NAIVELY, I thought tasting my way round China would involve thousands of miles of travel. I’d planned to head west from Hong Kong and the Guangdong province (where Cantonese cuisine has its roots) to Yunnan (Min cuisine), Sichuan (spicy food), Beijing and even Inner Mongolia, but the tour operator had other ideas. “The best way to enjoy regional food in China is to stay put in Beijing,” he said. “There are specialist restaurants from every province — and the quality is far better than in rural areas.” He suggested I combine this with two days in Xi’an, home of the Terraccotta Army, to sample the city’s wheat-based ‘flour food’.
In Beijing, I was met by ‘Stanley’ (real name Xu Ying Jie), my guide from the state-owned China Travel Service, who agreed. His advice was to eat at representative offices of regional governments, where chefs from the provinces are brought in to cook authentic dishes for officials, migrant workers and travellers who are missing the taste of home. There are more than 30 such restaurants in the capital, representing every region, from Anhui Province in the east to Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in the far north-west, where dishes include cumin-spiced lamb kebabs in nang flatbread (like Indian naan) and hearty mutton stews with thick noodles.
The most popular of these restaurants is Chuan Ban, my first port of call for Sichuan cuisine. First came steamed pork with cabbage and red chillis, a winter dish served in a big casserole; then mapo tofu, a fiery bean stew with more red chillis and flash-fried tofu floating in it, like cubes of savoury blancmange; followed by dan dan mian — creamy, fresh noodles in chilli soup, served with a small dish of searingly hot paste, which you stir through the liquid; and the tangily nutritious suan la tang, a ‘hot and sour’ soup made with egg white, tofu, black mushrooms and vegetables.
What struck me most was how reassuringly familiar the food was. Scale down the chilli slightly and these could have been satisfying pasta dishes from northern Italy, using the kinds of ingredients found in rural regions of Europe.
It was the same at the Beijing Jinsong Vocational School, where I joined a cookery class preparing gong bao ji ding, the classic Sichuan dish of cubed chicken with chilli, Sichuan peppercorns, stir-fried vegetables and peanuts. A familiar takeaway meal in Britain, it seemed almost banal — as did the Cantonese recipe we learned next: pork tempura in sweet-and-sour sauce. Brought to Britain by the first wave of restaurateurs, who were mostly from Hong Kong and Guangdong, it’s the Chinese equivalent of spaghetti bolognese. But where were all the fish maws, snake’s livers and duck’s feet?
For that, I took a trip to Donghuamen Night Market, to see such aberrations as crickets, frogs’ legs, beetles, scorpions and seahorses grilled on skewers and sold from floodlit stalls under cheerfully striped canopies. It’s not unusual to see schoolchildren walking past with whole baby octopus or entrails dangling from their mouths, though Western tastes are catered for, too, with delicious dumplings (jian-jiao) wok-fried to order, lamb kebabs, chao men zi (fried cubes of potato and lotus root), fresh doughnuts and semolina pudding.
For the full-on Cantonese experience, I waited until I’d arrived in Xi’an, where the Bell Tower Abalone restaurant beckoned. It serves traditional Guangdong dishes in 11 private dining rooms with round tables meant for large groups. I felt slightly foolish sitting alone at one of these — especially when I stood up periodically to photograph each dish I ate.
I began with a thready gelatinous jellyfish consommé (an acquired taste), followed by sea cucumber (a dark brown oval studded like a gourd) in an amber sauce of abalone, the prized shellfish after which the restaurant is named. With its emphasis on seafood and delicate, fresh flavours, this style of cooking is best typified by the three-Michelin-starred Sun Tung Lok in Hong Kong — one of only three restaurants in China to have received the accolade.
The following day, the rustic European theme returned at the Friendship Restaurant adjoining the Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum and Mausoleum — combined into one vast complex last October. At open-plan workstations, chefs were making noodles by hand from great balls of dough, in deft movements redolent of a Naples pizzeria. My flat noodles in pork sauce looked like fettuccini, while the ‘stretch noodles’ in spicy tomato sauce could have been served in Sicily. At other tables, I saw lasagne-esque sheet pasta, which turned out to be the famous biáng biáng noodles of Shaanxi province, cut as wide as a belt.
The grand finale in Xi’an was at the Shaanxi Grand Opera House, where I experienced the famous, if touristy, dumpling banquet — bamboo steamers filled with miniature dim sum moulded in the shape of lotus flowers, peacocks, goldfish, monkeys and pigs. The chef makes 500 of these a night, sometimes 800, together with scores of little dough fish to be floated in a bowl of broth. Finding three indicates an imminent promotion at work; four that you will enjoy wealth. Unfortunately, you’ll have spent the money already — on a dumpling banquet!
Five Culinary Classics
1. Beijing Jinsong Vocational School, Beijing: Runs 90-minute Chinese cookery classes, with a chance to eat the fruits of your labour. T: 00 86 80 02 682 918. www.chinahighlights.com
2. Bell Tower Abalone, Xi’an: Hardcore but authentic Guangdong cuisine in an opulent hotel setting T: 00 86 29 87 600 000. www.belltowerhtl.com
3. Friendship Restaurant, Xi’an: ‘Flour food’, prepared in front of you by dough wizards. Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum, Xi’an — bookable only as part of a tour. T: 00 86 02 98 129 9001.
4. Quanjude Roast Duck, Beijing::Vast 2,000-seater serving duck rolled in pancake with panache. T: 00 86 10 67 011 379.
5. Fangshan Restaurant, Beijing: Imperial-style, multi-course banquet, served in a pavilion by a lake. T: 00 86 10 64 011 889.
Four Places for Regional Cuisine
1. Shaanxi Grand Opera House Xi’an
There are a pair of well-known restaurants in Xi’an specialising in dumplings — De Fa Chang, on the north side of the Bell Tower, and this one in the Beilin district. Dinner comes first, followed by Tang dynasty music and dance. In addition to the dumplings, dishes include biáng biáng noodles, deep-fried cubes potato and pork cubes with sesame, and strips of bean curd with celery and carrot.
How much: Dinner and show from RB278 (£26) per person. T: 00 86 02 98 785 6012 China specialists, including CTS Horizons, often include this restaurant as part of a Xi’an package tour.
T: 020 7836 9911. www.ctshorizons.com
2. Chuan Ban Beijing
Don’t come here expecting chic decor, attentive service — or peace and quiet. For cheap, authentic Sichuan food, however, you can do no better. On the ground floor of the Sichuan government’s Representative Office, Chuan Ban has fiery stews and noodles galore, listed in amusing pidgin English in a phone book-sized menu (luckily there are laminated photographs accompanying each morsel). The signature dishes, however, are gong bao ji ding (chicken with peanuts) and ‘twice cooked fatty pork’, prepared by Sichuan chefs using imported ingredients.
How much: From RB75 (£7) per person, for three courses without drinks.
T: 00 86 65 122 277 (ext 6101).
3. Donghuamen Night Market Beijing
This is the authentic Chinese food we’ve all heard about: silkworms, beetles, scorpions, starfish and terrapins chargrilled on skewers, along with fried pig’s blood, offal and other viscera. Squeamish diners will be relieved to learn that the market, which opened in 1984, does Westernised food, too — steamed crab, lamb kebabs, golden fried dumplings, doughnuts and candied strawberries on a stick. There are around 100 street foods from all over China, served at stalls with red-and-white awnings and glaring lights. A short walk away is Guije (Ghost) Street, with 200 restaurants and a vibrant nightlife.
How much: £1 a snack.
4. Sun Tung Lok Hong Kong
Awarded three Michelin stars this year, Sun Tung Lok takes Cantonese cuisine to new heights under veteran chef Joe Chan. Signature dishes include beef rib with gravy and roast suckling pig — yet it’s the seafood that excites. On the weird side are braised abalone (sea snails) with goose web and pomelo (Asian citrus), baked stuffed sea conch, and double-boiled superior shark’s fin (a controversial choice) with whole ham and chicken. On the wonderful side are shrimp dumplings, sautéed scallops with broccoli, and steamed grouper.
How much: Set lunch from HK$160 (£13) per person; banquets from HK$3,980 (£315) for six people.