Shanxi Local Snacks

Shanxi or Jin cuisine may not be one of the most well-known styles in China, but it does offer an authentic taste of traditional northern Chinese cuisine. This style is characterised by its saltiness, with a touch of sourness endowed by the locally produced Shanxi aged vinegar. While it lacks the complexity of flavours associated with other styles of Chinese cuisine, it more than makes up for it with its comforting rustic charm. From its flour-based delicacies to its hearty noodle soups, the signature dishes and snacks of Shanxi province are guaranteed to warm your stomach and your heart.

Steamed Buns (花馍)


The making, eating, and giving of Steamed Buns has been a tradition in Shanxi province for thousands of years. “Huamo”, the Chinese name for Shanxi Steamed Buns, literally translates to mean “flower bun”, as these tasty treats are so beautiful that they rival their floral counterparts. Think of them as flowers made of flour! These buns are typically only made for festivals or special occasions, since they require a great degree of care and artistry. Their deep cultural significance means they often play a focal role during these festivals, from being given as gifts during Spring Festival to serving as offerings for deceased ancestors during the Qingming or “Tomb Sweeping” Festival.

The dough is made simply from wheat flour, water, and leavening agents, but is moulded by hand into fantastical shapes, including flowers, animals, figures, buildings, items of clothing, and auspicious symbols. Dried jujubes form eyes or patterns and a rainbow of vegetable juices are used to add a splash of colour to these ingenious creations. Each bun can range in size from 5 centimetres (2 in) to over 50 centimetres (20 in) in size and can weigh upwards of 10 kilograms (22 lb)! In some cases, different types of steamed bun are reserved for certain people. For example, tiger-shaped buns are meant for young boys, while those in the shape of frogs are to be eaten by young girls. Maybe they’re hoping that one day their frog bun will turn into a prince!

Pingyao Beef (平遥牛肉)

Since the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), Pingyao County has been producing its own succulent cured beef. This regional specialty rose to prominence throughout China during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and was even demanded as an imperial tribute by the Empress Dowager Cixi during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912)! Yet its prestigious status belies its rather humble origins. This meaty treat was supposedly created by a disgruntled and miserly butcher, who was unwilling to throw out a prime calf leg that had gone bad. Rather than throw the meat away, he rubbed it liberally with salt and boiled it in salted water. When he finally sampled the finished product, he was overwhelmed by how wonderful it tasted. For many years, the dish used to be made with beef that had gone off, but thankfully nowadays only fresh beef is used.

The traditional way to make Pingyao Beef is to take either a calf’s leg or prime cuts of beef and salt it thoroughly. The meat is then stewed for a staggering 12 hours with no other seasonings, until it has turned a ruddy colour. In spite of being quite simply produced, the beef is said to have a rich aroma, smooth texture, and crisp taste that glances off the tongue. The long cooking process means that few people make Pingyao Beef at home, and instead choose to buy precooked beef from popular brands such as Guanyun Pingyao Beef. Packs of beef can be bought as souvenirs and a plethora of restaurants throughout Pingyao offer delectable dishes with this speciality as the star ingredient. In fact, it is considered so integral to the region’s culture that the city even boasts its very own Pingyao Beef Museum!

Fu Shan Brain (傅山头脑)

You’ll be glad to hear that, despite its name, Fu Shan Brain does not contain any actual brains! It was named after the artist and scholar Fu Shan, who hailed from the city of Taiyuan and is believed to be the mastermind behind the dish. In short, you could say it’s his brainchild! It is actually a soup made from eight main ingredients: hearty mutton, nutritious lamb bone marrow, sweet molasses, potent rice wine, crunchy lotus root, rich Chinese yams, fragrant astragalus root, and spicy ginger.

According to local belief, Fu Shan invented the dish during the Ming Dynasty in an attempt to cure his mother of a particularly nasty cold. Supposedly the remedy worked, and he imparted the recipe to a restaurant in Taiyuan so that others could benefit from its curative properties. Nowadays, the dish is enjoyed during the winter and is thought to ward off a variety of ailments caused by the chilly weather. Who needs a spoon full of sugar when the medicine already tastes this good!

Taigu Cake (太谷饼)

Taigu Cake, also known rather unappetisingly as “shaobing” or “dry cake”, is a type of pastry that originates from Taigu County. Each plump parcel is round in shape, light yellow in colour, and decorated with a smattering of sesame seeds. The cake is traditionally served cold and has no filling, but is beloved by locals for its sweetness and crispy crunch. It rose to prominence during the Qing Dynasty, when it could be found in cities as far-flung as Beijing, Xi’an, Tianjin, and Lanzhou. Nowadays, some vendors prepare their cakes with sugary sesame or red bean fillings, adding to the sweetness of this tempting treat.

Sichuan Cuisine

Sichuan Cuisine

Of the Eight Great Culinary Traditions of Chinese Cooking, Sichuan cuisine is arguably the most popular. Thanks to its liberal use of fiery chillies and Sichuan peppercorns, most people immediately characterise it by its unparalleled levels of spiciness, but there’s so much more to it than that. As an old local saying goes: “one dish, one flavour; one hundred dishes, one hundred flavours”. Although many of the most famous Sichuanese dishes are spicy, the cuisine itself is renowned for its numbing, sour, salty, tender, umami, and sweet flavours, which are typically intermingled to create a symphony of taste.

In fact, Sichuan cuisine didn’t even acquire its most notorious ingredient, the red chilli, until about 400 years ago. According to historical records, during the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 AD), the region roughly known as modern-day Sichuan province was famed for its sweet food. During the Jin Dynasty (265-420), pungent dishes that were rich in ginger, garlic, onions, mustard greens, and spring onions became more popular. It was only during the 16th century, when Portuguese sailors finally introduced chillies from South America into China, that Sichuan cuisine developed into the spicy sensation we know today.

Since hot chillies are believed to open up the pores and drive out internal dampness, they became particularly popular in Sichuan province, which suffers from high humidity in summer and rainy or overcast weather throughout the year. The cuisine’s other signature ingredient, the Sichuan peppercorn, adds a unique lemony tang to each dish and creates a tingly, numbing sensation in the mouth. Unlike other famous regional cuisines, which were conventionally reserved for the upper class and wealthier members of society, Sichuan cuisine was eaten by nobles and peasants alike. So, if you want to truly live like the common people, be sure to try a few of these signature dishes!

Twice-Cooked Pork (回锅肉)

Twice-Cooked PorkTwice-Cooked Pork is so-named because the dish’s main ingredient, the sumptuous pork belly, is simmered, left to rest, and then stir-fried. In short, this is a dish so nice they cooked it twice! In order to make it, the pork belly steak is first simmered whole in water with a mixture of spices, such as ginger, star anise, cloves, and salt. The meat is then refrigerated to firm it up before it is delicately cut into thin slices.

These slices are stir-fried in a wok with a plethora of vegetables, such as white cabbage, bell peppers, onions, and spring onions, along with an aromatic sauce made from Shaoxing rice wine, soy sauce, ginger, sugar, and doubanjiang or broad bean chilli paste. Much like Tea-Smoked Duck, this dish is mild rather than spicy and harkens back to Sichuan’s ancient past, as it was popular in the region as far back as the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). Nowadays this dish is a staple throughout homes in the province, and is rich with home-cooked flavours that offer an authentic taste of Sichuan.

Mapo Tofu (麻婆豆腐)

Mapo TofuWe’re heading out of the frying pan and into the fire with this notoriously spicy dish! Mapo Tofu, which literally translates to mean “Pockmarked Granny Tofu”, is one of Sichuan’s hottest signature dishes and was supposedly so-named because it was created by a famously pockmarked old woman whose name has been tragically lost in the annals of time. Cubes of silken tofu are suspended in a bright red sauce made from red chillies, Sichuan peppercorns, chilli oil, garlic, Shaoxing rice wine, and broad bean chilli paste, along with pork mince, water chestnuts, onions, wood-ear mushrooms, and a variety of other vegetables.

As one of the most popular and simplest dishes in the Sichuan canon, it is surprisingly easy to find both inside and outside of China. That being said, you’ll have to go to the source if you want to experience authentic, fiery Mapo Tofu. While it is undeniably spicy, it offers up a smorgasbord of flavours and has been described by chefs as numbing, fresh, tender, soft, aromatic, and even flaky. With so much going on, you’re sure to feel tongue-tied after trying this diverse dish!

Water-Cooked Fish (水煮鱼)

Water-Cooked FishShuizhu or “water-cooking” is a popular method employed in Sichuan cuisine, and is primarily used to retain the sumptuous moistness of meat. While Water-Cooked Beef is the more common dish, Water-Cooked Fish offers up slices of fresh white fish that absorb the multifarious flavours of the sauce and simply melt in the mouth. The flesh of the fish is first rubbed in starch and a little salt before being poached in water for about 30 seconds, just enough time to remove the rawness while still preserving the meat’s natural tenderness.

Once it has been poached, the meat is placed in a serving dish with a hearty helping of boiled vegetables, such as bean sprouts, white cabbage, and mushrooms. Dried chillies, Sichuan peppercorns, chopped garlic, and broad bean chilli paste are then sprinkled over the meat. Finally, vegetable oil is heated in a wok until it is nearly smoking before being poured over the meat and vegetables. The result is a veritable volcano of hot and tangy flavours, which are perfectly complemented by the soft texture of the fish.

Fish-Fragrant Eggplant (鱼香茄子)

Fish-Fragrant EggplantBefore you start to think there’s something fishy going on, think again! The term yuxiang or “fish-fragrance” refers to a particularly kind of sauce that originates from Sichuan cuisine. The sauce itself doesn’t actually contain any seafood and doesn’t even really smell of fish. The name is instead derived from the fact that many of the seasonings in the sauce were based on ingredients traditionally used to cook fish.

The famed sauce is made by sautéing a basic mixture of garlic, spring onions, and ginger, which is further enhanced by adding sugar, salt, doubanjiang or broad bean chilli paste, pickled red chillies, and soy sauce. These ingredients are fried in oil until they become fragrant. Water, starch, sugar, and vinegar are then added to thicken the sauce before it is ladled over chunky slices of braised eggplant. The soft texture of the eggplant means it absorbs the sauce beautifully, making for a mildly spicy dish that glances off the tongue.

 

Shanghai Local Snacks


Shanghai Local Snacks

Walk down one of Shanghai’s celebrated snack streets and you’ll be met with a dizzying array of aromas, each one more tempting than the last. From sizzling skewers of tender beef to steaming containers rich with plump dumplings, you’ll be sure to find a treat to suit anyone’s palate. Shanghai cuisine is characterised by its emphasis on three elements: colour, aroma, and taste. Popular ingredients include fresh fish, shellfish, chicken, pork, soy sauce, sugar, and various vegetables. Over time, this has resulted in a myriad of snacks that are light, fresh, and bursting with the natural flavour of their ingredients!

Xiaolongbao (小笼包)

SHANGHAI XiaolongbaoOf all the local delicacies in Shanghai, this is undoubtedly the most well-known. With over one hundred years of history behind it, local vendors have had plenty of time to perfect this sumptuous snack! Xiaolongbao, also known as Shanghai dumplings, are a type of steamed bun made with a thin skin of dough. They are commonly stuffed with pork, although some variations use minced crab meat and crab roe. Xiaolongbao are wrapped and sealed differently to other types of dumpling, and this is because of their one unique ingredient. Each tiny parcel is filled to the brim with a delicious broth!

This is usually made by mixing Shaoxing rice wine with pork jelly, which melts as the dumplings are cooked. That being said, each vendor has their own secret recipe for their signature soup! Although the wrappers may seem delicate, a well-made xiaolongbao will hold in the soup even when it is lifted up with a pair of chopsticks. A batch of these tasty treats are typically steamed in a bamboo basket before being served with a sauce made from black vinegar and, in some places, shredded ginger.

Remember, these aren’t just your average dumplings, and you’ll want to eat them in the correct way to avoid a scalded tongue! The best way to eat xiaolongbao is to place it on a spoon, bite off the top, drink the soup, then dip the remaining dumpling in the vinegar sauce before eating it. The most well-known type of xiaolongbao, known as Nanxiang Xiaolongbao, is usually stuffed with pork, pork jelly, ground sesame seeds, shredded bamboo, and shrimp. It comes from Nanxiang Township in Shanghai’s suburbs, although it can be found throughout the city.

Shengjianbao (生煎包)

Shengjianbao or Pan-Fried Pork Buns are Xiaolongbao’s chubby cousins. They’re bigger, bolder, and bursting with flavour! Like Xiaolongbao, Shengjianbao have been a popular local snack in the region for over a hundred years. They are made by wrapping fresh pork and pork jelly in a dough made from half-risen flour. This dough is made using yeast, meaning it’s a little thicker than your average dumpling skin, and the topknot is tucked underneath rather than sitting on top.

The buns are pan-fried, with cold water being periodically added to the pan. A lid is used to cover the buns and keep in the steam. This results in the bottoms of the dumplings being fried, while the tops are steamed. Right before they are fully cooked, a smattering of chopped spring onions and sesame seeds are sprinkled on top of the buns. The perfect Shengjianbao has a thin skin, a fragrant filling, and a crispy golden base. Many restaurants throughout Shanghai serve variations on this simple treat, including ones filled with chicken and crab meat.

Cifantuan (糍饭团)

CifantuanKnown as one of the “Four Heavenly Kings”, Cifantuan is one of the four most popular breakfast foods in China. It originates from Shanghai and is made by wrapping a piece of fried dough, known as youtiao, in glutinous rice. It comes in two varieties: sweet and savoury. Sweet Cifantuan is made by simply adding sugar and sometimes sesame paste to the filling, while the savoury version includes ingredients such as pickled vegetables, salted duck eggs, and shredded pork floss. They are particularly popular in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and eastern China, where they’re eaten with sweet or savoury soy milk as part of a balanced breakfast. Modern variations on the traditional Cifantuan have been adapted in Taiwan and Hong Kong before being re-introduced to Shanghai.

Crab Shell Cake (蟹壳)

Crab Shell CakeDon’t let the name fool you, Crab Shell Cake is named for its colour, not its content! The name derives from the snack’s distinctively yellowy brown hue, which is said to resemble that of a cooked crab shell. The outer casing is a type of shortbread made from flour, oil, and sesame seeds, which is stuffed with sweet or savoury fillings. While some variations of Crab Shell Cake do contain crab meat, other popular ingredients include pork, shrimp, sugar, rose petal paste, sweet red bean paste, and jujube paste. The cake’s delightfully crispy exterior is complemented perfectly by the smooth texture of its filling.

Yangchun Noodles (阳春面)

yangchun noodlesAccording to the Chinese lunar calendar, the tenth month is referred to as “Little Yangchun”, and it is a local Shanghai-ese custom to use “yangchun” as an alternative term for the number “ten”. When these noodles first became popular in the area, they only cost a meagre 10 fen[1], so the local people naturally began called them Yangchun Noodles. Like an embarrassing nickname, this title seems to have stuck! These noodles are served simply in a clear soup, usually with a dash of scented scallion oil to give them an added kick.

[1] Fen: A unit of currency that is used throughout China. One fen is equal to one-hundredth of a yuan or one-tenth of a Chinese jiao.

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Shandong Cuisine

Shandong Cuisine

While you may not have directly heard of Shandong-style cuisine, chances are you will have felt its influence. As one of the oldest styles in northern China, it has had a direct and palpable impact on other well-known styles of Chinese cuisine, such as that of Beijing and Tianjin. It is held in such high regard that it is not only considered one of the Eight Great Culinary Traditions of Chinese Cooking, but is regularly shortlisted as one of the top four. Its venerable history dates all the way back to the Spring and Autumn Period (c. 771-476 BC), when Shandong as a province had yet to exist and the region was split into two vassal states: the State of Qi and the State of Lu.

The style is often referred to as Lu Cuisine, since the State of Lu was home to Shandong province’s most revered citizen, the great philosopher Confucius. Although Confucius is most renowned for his teachings on morality and education, he wasn’t above philosophising about food! In his Analects, he states: “Do not consume food which looks spoiled, smells spoiled, is out of season, is improperly butchered, or is not made with proper seasoning”. This may seem like common sense now, but over 2,000 years ago food hygiene was still a mystery to the citizens of Lu!

His statements indicate that, all those years ago, the people of Shandong province had already achieved a certain level of refinement with regards to food preparation. However, much of modern-day Shandong cuisine was developed from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) onwards. The style can be roughly split into three sub-styles: the seafood heavy Jiaodong-style along the Jiaodong Peninsula; the soup-centred dishes of the inland Jinan-style; and the elaborate banquets of Confucius’ Mansion cuisine. While these sub-styles tend to differ in their preferred ingredients, they share many similar characteristics when it comes to preparation and flavour.

Liberal use of seasonings such as onions, spring onions, and garlic endow many signature dishes with their distinctive pungency, while a serious dose of salt and soy sauce add a smack of saltiness. Yet Shandong’s star seasoning will always be its vinegar, which is made using centuries-old recipes and traditional local methods. It is much darker and more complex than other types of Chinese vinegar, and is so beloved by the locals that some of them even drink it on its own!

These seasonings may sound a little overbearing, but the main aim of Shandong cuisine is to capture the natural colour, taste, and essence of the main ingredients. To this end, over 30 different cooking methods are deftly used in order to maximise the potential of each ingredient. The most popular cooking methods are known respectively as “bao” and “zha”. The “bao” technique involves allowing oil to boil at an extremely high temperature before tossing the ingredients into the wok and quickly stir-frying them.

The heat of the oil means that the ingredients are slightly singed, but their natural flavour is locked in. Once the ingredients are fully cooked, the oil is removed and seasonings are added, although sometimes the oil will be incorporated into the dish’s sauce. The “zha” technique, on the other hand, is another frying method where meat is covered in flour and then stir-fried to make it wonderfully crisp on the outside but tender and flavourful on the inside.

Dezhou Stewed Chicken (德州扒鸡)

Dezhou Stewed ChickenDezhou Stewed Chicken is essentially exactly what it says on the tin! It originates from the city of Dezhou, its primary cooking method is stewing, and its main ingredient is a plump chicken. Its traditional name of “Dezhou Five-Fragrant Boneless Stewed Chicken” is far more misleading as it’s not boneless and, while it does indeed smell appetising, saying it boasts five fragrances might be a bit ambitious! According to local rumour, the dish was developed by the Deshunzhai Restaurant during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). By the 1950s, it was so popular that it was even served to Chairman Mao himself.

The dish involves first rubbing caramelised sugar all over a chicken and deep-frying it until its skin turns a crisp golden brown. The chicken is then stewed in an aromatic soup made from soy sauce, Sichuan peppercorns, ginger, cinnamon, aniseed, nutmeg, cloves, fennel, soy sauce, angelica root, black cardamom, dried orange peel, and galangal. Since this dish can take upwards of eight hours to make, it is usually only served in specialist restaurants. While the chicken retains its original shape, it’s so perfectly cooked that the tender meat practically melts off of the bone.

Sweet and Sour Yellow River Carp (糖醋鲤鱼)

Sweet and Sour Yellow River CarpSweet and Sour Yellow River Carp, which is unsurprisingly made of grass carp fished from the Yellow River, is arguably one of the most iconic dishes in the Shandong canon. It is said that carp from the Yellow River taste different from any other river fish in the country, and it’s been a popular delicacy at imperial banquets for hundreds of years. This particular dish is well-known for its unusual presentation, as the fried fish is served with its tail curved up in the air. This is to give the illusion that the fish has been caught jumping out of the water!

To make Sweet and Sour Yellow River Carp, incisions are made along a whole carp to ensure that the skin remains crispy and the flesh stays moist when it is breaded and deep-fried. Before it is fried, the fish is seasoned with pepper, salt, and soy sauce to give it a pleasant tang. Meanwhile, the sweet and sour sauce is made by mixing vinegar and sugar with ginger, spring onions, Shaoxing rice wine, and soy sauce. The fish is fried first and then removed from the pan when its scales have turned a rich golden brown. The sauce is then added to the pan and cooked at a medium heat for approximately one minute before the fish is re-added and stirred to thoroughly coat it in the sauce. The sweet, tangy sauce complements the soft and subtly flavoured flesh of the fish beautifully, resulting in a dish that is both light and flavourful.

Nine Procedure Large Intestines (九转大)

Nine Procedure Large IntestinesWhen it comes to Chinese cuisine, you should never judge a dish by its name! Although Nine Procedure Large Intestines may not sound like the most appetising of meals, it has been a wildly popular staple in Shandong province since the Qing Dynasty. A long strip of pig’s intestines is first cleaned, prepared, and boiled so as to remove the unwanted odour of offal. Once they are soft and tender, the intestines are removed from the boiling water and cut into small sections before being deep-fried until they are deliciously crispy.

The dish’s sauce is made by frying a mixture of onion, garlic, and ginger in a wok until it becomes aromatic. From there, chicken broth, soy sauce, salt, sugar, Shaoxing rice wine, and vinegar are added to give the sauce depth. Finally, the pork intestines are stir-fried in the sauce and garnished with coriander to serve. The name “Nine Procedure Large Intestines” has absolutely nothing to do with the cooking method, and in fact refers to the Nine Procedures in Taoism used to refine the pills of immortality. In other words, scholars considered this dish so difficult to perfect that they likened it to man’s never-ending quest to achieve eternal life!

Braised Sea Cucumber (葱烧海参)

Braised Sea CucumberAs a coastal province, seafood plays a major role in Shandong cuisine. Braised Sea Cucumber is one of the classic dishes in the Shandong canon and is emblematic of the locals’ love for seafood. Although the sea cucumbers are phenomenally fresh and have a rich umami flavour, the real power behind this sumptuous dish comes from the sauce. This sauce is made simply by caramelising a mixture of chopped onions, spring onions, and soy sauce in oil and sugar. Meanwhile, the sea cucumber is gently braised in chicken stock, salt, and Shaoxing rice wine.

Once the sauce is prepared and the sea cucumber is thoroughly cooked, the two are mixed in a pan along with a hearty helping of ginger and brought to a boil before starch is added to thicken the sauce. While this dish can look a little unusual and somewhat unappetising, the smooth texture of the sea cucumber is perfectly complemented by the sour tang of the sauce, offering up a taste sensation that is sure to confuse and delight your taste-buds in equal measure.

Braised Abalone with Shells (扒原壳鲍鱼)

Braised Abalone with ShellsAbalone is another aquatic favourite in Shandong province that we rarely see in Western cuisine. In this signature dish, the abalone is served with its shell to give diners the impression that they’re sampling a little bit of the ocean. The abalone itself is relatively bland, but absorbs the light sauce beautifully and provides a wonderfully chewy texture. In order to make the sauce, an aromatic mixture of Shaoxing rice wine, rice vinegar, sugar, salt, ginger, garlic, spring onions, chicken stock, and starch is brought to a boil and then quickly removed from the heat.

The juicy slices of abalone are fried in hot oil with chopped chilli peppers for approximately two minutes, until the abalone is fully cooked. The oil is then removed from the pan and the abalone is re-added along with the sauce, which is swiftly brought to a boil. Once the dish is piping hot, it’s taken off the heat and served immediately. The light sauce virtually glances off of the tongue, while the thick slices of abalone provide you with something to really sink your teeth into!

 

 

Shandong Local Snacks

As one of the Eight Great Culinary Traditions of Chinese Cooking, it should come as no surprise that Shandong province offers a plethora of snacks that are as unique as they are delicious. Shandong cuisine is renowned for its liberal use of pungent ingredients such as garlic, onion, and spring onions, its saltiness, its crispy textures, and its locally produced vinegar, which is much darker and more complex than other Chinese vinegars. Seafood is a popular ingredient in this coastal province, but Shandong chefs are so skilled that they are able to bring out the natural flavour and essence of whatever they cook, from delicate river fish to simple vegetables. In short, you’ll never be too far away from a satisfying snack in this province!

Shandong-style Dumplings (山东饺子)

Shandong-style DumplingsWhen it comes to Chinese cuisine, dumplings are always a fan favourite. Sumptuously soft dumpling skins, moist morsels of pork mince, mouth-wateringly aromatic dipping sauce; what’s not to love? Shandong-style dumplings utilise a dumpling skin fashioned from a simple mixture of rice flour and water, with a hearty filling made from pork mince, dried shrimp, soy sauce, salt, Shaoxing rice wine, sesame oil, shredded ginger, and chopped spring onions. In the coastal Jiaodong region, a special version of these dumplings is made using a species of fish known as a Spanish mackerel as its main ingredient.

A liberal dollop of filling is ladled into each dumpling skin before they are sealed and placed in a large pot of boiling water. Cold water must be periodically added to the pot and stirred in order to make sure none of the dumplings burst. When the dumplings are thoroughly cooked, they are delicately scooped out of the water and served with a fragrant dipping sauce made from soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, and chilli paste. Each dumpling is packed full of flavour, and the dipping sauce adds a pleasantly sour tang that glances off of the tongue.

Four-Joy Meatballs (四喜丸子)

Four-Joy MeatballsWhile many of us associate meatballs with Italy, you’ll be surprised to hear that they actually originated from Shandong province! The recipe for Four-Joy Meatballs is one of the oldest in the world, dating all the way back to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). Very few dishes can match its pedigree, and still fewer can compete with its simple but hearty flavour. The meatballs are rolled from a mixture of pork mince, diced onions, ginger, lotus root, Shaoxing rice wine, pepper, soy sauce, eggs, and starch. They are then fried before being steamed with more soy sauce and Shaoxing rice wine until they are perfectly cooked.

The result is a bite-sized snack that is crispy on the outside but irresistibly moist on the inside. The crunchy texture of the lotus root is complemented by the softness of the pork mince, while the umami flavours of the meat intermingle beautifully with the aromatic ginger. The round shape of the meatballs is said to symbolise gathering and union in Chinese culture, and the meatballs are always served in fours to signify the Four Joys of Life traditionally marked by family gatherings: Courtship, Marriage, Child-Rearing, and Aging.

Penglai Noodles (蓬莱小)

Penglai NoodlesPenglai Noodles are a famous traditional snack hailing from the coastal city of Penglai. The noodles are made and stretched by hand in order to ensure that they’re thin but retain their toughness and durability. According to the locals, these noodles are so thin that they simply melt in your mouth without you having to chew. So, if you’re feeling particularly lazy, this might be just the snack for you! The noodles are first boiled before being served in a light broth made from red snapper. They are often eaten for breakfast, because there’s nothing quite like a steamy bowl of noodle soup to ward off the brisk sea breeze.

 

 

Qinghai Local Snacks

With its bitterly cold climate and high altitude, Qinghai province isn’t the ideal location for growing lush vegetables or tropical fruits! However, it’s the perfect place for growing barley and raising yaks, both of which thrive on its rugged terrain. Thus many of the local snacks in Qinghai contain wheat flour and yak-based products, such as yak’s milk or yak butter. The large constituencies of Hui Muslim and Tibetan people that occupy Qinghai also imbue many of its signature snacks with a delightful ethnic flair. So be prepared for food that’s simple, full-bodied, and full of heart!

Liangfen (凉粉)

qinghai LiangfenLiangfen is arguably the most famous and popular street snack in Qinghai province. It’s normally sold from small vendors or market stalls and is served cold, so it’s the perfect treat to help you cool down during the summer months! Although it looks a lot like a noodle dish, the “noodles” are actually finely cut strips of mung bean or pea jelly. These are topped with a sumptuously aromatic blend of vinegar, mashed garlic, crushed mustard seeds, and chilli flakes. Some vendors also add ground peanuts and sesame seeds to the mix in order to give the slippery “noodles” a nutty crunch.

Yak Milk Yogurt (牛酸)

Yak Milk YogurtWith yaks being so prolific in the region, yak milk, yak yoghurt, and yak butter are everyday staples for locals in Qinghai province. While yak butter is typically used for cooking or making tea, Yak Milk Yoghurt is a smooth treat that’s eaten straight from the bowl! You’ll be able to spot this type of yoghurt immediately thanks to the unique yellow sheen that forms on its top. The creamy texture and slightly sour tang of the yak’s milk gives it a flavour that is delightfully distinct from cow’s milk yoghurt. It can be eaten as is, although some people prefer to sprinkle a teaspoon of sugar on top first to sweeten the deal!

Sanzi (馓子)

qinghai SanziThis popular street snack is traditionally a festival food of both the Hui Muslims and the Salar Muslims. To make Sanzi, you first mix wheat flour with vegetable oil and crushed Sichuan peppercorns. This is kneaded into dough and then gently pulled into long, thin noodles. Deep-frying the noodles requires the most skill, as they must be a crisp golden brown before being removed from the hot oil. Take them out too early, and they’ll be undercooked; leave them in for too long, and you’ll be faced with a burnt mess! The snack itself is neither salty nor sweet, but is celebrated for its satisfyingly crispy crunch.

Cooking Pot Bread (焜锅馍馍)

Cooking Pot BreadCooking Pot Bread is so-named because its distinctive shape and pattern depends on the pot in which it was baked. To begin, wheat flour dough is rolled up with oil and turmeric, which is what gives this fluffy bread its characteristically yellow tinge. The dough is then placed layer by layer into a deep cooking pot or tin and is baked until it turns a soft golden brown. Finally, sesame seeds or caraway seeds are sprinkled on top of the finished bread to give it an extra touch of flavour. The result is a light, slightly crisp loaf that is perfect for eating with meat, soup, or noodles.

 

Qinghai Cuisine

Hui-style Dumpings

The high altitude and rugged terrain in Qinghai province means that agriculturally the land can only sustain a limited array of vegetables and fruit. However, it’s the ideal place for growing barley and raising yaks, both of which thrive in the cold climate. This means that signature Qinghai dishes tend to be hearty and full of yak-based products, from yak meat to yak butter. In short, Qinghai locals are always yakking on about something! Qinghai itself is populated by a wide variety of China’s ethnic minorities, but is dominated by the Han, Hui, and Tibetan people. Thus Qinghai cuisine is characterised by its simplicity and sustenance, with a unique blend of Tibetan and Hui Muslim influences adding a touch of flavour to each dish.

Hui-style Dumpings (回式饺)

Hui-style Dumpings02Hui-style Dumplings are so delectably plump, they appear to have been filled to the point of bursting! Unlike other types of dumpling, these tasty treats are filled with unusual, hearty ingredients such as carrot shreds or tiny cubes of potato. The meat filling is heavily seasoned with mustard seeds, cumin, cassia bark, cardamom, pepper, and sugar to give it an added burst of flavour. Different vendors will shape their dumplings in unique and captivating ways. Sometimes these shapes even provide clues as to what the dumplings contain. So, if you see a little fish-shaped ball of dough, you know just what to expect! They may look small but these dumplings are very rich, so two or three is normally enough for a decent meal.

Grabbing Mutton (手抓羊肉)

qinghai Grabbing Mutton 02This dish is popular with several of China’s Muslim ethnic minorities throughout the regions of Xinjiang, Ningxia, Gansu, and Qinghai. Its name derives from the fact that historically it was sold on the street and, in order to eat it on the go, people would simply “grab” a piece of the mutton with their hands. That being said, be sure to pay for it first! To make the dish, a joint of mutton is first stewed for a long time, until it becomes so tender that the chops can be easily separated and the meat melts off the bone.

The mutton is then chopped into small pieces and arranged on a plate, where people are free to grab a piece and dip it into their condiment of choice. It is often served simply with a sauce made from salt, crushed garlic, parsley, soy sauce, vinegar, chilli oil, and sesame paste. Variations on the sauce depend on who’s serving it, but the juicy mutton alone is enough to sate most people’s hunger.

Blood Sausage (血肠)

qinghai Blood SausageBlood Sausage may not sound like the most appetising of snacks, but its rich and mildly spicy flavour is surprisingly pleasant. Like Black Pudding in England, Blood Sausage is made using a mixture of spiced sheep’s blood and roasted barley. Another variation, known as White Sausage, contains all of the same ingredients except for the sheep’s blood. Travel to one of Qinghai’s city markets and you’re sure to come across tables full of Blood Sausage, coiled into large piles like shimmering black snakes. In restaurants, it is normally sliced into small pieces and fried on a griddle, to be served as a side dish. With its full-bodied texture and umami flavour, fried Blood Sausage makes the perfect accompaniment to any meal.

Flag Flower Noodles (旗花汤)

Flag Flower NoodlesThis sumptuous dish is so-named for the unusual shape of its wheat noodles, which are rolled thin and then cut into tiny, diamond flag-shaped pieces before being added to a clear broth. This broth is usually flavoured using tomatoes, squash, carrots, celery, white radishes, spinach, and small pieces of mutton. The result is a light soup with a clean and refreshing taste that is perfect as a palate cleanser or to simply cool you down during the summer months!

 

Hunan Local Snacks

changsha-snacks

Prepare yourself for some sizzling snacks, because Hunan-style cuisine is notoriously spicy! It’s celebrated as one of the Eight Great Culinary Traditions of Chinese Cooking and reached a high standard as early as the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), over 2,100 years ago. In that time, the province’s locals have managed to perfect the distinctly spicy and sour flavours that make their cuisine so unique. Since Hunan is an agriculturally rich province, its cuisine is able to employ a wide variety of fresh ingredients.

To accommodate this sumptuous diversity, the menu changes with the season. The hot and humid summers are met with cool or cold dishes full of chillies, which are designed to open up the pores and release any excess moisture in the body. Chillies are also employed during wet, chilly winters in order to dispel dampness, but dishes tend to be served hot so as to warm the body up. However, farm-fresh ingredients aren’t the only thing on the menu!

Since vinegar, like chillies, is associated with the warming and drying properties of “yang”, it is also a popular ingredient and pickled or fermented foods feature widely in Hunan cuisine. In particular, a type of chilli known as “duo lajiao” or “chopped chilli” is a staple feature of nearly all Hunan dishes, and is made by pickling red chilli peppers in vinegar and salt. It is this ingredient that largely imparts the spicy, sour flavours that have become emblematic of Hunan cuisine.

Spicy Crayfish (口味虾)

Spicy CrayfishThis deliciously simple dish is a staple of Hunan cuisine and is particularly popular in summer, when patrons sit outside and gorge on plates piled high with crayfish while sipping on ice cold beers. To make the dish, the chunky crayfish are first expertly cleaned, to rid them of any grit that may be trapped under their shells. Meanwhile, a tangy sauce is made by frying chopped ginger, spring onions, red chillies, orange peel, aniseed, and a number of other spices in hot oil.

Once the crayfish is cleaned and the sauce has become aromatic, the crayfish is placed in the pan and quickly stir-fried. Shaoxing rice wine and oyster sauce are then added to give the sauce a richer flavour. Finally, a dash of salt, sugar, and soy sauce is added before the crayfish is covered in chicken broth and left to boil. Flour is typically added to help thicken the sauce as it boils. When the crayfish is thoroughly cooked, the pan is taken off the boil and the dish is ready to serve. The juicy flesh of the crayfish is perfectly complemented by the sauce, which is richly sour and has a pleasantly spicy kick. You’d be cray-zy not to try it!

Changsha Stinky Tofu (长沙臭豆腐)

changsha-stinky-tofuYou might think that the name “stinky tofu” is a mistranslation, but you’d be sadly mistaken! This street snack has such a pungent odour that it’s said to smell worse than an open sewer. The smell derives from the fact that the tofu is fermented, sometimes for weeks or even months, in brine made from rotten vegetables, sour milk, mustard greens, bamboo shoots, and Chinese herbs. Although stinky tofu is served across the country, each region will have its own brine recipe and fermenting process, imparting a unique flavour and fragrance to its stinky tofu.

The stinky tofu served in Hunan’s provincial capital of Changsha is noted as one of the finest kinds in the country, and is recognisable for its charcoal black colouring. Not only that, but it is notorious for being one of the smelliest varieties of the snack! Since the tofu is typically deep-fried, the dark outer layer is delightfully crisp, while the inside is silky soft. It is normally served by street vendors along with a heaping helping of chopped chillies to add the characteristic Hunan heat. The result is a potent mixture of salty and spicy flavours that anyone with strong tastes is sure to love.

Changsha Noodles (长沙米粉)

changsha-noodlesMuch like Guilin Noodles in Guangxi, Changsha Noodles are made using “mifen” or “rice noodles”. This much-loved staple originated from the city of Guilin during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), but didn’t reach the peak of its popularity until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). The process of making the noodles is extremely complex, and requires an expert hand. Rice is first rinsed and soaked in water, before being ground into a thick, semi-liquid paste. This unctuous goo is then steamed, pressed, and steamed again until it is thoroughly cooked. Once it has cooled and dried, it is cut into noodles that are satisfyingly thick and densely textured.

In the city of Changsha, rice noodles are usually eaten for breakfast and are thinner than their counterparts in Guilin. They are served in a steaming, meaty broth that is sure to get your mouth watering, along with flavourful toppings like sliced beef, pickled white radishes, pickled green beans, peanuts, and chopped chillies. Vendors normally keep bowls full of these toppings on a table nearby, so patrons are free to pile high their dish with as many tasty treats as they fancy. Just don’t forget about the noodles underneath!

 

Hunan Cuisine

xiang-cuisine

Hunan cuisine, also known as Xiang cuisine, is celebrated as one of the Eight Great Culinary Traditions of Chinese Cooking. It consists of three distinct styles: the Xiang River style, which predominates in Changsha, Xiangtan, and Hengyang; the Dongting Lake style, which is characteristic of Yueyang, Yiyang, and Changde; and the Western Hunan style, which can mainly be found in Zhangjiajie, Jishou, and Huaihua. Evidence suggests that this style of cuisine had already reached a high standard during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), over 2,100 years ago.

It is often compared to Sichuan-style cuisine thanks to its liberal use of chillies, but there’s much more to this complex cooking style than this simple comparison implies. Hunan cuisine is distinctly oilier than Sichuan cuisine, and uses a wider variety of fresh ingredients. While Sichuan-style cuisine is known to use Sichuan peppercorns that numb the mouth to spiciness, Hunan-style food utilises “chopped chillies” (剁辣椒) which have been pickled in vinegar and salt. These special chillies actually stimulate the taste-buds and make them more sensitive to spiciness, while also adding a sour tang to any dish. So, if you’re looking for a spicy kick, you might find Hunan food is actually hotter than Sichuan food!

Yet the spicy and sour flavours of Hunan cuisine aren’t simply there to delight the palate. Hunan province is known for its uncomfortably humid summers and chilly, wet winters. According to traditional Chinese medicine, both chillies and vinegar heat the body and are thus associated with “yang”, which means they will balance out an excess of “yin” caused by cold or dampness. Therefore many Hunan dishes are celebrated for their medicinal properties. When food tastes this good, you’ll be more than happy to take your medicine!

Dong’an Chicken (东安子鸡)

dongan-chickenDong’an Chicken is arguably Hunan province’s most famous poultry dish, and is known for its delicate mixture of subtle flavours. It is supposedly based on a dish known as “vinegar chicken”, which dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Although this may be true, a charming local legend recounts a very different origin story. Some say that it was invented by three old ladies who ran a modest, village restaurant. Late one evening, some merchants arrived at the restaurant and demanded to be served dinner. The women had used almost all of the ingredients in their pantry, so they were forced to improvise!

They quickly slaughtered a couple of chickens and rustled up a new dish using all of their leftover ingredients. The resulting dish was so delicious that the merchants spread word of it on their travels, and it eventually entered the canon as one of Hunan’s classic dishes. The dish is made by first parboiling a chicken with ginger and green onions, before allowing it to cool and cutting the carcass into bite-size pieces. Fresh chillies, dried chillies, ginger, and green onions are then sliced into slivers and fried in peanut oil until they start to smoke.

Finally, the chicken is added to the pan and is stir-fried along with a splash of Shaoxing rice wine, vinegar, and salt to taste. In some recipes, the chicken broth is also added to the mixture to keep the chicken tender and moist. Once the chicken is cooked through, it is left to simmer in the seasoned broth so that the flavours fully penetrate the meat. The result is a mildly spicy dish with a pleasant, sour tang that glances off the tongue.

Chairman Mao’s Red-Braised Pork (毛氏红烧肉)

chairman-maos-red-braised-porkMao Zedong, founding father of the People’s Republic of China, is a legendary figure in Chinese history. Since he was born and raised in Hunan, many of the province’s tourist attractions revolve around the Chairman. This dish was supposedly his favourite, so much so that it’s rumoured he ate it nearly every day! His nephew, Mao Anping, once extolled the dish by saying: “Men eat it to build their brains, and ladies to make themselves more beautiful”. Who knew that a simple pork dish could bestow such incredible gifts! In fact, this dish is so integral to the province’s history that the government actually issued official recipe guidelines to restaurants across the country. In order to be considered authentic, restaurants must use the meat of a rare breed of pig from Ningxiang County, which has been bred for over 1,000 years and is designated an “agricultural treasure”.

This is because the dish centres on sumptuous pork belly, which is flavoured with fragrant star anise, ginger, cinnamon, and chillies. The pork belly is quickly boiled before being left to cool and then cut into bite-size pieces. Meanwhile, oil and sugar are combined in a wok over a low heat until the sugar has turned a rich, caramel brown. The pork is then added to the caramelized sugar, along with a splash of Shaoxing rice wine. Finally, the ginger, star anise, chillies, and cinnamon are added to the pork, along with just enough water to barely cover the ingredients. This flavourful mixture is left to simmer for between 40 minutes to an hour. It is considered one of the mildest dishes in the Hunan canon, and the pork belly is said to literally melt in the mouth.

Steamed Fish with Chopped Chillies (剁椒鱼)

steamed-fish-with-chopped-chilliesThis dish was recently catapulted into the international spotlight thanks to an unusual new trend in Hunan where, instead of serving a whole fish, the dish is made using only the head of a bighead carp. So, if you think something might be a little fishy, be sure to ask the waiter exactly what you’re getting before you order! It’s said to date back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), when a famous mathematician named Huang Zongxian was travelling through Hunan. One night, he was staying with a local family and their son happened to catch a fish from a nearby pool.

The hostess steamed the fish with a mixture of chopped chillies before serving it to the guests. Huang found the dish so delicious that he immediately asked for the recipe, and brought it back home with him. The recipe spread far and wide, gaining favour across the country. It is one of the simplest Hunan dishes to prepare, but certainly no less flavourful! Green onions, ginger, Shaoxing rice wine, salt, chopped garlic, and chopped red chillies are stir-fried in a wok until they give off a rich, pleasant aroma. This mixture is then ladled on top of the fresh fish, which in turn is placed in a steamer and steamed for approximately 20 minutes. The tender flesh simply flakes off the bone, and is laden with just enough chillies to provide a kick without overwhelming the natural flavour of the fish.

Lovers’ Hot Pot (鸳鸯火锅)

lovers-hot-potHot pot is an exceedingly popular dish throughout China, particularly during the cold winter months, as it is believed to warm the blood. The basic dish consists of a seasoned broth, which is placed at the centre of the table and heated over a hot plate. Diners order a selection of raw ingredients and then add them to the bubbling broth as they please, picking them out and eating them once they are thoroughly cooked.

In Hunan, the locals have a marked preference for a style known as “yuanyang” or “lovers” hot pot. It is so-called because the pot is split into two sides, one with a spicy broth and one with a mild broth. In short, it is the veritable yin-yang of the hot pot world! The spicy broth is typically thick with chillies as red as rubies, while the mild broth uses ingredients like goji berries and star anise to soothe the taste-buds and prepare them for the next assault of spiciness. Most hot pot vendors keep their broth recipes a well-guarded secret, so you’ll find that each restaurant brings its own unique twist to this time-honoured dish!

 

 

Cantonese Dim Sum

The custom of eating dim sum actually extends back to a much older tradition known as yum cha (饮茶) or “drinking tea”. Yum cha has been popular in Cantonese-speaking regions such as Guangdong province, Hong Kong, and Macau for decades, and is somewhat similar to the English custom of afternoon tea. The term refers to a type of meal that is usually eaten from early morning until mid-afternoon, where patrons drink Chinese tea and eat small dishes of food. It has its roots in the ancient Silk Road, when travellers would stop to rest at teahouses and order small snacks to give them a boost of energy.

While dim sum is the name used to describe the small dishes, the entire meal is generally known as yum cha. Since the meal is often eaten early in the day, most dim sum dishes are steamed or stir-fried rather than deep-fried to keep them tasting light and fresh. It is customary to offer a wide range of dishes, including savoury snacks like dumplings and sweet treats such as egg tarts. Each dish is usually quite small, with normally three to four bite-sized portions per plate. Dishes are shared among all of the diners at the table, allowing everyone to try a wide variety of food. That being said, after you’ve tasted a few delicious dim sum dishes, you may find you don’t want to share!

Traditional dim sum restaurants have a truly unique way of serving their miniature meals. Several dishes of dim sum are fully cooked and then placed on heated carts, which are wheeled around the restaurant. Diners are free to select what dishes they please without having to order from a menu, and a card at their table is stamped to indicate what they’ve taken. In this instance, dishes aren’t individually priced, but are instead priced according to size. They are generally classified as small, medium, large, extra-large, and special, with the “special” category referring to expensive dishes containing rare ingredients. Nowadays many restaurants only serve dim sum via the cart method during peak times, and revert to an à la carte menu during quieter periods so as to minimize food wastage.

Several types of tea are served alongside the dim sum, including chrysanthemum tea, green tea, oolong tea, pu’er tea, and a variety of scented teas. However, much like afternoon tea in England, the tea usually takes a backseat to the main event: the food! From bamboo steamers weighed down with plump dumplings to plates piled high with thickly sauced chickens’ feet, dim sum is a time to indulge in all the weird and wonderful treasures that Cantonese cuisine has to offer. We’ve listed just a handful of the standard dim sum dishes that you’re likely to come across, so prepare to get your taste-buds tingling!

Changfen (肠粉)

changfenCommonly known in English as a rice noodle roll, Changfen is made from a wide, thin strip of rice noodle known as hor fun in Cantonese or Shahe fen in Mandarin Chinese. It is so-named because it is said to have originated from the district of Shahe in Guangzhou. The rice noodle sheets are made from a simple mixture of rice flour, glutinous rice flour, and water, which is spread thinly over a flat pan with holes and steamed until the sheet is cooked but still maintains its elasticity and sheen.

It is then folded approximately three times and served with a warm, sweetened soy sauce poured over the top. While the plain variety contains no filling, more popular types are filled with shrimp, pork, beef, vegetables, and a number of other ingredients. In this instance, most chefs will place the filling onto the noodle sheet before it has finished cooking. This means that, as the noodle continues to cook, it will set around the filling. A well-made Changfen should have two qualities: a good aroma, and a smooth or slippery texture. Just make sure it doesn’t slip right out of your chopsticks, or you’ll be bitterly disappointed!

The noodle should be a little transparent so as to slightly reveal the filling, and is typically scored three times at the top. The rolls are generally served in threes, because you can’t go wrong with the magic number! The most popular style of Changfen served during yum cha is known as Zhaliang (炸两). This involves tightly wrapping the rice noodle sheet around a piece of youtiao or fried dough. This fluffy treat is then served with a helping of sweetened soy sauce, hoisin sauce, or sesame paste. It is often eaten with soy milk or congee (Chinese rice porridge) as part of a hearty dim sum breakfast.

Dumplings (饺子)

fun-guoWhether it’s breakfast, lunch, or dinner, there’s never a bad time to gorge on a few dumplings! These plump parcels have been a staple in teahouses for centuries, and naturally made up part of the original platter on offer at the first dim sum restaurants. However, the dumplings you’ll find on the average dim sum plate will be very different to the Beijing dumplings that you might be used to. While Beijing dumplings are undoubtedly delicious, the sheer variety of dumplings available during yum cha might just make your head spin!

Popular types of dumpling in Cantonese cuisine include Har Gow (虾饺) and Fun Guo (潮州粉果), to name but a few. Har Gow are colloquially referred to as “shrimp’s bonnets” because of their characteristic ingredient and pleated shape. Traditionally, the perfect Har Gow should have at least seven but preferably ten or more pleats imprinted on its wrapper. The skin must be thin and translucent, but sturdy enough not to break when picked up with chopsticks.

On top of all this, the dumplings must not stick to each other, the shrimp must be thoroughly cooked but not rubbery, and each dumpling should contain a generous portion of meat but not so much that it cannot be eaten in one bite. A throne fit for a king may be hard to find, but making a bonnet fit for a shrimp is an arduous task indeed! The delicate nature of the dumplings means they require great skill to prepare, and are sometimes used as a test for aspiring dim sum chefs.

Fun Guo is a variety of steamed dumpling that originates from the Chaoshan region of Guangdong province. Much like Har Gow, the dumpling skins are made from glutinous rice flour, which endows each dumpling with their characteristically transparent skin. However, unlike Har Gow, the skins are a little thicker, resulting in a heartier flavour. They are typically filled with an aromatic mixture of minced pork, dried shrimp, chopped peanuts, chopped spring onions, and mushrooms. While Har Gow and Fun Guo are two staple types of dumpling in the dim sum canon, there are so many different varieties to choose from that you’re sure to be in dumpling heaven!

Baozi (包子)

char-siu-baoWhat could be better than a dumpling? A giant dumpling, of course! Baozi or “Steamed Buns” are widely regarded as the dumpling’s larger, stockier cousin. These velvety soft buns can either be steamed or baked, and come in all shapes and sizes, from savoury to sweet and from meat-filled to vegetarian. When it comes to Cantonese dim sum, the most popular variety of baozi is known as the Char Siu Bao (叉烧包) or “Barbecued Pork Bun”. Steamed Char Siu Bao are white and fluffy in texture, while baked ones are coated with a light sugar glaze that gives them a temptingly golden brown crust. The dough used in this type of baozi is also unusual in that yeast and baking powder are added, which gives it the texture of slightly dense bread.

In Cantonese cuisine, Char Siu is a type of siu mei or specialty barbecued meat. The cooking process involves slathering a fatty slice of pork in an aromatic mixture of honey, Chinese five-spice, red fermented bean curd, dark soy sauce, hoisin sauce, and Shaoxing rice wine before roasting it over a fire or in a rotisserie oven. The result is tender strips of pork that are beautifully marbled, mouth-wateringly moist, and dark red in hue. The pork is diced and added to a syrupy mixture of oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, roasted sesame oil, rice vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, and rice wine, which is then stuffed into the baozi. As the baozi is cooked, the meaty juices and thick sauce soak into the surrounding dough and impart a simply irresistible flavour.

Phoenix Claws (凤爪)

phoenix-clawsDon’t let the name fool you; Chinese biologists haven’t stumbled upon a mythical creature just yet! Phoenix Claws are the euphemistic and rather inventive way of referring to a classic dim sum dish made from chickens’ feet. In order to make the dish, chickens’ feet are first deep-fried and then steamed to make them puffy before being simmered in a sauce made from fermented black beans, black bean paste, and sugar.

Some restaurants also serve a variation known as White Cloud Phoenix Claws (白云凤爪), where the chickens’ feet are simply steamed and served with a vinegar dipping sauce. While they may not look particularly appetising, the meat has a light and springy texture that perfectly complements the thick sweetness of the sauce. No dim sum dinner would be complete without this staple dish, so have a try and don’t be chicken!

Tofu Pudding (豆腐花)

tofu-puddingTofu Pudding is an archetypal example of the many wonderful desserts on offer during yum cha. The dish itself is as simple as it is delicious. Soft, silken tofu is spooned into a bowl and served with a clear sweet ginger or jasmine flavoured syrup, although in some restaurants it’s mixed with black bean paste or coconut milk instead. The result is a silky smooth dessert that tastes both delightfully sugary and refreshingly clean. It’s the ideal palate cleanser after a long meal of dumplings, steamed buns, and chickens’ feet!