A culinary tour of China will confute anyone who thinks the People’s Republic is a homogenous blob. Far from chop suey or sweet and sour chicken, a mind-boggling cultural variation and rich historical legacy, of which most of us in the West are unaware, resonates in Chinese cuisine.
I began my gourmandising voyage in Hong Kong. The first residents of European and American Chinatowns came from nearby Canton Province, so at home dim sum is probably the dish served closest to the authentic form. The虾饺 (har gow) and 烧卖(sieu mai) dumplings I nibbled from bamboo steamers there were comparable to those in plush London restaurants.
Every other region’s cuisine, however, I found to be quite different. My next stop was Sichuan Province in the southwest, whose gastronomy is famed for being 辣(là), spicy, and 麻 (má), numbing! The indigenous pepper produces a bizarre tingling on the lips and tongue. Known in the scientific community as paresthesia, the sensation felt something like pins and needles.
Sichuan Province is home to many ethnic Tibetans alongside Han Chinese. Yak plays the starring role in their hearty cooking. A dinner of roast yak rolled in chili powder with salty yak butter tea were fortifying after a day of mountain hiking!
I tasted centuries of Arab and Central Asian influence in the street food of Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, once the eastern terminus of the Silk Route. Lamb replaces pork and rice gives way to noodles, and even bread, in the Muslim Quarter. I tried羊肉泡馍 (yángròu pàomó), stewed mutton in a cloudy spring onion broth with glass noodles and chunks of unleavened dough. Women in hijabs tended stalls filled with lamb pita burgers and crumbly peanut cakes that seemed less Chinese than Turkish or Egyptian.
The food in northern China reflects a history foreign invasion. Beijingers ward off winter chills with蒙古火锅 (Ménggǔ huǒguō), Mongolian hotpot. Raw ingredients are simmered in a metal cauldron at the table, in my case fresh cabbage, wood ear mushrooms and thinly sliced beef in persimmon and ginger stock.
Try Peking roast duck for a pancake full of China’s imperial past. The emperor’s chefs in the Yuan dynasty handed down the recipe at 全聚德(Quánjùdé), Beijing’s premier anatine rotisserie. In a syrupy glaze, the birds are far juicier, sweeter and fattier than dry, crispy ‘aromatic’ offerings in Chinatown.
Kitchens up and down the Middle Kingdom serve up smacks of the country’s astonishing and underappreciated diversity. What they all have in common, though, is the weird and wonderful. I dined by the old adage that the Chinese eat “anything with legs except a table; anything with wings except a plane.” Local friends introduced me to sea cucumber, jellyfish and chicken feet. All three are delightfully chewy.