A COOK'S TOUR OF CHINA
One of the most fascinating paradoxes of today's China is the food. Tourists with visions of fanciful, elaborate banquets typical of old traditional China are surprised by the austerity of the restaurants and hotels, the lack of extensive menus, and the limitations of a country undergoing many changes.Skip to next paragraph
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Americans, especially, are amazed at the lack of formal service, the scarcity of fresh ingredients, and the minimum choice of dishes, compared with the lavish abundance in Chinese-American restaurants at home.
The food of the Chinese people has definitely changed since the advent of the Communists, and it will probably never again be the way it once was. Certainly it will not be as elaborate as when it was at its height in the Ching Dynasty. But neither is the French cuisine as extravagant as it was in the 14th century.
China is full of changes in many areas, and the cuisine is evolving into one more appropriate to the life style and needs of the people. So don't expect to find many places serving extravagant delicacies such as hummingbirds' tongues, tigers' and bears' paws, snakes broiled at table, a menu of dog meat, or other elaborate dishes served to the royal courts years ago.
Even so there is no question that the Chinese are still capable of greatness in the kitchen, despite the lack of glamour in the restaurants for foreigners.
During a two-week tour of China with a group of 15 American chefs and food writers, I sampled Chairman Mao's favorite -- Stinky Bean Curd -- at the Fire Palace Restaurant in Changsha. I tasted paper- thin spring rolls -- ones never touched at home; noodles that attract diners from miles away; sweet and savory minidumplings; and bubbling fire pots with pungent dipping sauces.
At the romantic, century-old Fang Shan restaurant in Peking's Bei Hai Park, chefs cooked for us the minced pork in sesame seed buns and the savory cold dumplings, favorite recipes once used in the palace kitchens of the empress dowager.
On a beautiful sunny day we had lunch at the Pavilion of the Singing Orioles, a former temple inside the Summer Palace, now open as a restaurant exclusively for foreigners and not open to local Chinese people.
Food was excellent at the Pavilion, including several appetizers; whole roast chicken; another chicken dish, delicate and silky, called Chicken Velvet; a whole cooked fish with savory sauce; and several vegetable dishes -- total cost about $12.
In Hunan, hot, spicy Hunanese chicken and pork dishes made our tongues sing, with chili peppers combined with the lingering taste of salted black beans. I have no idea how they achieved the mingled flavors of smoke, molasses, and sugar in some of the ham and pork dishes in this province.
It was all very exciting. But although the Fang Shen restaurant is worth seeing because of the beautiful setting, the food was unsatisfying and expen sive.
The many courses of the traditional Peking Duck dinner, authentically served in Peking at the Big Duck Restaurant, were overwhelming.
The succulent, crackling, lacquerlike skin of the duck is served as the first course, wrapped in a Mandarin pancake with a rich dark hoisin sauce along with a pungent scallion brush. The combination of flavors was spicy, salty, and even a little sweet. Other courses included the duck meat, special parts of the duck, soups, and vegetables. Although the Big Duck is a famous place, it pro vided quantity rather than quality.