By Shelley Seale
Food for the Chinese has always been not only sustenance, but a social, cultural, and even spiritual tradition. The “Eight Great Traditions” which represent the different styles of food across China are somewhat familiar to most of us – Cantonese and Sichuan dishes, noodles and dumplings.
While these traditions are alive and well, today’s modern China is also a melting pot of exciting new fusion cuisines.
Which is why I jumped at the chance to visit the country when I was recently invited on a 12-day culinary tour. As I received the detailed itinerary for the trip, I noticed the focus on both food and also wine. I blinked and looked again. Wine? From China?
As it turns out the country’s burgeoning wine industry was just one of many surprises awaiting me. From street food stalls to the most exquisite 5-star restaurants, from traditional tea houses to vineyards, China provides an exciting epicurean discovery.
Exploring street food in a new place is one of the best ways possible to truly discover the soul of the place – far from being just about eating, you are immersed in the daily lives of the locals and their neighborhoods, rituals and food preparation that is a true art form, sometimes taught down generations.
In Shanghai, the Old Town is a can’t-miss spot. Over a century old, the area is the only place of traditional architecture in the city; the City God Temple at its center is a small square where people light incense at large firepits and pray to the deity for good fortune and peace.
Surrounding the temple are lanes filled with street vendors and tiny restaurants, where you can see the food made right in front of you to order. Pastries and stuffed buns are popular, but the specialty is the Nanxiang steamed bun. This is a large dumpling filled with soup; the trick to eating this delicious local favorite is to bite off the top of the bun, then suck the soup out first before devouring what’s left.
Near the People’s Square, Wujiang Road is an amazing street filled with snack stalls featuring original Shanghai dishes and frequented by locals. Here you can find dumplings and sweets, scallops pan-fried on the shell and swimming in garlic and ginger, or seared tofu – the rank smell will lead you to the tofu.
Don’t miss stall #26, serving authentic Sichuan hot pots, one of Shanghai’s most delectable dishes. Step past the giant bubbling vat of soup broth to enter the small building, where you pick up a basket and select your soup makings from fresh ingredients such as bok choi, zucchini, mushrooms, cabbage, pork and beef heart.
Then you bring your basket back outside and hand it to the guys who cook it for you in the boiling hot pot, adding spices and Sichuan pepper to your taste.
The resulting soup is an amazing taste explosion that dances on your tongue as if perfectly choreographed, still allowing you to detect each individual ingredient.
In Beijing, the Donghuamen Night Market near Forbidden City is an almost psychedelic scene not to be missed. Under brightly lit awnings, dozens of vendors hawk their delicacies like barkers at a state fair – and what delicacies they are! Along with more sedate dishes such as dim sum and soup, you can also find bamboo skewers of silkworms, scorpions, seahorse, snake and starfish.
If insects or innards aren’t your thing, a huge variety of fresh vegetables are on offer – I discovered a caramelized lotus root that I couldn’t get enough of. Half the fun of this market, however, lies in simply checking out the food on gorgeous display and bantering with the vendors and other patrons.
As I meandered along the rows, a vendor screamed out “sheep penis!” right in my ear, delighting with laughter at my double-take as he dangled the offending organ in front of me.
Traditional Food & Tea
One of the best places to experience a way of eating, and of life, that has been part of Chinese culture for hundreds of years is at a tea house. At the Taiji Teahouse in Hangzhou an eastern city that is a major tea exporter in China, trays of dumplings and bowls of snacks are served family-style during a tea ceremony that is much social and cultural as it is gastronomical.
The cups are lined up for the tea pourer, who arrives bearing his brass teapot with an extremely long spout, which he pours in the elaborate taiji style the teahouse is named after, circling the vessel around his head and pouring the green tea as he balances the spout along his shoulders. Like many of the best traditional tea houses, the proprietor is its seventh generation.
The numerous tea farms and villages in Hangzhou still pick and process their tea leaves by hand, as they have for centuries, in a completely organic process. Michelle Lin of East Tours recommends visiting a tea farmer’s house for the very best tea.
“Often times, they would be happy and proud to share it with friends from afar. You can’t find a better place to be part of them and to observe the casual side of Chinese living,” she says. “The best way to return their kindness is to buy some tea when you leave.”
Lin advises that to find authentic tea houses throughout China, look in historical areas and near parks, temples or universities. Or simply ask a local!
Many chefs of today’s China have been creating exciting new fusions of Eastern and Western food in ways that simply aren’t found anywhere else. Jean-Georges Vongerichten, renowned chef of Paris and New York fame, opened his latest restaurant in Shanghai, called Three On the Bund.
“Shanghai chose me,” Vongerichten says. “China has been in my imagination and dreams; since the 1930s people here were incorporating French flavors and techniques into the traditional Chinese food, and I did the same thing in my restaurant.”
Vongerichten is also a supporter of the up-and-coming wines of China. “We have three or four excellent wineries nearby; some Chinese wines are very special. There are really interesting things happening; the Asians are very keen on wine.” Vongerichten likes to experiment with pairings, such as matching caviar with sake.
He finds the new Chinese culinary scene exciting, a place where creativity abounds and nothing is stale or boring. “This part of the world is still open to opportunity; there is a whole new palate of flavors.”
Surprisingly, the Chinese have begun an exciting love affair with wine, and vineyards are springing up as European investors have poured more than 150 million Euros into the effort. China’s citizens are now the largest consumers of wine per capita, and the winemakers here are the world’s seventh largest producer of grape wines.
Yantai, a region that lies on the Yellow Sea in the northeast, is the prime wine region of China. There are several large vineyards open for visitors, with cellar tours and tasting rooms; some also offer accommodations, five-star dining, golf courses and spa services.
Check out Chateau Junding, clearly modeled after the French tradition and employing a combination of Old World methods, with French Oak aging barrels, and New World, with the stainless steel vats used to crush the grapes. In a gorgeous setting they produce four varieties of red wine, two of white, as well as brandy and their newest endeavor, champagne.
Nearby is Changyu Winery, the first Asian vineyard to make it onto the Top Ten Global Wineries list, in 2007. It was also the first winery in China, established in 1892 and winning gold medals by the 1915 World Expo for their red rosewine and reisling. Their Great Cellar building, the largest wine cellar in Asia, was completed in 1905 and makes for an interesting tour not just for the winemaking, but the historic value as well.
Some of the original barrels, over one hundred years old, are still used in Changyu’s production, which puts out a million and a half bottles of wine annually.
Some of the wines are quite good, particularly the reds; others have a long way to go, but the fun of the Chinese wine scene is that it is still taking baby steps. The excitement lies in seeing the birth of New World wines, much as if we could go back in time thirty years to the Napa Valley or several hundred to France or Italy.
From Beer to Baiju
As new as wine is to China, beer has a long history in its culture, as far back as 7000 BC. Tsingtao, the most famous beer produced in China, has been brewing in Qingdao since 1903 when German settlers established the brewery, longing for their familiar drink. The Chinese quickly developed a revived love affair with the beverage, and today there are dozens of breweries including Yanjing, Taiwan Beer and Zhujiang.
But neither beer nor wine has diminished the fondness for the traditional alcohols such as baiju – something that an imbibing visitor to the country must try, but very carefully.
At 145 proof (about 70% alcohol), this liquor distilled from rice or sorghum tastes very similar to paint thinner on fire sliding down the throat, to the uninitiated.
Many places in China have preserved old-fashioned distilleries, where workers make the liquor by hand over wood fires and aged in oak barrels the way they have for hundreds of years.
In the charming water town of Wuzhen in Zhejiang province, for example, the Sanbai Wine Workshop from the Qing dynasty can be visited, where dozens of pottery casks of baiju are lined up in the courtyard and the thick, strong smell permeates the air.
Baiju is traditionally served warm or at room temperature and consumed like a shot, thrown back quickly. Much like grappa, ouzo or absinthe, baiju is an ancient specialty that should be sampled; but try not to do so among a group of Chinese, who consider it somewhat of a competitive sport.
And if you hear the words “gan bei!” – basically meaning bottoms up – switch immediately to beer or run. This is your cue that serious competitive drinking has commenced.
If You Go:
Visit the China Tourism Office for more information
East Tours specializes in custom, private tours that open the door to the world’s most culturally rich destinations
Wine Portfolio is a television series showcasing wine producing regions, with an upcoming show on China
Air China can get you there
Shelley Seale is an Austin, Texas-based freelance journalist who writes about lifestyle, travel, health, education, business, and nonprofit issues. She has written for National Geographic, USA Today, Andrew Harper Traveler magazine, Yahoo, CNN, the Austin Business Journal, Austin Woman, and many others. Her favorite quote is by Helen Keller: “Life is a daring adventure, or nothing at all.”