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November, 2015

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The hungry adventurer’s guide to China

By
Jane Willson
Added
25 September, 2014

Former chefs and forever Sinophiles Leanne Kitchen and Antony Suvalko have compiled a comprehensive, big-picture take on the mind-blowing depth, colour and variety of Chinese cuisine.




In the introduction to their new book, The Real Food of China, Leanne Kitchen and Antony Suvalko write that there are eight officially recognised culinary styles in this vast country.

They tell us that the “Chinese” food we’re most familiar with in the West is Cantonese food because it is people from that one southern province that were the earliest immigrants to the likes of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US.

Sweet and sour pork, wonton noodle soup, whole steamed fish and chow mein are some of the dishes that we know best. But, of course, there is so much more.

What they all have in common is expressed in a saying: the Chinese people “regard food as their heaven”. “The notions of ‘harmony’ and family relationships are central to life here and nowhere is this expressed more clearly than in a strong desire to eat together.”

We quizzed Leanne (a former chef and long-time food journalist) and Antony (also a former chef) recently about their perceptions, standout food experiences, favourite recipes (they both chose pork!) and what they learnt exploring China for the making of their book, which is out next month.

They are each responsible for the (stunning) location photography and Leanne took the food shots, too.

Q: You are both from New Zealand and now, we guess it’s fair to say, you’re committed Sinophiles. What was the journey here and was there a standout revelatory moment?

AS: Seeing first-hand the resilience of the Chinese people everyday, from tending their fields to selling their wares at the market ... nothing was wasted.

LK: I grew up in the Mao era and just found the whole shebang so fascinating and I always wanted to go. My first trip wasn't until the mid ’90s and I loved it all from the minute I landed. That was to Shanghai, which has changed almost beyond recognition even in that short time. I’ve been back many times since then, and over the years I’ve read endless books about the place and I do feel its constant pull.

Q: Do you have a favourite style and what advice would you give to the novice who wants to take their palate beyond yum cha?

LK: Well, there’s nothing wrong with yum cha.  Guangzhou, the home of it, is one of my favourite Chinese cities. The food there (not just the yum cha but the roast meats and mind-blowing seafood) is simply off the dial crazy-good. I do love Sichuan food. All that chilli and Sichuan peppercorn gets really very addictive but if you're not into heat (and trust me, their fare is HOT HOT), they have plenty of dishes that aren't incendiary.

Advice to the novice? Just jump in.

In Chengdu they actually have their own snack repertoire (supposedly more than 500 types) and these encompass both sweet and savoury ... like tang yuan (rice flour balls stuffed with sweet black sesame and poached in a slightly sweet broth), zhong dumplings (served in a bracing chilli oil mixture) and longchaoshou, or wontons in soup.


Advice to the novice? Just jump in. Find the places where the locals are eating, be they ever so humble/grubby, grab a waiter and march him over to a plateful of what you like the look of. Point at that food very deliberately and say, "I'll have what she's having".  They'll get the gist.

AS: Walk into an Asian market tomorrow, don't be intimidated (it's easy to be), buy what looks fresh and in season (hence well priced), make sure your cupboards have the staples (soy, vinegar, Shaoxing wine, rice, dried chillies, ginger, garlic). Don't initially get hung up on brands, then pick up the cookbook and see what fits, nothing is rigid, adapt if you have too, this isn't molecular cooking at exact temperatures, this is simple food, simple techniques, requiring little equipment that will deliver stunning result.

Q: You no doubt get asked for tourist tips all the time: Hardie Grant publishing director Paul McNally says you directed him to a grumpy man on a Shanghai street corner for a still memorable jiang biang (breakfast pancake), Leanne. Are there a handful of food experiences you tell people they must experience?

LK: Clearly if you are in Beijing you must eat Peking duck. The best place for this is in a somewhat grungy family-run place called Li Qun, stuffed down a maze of Hutongs … rather hard to find and that’s part of the adventure. It was the family’s home but for 20-odd years it's been their thriving duck restaurant and it’s small so you're close to all the duck-roasting action. In contrast, the big-name duck places around town are swanky, sanitised affairs where waiters wear surgical masks and rubber gloves … I’d rather live a little more dangerously than that and have a more rustic experience!!.

Grilled squid and shacha noodles and sweet peanut soup and oyster omelettes in Xiamen in Fujian province … just some of the best food (and one of the nicest cities) in all of China. Oh, and drink plenty of Ti Kuan Yin (or Iron Goddess) tea while you're there (THE best oolong you'll ever taste..). 

Speaking of tea, this isn't precisely a food experience but you HAVE to while away a few hours in a Sichuan teahouse … traditionally centres of sedition and places where people came to discuss ideas … or just gossip. And have their ears cleaned (yes, really) There's nowhere else in China quite like these teahouses.  

The so-called "Stinky" foods of Shaoxing (near Shanghai) … fermented and otherwise preserved tidbits (meats, vegetables, tofu) in Shaoxing, eaten tapas style and designed to go with their sensational wine (not unlike sherry). 

My general advice would be … get off the usual trails, eat at ramshackle places where locals are eating. Be open.

Most folk go to Xi'an for the warriors and the Muslim Quarter there is just an eye-opener for food … the snacks, lamb dishes, grilled meats, fried stuffed breads and steamed buns, noodles, and soups are distinctively different … the air is filled with the smell of cumin and chilli. The sweet snacks and cakes they make are pretty incredible too (especially the shizi bing or fried persimmon cakes with their sweet, gooey fillings of sugar, raisin, or bean paste) … the Shaanxi cuisine of the non-Muslim population elsewhere in the city is a real adventure as well. I could go on.

My general advice would be … get off the usual trails, eat at ramshackle places where locals are eating. Be open – Chinese are curious and kind, especially in areas where tourists don't much venture, and if they sense you are interested in food, they just might offer to feed you. If you're just in a big centre like Beijing or Shanghai, these cities have restaurants that specialise in very specific regional fare such as that from Hunan, Yunnan, Xinjiang, Dongbei, Shaanxi, Anhui, Guizhou etc. Try to get to a few of those for a culinary adventure. 

The fermented foods of Shaoxing; a style of cuisine so distinctively different and very regional ... you would struggle to find outside of Shaoxing itself, about two hours by train from Shanghai. Well worth the day trip!



Q: What was the biggest challenge in the making of The Real Food of China?

LK: Knowing when to stop! China is a such huge topic, and we scratched the surface (volume two anybody??). There is SO much more to know and discover and it would take a lifetime to come to grips with all the regional culinary riches and diversity that lurk there.

AS: The size of the country, and the differences in regional cuisines. China shares borders with approximately 14 countries, hence its influences are vast. We travelled via plane, car, fast train, sleeper train, bus, boats, motor cycles, it was the challenge and also the beauty in experiencing this country and understanding what makes her cuisine so unique.  

Q: Is there a most common misconception that you would like to dispel?

AS: I found the Chinese people we visited (especially outside of the cities) respect and live off the land, they source product locally, and understand the importance of community, it's not all about mass production.

LK: That Chinese food amounts to sweet and sour this, stir-fried the other and black bean everything else. And that it's all a bit dull.  It is SO much more diverse than we all really know. Oh and also that it's hard to cook … it's truly not.  (although yes, stir-frying properly is totally an art and for that reason we've avoided it largely in the book – its very difficult to pull off at home unless you have seriously grunty heat).

Q: What one dish from the book do you cook for your family most and why?

LK: The pork belly with preserved mustard leaf and wine. Why? Because pork belly! AND because the flavour of those dried mustard greens (sweet, earthy and tobacco-ey) reminds me of being in Zhejiang province…) Also I'm most likely to cook a whole bunch of stuff ahead of time and serve a mix of dishes at room temperature if people are coming over. 

AS: OK, my choice is the roast pork dish (crisp roast pork belly, below) ... my family and most people’s favourite, and rather simple to prepare and cook.

Q: And what are you most proud of?

AS: I got to work with the best in the industry. From my co-author Leanne Kitchen to the team at Hardie Grant. I am proud to say the final result speaks for itself. 

LK: I’m a frustrated photographer so to see our pictures in glorious print, and to get the chance to shoot the hero food shots, is/was a buzz. And I’m so proud that our original vision for the book got realised … so often, between an initial idea being formed and a book being made, a lot can get lost in translation. We wanted a book that wasn't filled with all the usual oriental cliches and that had a modern edge to it. We've made a book that will (hopefully) have people doing a double take, and start thinking about Chinese food in a slightly new light.

These two pork dishes were independently selected by Leanne and Antony as the recipes they most often return to.

Crisp roast pork belly

Serves 4 as part of a shared meal



Ingredients

  • 1.2 kg boneless pork belly, in one piece, skin on
  • 1 tablespoon shaoxing rice wine
  • 60g sea salt flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon five-spice
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • hoisin sauce, to serve

Method

Place the pork belly on a chopping board, skin side down. Make two long, deep cuts (about 2 cm/3/4 inch deep) in the meat across the width of the meat (this will help the flavours to absorb). Rub the rice wine all over the pork meat, but not the skin. Combine 1 teaspoon of the sea salt and the five-spice, then sprinkle it evenly over the pork, again making sure not to get any on the skin. Put the pork, skin side up, on a plate and rub the remaining sea salt over the skin. Place the pork in the refrigerator, uncovered, overnight. This helps the skin to dry out and crisp up when cooked.

Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F/Gas 6). Place the pork on a baking tray, skin side up, and bring back to room temperature before cooking. Rub the oil all over the pork. Using a skewer, pierce the skin all over, but do not pierce through the layer of fat. Place in the oven and roast for 45 minutes.

Remove from the oven, turn the oven grill on, then place the pork under the grill and cook for 5–6 minutes (this will depend on how close to the grill the pork is sitting), or until the skin is crisp, keeping a close eye on it, as it burns quickly. Remove to a board, rest for 10 minutes, then slice and serve with hoisin sauce.

Pork with preserved mustard leaf and wine

Serves 6



Ingredients

  • 180 g preserved mustard leaves
  • 115 g (1/2 cup) caster (superfine) sugar
  • 100 ml dark soy sauce
  • 60 ml (1/4 cup) shaoxing rice wine
  • 1.5 kg boneless pork belly, in one piece, skin on

Method

Put the mustard leaves in a bowl, cover with water and leave to soak for 5 minutes, then drain well and gently squeeze out as much liquid as possible.

Place the mustard leaves in a large claypot with the sugar, soy sauce, rice wine and 250 ml (1 cup) water. Using a large, sharp knife, cut the pork in half and place, skin side down, on top of the mixture in the claypot. Place the claypot over a medium heat and bring the liquid to a simmer, then reduce the heat to very low, using a simmer pad if necessary, cover the pot and cook for 1 hour. Carefully turn the pork over, then cook for another 4 hours, turning the meat every hour. After 4 hours the pork should be very tender and positioned skin side up. Remove the pot from the heat and cool to room temperature, then refrigerate overnight.

The next day, carefully remove the pork from the pot and, using a very sharp knife, cut it into neat 3 cm (11/4 inch) square pieces. Return the pork pieces to the claypot, cover and gently reheat the mixture over a low heat for 30–40 minutes. Serve immediately.




The Real Food of China will be released on October 1 and published on Cooked.

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