique sticky texture. I arranged to spend a day with a family who has been making rice noodles for four generations. I was greeted at the door of an old wooden house by the Zhao family, wearing their traditional colourful Bai garb and pink headpieces.

I arrived in time to see huge baskets of soaked rice being steamed. The rice — a mixture of jasmine and glutinous rice — is steamed for 40 minutes, rested and steamed again. It is then kneaded into a thick dough, rolled flat, then hung on wooden beams for 24 hours. The whole family then cut the noodles with large cleavers. They were true artisans; I felt like I had stepped back in time. The end result was the most incredible ‘al dente noodles’ I have ever tried. If only we could get such fresh hand-made rice noodles at home.

Noodle-making is not the only tradition in Dali dating back hundreds of years. Sitting in a tiny boat listening to Bai fishermen communicating with cormorants, telling the birds when to dive for fish and when to come back, was like watching theatre, or even a musical: the birds' cries and their masters’ voices merging together like a wonderful song.

Located halfway between Dali and Lijiang, nestled deep in the Himalayan foothills, Shaxi is home to a beautiful traditional way of life that offers a glimpse into a forgotten era. Shaxi is a charming small town with a sun-drenched, fertile plain that follows the gentle Heihui River, a lesser-known branch of the Mekong.

Elder Bai and Yi people live here surrounded by cobbled streets, spectacular ancient architecture and impressive courtyard homes. The younger generations have all moved to the cities, so all you can do in Shaxi is go for short walks, relax and prepare ‘slow’ food. I really enjoyed learning dishes from the elders: you can glean so much about their culture, traditions and family values from their food.

Lijiang

Lijiang is a well-preserved city of ethnic minorities, the largest group being the Naxi. High on a plateau, 2400 metres above sea level, Lijiang is bordered by the tree-covered Lion Mountain in the west, Elephant Mountain in the north, and vast fertile fields in the south-east. Crystal-clear streams run through it, making Lijiang one of the most picturesque towns in Yunnan province. With its 800-year history, Lijiang blends ancient tradition with vibrant modern living. Sure, I enjoyed the nightclubs, but what I loved most were the unique Naxi dishes on o†ffer.

While walking through the many narrow cobbled streets of Lijiang, I found a cute Naxi restaurant with a kitchen that opened out onto the footpath. Naturally I stuck my head in, and it was there that I learned of an astonishing dish called ‘1000 layer pork’. The pork belly was marinated, half cooked, cooled, sliced, carefully layered into a bowl of pickled mustard greens and then steamed for hours, resulting in a dish of incredible ‹flavour and depth.

I couldn’t leave Lijiang without learning how to make baba, a crisp, ‹flat bread, and a staple of the Naxi people. I had tried to make it once before, but couldn’t get the multiple layering in the dough that makes it truly authentic. Help came in the form of Naxi grandmother Aiyee.

We met at the amazingly beautiful Black Dragon Pool, just outside the old town. It was like looking at a living painting. Up high in the clouds stood Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, re‹flecting its image onto the spring water below. From here we collected our spring water, as Aiyee said it is very important to make your baba from spring water, not tap water. Back in her village, set among the wheat fields, she taught me how to make sweet baba.

Just outside the bustling Lijiang markets, I discovered stalls chargrilling what looked like big balls of clay. It was a dish called beggar’s chicken, and of course there’s a story behind it, which goes like this … During the Qing dynasty, a starving beggar stole a chicken from a feudal lord. He wanted to cook it, but he was afraid the villagers would smell it being cooked and he would be caught. So he wrapped the chicken in a lotus leaf and smothered it in mud, to keep in the cooking smells. Once it was cooked, he smashed open the mud casing and found that the feathers came right off† the chicken, exposing juicy, tender meat that emitted an incredible aroma. The roasted chicken was so delicious that he decided to sell his creation to the villagers. He had unwittingly started one of China’s great culinary traditions.

Xi

Xishuangbanna is in the southernmost reaches of China, bordering Laos and Myanmar. Like its neighbours in the greater Mekong region, it has a subtropical climate. Nicknamed the Kingdom of the Plants, it is formally known as ‘Sipsongpanna’, which sounds more Thai than Chinese, and means ‘twelve thousand rice fields’. It was here I began to get a taste of South-East Asia and saw the start of the mighty Mekong, which helped me understand China’s important role in preserving the great river. How China treats the river a„ffects six other countries, and 60 million people who depend on it for their daily survival.

Xishuangbanna is also the most important tea-growing region in China, and home to the famous and much-loved Pu-erh tea, which spawned a complex series of trading routes criss-crossing China, Tibet, Nepal, Myanmar and India over some of the world’s highest terrain. These routes were collectively known as the Tea Horse Trail.

The best Pu-erh tea comes from an area called 'Six Famous Mountains', a place of breathtaking beauty. Steeply terraced tea plantations stretch as far as the eye can see, worked by local ladies wearing colourful garb and bamboo baskets on their backs. Their bright, contagious smiles had me diving in to help with the picking.

Six Famous Mountains has been a tea-growing region for more than 2000 years, and the ladies told me that tea wasn’t only used for drinking — tea leaves have also been used in medicine, and as money. We discussed di„fferent food dishes that tea leaves are used in, mainly for their fragrance. I immediately thought of a sweet snack my grandmother used to make when I was a kid — sticky sesame-coated rice balls, filled with caramelised sugar cane and cooked in a tea broth. I just had to cook it for the ladies.

I put my tea broth on the boil, but suddenly torrential rain began bucketing down. Our small umbrellas were no match for the elements and within seconds my dumpling dough was drowned in rainwater, and my backup rice ’flour was absolutely soaked. We took cover in a grass hut among the tea fields, huddling together to keep warm until the rain stopped. Then we tried again. Looking back, it “was hilarious and lots of fun.

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