Cantonese Cuisine

cantonese-cuisine-caixin

Out of the Eight Great Culinary Traditions of Chinese Cooking, Cantonese cuisine is undoubtedly the most internationally renowned. When droves of expatriates left Guangdong province in search of work across the globe, they took their love of their local food with them, and this eventually led to Cantonese food becoming the most widely spread style of Chinese cuisine in the world. So, when you next go to your local Chinese takeaway, chances are you’ll be ordering a variation of a Cantonese classic!

While Cantonese food in the West has largely been adapted to suit foreign palates, signature dishes in Guangdong province and Hong Kong have retained their traditional flavours. This style of cuisine is characterised by its use of the freshest ingredients, minimal seasoning, and quick cooking, predominantly by steaming or stir-frying. No Cantonese dish would be complete without soy sauce, spring onions, and ginger, which make up the bulk of the seasoning. Sweet sauces like oyster sauce and hoisin sauce are also popular, while other spices may be used, but always sparingly.

Since Guangdong province and Hong Kong are both coastal regions, the locals have a marked preference for seafood. Delicately steamed fish with finely sliced ginger and stir-fried shrimp with a dash of salt and pepper form just some of the dishes that exemplify the Cantonese dedication to freshness and natural flavour. Many Cantonese restaurants even go so far as to keep aquariums of live fish on the premises, ready for consumption at a moment’s notice. Yet the style has also become notorious for its use of strange and controversial ingredients, including shark’s fin, snake, rat, and abalone. So be sure to double-check your order before it arrives!

Char Siu (叉烧)

char-siuChar Siu or Barbecued Pork is a popular example of a Cantonese cooking style known as siu mei (烧味). This is where meats are roasted on spits over an open fire or in a wood-burning rotisserie oven to create a unique and intense barbecue flavour. Before being roasted, the meat is typically coated in a thick sauce, with different sauces being employed for different types and cuts of meat. As you can imagine, most family homes don’t come equipped with their own rotisserie oven, so siu mei is typically prepared at specialty shops! At these shops, patrons can purchase sliced meat on its own, or special meal boxes complete with tender roasted meat and fluffy white rice.

Char Siu literally translates to mean “fork roast”, and refers to the way in which strips of boneless pork are skewered with long forks before being roasted over a fire. In ancient times, wild boar was the meat of choice, although nowadays the cut of meat used is usually pork loin, pork belly, pork shoulder, pork fat, or pork neck-end. These cuts are chosen for their sumptuous fatty marbling, which ensures the roasted meat stays mouth-wateringly moist. The meat is seasoned with an aromatic mixture of honey, Chinese five-spice, red fermented bean curd, dark soy sauce, hoisin sauce, and rice wine, giving it a noticeably dark red complexion. Like most siu mei meats, Char Siu is often consumed with rice, noodles, or inside a bun as a form of dim sum.

White Cut Chicken (白切鸡)

white-cut-chickenAlthough White Cut Chicken is usually classed as another type of siu mei, it can be somewhat misleading since the dish isn’t actually roasted. Instead, a whole chicken is first marinated with salt before being cooked in hot water or chicken broth seasoned with ginger. Other variations involve seasoning the broth with a myriad of ingredients, including spring onions and star anise. When the water starts to boil, the heat is turned off and the chicken is left to cook in the residual warmth for about 30 minutes. This ensures that the meat is deliciously moist, without being too rubbery or overcooked. Once cooked, the chicken’s skin will still be very light in colour, but the meat will be tender and packed full of flavour.

The chicken is usually allowed to cool before being chopped into pieces and served with the bone in. It is sometimes garnished with a mixture of coriander and ginger, but is typically accompanied by a dipping sauce made from finely chopped ginger, spring onions, salt, and the leftover chicken broth. Some restaurants may also offer hoisin sauce, soy sauce, oyster sauce, or chilli oil sauce as a fun twist on the traditional recipe. The tantalisingly fresh chicken is perfectly complemented by the subtle sauce, creating a dish that is simple and naturally flavourful.

Wonton Noodles (云吞面)

wonton-noodlesWe’re sure you’re familiar with the venerable Wonton Noodle Soup, a family favourite that graces the insides of so many Chinese takeaway menus. Just like chicken noodle soup, a steaming bowl of this Chinese classic is sure to warm you up on a cold day. Yet you might be surprised to hear that this homely dish is often used to test the ability of many Cantonese chefs in training! The best wontons should always be bite-sized, and this requires a high level of skill. Too much filling and the wonton wrapper won’t close properly; too little, and the diner is left with a flavourless ball of pastry.

The wontons themselves are stuffed with a mixture of minced prawn, chicken, or pork, chopped spring onions, and mushrooms or black fungus. They are normally served in a broth, along with noodles and a garnish of leafy vegetables, such as Chinese kale. The perfect dish of Wonton Noodles should have four distinct features: the wontons should mainly contain prawn, with small amounts of minced pork or no pork at all; the noodles should taste fresh and smooth, with a slight al dente texture; the broth should be served piping hot and must be flavourful but not overwhelming; and the leafy vegetables used as garnish must imbue the dish with a pleasant aroma.

The most experienced Cantonese chefs follow a strict cooking process in order to achieve noodle perfection. The wontons are cooked first, and then placed in a bowl. The noodles are then blanched for just 10 seconds before being rinsed in cold water and placed alongside the wontons. Finally, the hot broth is scooped into the bowl on top of the wontons and noodles.

When served, the spoon must be placed at the bottom, with the wontons above the spoon and the noodles at the very top. This ensures that the noodles don’t soak up the broth for too long and thus become overcooked. After all, there’s nothing worse than soggy noodles! If you’d rather not risk it, there’s a version of this dish known as Lo Mein, which is served dry. The wontons are simply served on a large bed of noodles, with either a separate bowl of broth or a light sauce for dipping.

Beef Chow Fun (干炒牛河)

beef-chow-funWhen it comes to Cantonese cuisine, with great noodles come great responsibility! Beef Chow Fun is a staple dish made from tender strips of stir-fried beef, crunchy bean sprouts, and a special type of noodle known as hor fun in Cantonese or Shahe fen in Mandarin Chinese. The star ingredient of the dish is the noodles, which are so-named because they are said to have originated from the district of Shahe in Guangzhou.

Hor fun is a type of rice noodle that is white in colour, chewy and elastic in texture, distinctly wide, and somewhat slippery. Since the noodles are quite delicate, they are typically cooked in soup or stir-fried to retain their shape. To make Beef Chow Fun, the beef is first marinated in a mixture of corn starch, sesame oil, and soy sauce before being seared in a swelteringly hot wok. Sliced ginger, Shaoxing rice wine, and chopped spring onions are then added, along with the noodles. Finally, a heaping helping of bean sprouts are thrown in, and the dish is considered ready once they become tender.

It is important that the wok is kept at a very high heat in order to impart what the Cantonese describe as “wok hei” (镬气) or “breath of the wok”, which is said to give the dish a strong umami flavour. Since the ingredients are cooked over a high flame, they must be stirred quickly to prevent the meat from burning but still handled carefully so the noodles don’t break into pieces. Therefore cooking this popular dish is another major test for Cantonese chefs wishing to prove their skill. That being said, don’t turn every meal into an examination, or you might just suck the “fun” out of Beef Chow Fun!

 

 

Sichuan Local Snacks

The cuisine of Sichuan province is notoriously spicy, so be prepared for some sumptuously sizzling snacks! As one of the Eight Great Culinary Traditions of Chinese Cooking, this style is celebrated throughout China, and is widely available both inside and outside of the country. While it’s well-known for its liberal use of fiery chillies and numbing Sichuan peppercorns, it employs a wide variety of ingredients to imbue each of its dishes and snacks with a unique flavour. Fermented and preserved goods add a smack of sourness, sugar brings a touch of sweetness, well-salt from Zigong gives a salty tang, and mashed garlic injects a pungent punch to every dish.

There is an old local saying in Sichuan which goes: “one dish, one flavour; one hundred dishes, one hundred flavours”. It’s a cuisine celebrated for its boundless variety, from blazing heat to aromatic freshness. These flavours are rarely used alone, but are instead intermingled perfectly to form a taste sensation that is unlike anything you may have ever experienced. The real joy of Sichuan cuisine is that no two dishes taste alike, and every meal represents a new culinary adventure!

Dan Dan Noodles (担担面)

dan-dan-noodlesSwimming in chilli oil and teeming with delicious toppings, Dan Dan Noodles are the ultimate icon of street food in Sichuan province. The name refers to a type of carrying pole known as a dan dan, which vendors would use to carry their ingredients. One basket would contain the noodles and the other the sauce, which would be deftly combined anytime a passer-by fancied a taste of this cheap snack. These street vendors played such a significant role in the dish’s popularity that it eventually came to be known as Dan Dan Noodles or “Noodles Carried on a Pole”.

Unlike other noodle dishes, the seasoning for Dan Dan Noodles is normally placed at the bottom of the bowl and then stirred into the noodles. The sauce is made up of preserved vegetables, chilli oil, dried chillies, soy sauce, garlic, Sichuan peppercorns, minced pork, and spring onions, which makes for a rich blend of spicy, sour, and pungent flavours. The noodles are ladled on top of this fragrant mix, but it’s usually up to the customer to blend them together thoroughly. After all, you’ve got to do some of the work yourself!

Bang Bang Chicken (棒棒鸡)

bang-bang-chickenOften referred to as Bon Bon Chicken, this flavourful poultry dish is popular throughout China. Don’t worry, this chicken is not armed and dangerous! The name derives from the banging sound that is produced when the meat is being tenderised with a rolling pin. According to local legend, sometime during towards the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), there was a dedicated chef living in a remote area near the city of Ya’an. His favourite practice was to experiment with new ingredients and flavours. After studying and practising the art of soup-making for many years, he finally invented a recipe for the perfect chicken broth.

However, back in those times, chicken was a luxury and was usually only served during festivals. Fortunately, the chef came up with an effective solution: cut the whole chicken into thin slices and then sell it slice by slice! His chicken slices soon became extremely popular throughout the province, but this led to another problem. The chef couldn’t cut the chicken up evenly with a kitchen knife, and his customers would often complain if their slices were too small. In the end, the answer was to beat the chicken into pieces, which also helped the broth to infuse into the meat.

Nowadays, Bang Bang Chicken is normally served with a light salad. The chicken is first boiled in a large pot, along with slices of fresh ginger. Once the chicken is thoroughly cooked, the pot is removed from the heat and the chicken is left to soak in its own broth. Finally the chicken is beaten with a rolling pin and shredded into small pieces before being smothered in a tangy sauce made from Sichuan peppercorns, soy sauce, black vinegar, sugar, chilli oil, salt, and chopped spring onions. This fiery mixture is perfectly complemented by cool slices of cucumber and juicy tomato.

Tea-Smoked Duck (樟茶鸭)

tea-smoked-duckTea-Smoked Duck is an example of a traditional Sichuan dish that existed long before chillies became popularised in the region. It is typically eaten at banquets or during festivals, since it is infamously complicated to prepare. The duck is first marinated for several hours with a rub made from crushed Sichuan peppercorns, rice wine, ginger, garlic, and salt, much of which is liberally applied inside the cavity of the duck. Sometimes tea leaves and camphor leaves are added to this rub to give it an aromatic kick.

After it has been left to marinate, the duck is quickly blanched in boiling hot water to tighten the skin, and then air-dried. This ensures that its skin will turn wonderfully crisp when cooked. Once the duck is completely dry, it is smoked over a wok full of black tea leaves, camphor twigs, and camphor leaves for approximately 15 minutes. In order to ensure the meat is deliciously moist and thoroughly cooked, it is then steamed for a further 10 minutes before being deep-fried until the skin turns a crispy golden brown. With its subtle aromas, sour tang, crunchy skin, and tender meat, this dish is sure to be everyone’s cup of tea!

Husband and Wife Lung Slices (夫妻肺片)

husband-and-wife-lung-slicesBefore you panic, no married couples were harmed in the making of this dish! Much like Bang Bang Chicken, the unusual name derives from an equally unusual local anecdote. During the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), it was a common sight to see vendors on the streets of Chengdu selling cold slices of offal, since it was one of the most inexpensive cuts of meat. Its low cost meant the snack quickly became popular amongst rickshaw pullers and poor students. However, during the 1930s, this simple dish would soon be revolutionised!

A man named Guo Zhaohua and his wife, Zhang Tianzheng, were very particular about the way they prepared their beef offal slices, and often experimented with new ingredients. This set their beef slices apart from other street vendors in the city, and soon their business started booming. That being said, with great power comes even greater annoyances! Because they were so well-known, mischievous children in the city would often stick paper notes to their back that would read “fuqi feipian” or “married couple’s lung slices”. Eventually, this phrase became so commonplace that it was adopted as the dish’s official name.

Oddly enough, the dish itself is rarely made from lung slices. Normally thin slices of cooked beef tongue or tripe are used instead, and are served in a vinaigrette-like sauce made from spiced broth, chilli oil, Sichuan peppercorns, roasted peanuts, chopped garlic, and chopped spring onions. This sauce is just thin enough to coat the papery slices of offal perfectly without overwhelming their natural flavour, providing an appetizer that tastes fresh, spicy, crunchy, and mouth-wateringly moreish.

 

Inner Mongolian Local Snacks

mongolian-yogurt

It should come as no surprise that, while it does feature Chinese and Russian influences, Inner Mongolian cuisine is profoundly similar to that of its neighbouring cousin: Mongolia. This cooking style has been shaped primarily by the resident Mongol ethnic minority, who have adapted their signature dishes not only to reflect their culinary preferences but also to accommodate their lifestyle. The Mongolian people and many of the other ethnic minorities who populate Inner Mongolia are predominantly nomadic and pastoral. Historically, their diet has adapted to help them survive during the bitterly cold winters.

The extreme climate meant that spices and vegetables were not readily available, so they rarely feature in signature Mongolian dishes. Thus they have had to rely upon what they call “red foods” (fatty meats), “white foods” (dairy products), and wheat-based foods. Staple ingredients such as mutton, beef, milk, cheese, butter, buckwheat, oatmeal, and millet could all be easily produced in the hostile steppes and provided hearty fare for the nomads throughout the year. Nowadays the influx of Han Chinese immigrants has meant that Inner Mongolian locals have increased access to fresh fruits and vegetables, but their traditional cuisine lives on in the form of their delicious snacks.

Hohhot Shumai (烧卖)

Hohhot ShaomaiThese delectable little dumplings may seem like an icon of Chinese cuisine, but they actually originated from Inner Mongolia’s capital of Hohhot! Shumai appeared in the region sometime between the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, and were usually served in teahouses as a side dish. It was thought that merchants traveling from Shanxi province introduced them to Beijing and Tianjin, which caused them to gradually become more widespread in China. They were originally called “shaomai” (捎卖), which literally means “sold on the side” and derives from the fact that they were often served as a tasty accompaniment to tea. While the pronunciation has been maintained, the Chinese characters for writing it have changed over the years.

Hohhot Shumai are usually served in small, specialty shaomai restaurants and are conventionally eaten at breakfast. The dumpling wrappers used are typically thin and, like other types of dumpling wrapper, are made simply from flour and water. These little parcels are then stuffed full of a delicious filling made from minced lamb, spring onions, and ginger. This gives them a dense flavour with a slightly spicy tang. The pastry is then loosely gathered around the filling to form the characteristic “flower” shape at the top of the dumpling. Depending on personal preference, Hohhot Shumai can either be steamed or pan-fried and are conventionally dished up in servings of eight. A small bowl of Shanxi black vinegar for dipping and a cup of tea are the perfect complement to these sumptuous little snacks.

Tsuivan(蒙古炒面)

TsuivanTsuivan is a traditional Mongolian dish made from noodles, mutton, and a variety of hearty vegetables. The noodles are prepared by hand using dough made from wheat flour, buckwheat flour, or oat flavour depending on what is available. Unlike Chinese noodles, which are generally uniform in shape, this dough is roughly cut into thick strips. These noodles are then sautéed in a pan along with bite-sized pieces of mutton, potato, carrot, a sprinkling of salt, and some water. The result is a robust, stew-like dish that is sure to warm you up during those frosty Mongolian winters!

Milk Tea (奶茶)

Mongolian Milk TeaWhen guests are welcomed into a Mongolian herdsman’s yurt, they are usually offered a traditional beverage known as Suutei Tsai or Milk Tea. After all, who doesn’t love a good cuppa! The type of tea used is either black or green and is referred to as “block tea” or “brick tea” because it comes from a compressed block made from lower quality tea, such as tea stems or inferior tea leaves. This makes the tea easier to store and means it will last for longer. When needed, tea is chipped off of the block and added to boiling water. Once the water has changed colour, milk is added along with a teaspoon of salt. The milk is typically very fresh and is usually that of a cow, although milk from camels, horses, yaks, goats, and sheep may also be used depending on availability.

Some recipes also include butter, fat, and even fried millet. Talk about overegging the pudding, or should we say over-seasoning the tea! Historians believe that the tradition of drinking milk tea arose from a belief within the Mongol ethnic group that water was sacred and therefore should not be drank straight. Nowadays it’s often drunk at meals as a palate cleanser, since food in Inner Mongolia is notoriously fatty. Although its distinctive saltiness may come as quite a shock to foreign tongues, it’s a must-try if you want a taste of authentic Mongolian culture.

Airag (马奶酒)

airagFollowing the dairy theme, airag is an alcoholic beverage made from the milk of a horse! Airag is actually its Mongolian name, and it’s more often referred to as kumis. It is particularly popular among several of China’s nomadic ethnic minorities, including the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Mongols. That being said, milking a mare is no mean feat! Because of the difficulty involved in acquiring mare’s milk, it is a limited commodity, and so airag produced on an industrial-scale is normally made from cow’s milk.

Since cow’s milk has lower sugar levels than mare’s milk, when it ferments it has a much lower alcohol content. So if you’re looking to get a buzz on in Inner Mongolia, be sure to get the real deal. Although steer clear of unfermented mare’s milk, as it’s supposedly a potent laxative! Unlike beer or wine, where the alcohol content is derived from fermented grains and fruits respectively, the alcohol content in airag comes directly from the fermentation of natural sugars in the mare’s milk. Raw, unpasteurized mare’s milk is left to ferment over the course of hours or even days, while being stirred or churned on a regular basis.

Traditionally this would take place in a horse-hide container, which would either be placed on top of a yurt and turned over periodically, or attached to a saddle and shaken up during the course of a day’s riding. In some historical accounts, it was even said that this container would be hung at the door of the family’s yurt and that locals would punch the container as they walked passed, thus agitating the contents and helping the milk to ferment rather than coagulate and spoil. Who would have thought that you’d ever welcome a punch from your neighbour!

The finished product is typically served chilled and has a slightly sour flavour, with an alcohol content of between 0.7 and 2.5%. According to historical documents, it has been brewed in Central Asia since the 5th century BC and, during the 19th century, it even achieved a reputation as a cure-all. Historical figures like Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov flocked to “Kumis Resorts” in an attempt to cure themselves of their various ailments. So if you catch a cold during your hike across the Inner Mongolian grasslands, be sure to have a swig of this unusual liquor!

 

Inner Mongolian Cuisine

mongolia-bread

Unsurprisingly, the cuisine in Inner Mongolia has been heavily influenced by the Mongol ethnic minority, who make up a substantial proportion of the region’s population. Since Inner Mongolia shares its borders with Outer Mongolia and Russia, its cuisine has also incorporated features from traditional Mongolian, Chinese, and Russian cuisine. You could almost say it’s a real melting pot of cultures! Since the Mongolian people who inhabited the grasslands were conventionally nomadic and pastoral, they had to find a diet that would help them survive during the bitterly cold winters. Thus their cuisine places great emphasis on three categories of ingredients: “red food” (fatty meats), “white food” (dairy products), and wheat-based foods.

The extreme climate meant that spices and vegetables were not readily available, so they rarely feature in signature Mongolian dishes. Traditionally only a few native plants, such as wild spring onions and wild thyme, and hardy plants that grew on the steppes, such as buckwheat and millet, would be used in dishes, although nowadays the influx of Han Chinese immigrants means that other ingredients have been introduced to the Inner Mongolian palate.

Mongolian nomads typically farmed what they referred to as the “Five Snouts”: sheep, goats, yak, camels, and horses. Nowadays they also farm cattle, but cattle and goats are prized for their milk while horses, camels, and yak are considered valuable pack animals. This left the poor sheep with the task of providing most of the meat, which explains the marked preference for mutton in many Mongolian dishes.

Mutton from sheep raised on the grasslands is rumoured to be the best in China, as the sheep enjoy a diet of fresh grass and mineral water instead of man-made feed. Historically this hearty meat helped the local people to keep weight on during the winter, along with other “heavy” foodstuffs such as milk, cream, milk tea, butter, cheese, buckwheat noodles, and oat flour pancakes. So be prepared to pack on the pounds during your tour of the grasslands!

Whole Roasted Sheep (烤全羊)

Whole Roasted SheepIn the past, this sumptuously meaty dish was a privilege reserved only for Mongolian royalty, since it was both expensive and complicated to cook. Nowadays, it is readily available throughout the restaurants and grasslands of Inner Mongolia. The main ingredient is unsurprisingly a whole sheep, which is filled with a mixture of spices before being baked in an airtight oven at high temperature for four to five hours.

Once the meat is medium to well-done, the carcass is removed from the oven and roasted over an open fire until it has turned a crispy golden-brown. The firewood used is typically from the apricot tree, as the smoke produced helps give the mutton its distinctive taste. After being roasted to perfection, the dish is served whole on a huge wooden platter. Custom dictates that, while the meat is being carved, a small triangular slice from the sheep’s head should be thrown in the fire as an offering. The two different cooking methods result in the mutton being mouth-wateringly crispy and flavourful, with meat so tender that it literally melts in your mouth.

Mongolian Hot Pot (涮羊肉)

Mongolian Hot PotHot Pot may seem like an iconic Chinese dish, but it actually originated from Mongolia! Sometime during the Jin Dynasty (265-420), it became a popular way of eating meat such as beef, mutton, and horse among Mongolian herdsmen living on the northern grasslands, but it didn’t spread to southern China until the Song Dynasty (960-1279). While several regional variations developed throughout China, the Mongolian Hot Pot or “Instant-Boiled Mutton” remained the favourite of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and is a popular dish in Inner Mongolia to this day.

According to local legend, the dish originated when Kublai Khan, the Khagan of the Mongol Empire and founding Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty, developed a sudden craving for stewed mutton. However, he happened to be in the middle of a battle and the enemy’s troops were fast approaching! In order to satiate his hunger, a chef deftly cut off a dozen thinly-sliced mutton strips and placed them in boiling water. As soon as the meat had browned, he swiftly removed it and put it in a bowl with a little salt. Kublai Khan devoured these mutton strips with glee before heading off to battle and achieving a grand victory. At the subsequent celebratory banquet, he requested that the chef prepare this mutton dish again and its status as a regional delicacy was cemented.

The dish consists of the choicest slices of mutton, cut from the back, rear legs, and tail of the sheep. Typically this raw mutton is served alongside tofu, Chinese cabbage, bean sprouts, and vermicelli. A pot of boiling soup is laid on a hot plate in the middle of the table, in which the raw ingredients are placed and left to cook. It is imperative that the mutton is removed as soon as it has browned. Each person is typically given a bowl containing a dipping sauce, which is made from sesame oil, chilli oil, spring onions, and soy sauce. Guests are then free to pick strips of the juicy mutton from the soup with their chopsticks and season them to taste.

Grabbing Mutton (手扒羊肉)

grabbing muttonThis traditional dish has been a favourite among Mongolian herdsmen for thousands of years, in part because it’s so deliciously simple! Meat from a freshly butchered sheep is first carved and then placed into a wok of boiling water with a little salt but no other seasonings. The mutton is thoroughly cooked but never allowed to over-boil, as this would make the meat tough and unpalatable. Once the mutton has browned nicely, it is removed from the water and should be eaten before it cools.

The name “grabbing mutton” derives from the fact that traditionally the mutton is eaten with the hands, kind of like barbecued spare ribs. If a local has treated you to this hearty dish, you must allow the host to select your piece of mutton for you, as customarily different parts are served to different guests. For example, the elderly are usually offered cuts from the leg and younger people will be given the ribs, while women get to enjoy the tender meat from the chest.

Roast Leg of Mutton (烤羊腿)

Roast Leg of MuttonBy now, you’ve probably noticed a pattern in the signature dishes of Inner Mongolia. We weren’t kidding when we said they loved mutton! Roast Leg of Mutton was supposedly a favourite of the infamous warlord Genghis Khan and is cooked in much the same way as Whole Roasted Sheep. A sheep’s leg is first scored across the skin before being seasoned with salt and placed on a tray with shredded carrot, celery, shallots, ginger, tomatoes, and peppers. The leg is then roasted in an oven for approximately 4 hours, until the skin has turned a rich golden-brown and the meat gives off an irresistible aroma. Nowadays this dish is a popular alternative to Whole Roasted Sheep, as it takes less time to cook and the leg is considered the tastiest part of the animal.

 

Zhejiang Local Snacks

 

Zhejiang is a province abounding in culinary traditions, with dishes that are as diverse as they are delicious. While the city of Ningbo has been famous for its sugary confectionaries since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), Shaoxing’s gastronomic pedigree in fermented foods stretches all the way back to the Warring States Period (c. 476-221 B.C.)! From coastal delicacies to quick-fried street food, the snacks of Zhejiang are packed full of flavours that have been refined over hundreds of years. After all, the greatest teacher of any skill is time!

Beggar’s Chicken (叫化鸡)

Beggar's chiickenBeggar’s Chicken is a gourmet dish that is so delicious you’ll be begging for a taste! Its unusual name is derived from yet another local legend about a beggar living in Hangzhou during the Qing Dynasty. This beggar was so hungry that he eventually stole a chicken from a small farm. The farmer chased him down to the riverbank and, in a desperate effort to hide his loot, the beggar buried the chicken in mud before fleeing the scene. When night fell, he returned to the river and retrieved the chicken from the muddy bank. He had no oven to cook with, so he simply lit a few twigs and set the mud-soaked chicken over the bonfire.

After some time, a light brown crust formed over the chicken and, when it was cracked open, the feathers miraculously dropped off. All that was left was the chicken’s meat, which was so moist and tender that the beggar couldn’t believe his luck. In some versions of the story, the Emperor happened to pass by the beggar and was drawn in by the chicken’s sumptuous aroma. Supposedly the Emperor was so taken by this flavourful dish that he had it added to the imperial court menu! Needless to say, the beggar soon started selling his unique creation to the local villagers and wasn’t a beggar for much longer. Nowadays, the chicken is normally stuffed with aromatic spices, wrapped in lotus leaves or a flour-based dough, and baked over a low heat for upwards of 6 hours, although some restaurants still follow the traditional method of covering the chicken with clay. After all, you shouldn’t muck about with a centuries-old recipe!

Sweet Ningbo Rice Balls (宁波汤圆)

Sweet Ningbo Rice BallsNingbo Rice Balls or Tangyuan are one of the city’s most celebrated confections. Tangyuan are a popular festival food throughout China and are believed to have appeared sometime during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), although they didn’t reach significant popularity until the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties. Like many great innovations, it seemed that these sweet dumplings were a little before their time! They are made using glutinous rice, which has been rolled into the shape of a ball and boiled, steamed, or fried before typically being served in a syrupy soup. Stuffed tangyuan are made by first rolling the filling into a ball before wrapping a flattened piece of glutinous rice dough around it. The best tangyuan must have a chewy skin that does not stick to your teeth and are said to be so soft that you can push the filling out with a small bite.

The Ningbo variety is marked by its distinctive filling, which is made using lard, soft white sugar, and black sesame paste. The lard melts as the tangyuan are boiled, softening the black sesame paste and sugar into a tantalisingly sweet syrup. Although these squishy treats are traditionally eaten during the Lantern Festival, locals in the Ningbo region love them so much that they even eat them for breakfast on the morning of Chinese New Year! Nowadays they are no longer exclusively a festival food, and are served as a dessert or simply as a sugary snack throughout the year.

Shaoxing Stinky Tofu (绍兴臭豆)

Shaoxing Stinky TofuThe name “stinky tofu” hardly inspires one with confidence. Comical though it may seem, this unusual epithet is tragically not a mistranslation. Foreigners and locals alike have described the snack’s odour as resembling “rotting garbage” or “an open latrine”, so it goes without saying that you might want to keep a nose-peg handy if you fancy trying this strange dish! The distinctive aroma originates from the liquid that the tofu is fermented in, known as lu or fermenting brine.

It is made using woody amaranth stalks that have been covered in cold water and left in a clay pot until they start to rot. This process normally takes between 2 to 4 days, and the resulting brine is so pungent that people unused to the smell can’t stand to be near it. The amaranth stalks are then removed and served up as part of their own dish; one of Shaoxing’s well-known chou mei or “stinky and rotten” delicacies!

Batches of tofu are soaked in a mixture made from this brine, along with fermented milk, mustard greens, bamboo shoots, and Chinese herbs. This formula varies from region to region and individual to individual, so each batch of stinky tofu has its own unique stench! Once it has been left to ferment for a number of days or even months, the tofu is removed and is either deep-fried or steamed. The stinky tofu eaten in the average household is normally steamed with green beans, while tofu sold at street food stalls is usually deep-fried and served with a hot chilli sauce. This odorous delight is said to have a strong, mature flavour that somewhat resembles blue cheese. Apparently, the smellier the tofu is, the better it tastes!

Shengzhou Steamed Buns (嵊州小笼)

Shengzhou Steamed BunsOriginating from the small northern county of Shengzhou, these steamed buns or xiaolongbao may not be as famous as their counterpart in Shanghai, but they’re certainly no less delicious! Unlike other regional delicacies, which normally have histories dating back hundreds of years, Shengzhou Steamed Buns are a relatively new culinary treat. They were the brainchild of Tu Fuyuan, a local from Yuxi Village who travelled to Guizhou province during the 1980s in order to make money for his family.

He ended up working as an apprentice under a local steamed bun merchant and, after learning the basics, he returned home to open his own steamed bun shop. His buns were so popular that they even spawned a string of copycats, who each attempted to recreate Tu’s original recipe. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery! Nowadays authentic Shengzhou Steamed Buns must be made with top-quality rice flour, fresh meat, and five different seasonings, including the local rice wine. These scrumptious dumplings are normally steamed on a bed of fresh vegetable leaves, in order to give them an aromatic boost.

 

Zhejiang Cuisine

zhejiang sea food cuisine

The salty-sweet smell of the ocean and the pungent aroma of freshly caught fish waft on the sea-breeze in Zhejiang. With its abundance of rivers, lakes, canals, and beaches, it comes as no surprise that there’s always something aquatic on the menu in this coastal province. Zhejiang cuisine is heralded as one of the Eight Culinary Traditions of Chinese Cuisine, meaning its signature dishes are ranked as some of the most delicious in the country. The Zhejiang-style is characterised by its fresh, mild taste and the emphasis it places on the natural flavour of its key ingredients. To this end, many of the dishes are seasonal and are served raw or almost raw, similar to Japanese cuisine.

Like Jiangsu and Fujian style cuisine, presentation is everything and diners in Zhejiang will be met not only by mouth-watering aromas, but also by an unparalleled visual feast. A myriad of techniques such as quick-frying, stir-frying, deep-frying, simmering, steaming, and brine-soaking are all skilfully employed by expert chefs in order to guarantee that each dish is cooked to perfection. There are three main sub-styles of Zhejiang cuisine: Hangzhou, Shaoxing, and Ningbo. Hangzhou-style is by far the most popular of the three and carries the most prestige, since Hangzhou was once the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279). It is rumoured that bamboo shoots, a favoured ingredient, will feature in nearly half of all dishes on an average Hangzhou menu.

Shaoxing-style is well-known for its sumptuous poultry and freshwater fish specialities, as well as the internationally renowned Shaoxing Rice Wine, which has been brewed in the region for over 2,000 years. This dry, sherry-like liquor is made from fermented rice and an ancient strain of yeast that has been cultivated for centuries. It is normally aged for at least 18 months, but some varieties are up to 100 years old! Ningbo-style is markedly saltier than the other three and is known for its splendid seafood dishes. It is also celebrated for its tantalisingly sweet confections, many of which date back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

Longjing Shrimp (龙井虾仁)

Longjing ShrimpA visit to the coastal city of Hangzhou simply wouldn’t be complete without delicious seafood and a warm cup of aromatic Longjing tea. But why waste time going to a restaurant and a teahouse when you could get both of these signature ingredients on one plate? Longjing or “Dragon Well” tea is considered the finest green tea in the region, while river shrimp is a seasonal delicacy. You’ll have to get your timing just right, because the best Longjing tea is picked in early April and the juiciest river shrimp are caught at the start of summer.

According to local legend, this unusual dish came about when the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty was touring the region surrounding Hangzhou. He decided that, in order to truly learn what life was like in Hangzhou, he would disguise himself as a commoner. As it started to rain, a local woman invited him into her home and brewed him some tea made from freshly-picked Longjing tea leaves. He was so impressed by the taste that he pocketed some of the tea leaves on the sly before continuing his trip.

At sunset, he arrived at an inn and ordered a plate of fried shrimp. He asked the waiter to brew him some tea but, as he reached inside his sleeve to retrieve the tea leaves, the waiter caught sight of the imperial gown hidden beneath his cloak. The waiter rushed to inform the chef and, in his panic, the chef accidentally added the tea leaves to the fried shrimp, thinking that they were spring onions. At this point, it seemed the only thing the kitchen was brewing was trouble! However, the emperor was so impressed by the dish’s colourful appearance and unique flavour that he was instantly won over, and so Longjing Shrimp was born.

This refreshing and vibrantly colourful dish is made by first marinating the freshly caught shrimp in a mixture of salt, egg whites, starch, water, and Shaoxing rice wine. The shrimp is then flash-fried in hot oil while the Longjing tea is brewed separately. After about five minutes of frying and steeping respectively, the shrimp is removed from the hot pan and the tea leaves are separated from the boiling water. The oil is then replaced before the shrimp is re-added along with more salt, Shaoxing rice wine, and the Longjing tea leaves. Finally, a small amount of the liquid tea is added to the pan and left to heat until it boils. The plump sweetness of the shrimp is perfectly complemented by the bitter crunch of the tea leaves. This dish is held in such high regard throughout China that it was even served as part of a government banquet for President Nixon in 1972.

Dongpo Pork (东坡肉)

Dongpo Pork 01During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), Hangzhou was administered by a government official named Su Dongpo. He is well-known throughout China for his three great triumphs: building the Su Causeway over West Lake; writing a magnificent poem in celebration of West Lake’s beauty; and the creation of Dongpo Pork. Talk about a Jack of All Trades! According to local legend, Su Dongpo had a marked preference for pork. Since the citizens of Hangzhou greatly respected him for his benevolence and wisdom, they all presented him with the finest pork they had to offer on New Year’s Day.

Su Dongpo was delighted and, together with his family, he cooked the pork using a sauce made from Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, ginger, and sugar. True to his character, he then shared this delicious meal with the citizens of Hangzhou. Thereafter, the dish was known as Dongpo Pork and remains one of the city’s signature delicacies. Yet this fragrant dish is a real pig to cook! First, you take some scrumptious pork belly, cut it into four pieces, boil it briefly, and then rinse it. Next, you put the pork in a pot with a mixture of sugar, soy sauce, onion, ginger, and Shaoxing rice wine, where it is sealed and cooked in the oven for about two hours. Finally, you remove the pork from the pot, place it in a bowl, strain the juices over it, and steam it for another two hours. The result is a tender, fatty dish that practically melts in your mouth.

West Lake Vinegar Fish or Sister Song’s Treasure (西湖醋鱼)

West Lake Vinegar Fish or Sister Song’s TreasureWest Lake Vinegar Fish is another traditional dish from Hangzhou derived from a slightly less upbeat local legend. The story goes that there were once two brothers from the Song family who were both incredibly intelligent. They could easily have become officials, but decided to eschew the scholarly life in favour of a rustic one spent living and fishing near West Lake. Yet it seemed their simple dream was not to be. One day, a wealthy landowner named Zhao was walking past West Lake when he saw the elder brother’s wife bathing. He was enthralled by her beauty and, determined to make her his, he had the elder brother killed.

The younger brother and his sister-in-law immediately consulted the local magistrate in the hopes of receiving justice, but little did they know that the magistrate was a close friend of Zhao. They were beaten and thrown out of court, leaving the elder brother un-avenged. Feeling weak and defeated, they returned to their home by West Lake and the sister-in-law demanded that the younger brother flee, lest Zhao come after him next. She asked only one thing of him: if he made his fortune, he must promise to eventually come back for her. Before he left, she cooked him a special dish made from sugar, vinegar, and a fish from West Lake.

When the younger brother commented on its unusual taste, she said, “This fish is sweet and sour, just like life. When you have tasted the sweetness of a good life, please do not forget the sour oppression that us commoners face”. The younger brother was deeply moved by this sentiment and, as he left, the words resonated in his heart. Years later, he garnered great fame and fortune as a government official. His high authority allowed him to return to Hangzhou and eventually have Zhao arrested for his crimes. But, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t find his sister-in-law. Then, one day, he was at a banquet when suddenly he found a dish that tasted exactly like the one his sister-in-law had prepared for him all those years ago.

He asked to meet the chef and, lo and behold, there she was. She had been working as a cook for a noble family in order to hide from Zhao. The younger brother was elated and immediately resigned for his high post, choosing instead to live a peaceful life once again by the lakeside with his sister-in-law. So it goes without saying that there’s a lot of heart in this dish! Traditionally it is made using grass carp from West Lake that has been left to cleanse in a tank for two days, ensuring that it does not have a muddy taste. The fish is then braised in a simple marinade of dark vinegar and sugar until it is cooked through, resulting in an aromatic dish with a sweet and sour tang.

Braised River Eel (锅烧河鳗)

Braised River EelThis unusual dish is one of the oldest in the Ningbo-style and is made using river eel. Many of the rivers and lakes surrounding the city of Ningbo have an abundance of eel, so this dish is almost always served up freshly caught. The eel is first steamed until it has softened enough for the bones to be easily removed and then it is braised in a mixture of spices until the flesh has turned an alluring golden-brown. The result is a tender, juicy dish that is full of flavour and packed with nutrients.

 

Jiangsu Local Snacks

Since Jiangsu or “Su” cuisine is often praised as one of the Eight Culinary Traditions of Chinese Cooking, it goes without saying that the snacks on offer in this province are plentiful and delicious! This style of cooking places emphasis on presentation and the natural essence of ingredients, resulting in dishes that are visually stunning and richly flavourful without being overly seasoned. Soups play a starring role in most snack dishes and are highly acclaimed for being light and fresh, rather than oily or greasy. With palate-cleansers that are this scrumptious, you might even forget about the main course!

Yangzhou Fried RiceYangzhou Fried Rice (扬州炒饭)

Also known as Yangzhou Egg Fried Rice, this staple dish hails from the city of Yangzhou and is one of the most immediately recognisable dishes in Jiangsu, since it’s served in Chinese restaurants throughout the world. The ingredients of this hearty dish vary from restaurant to restaurant, but some of the staple items include: cooked rice that is preferably a day old, since freshly cooked rice is often too sticky; cooked shrimp; diced char siu or Chinese barbecue pork; chopped spring onions; eggs; and fresh vegetables such as peas, Chinese broccoli, carrots, and corn. Like glittering jewels in a fine brooch, these multi-coloured ingredients add a touch of vibrancy to the dish.

According to local legend, the dish was brought to the region during the Sui Dynasty (581-618) by a powerful imperial minister named Yang Su. Fried rice was one of his favourite foods and, when he was escorting Emperor Yangdi through the district of Jiangdu, he introduced his recipe to the people of Yangzhou. There are two ways of cooking this sumptuous dish based on when and how the egg is scrambled. The first, known as “silver covering gold”, is when the egg is scrambled separately and then mixed in with the rice. The second, known as “gold covering silver”, is when the liquid egg is poured over the rice and vegetables as they are being stir-fried. It’s rumoured that the finest chefs in Yangzhou can cook the dish with a rice grain to egg piece ratio of 5:1 or even 3:1. Talk about precise!

Jiangnan ShumaiJiangnan Shumai (江南烧)

Shaomai or shumai in Chinese cuisine is a traditional type of bite-size pork dumpling served as dim sum. They’re living proof that good things definitely come in small packages! They are believed to have originated from the city of Hohhot in Inner Mongolia, but the ones served in the Jiangnan region of Jiangsu, just south of the Yangtze River, are considerably different to their northern counterparts. In this variation, the wrapping for the dumpling is much larger and tougher. The filling is made up of glutinous rice and pork pieces that have been marinated in a delectable mixture of Chinese rice wine (Shaoxing wine) and soy sauce. They are normally steamed with pork fat to keep them tantalisingly moist and are markedly larger than other types of shaomai. Most restaurants typically serve them as an appetising accompaniment to a cup of tea. Once you’ve tried these juicy little parcels, you’ll never look at afternoon tea the same way again!

Fengzhen NoodlesFengzhen Noodles (枫镇大面)

These enticingly aromatic noodles originate from Fengqiao Town in Suzhou and are said to have the fragrance of rice wine. So be sure not to breathe in too deeply, or you might end up drunk! The delicate noodles are first boiled before being served in a light broth made from stewed eel bones, river snails, rice wine, and soy sauce. However, the highlight of this dish is considered to be the topping. Thick, streaky slices of pork are marinated in rice wine and stewed for at least four hours before being used as a garnish. The resulting dish is an ideal combination of subtle flavours that melt in the mouth and glance off the tongue. Fengzhen Noodles are typically served during summer, as they are believed to cool the palate during the hotter weather. So if you’re traveling in Jiangsu, be sure to use your noodle and order a bowl of this tasty treat!

Huangqiao Sesame CakeHuangqiao Sesame Cake (黄桥烧饼)

Sesame seed cakes are thought to be the oldest style of cake in Jiangsu and the earliest record of them, written by an agronomist named Jia Sixie, dates all the way back to the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–535). So it seems the locals have had plenty of time to perfect the recipe! Unsurprisingly, this particular type of sesame cake originates from the town of Huangqiao. According to local legend, sometime during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), the magistrate of Rugao County was visiting the region when he tried a few of these crispy cakes. On returning home, he was so taken with them that he began getting serious cravings. Unfortunately, the counties were over 30 kilometres (19 mi) and it seemed impractical to go all that way just for a snack. So he sent one of his servants to buy the cakes for him instead!

The cakes themselves come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from the typical round and oval ones right through to triangular and square ones. Unlike conventional cakes in the West, Huangqiao sesame cakes come in sweet and savoury varieties. This means the basic dough can vary, as sweet dough incorporates caramel while savoury dough includes pork suet and onion. More sophisticated varieties of this crunchy snack include fillings such as pork, sweet osmanthus paste, crab roe, jujube paste, chicken, and shrimp. So, if you happen to spot a tray full of these fluffy treats, choosing one can feel like a game of roulette!

 

 

Jiangsu Cuisine

jiangsu-cuisine

Jiangsu or “Su” cuisine is heralded as one of the Eight Culinary Traditions of Chinese Cooking and its subgroup, Huaiyang, is even considered to be among the Four Great Traditions of Chinese Cuisine. It was once the second most popular style among the imperials and is now frequently served at state banquets. With that in mind, you’re pretty much guaranteed to enjoy your stay in Jiangsu; or at least, your stomach is! This style of cooking places emphasis on presentation, meaning local specialities are as visually pleasing as they are mouth-wateringly delicious. Chefs train for years in order to perfect how to carve, sculpt, shape, and pair certain foods for the ultimate visual feast.

In terms of flavour, this style aims to draw out the natural essence of its ingredients through various cooking techniques, so seasonings and spices are used sparingly. This means that its signature dishes are sumptuously aromatic, slightly salty, moderately sweet, and glide across the tongue, leaving a strong sense of flavour without being oily or greasy. The ingredients are usually seasonal and are chosen not only for their taste, but also for their unique medicinal properties. Since Jiangsu is a coastal province, fish and other types of seafood feature prominently, along with pork, lotus root, Chinese chestnuts, water bamboo, and water chestnuts. With all of this aquatic goodness, you’ll practically be swimming in scrumptious food!

There are four different regional styles of Jiangsu cuisine: Jinling, Suxi, Xuhai, and Huaiyang. The Jinling style originated from the provincial capital of Nanjing and is famous for its duck dishes, as well as its fine cutting techniques and delicate preparation. The Suxi style developed around the cities of Suzhou and Wuxi, and is distinctly sweeter than the other styles, with a strong emphasis placed on the use of seasonal vegetables.

The Xuhai style, which originates from the cities of Xuzhou and Lianyungang, is the least famous of the four and combines a perfect mixture of sweetness, sourness, bitterness, heat, and saltiness. Last but certainly not least, Huaiyang style is praised as the finest of the four and is centred on dishes from the cities of Yangzhou and Huai’an. It is rumoured to have originated from chefs who worked for wealthy Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) salt merchants living in Yangzhou, proving once and for all that a golden key can open any door, particularly the ones to the best restaurants!

Squirrel-Shaped Mandarin Fish (松鼠鳜)

Squirrel-Shaped Mandarin Fish

This dish is so famous and so prevalent throughout China that it’s now considered one of the emblematic dishes not only of Jiangsu cuisine, but of Chinese cuisine as a whole. Yet you wouldn’t be the first person to be confused by its rather unusual name! According to local legend, the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty was touring the area south of the Yangtze River when he decided to stop at a restaurant in Suzhou. The chef knew that he had to pull out all of the stops to impress the Emperor, so he took the meatiest mandarin fish, covered it in egg-yolk paste, and fried it before delicately cutting it, shaping it, and serving it with his homemade sweet and sour sauce. The Emperor praised the dish for its novel presentation and savoured the crispy golden strips of fried fish.

From then on, Squirrel-Shaped Mandarin Fish has remained one of the finest gourmet dishes in China. In order to make the dish, the chef first cuts the flesh of the mandarin fish into a delicate pattern resembling a blossoming flower and then covers the tender white flesh in a mixture of starch and eggs. The fish is deep-fried until it turns a crispy golden brown before being arranged on the plate with its mouth wide-open and its tail bent upward. A sizzling sweet and sour sauce is then poured over the freshly fried fish as it is presented to the lucky gourmand. The golden-brown colour of the flesh and the shaping of the fish are designed to make it look like a squirrel, while the crackling sound of the hot sauce being poured over the meat is said to resemble a squirrel’s chirrup. Moulding a fish to look like a squirrel may seem a little fishy, but trust us; this dish is as delicious as it is strange!

Nanjing Salted Duck (盐水鸭)

Nanjing Salted Duck

According to local legend, when Nanjing was the imperial capital, the Hongwu Emperor of the Qing Dynasty was desperate to solve the city’s noise problem and issued an edict demanding that all of the resident roosters be killed, in order to stop them from waking him up. The city was certainly quieter, but people suddenly realised that they had no chickens to eat! The citizens turned their hungry gaze towards the local duck population and this is supposedly the reason why Nanjing is so famous for its duck dishes. And it seems the locals have really gotten creative with this one ingredient, because Nanjing Salted Duck is one of the most complicated dishes to cook!

It takes approximately two days for the duck to properly marinate in a rub made from Sichuan peppercorns and salt before it can be boiled in the master stock, which is a fragrant broth made from ginger, spring onion, rock sugar, sea salt, star anise, cinnamon, fennel, cumin, Sichuan peppercorns, whole dried citrus peel, and liquorice root. Even after the duck has been simmered in the broth, it still needs to be left to infuse overnight before it can be served. So, if you’re feeling a little bit peckish and want some fast food, you might want to reconsider this dish because the only thing you’ll be consuming is time!

Nanjing Salted Duck is celebrated for its tender meat and fatty but not overly greasy flavour. Supposedly the best time to eat it is shortly before or after mid-Autumn, during the sweet osmanthus blooming season. During these months, osmanthus is added to the spice mixture to give the duck a boost of aromatic flavour. Just start preparing right away, or the season might have ended before you even finish cooking the duck!

Lion’s Head (狮子头)

Lion’s Head

Unusual names seem to be something of a trend in Jiangsu cuisine! Once again, this dish is named for its shape rather than its content, so don’t expect to be presented with a roaring lion’s head anytime soon. It is made using minced meat (usually pork but occasionally beef) that has been mixed with chopped water chestnuts, spring onions, ginger, and eggs for texture and then rolled into large meatballs, about the size of your hand. It is imperative to use fatty meat, as lean meat will result in the meatballs being too dry.

There are two distinct varieties of this robust dish: White or Plain Lion’s Head and Red Lion’s Head. The plain variety is simply stewed or steamed with Chinese cabbage and served with a clear soup, while the red variety is stewed in soy sauce with either Chinese cabbage or bamboo shoots and tofu. The large meatballs are said to resemble the head of a lion and the surrounding cabbage looks like its mane, which is how the dish earned its extraordinary name. These ferocious meatballs are packed with umami flavour and a pleasant saltiness that just glances across the tongue.

 

Yunnan Local Snacks

In most provinces the snacks are so complex and contain so many ingredients that they invariably appear to us like full sized meals, whereas in Yunnan the local snacks are characterised by their tasteful simplicity. From Dali to Lijiang, each county in Yunnan boasts its own unique snacks and usually they are the result of ethnic minorities who have adapted their cooking styles over decades. While the local Tibetan people have a preference for yak’s milk yogurt, the Bai ethnic minority love cheese, and the Naxi people have a fondness for seasoned flatbreads. This incredible variety means you’ll never be at a loss to find a tasty titbit once your stomach starts rumbling!

Xuanwei Ham (宣威腿)

Xuanwei Ham

Xuanwei Ham is one of China’s top three most famous ham dishes and, once you catch the scent of this sweet salty meat, we’re sure you’ll see why. This type of ham originates from Xuanwei County in northeastern Yunnan and has a history of over 250 years. It is normally cured during the winter and left to ferment for upwards of half a year! The ham comes from the local Wumeng hogs, which provide perfectly marbled meat that is both salty and sweet without being oily or greasy. The ham itself is incredibly adaptable and can be stir-fried, deep-fried, steamed or added to a stew. In some parts of Yunnan, even the moon cakes are stuffed with Xuanwei ham and are heartily enjoyed during Mid-Autumn Festival. It is mainly used to add flavour to other dishes or to make broth, but makes a sumptuous snack in its own right.

Rushan (乳扇)

Rushan

Rushan is almost exclusively found in Dali Prefecture and originates from the Bai ethnic minority. It is made using a type of cow’s milk cheese that is flat and has a somewhat leathery texture, giving it the appearance of a folding fan. This is what earned it the name “rushan”, which literally means “milk fan”. The slivers of cheese are usually fried or grilled and then wrapped around a stick, resembling a popsicle. Sweet condiments will then be spread on the cooked cheese, such as sweetened condensed milk, rose petal infused honey, chocolate syrup, or fruit preserves. The finished product is mouth-wateringly crispy and the strong, milky flavour of the cheese is perfectly complimented by the thick sweetness of the condiments. Once you’ve felt these flaky strips of cheese melt in your mouth, we’re certain you’ll be a “milk fan” too!

Rubing (乳饼)

Rubing

Like rushan, rubing also originates from the Bai people of Dali Prefecture but is made using a type of goat’s milk cheese. Its name literally means “milk cake” as blocks of this firm, white cheese greatly resemble slices of scrumptious sponge cake. Thick, juicy slices of rubing are pan-fried and then dipped in either a mixture of salt and chilli or sugar depending on your personal preference. In some restaurants, it will even be stir-fried with vegetables in a similar way to stir-fried tofu. The delightful sharpness of the goat’s cheese goes incredibly well with both salty and sweet seasonings, making it a versatile snack that is as filling as it is delicious.

Erkuai (饵块)

Erkuai

Erkuai is a type of rice cake that is made by taking high-quality rice, soaking it in water, steaming it in spring water, and then pounding the cooked rice down into a soft mush using a giant pestle and mortar. This rice mush is hand-kneaded on a wooden board to remove all of the air bubbles and then moulded into its characteristic pillow shape. These soft, plush, doughy cylinders look so comfortable that you’ll be tempted to rest your head on them! Erkuai is a popular staple food throughout Yunnan and is indispensible during their Spring Festival or New Year celebrations. Like Xuanwei Ham, it is an incredibly versatile food and can be boiled, roasted, or even pan-fried.

For breakfast, many locals love nothing more than to roast a few slices of erkuai over a charcoal fire and spread handmade fruit jam over them like a spongy, warm croissant. In restaurants, it is often served stir-fried with a mixture of vegetables, dried red chillies, Sichuan pepper, and salt. On the street, you’ll find it grilled and rolled around a strip of fried dough known as youtiao (油条). This snack can either be served sweet, with a sugary brown sauce and peanuts, or savoury, with a fermented kind of tofu known as lufu (滷腐) and bean sprouts. This comforting snack resembles a burrito and its luxurious layers of flavour are sure to leave you wanting more!

Xizhou Baba (喜洲粑粑)

Xizhou Baba

This style of baba is just one of many found throughout Yunnan and was adapted by the Naxi people of Xizhou town near Dali. Baba is a type of flatbread made from wheat flour dough that has been flattened into a circular shape. The lardy flatbread is then either topped with minced pork and spring onions or filled with sweet red bean paste, and baked in oil until the dough has gone a golden-brown. Its circular shape and use of meaty toppings has earned it the amusing nickname “Xizhou pizza”. The sweet baba taste like plump pastries, while the savoury baba have a pleasant saltiness that accompanies the rich dough perfectly. Though they may not taste exactly like pizza, Xizhou baba are a takeaway snack that you’ll surely miss once you leave Yunnan.

 

 

Xinjiang Local Snacks

Much like the region’s cuisine, the local snacks in Xinjiang have a certain undeniable Central Asian flair that sets them apart from other delicacies in China. Since many of its cities were once powerful oasis towns along the Silk Road, the region has played host to a plethora of different ethnic groups and borrowed all of the finest features from their cooking styles. Thanks to bustling livestock markets and vibrant bazaars, the trading culture in Xinjiang’s cities is still palpable today and provides a unique insight into what the Silk Road may have been like. Vendors hawk anything from olives and freshly baked-bread to honey and some of the sweetest raisins you’ll ever taste. With the thick aroma of crushed spices and freshly roasted mutton wafting through the air, these markets are a veritable paradise for the senses.

Naan (馕)

naanAlternatively known as nan or nang, this delicious type of flatbread is popular throughout Central Asia and really attests to the region’s ethnic diversity. In Xinjiang, the Uyghur ethnic minority have become particularly dextrous at developing and cooking their own unique varieties of naan bread. The dough is first flattened by hand, curled at the edges, and then stamped with a spiked tool, which creates a laced pattern of holes and helps the bread to cook evenly. It is then sprinkled with a mixture of black onion seeds, sesame seeds, and chopped garlic to give the naan its characteristic flavour.

They are traditionally baked in a special clay oven known as a tandoor and watching them being cooked is a spectacle in of itself, as vendors reach deep into the fiery pit and literally slap the dough onto the walls of the oven! After just a few minutes of baking, the flatbread has turned a rich golden brown and is ready to eat. The size, shape, and seasoning of the naan may differ between cities and even vendors, but the result is always a soft, warm flatbread that tastes great as an accompaniment to a meal or simply as a hearty snack on the go.

Samsas (烤包子)

SamsasThese little parcels of spicy goodness are known throughout most of Central Asia as samosas, but are called samsas in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Xinjiang. Unlike other styles of samosa, Xinjiang samsas are traditionally baked rather than fried, giving them a much fluffier texture. The dough used can be simple bread dough or layered pastry dough, which is then stuffed full of delicious filling.

Minced lamb and onions is the most popular combination, although variations include chicken, minced beef, cheese, potato, and pumpkin. The filling, as well as the general shape of the samsa, differs from vendor to vendor, so you’ll be spoilt for choice! They are traditionally cooked in a tandoor oven and are sold on the streets as a scrumptious snack. If you can’t get enough of these tasty little parcels, there are also larger versions available known as kumach, which are considered a meal in of themselves. Just try not to eat too many, or you’ll end up as round as the samsas!

Matang (麻糖)

matangMatang is another speciality of the Uyghur ethnic minority and comes in many incarnations, each one more delightful than the last! This sugary snack is said to have originated from the town of Hotan in southwest Xinjiang, which is famous for its thinly shelled walnuts. The traditional cooking process has been passed down in this region from generation to generation and utilises only the finest locally grown grapes. These grapes are boiled down into a sugary syrup, which is then mixed with crushed walnuts and left to boil for even longer. Once the mixture has achieved the right density, it is pressed into a mould, left to set, and then elaborately decorated with candied fruit. The result is a devilishly sweet and sticky treat that you’ll be happy to get stuck in your teeth!

Nowadays other varieties of matang use different types of nuts, including almonds and cashews, and honey instead of grape syrup. They range in flavour and texture from ones that are as soft and creamy as nougat to ones with a real toffee-like crunchiness. After you’ve asked the vendor how much you’d like, he’ll deftly cut off a sizeable chunk using his knife, chop it into bite-sized pieces, and weigh it on his scales before handing it over. Once you’ve had your first taste of this chewy treat, we’re sure you’ll go nuts for it!

Museles (穆塞莱斯酒)

MuselesSince grapes are abundant in Xinjiang, it goes without saying that wine is too! In fact, wine production has been an important part of the local economy in the city of Turpan since the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) and was celebrated by ancient Chinese poets as “Western nectar”. This type of wine, known as museles, was masterminded by the Uyghur ethnic minority and, although their Muslim faith prohibits them from drinking alcohol, they view this beverage more as a kind of medicine. With its pungent aroma and sweetly sour flavour, it’s sure to cure what ails you! Although nowadays many contemporary winemakers in China follow French methods of production, the Uyghur people have held on to their traditional wine-making process for centuries. In many villages throughout Xinjiang, the brewing of museles is a communal activity and usually marks the end of the grape harvest.

Locally grown grapes are first crushed by hand and strained using Uyghur atlas silk. The juice is then combined with an equal amount of water and a heaping helping of sugar, and is left to boil until it has halved in volume. Thereafter it is stored in ceramic urns and combined with a dizzying number of extra ingredients. These folk recipes vary between localities and can typically include goji berries, mulberries, sea buckthorn, saffron, cloves, and even raw, plucked pheasants, pigeon’s blood, and lamb meat! These animal parts are said to enhance the flavour and endow the wine with many of its medicinal qualities. So forget about hair of the dog; it’s time for wine of the pigeon! The wine is left to brew for about two months before being filtered, bottled, and stored. The result is a deep red grape-wine with a powerful musty aroma and a spiced taste, much like vermouth.

 

Taste some Xinjiang Local Snacks on our travel: Explore the Silk Road in China