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What's eatin' you, foodie? An outsider's tidbit takes

By A. Thomas Pasek | China Daily | Updated: 2024-06-25 06:29
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As a North American fortyish, decidedly non-gourmand, slowly fasting to become taller than I am wide, it's doubtful my take on China's niftiest dishes is going to cause a culinary tsunami. Most chefs worth their weight in salt and coriander agree that the country has eight major regional cuisines, all eponymous for provinces, save Cantonese.

Given space limitations, both in terms of this page and our alimentary canals, I will only discuss the two I am most familiar with, beginning with the one that doesn't even make the top eight: Beijing cuisine. Being based in the city makes me a default expert, I suppose, vis-a-vis the above-mentioned regional palates at least, so you'll have to allow this city's menu a seat at the table.

In 1421, Beijing became the capital of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), which succeeded the Mongol-dominated Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), and its cuisine ended up multiculturally informed over the eons. And with the rise and decline of the Manchu-ruled Qing Dynasty between 1644 and 1911, it becomes clear why China's modern-day capital has some of the most diverse cultural influences informing its victuals.

I reckon that among the capital's top-three culinary choices we must include boiled mutton (shuan yang rou), or lamb hot pot. The meat is sliced paper thin and often enjoyed alongside cabbage, bean curd, pickled vegetables and fungi — a popular winter warm-up choice.

Although I'm trying to steer clear of noodles and dumplings in this piece — because every region bar-none has their own style of these gluten-heavy hits — I can't help but include soy bean paste noodles (zha jiang mian). It's the everyman and everywoman noodle option in North China, garnished with pork, cucumber, chili and vinegar. Both cheap and ubiquitous, hot bowls of this mainstay are a must for foodies.

Finally … drumroll please …Quack! Quack! You guessed it, Peking roast duck (bei jing kao ya).This eponymously labeled fowl — my favorite Beijing dish — is anything but to the taste buds (subjectivity warning). The cute critters are roasted whole, with the succulent outcome being crispy outsides and tender innards, with chefs at more upscale joints carving fowl tableside for your photojournalistic content.

Second on the regional list is Cantonese cuisine, as I spent a fair amount of time in the south, both Guangdong province and neighboring Hong Kong. Sliced white chicken (bai qie ji), stir-fried rice noodles with beef (gan chao niu he) — dang, there I go breaking my no-noodle rule again — and dim sum (dian xin) — my go-to Cantonese delicacy — are three leading fine South China fare.

The third candidate tops the list due to its laid-back, devil-may-care, leisurely variety that screams Sunday mornings with no hurry to vacate the eatery anytime soon. It's also a great chance to socialize with friends and family over bottomless teacups. Dim sum, literally "touch the heart" in Chinese, was, as the legend goes, created dynasties ago by court cooks to touch the hearts of emperors without fully satiating their hunger. That's the job of the dinner crew.

I must say that among these six bucket-list repasts, my favorite has to be … dim sum as an appetizer before sitting down for roast duck. An honest but diplomatic answer, I suppose, written not far from the diplomatic compound in the nation's capital, which also allows me to duck the question.

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