10 APR 2017: The dining experience has become the hook for the whole trip for ever more travellers. One of the best countries for varied, vast and in-depth food culture is China. It’s been said, “The Chinese eat everything with four legs, except tables, and everything that flies, except airplanes.”

Those who don’t visit China will never know the range and variety of Chinese cuisine. Those who do visit, should be sure to break away from the group travel meals that play it safe with bland and ordinary dishes. There are countless fantastic and ultra-tasty meals to be had by venturing into the local scene.

When my husband and I travelled to China last fall, we toured about on our own but got valuable assistance from Peter Cheng, one of Goway’s Asian travel experts to set things up. With his help, we had guides who spoke English and had great local food knowledge take us around at each major stop. We asked to dine in places they favour and not in any restaurants on the tour group lists.

Chinese food has five key flavours that according to traditional Chinese medicine should be balanced: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and spicy. That said, each region has its preferences. Sichuan cuisine is spicy, northern is salty and we found Hangzhou residents had a distinctive sweet tooth for example. Wheat grows well in the colder, drier north, so northerners tend to eat dumplings, wheat noodles, steamed and stuffed buns. Whereas in the south, Chinese eat rice or rice noodles with almost every meal.

Beijing is best known for Peking duck and its imperial cuisine but Bill and I had tried both of those meals on our last visit to China. For a special treat this time, we decided to stay at Cours et Pavillons, a former siheyuan in a hutong of Beijing. The siheyuan of the city are generally four independent houses linked together by verandas, all surrounding a central courtyard and are in an enclosed property with one main entrance.

In the past couple of decades these courtyard properties have been acquired and redeveloped by Chinese who got rich during the economic reform and want to preserve traditional culture.

Their ancient architecture has been restored to its former glory, the places filled with authentic antiques and modern utilities (air conditioning, heating, water drainage systems) installed. Ours, the Weijia Courtyard was owned by Beijing Old Courtyard Assets Management Ltd and a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World association. It was exquisite and so was the food; French cuisine prepared with a Chinese artistry by Chef Zak El Hamdou who had worked at three star Michelin La Tante Claire in London.

In Xi’an we were honoured with an invite to the apartment of He Yupeng (Albert), general manager of Xi’an China International Travel Service for a home cooked lunch. We had asked for a cooking lesson and he decided his wife could prepare a typical meal for us. We had a savoury pork belly dish, garlic sprouts with beef, rice and several vegetables dishes freshly sautéed in a wok. As a special treat for my husband they poured us Phoenix (Xifeng) a local liquor made from sorghum, barley and wheat that’s been a national treasure since the Tang Dynasty.

The Muslim quarter in Xi'an was a pleasant surprise. It was so lively, full of small entrepreneurs making and selling all sorts of foods, goods and knickknacks. We watched people dissecting a whole sheep carcass to make lamb dishes, others pounding out sesame seed candies, still more stringing out noodles or sweets. It was a hive of activity and fun.

Wenzhou, a coastal city in southeast China in Zhejiang Province, has easy access to an abundance of seafood. Zhejiang is the richest province in China, once called the "land of milk and honey", so the food is refined, artistic and never greasy. The province has four distinct cuisines: that of Wenzhou is called “OU”. OU cuisine has more than 30 cooking methods and 46 dishes listed among the famous of the “Chinese Menu”.

The yellow croaker fish from the East China Sea is the most famous seafood in OU cuisine and is a must at any banquet. I had it steamed with Shaoxing wine and at another meal “knocked yellow croaker” with green vegetables and fried with sweet and sour sauce. Delicious snack food included deep fried cake stuffed with shredded radish, fish ball soup and Wenzhou wontons. The marinated half dry duck tongue, a popular family snack, was less to my taste.

Around Wenzhou are famous mountains, wetlands and more than 200 ancient villages that follow along the Nanxi River. These well preserved and restored centuries-old villages are a step back into history and China’s past, including its food traditions. Yubei, an ancient village with a 1000-year-old history is famous for their Nanxi noodles which are pulled into strings by hand and then hung to dry. Rich in nutrition and easy to digest, these noodles play a key role in birthdays and birthing. (Eating Nanxi noodles for a month is part of postnatal care.)

Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang Province, was the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty, and a city renowned for its wealth and sophistication. Food here is the most refined: stir-fried dishes, soups, seafood and, it is said, bamboo shoots in half of their dishes. The taste is sweet and sour, with an emphasis on the sweet.

The gorgeous Weizhuang restaurant by West Lake, with its waterside pavilions and meandering pathways, serves traditional dishes such as Dragon Well Tea Prawns (peeled prawns cooked in Chinese wine with Dragon Well tea leaves - the famous tea of Hangzhou - added to the dish), West Lake fish in vinegar gravy and West Lake beef soup.

Hangzhou restaurant in the city centre is well known for its rendition of Beggar’s Chicken, where chicken is stuffed with savouries such as pork belly, cured ham and shitake mushrooms, spiced with clove, cinnamon and other brown spices, then wrapped in clay and roasted for hours. The clay is cracked open and out comes the chicken, moist and aromatic and so tender it falls off the bones.

Being led by your belly through China can be fine indeed.


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Margaret Swaine

Margaret is a nationally published wine, spirits, food and travel writer, who has authored thousands of articles on these subjects for magazines and newspapers.

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