In the search of ... culinary highlights in China
Cox & Kings’ China expert Sabastian writes about his visit to China focussing on its culinary highlights. Starting in Beijing, he travelled to Xian and then to Chengdu.
A street food stall in Beijing
Dining out in China was a pleasurable and a fascinating experience, with so many flavours in each dish and from city to city. In local restaurants, diners generally pick a wide variety of different dishes to share – perfect for foodie travellers as they can try out an array of dishes and flavours.
Peking duck that melts in your mouth
Beijing is where Peking duck originates from and the tradition of the dish is evident in the city. It’s not difficult to find a restaurant that serves it, but it’s worth doing a bit of research or asking around before deciding on one. You will find that prices for Peking duck are higher in comparison to other dishes, but that’s because the process of making it is long and a complex one. The outcome, however, is worth it! Cooked to perfection, the meat is incredibly tender and juicy, but it’s the skin that really steals the show. Served smoking hot and crispy, it melts in the mouth, unleashing the sweet, savoury and smoky flavours of the duck fat.
Peking duck served in Beijing
Wangfujing Snack Street
Visit Wangfujing evening market, or ‘Snack Street’ as the locals call it. This is where locals and tourists alike meet to experience a circus of food preparation and exotic flavours.
Seafood stalls at the Wangfujing evening market
The diversity of local street-food culture is eye-opening, from the entertaining and unusual to the outrageous. Sip on sweet beverages that come in a myriad of bright colours with mysterious bubbling and smoking effects, nibble on a variety of animal organs and body parts such as chicken feet or tuck into delicacies such as seahorse, snake or even bats.
Sweet and colourful beverages at the Wangfujing evening market
The sight of people munching on cooked scorpions on sticks made me shiver. I have to admit that I wasn’t brave enough to try these. Perhaps, next time…
Local child eating a scorpion at the Wangfujing evening market
Influences of the Silk Road
Xian is known as the starting point of the Silk Road, the ancient trading route that connected Asia and Europe. The result was a meeting of people from across China, Central Asia and the Middle East who all brought their own culinary traditions with them. Locals became increasingly creative with their culinary experimentation, and today, Xian’s fascinating cuisine combines Chinese with Middle Eastern flavours.
Noodle chef in Xian
Dine in one of the city’s many noodle restaurants where you can watch skilful chefs preparing fresh, hand-pulled noodles right before your eyes. The chef demonstrates the repetition of beating and extending the noodle dough until it is thin and long, before cooking it and serving. If you visit Xian make sure to eat at one of these restaurants.
A highlight in Xian was a visit to the Muslim quarter and its unusual Great Mosque: architecturally, the mosque has more similarities with a Chinese temple than a typical Arabic building, which would use a tall minaret for the call of prayer.
Great Mosque in Xian
But what made the mosque even more exciting for me was the hustle and bustle of its surrounding maze of streets where you can find a plethora of dishes originating from countries such as Turkey, Afghanistan and more, each infused with their own Chinese twist. There are numerous varieties of cakes, breads, sweets, vegetables and meats on offer. For a flavour sensation try the fried baby potatoes cooked in a blanket of herbs and spices – a real taste of street food from the Silk Road!
In 2010 Chengdu was awarded the title ‘Unesco City of Gastronomy’: the city is acknowledged as the birthplace of many culinary traditions and outstanding gastronomic creativity. One of the unique aspects of Chengdu’s cuisine is the variety of flavours: sweet, sour, salty, spicy and bitter. Several of these flavours are often combined together in one dish.
Cook up a Hotpot
Chengdu has several fascinating night markets, all worth exploring and all with an abundance of eating options. An essential dish to try is the simply named ‘hotpot’. This traditional dish is an engaging way to have dinner with friends and family. It starts with every person having their own pot, or a larger shared pot, filled with hot oil, quietly bubbling away on its pot-sized heater.
Chengdu hotpot with a selection of meats and sauces
You are provided with a selection of raw ingredients such as meat, shrimps and other seafood, dumplings, mushrooms and vegetables, which you choose and cook yourself. Cooking the ingredients can take just a few seconds or a couple of minutes. This means that the meal can be finished very quickly, or it can last for several hours as the food can be cooked when you wish. Add a choice of sauces and sides, and you have created your own version of authentic Chengdu cuisine. Chengdu’s cuisine is known for its tongue-burning spiciness, so hotpot is a way to keep a hold of your taste buds by choosing how much spice you want to use.
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