Jul 1, 2017
IN A COUNTRY WHERE THE COMMON GREETING is Have you eaten yet?, it’s little surprise that scholars more than a millennium ago were driven to parse the various regional cooking styles. There are now eight universally recognized great cuisines of China that merit distinction for their culinary prowess and natural bounties. Cantonese food is the dominant export, and everyone knows Sichuan is spicy and Shanghainese sweet. Beyond that spectrum, though, humble villages and minority groups in the outer provinces surprise the senses with exciting flavors and culinary prowess.
I’ve lived in Beijing for nine years, and have been fortunate enough to travel China extensively, searching for history, ingredients and cooking styles. I could fill several magazines with the delicious discoveries I’ve made, but as an introduction to the lesser-known areas, I’ve selected three important palate primers whose evocative surrounds directly fuel their cuisine. We’ll head first for the fresh sweetness of seasons along the ethereal lakes and mountains in Hangzhou, then go south for the briny freshness of Xiamen, and finally take the Silk Road to the unusual scents and flavors of Xinjiang in China’s far west. I hope you haven’t eaten yet.
When people effuse about the refined and mellow seafood–and local vegetable–driven cuisine of Zhejiang province, known as Zhecai, they’re usually referring to the food of Hangzhou, an eastern idyll with a rich history dominated by arts and writing, and fine dining. Since the Sui Dynasty in 605 BC, Hangzhou was a major port as the southern destination of the Grand Canal, a legendary transport system that originated in Beijing. The prosperity from trade introduced northern foods, particularly ducks, that followed grain-laden ships. Hangzhou later became China’s capital in the Southern Song Dynasty from 1132 to 1276—a period of such immense prosperity that when Marco Polo passed through he described it in wonder as the greatest city in the world.
This imperial pedigree and consistent wealth spawned generations of ancient gourmands with a taste for the dainty and sophisticated, and an omnivorous palate open to the weird and raw. Among them: Yuan Mei, China’s most famous gourmand, known for his poetry and his 18th-century treatise on China’s cuisine, Suiyuan Shidan, or Menus from the Garden of Contentment. There’s a culinary museum dedicated to Hang Ban Cai, (the ways locals refer to their hometown fare), and the extensive records of Hangzhou’s historical obsession with eating include a display on Su Dong, a poet and political figure whose namesake dish Dongpo rou is among the city’s most well-known.
You can get a sublime single serving of this braised hunk of fatty pork in a dark soy-based sauce, glistening in similarity to Shanghai’s famed hong shao rou, at Jin Sha at the Four Seasons hotel. But about a decade ago, Dongpo rou was given a facelift at Hubin 28 in the Hyatt Regency, reconstructed into a pyramid filled with braised bamboo shoots that’s been replicated throughout the city and taken such root that there’s a resin display of its new iteration at the culinary museum. Both dishes use ancient historical techniques referenced in Yuan Mei’s famous treatise.
Bamboo is a year-round obsession with a multitude of varieties offering different textures and flavors that excite with each season. Freshly poached, dried or braised, its spring-peak crop goes well with fava beans in particular. Historically, brining plays a delicious role in preserving seasonal foods vital during the cold winters and volatile hot summers; xue cai, or salt-pickled snow cabbage, might be one of the most popular in home-style cooking. My favorite noodle dish combines the two ingredients: pian’er chuan mian is a bowl of fragrant broth with thin noodles, slivers of tender pork, crunchy fresh bamboo shoots, salted ham and scatterings of xue cai that is done expertly at Amanfayun. Other Hangzhou classics include xi hu yu, West Lake fish, a sweet-and-sour-sauced fish named for the city’s beloved lake.
Early birds can have a fairytale morning at Amanfayun, set inside an old tea farmer’s village, with Buddhist temples and a nunnery. Chant with the monks, then join for breakfast in a simple dining hall serving vegetarian Buddhist cuisine that includes a bottomless bowl of rice porridge and gently flavored vegetables like cabbage, sweet peppers or salted greens depending on the season. For lunch, treat yourself to a lip-smacking meal of creative home-style Hangzhou cuisine at Jiangnanyi, just outside the Faxi temple, by owner Tuzi (Rabbit), whose name is as memorable as her smile. Try the radish soup with rosemary and lemon, unusual flavors that work together; a pile of lightly scaled cumin-scented spinach; and a deep bowl of local chicken poached in a fragrant scented mixture of leeks, chilies, ginger and numbing Sichuan peppercorns in a spiced seasoned oil.
Visiting Hangzhou in the spring is nothing short of magical. The bamboo forests sprout fresh shoots and it’s harvest time for the country’s prized green tea, named Longjing or Dragon Well, after the area’s legendary spring water (sadly, no longer potable). Longjing tea, which fetched record prices of US$57,000 for a kilogram in 2012, higher than the price of gold, has an imperial pedigree dating from 17th-century Emperor Kangxi; and his grandson Emperor Qianlong crowned 18 lucky bushes in Longjing Village to which tourists today flock for photographs. Teapickers dot the countryside pinching off single buds attached to solitary leaves, which are hand-roasted in a steel wok. The rush is around early April on Qing Ming, a national lunar holiday to honor ancestors that also marks the deadline for the first and best quality of spring tea. The delicate tea flavor is famously infused with tiny freshwater shrimp known or Longjing xiaren, which appears on menus throughout the city.
For an unforgettable meal, head deep in the tea gardens across from the city’s official tea museum at the Longjing Manor. Here is a community of farmers and suppliers led by Dai JianJun, better known as A Dai, the owner and visionary who was among the first to create an establishment where customers could enjoy food grown without pesticides or chemicals. He now has his own farms, but coordinates with others with which he keeps close relationships, maintaining volumes of photographic records of the daily harvest to ensure their authenticity. His chefs prepare traditional meals according to seasons—such as spring water-shield soup, an aquatic plant that has a very limited season; a rice-wine custard referenced in Yuan Mei’s treatise; and of course, tea of their own harvest.
Delicious surprises await at the southern tip of Fujian province on the island of Xiamen. The ocean breathes nostalgia to the many Southeast Asians, particularly Singaporeans and Taiwanese, who have native roots along these shores—and life into much of the bounty here, spiced up by wacky sea creatures and veggies most people elsewhere never think of eating. Fujianese food is also distinguished by precision in plating, applying a variety of seasonings, and an addiction to soup. Learn the phrase bu tang bu xing—“No soup is not OK”—for at some meals that’s the only thing available to drink.
Bashi Market, the biggest and freshest wholesale seafood bonanza, is a treat in the morning. Follow the devoted just outside the entrance to Fuyu Datong, which has a rack full of duck parts waiting to be added to your bowl of savory congee made from a duck broth that’s been simmering for more than 30 years. That’s what an employee who’s worked there that long told me, and the richness of the flavor does nothing to dissuade me of that fantastic claim.
Xiamen University is one China’s most beautiful campuses with Daxue Lu (University Road) turning into Minzu Lu, a street full of fun cafés and boutiques mingled with traditional vendors. Immerse yourself in real life, sampling local eats including yutou, a local specialty of grated taro root with a savory stuffing of pork, dried tofu and water chestnuts that’s steamed and drizzled with shallot oil and served with a squirt of ketchup and mustard. The young crew at Jingangbingshi, an artsy concrete dining room with open kitchen, have created modern renditions of old flavors and dishes that appeal to a growing community of artists and fashionistas. Try their fried oysters with basil leaves, a play on the traditional oyster omelet, or almond milk pudding with sweetened beans, a version of a traditional dessert of shaved ice drizzled with condensed milk.
The residents of Xiamen are laid back, so don’t expect bustle early—unless you go to Wu Tang for shacha noodles, a customizable mix of seafood, meat, fishballs, egg and a choice of vegetables that go with tender egg noodles in a sweet peanut-based sauce made fresh each day. The family recipe has been simmering daily for decades. Wu Tang, whose name means black sugar, and his wife are there every day until the soup runs out, usually by 2 p.m., so it makes sense to start here and then work your way through the cafés down the lane.
Head to Baicheng Beach and dip your feet in the water or rent bike or go for a walk along the seaside on Huandao Ring Road and relax until you’re ready for a Xiamen-style treat of fresh seafood. There are plenty of choice options with tanks of live fish and shellfish made however you wish, although staff will recommend preparations for your selections. Although Jiali has more than one location, this particular one is known for its grand displays along with a menu of Xiamen local dishes…and, if you can get here for an early dinner, a great view of sunset.
In the evening, stroll through the bright lights along Zhongshan Lu, Xiamen’s most famous boulevard that’s become a car-free pedestrian stretch to help preserve the charming traditional shophouses. Dried seafood, souvenirs and kitsch line your path with an energetic buzz. Shop and people-watch while nibbling on an overwhelming variety of food from street stalls and local franchises unique to Xiamen. You’ll see lines clamoring for a bowl of peanut soup, a local favorite, but skip the tourist version and veer off to find SiBei, a humble tiled corner shop whose specialty is a peanut soup from skinned raw white peanuts that are simmered with sugar. Ask to have an optional egg mixed in (and heated) to form a viscous custardy version.
Gulangyu Island, once one of the most gilded addresses in China, still claims well-preserved mansions from the mid-1900s that were home to foreigners and returning rich overseas Chinese. Many of the stone manses have transformed into shops or guesthouses, with a number of great eateries along the central square like the Lin Family Fishball shop, which has been dishing out local tender fishballs with a juicy pork center since 1935. Just next door, join the queue for changfen, tender rice sheets steamed with minced pork and an opt for the addition of an egg. Shuttles can take you around the village and its surrounds; be sure to hop off for sweet pineapple cakes and a cup of local oolong tea to complete the retro experience.
Far-western Kashgar was a major stop along the Silk Road and continues to mesmerize intrepid travelers in search of a less-known, kaleidoscopically diverse China. It anchors Xinjiang province, which is Uyghur Muslim country and legendary for its exotic flavors. Lamb, beef and chicken are the meats of choice, redolent with cumin, and sweet chilies often soused with tomatoes, peppers and onions. The tastes hail from a nomadic lifestyle in deserts dotted by oasis cities whose limits engulfed what travelers brought with them, including brick teas, often spiced with both fake and real saffron, rose petals, cardamom, cinnamon and clove.
Tawny, mud-colored buildings in traditional Uyghur architecture line the streets of Kashgar’s Old Town, a series of enclaves that have slowly been annihilated and rebuilt, creating tension between the majority ethnic Han Chinese. But the one thing everyone agrees upon is a love of noodles, a beloved staple. In fact, in this region rice is rarely eaten other than on Sundays (when it’s usually served with lamb, carrots and onions in polo, a pilaf rich with cumin and lamb meat and fat). Lagman or la mian is the most common noodle, expertly pulled into thin strands by practiced cooks and graced with a saucy mix of vegetables, lamb and tomato. The dish is ubiquitous, but the exceptional versions have a greater abundance of lamb or a slightly finer noodle, so try it where you see a crowd.
In the early hours, women in colorful headscarves gather on the edge of Old Town selling bowls of freshly set yogurt with an optional bag of white sugar. A few steps down the road, young bakers huddle over a black hole with a metal pole, spearing and fishing out crisp golden-rimmed disks of nan, a flatbread eaten throughout the province and here piled in stacks to welcome the morning. The bakers, young, white-capped boys, work in tandem. The taller one rolls out rounds of dough, flattening and shaping with his hands to form a raised edge. He pounds a spiral rhythm with a tukche, a traditional wooden stamp whose thick brass pins create a circular pattern on the surface, then wets the dough and inverts it into a dish of raw sesame seeds. He passes it to the quick hand of the shorter boy, who presses it against the circular oven wall while checking others inside for doneness. Soon, those are speared out and the routine continues, the boys only pausing for my purchase.
The breads of Kashgar are reason enough to come running. An astounding variety is baked in the tonur, a deep wood-fired oven similar to the Indian tandoor, but that is where the commonalities end. The local nan has a raised crust that borders perfect circles in large and small sizes. There is no ghee, no oil, no onion or cheese option, perhaps the only similarity is the sometimes-sprinkle of finely chopped shallot. Fresh nan is crispy and firm enough to hold a stack of grilled lamb skewers; a day older, it’s good for dipping into brick tea and soup. To produce gerda, bakers splash salty water on thick donuts of dough then cover the tonur’s opening with a piece of carpet. The result is the western bagel’s predecessor, with a harder, thicker crust and soft center. Samsa, meanwhile, is a golden pouch of baked bread filled with hand-cut bits of lamb and almost equal amounts of delicious tail fat seasoned with onion and cumin.
And rest assured the meat is as fresh as can be. Each morning, butchers hang new, bulbous, fatty lamb carcasses from their street stalls and as the day wears on, the meat is winnowed away and clean bones appear one rib at a time, a testament to skillful knife work and fresh slaughter under Halal Muslim law. “The tail fat is best,” says Anissa Helou, a cookbook author who is writing about the foods of Islam. She explains that males of this Karakul variety are preferred for their sweeter, less gamey taste. The graphic display of organs ensures proof of a male that is shocking to a first-time visitor, but it eventually blends into the streetscape.
Across from the Id Kah central mosque, a nightly show of heads, hooves and all spare parts including all four stomachs of local ruminants (beef and lamb) appear at the night bazaar, a street-food feast. Crisp-edged chunks of grilled lamb dusted with fragrant cumin, salt and a pinch of a sweet chili pepper hover over smoking charcoal as a giant propeller fan blasts loudly on an angle, inhaling an inferno of smoke just above the coals and blasting it into the night sky. The skewers are often served on an edible plate of nan, deliciously spiced, fragrant and tender from their marinade of onion and peppercorn.
Visit on a weekend to see the Sunday animal market, a tradition that has lasted thousands of years. Fat-tailed lamb, cattle and the odd camel, donkey and horse all show their faces alongside butchers and a good mix of delicious snack sellers. The grand bazaar, meanwhile, is open daily, and has an impressive spice market with loads of local chilies that are sweeter than their fierce red colors suggest. In Old Town, see fascinating stalls of spices, teas and herbal medicine, and check out the coppersmiths who hammer kettles, cups and hot pots just past the 100-year-old Kashgar Tea House. Time your travels right in summer and fall, and you will be lucky to hit prime season for Hami melons, sticky figs and tiny sweet apricots.
T+L Tip: With Kashgar nestled alongside the Taklamakan Highway that leads to Central Asia and Pakistan, and Xinjiang boasting so many international borders, security can be vigorous. There is caution in the air and a notable police presence in response to unrest in the Middle East, and the ethnic and political tension between the Han majority and Uyghur Muslims. Tourism remains welcome, though. The Uyghurs are gregarious and inviting, and I’ve experienced some of kindest encounters with locals throughout the province. The phrase “Salaam-alaikum,” (“peace be upon you”) brings smiles and offerings of tea. Getting to Kashgar is a trek, but a rewarding journey that combines the adventures of legend with a feast of the senses.
Fly directly to Hangzhou Xiaoshan International Airport from Singapore on Xiamen Airlines, and Bangkok on Air China or AirAsia. Flights out of Hong Kong are available on several local carriers like Dragonair. Fast trains from Shanghai’s Hongqiao station are an hour away. Check with your Chinese embassy for visa information.
Amanfayun 22 Fayun Lane; aman.com; doubles from RMB5,100.
Four Seasons Hotel Hangzhou at West Lake 5 Lingyin Rd.; fourseasons.com; doubles from RMB3,850.
Park Hyatt Hangzhou 1366 Qianjiang Rd.; hangzhou.park.hyatt.com; doubles from RMB1,288.
Hubin 28 West Lake; hangzhou.regency.hyatt.com; meal for two RMB900.
Jiang Nan Yi 355 Tianzhu Rd.; +86 571 8715 3273; meal for two RMB200.
Hangzhou Cuisine Museum Restaurant Fenghuang Hill; +86 571 8792 2227; meal for two RMB150.
Longjing Manor 399 Longjing Rd.; +86 571 8788 8777; meals prepared for a minumum of four people, starting from RMB1,600 per foursome.
Fly directly to Xiamen from Singapore on Xiamen Airlines, Silk Air and Singapore Airlines. Fly from Bangkok on Xiamen Airlines or Thai Airways. From Hong Kong, take Dragonair.
Jingangbingshi 126 Minzu Rd.; +86 188 0592 1218; meal for two RMB200.
Wutang Shacha Noodles 74 Minzu Rd.; +86 0592 204 1658; meal for two RMB50.
Jiali Seafood Restaurant Roundabout South Rd.; +86 0592 219 5777; meal for two RMB300.
SiBei Peanut Soup 64 Siming Bei Rd.; meal for two RMB30.
Fuyu Datong Duck Congee 174 Xiahe Rd.; +86 0592 239 8761; meal for two RMB50.
Lin Family Fishballs 97 Longtou Rd.; +86 138 5005 8618; meal for two RMB50.
China Southern and China Airlines fly from Bangkok and Singapore to Kashgar Airport with connections through Shanghai or Beijing and Urumqi. From Hong Kong, take a Dragonair, China Southern or China Eastern via Xian or Korla.
Radisson Blu 2 Duolaitebage Rd.; radissonblu.com; doubles from RMB688.
Luxemon Qinibagh Hotel 144 Seman Rd.; +86 998 230 0666; doubles from RMB240.
Altun Orda 328 Renmin Rd.; +86 998 258 3555; meal for two RMB250.
Herembag Eden Café 148 Seman Rd.; +86 998 266 4444; meal for two RMB180.
Kashgar Tea House Ostangboyi Street; tea and snacks for two RMB40.
Wild China Bespoke private and small-group tours to some of China’s more uncharted destinations. wildchina.com; tours from RMB2,107.
Xinjiang Travel Private, tailor-made tours on the Silk Road and Xinjiang. xinjiangtravel.com; tours from RMB1,500.