The article Chinese Breakaway was published in
The Spectator on 4 January 2014. The photograph opposite was taken outside the market in Lijiang. The snow peaches the vendor is selling are grown in orchards outside the city. Unlike our peaches, snow peaches have a crisp texture and taste delicious.
A cook’s tour without
the crispy caterpillars
As I pick my way around the debris in Zhongyi market in Lijiang, our guide points out the
yak section. Windpipes, cleaned
intestines and huge wobbly magenta livers are neatly laid out on the floor,
while the more expensive cuts are arranged on trestle tables. My eyes are drawn to a row of small boys
enthusiastically slurping up noodles swimming in a dark beefy-looking broth. ‘Would you like to see the dog section?’ our
guide asks politely, ‘Umm, no, that won’t be necessary’ we say quickly, then
head out to the bustling, willow-lined streets.
It’s October and National Holiday Week and the
stone-paved streets of Lijiang (a Unesco world heritage site) are filled with
Chinese tourists enjoying themselves. People are munching everything from
sweetcorn and pomegranates to yak kebabs and roast sweet potatoes. Music is
coming from the small restaurants that line the pretty waterways. Inside guests play cards and sip the famous
local Pu’er tea. Our guide stops by a
stall selling what looks like bee grubs, grilled cicadas and some form of
crispy caterpillar. With a teasing smile
she asks ‘Would you like to try some?’
For a second I think of Lin Yutang’s words in
Chinese Gastronomy: ‘the inherent textural variation of innards is
interesting to gourmets”. I decide I’m not a gourmet and decline.
It’s hard to believe that two nights ago we were
sitting in the restaurant at the Aman at Summer Palace in Beijing, with bamboos
rustling at the door. The soft lights and subtle fragrances seem like heaven
now, as one exquisite Cantonese dish followed another. Every course was delicious, from the
succulent fried shrimps with crispy shredded egg with butter and dried chili
sauce, to the aromatic clear soup with poached bamboo pith and green
vegetables. It was as though we’d
stepped into the rarified 18th century world of Cao Xueqin’s The Story of the Stone.
Eating is one of my great pleasures when travelling.
Understand a country’s food and you gain a greater insight into its culture.
Not that this holiday was a gastronomical tour.
Our aim was to journey into the beautiful mountainous area of Yunnan
known as the Three Parallel Rivers region.
This encompasses Lijiang, Shangri-la (or Zhongdian as it used to be
called) and Deqin, high up in the Himalayas, near the Tibetan border. Naturally, I’d allowed a few days in Beijing
and a stopover in Xian.
It’s impossible not to think about food as you travel
around China: it’s there, in the raw, all around you. Step into a Tibetan farmhouse near Benzilan,
cradled between high mountains, and you have to walk through the animals’
quarters before climbing up a ladder to the house’s courtyard where pumpkins
and fruit trees grow. A tethered calf looks on as we inspect the pine cones
laid out in readiness to extract their kernels.
Great bunches of garlic, marigolds and chillies festoon the eaves, and
corncobs turn the courtyard gold as they dry in the autumn sun. Outside, pigs and chickens wander the lane.
Yunnan’s famous air-dried ham adds a rich taste to soups and stir-fried
That night, we eat one of the chickens. Our hotel, Songtsam Benzilan, kills it after
hearing that my husband is suffering from flu. It’s transformed into a delicate
broth, the perfect cure, they say. While
he sips it, I tuck into the soft Tibetan flat-bread, and enough garlic and
chill- laden stir-fried vegetables and crispy yak kebabs to scare away any
The perimeters between food and medicine blur in
China. Many dishes are infused with symbolism and every ingredient has a benefit.
Bite into a crisp, locally grown snow-peach and you’re munching a juicy piece
of longevity – provided you’ve washed it in mineral water. Drink sweet ginger
tea at 3,600m at Songtsam Meili, near Deqin and you’re supposed to be able to breath
easier at altitude. It certainly tastes gorgeous as you gaze at the soaring
glacial peaks of the Meili Xue mountain range and marvel at the intense autumn
Rural cooking in the northwest Yunnan is punchy in its
flavours. It tastes of its environment –
smoky, earthy and occasionally acrid.
It’s always interesting, whether its Naxi-style deep-fried curd cheese
sprinkled in sugar, or Tibetan barley cakes dowsed in mountain honey.
After total immersion in this remote Himalayan world,
it feels positively decadent to be seated in the luxurious comfort of the Tian
Xiang Ge restaurant in the Shangri-la Hotel in Xian. The city is famous for its dumplings, snacks
and noodles. In front of us is a feast
of local delicacies: lightly vinegared cucumber skins seasoned with dried
chilli and garlic, crunchy fungus with cordyceps, crispy chicken with a divine
sesame soy dipping sauce, sautéed lotus root, and wok-fried cumin-spiced lamb
that we stuff into the fluffiest steamed buns.
In China, cooking is a form of artifice. A chef’s
skill lies in understanding what tastes good and what tastes bad, so that he can
enhance the former and negate the latter by technique, variation in texture and
clever flavour combinations. Every dish must appear artlessly to express its
true hsien (flavour)
and hsiang (aroma). The
traditional has evolved over thousands of years and, after we have been allowed
to handle some of the exquisite ancient ceramics at the Jingwen Cattle Culture
Ceramics Museum in Xian, such ideas feel more immediate and relevant somehow.
Back in Beijing, we had one more meal that perfectly
expressed every element of the art of Chinese cookery. It was at Fook Lam Moon in The China World
Summit Wing. Everything from the refreshing shredded bean curd Yang Zho-style
to the creamy deep-fried stuffed baked crab was delicious. The restaurant is
famous for seeking out the finest ingredients and cooking them in a classical
Cantonese style. What I wondered, would their chefs make of classic British
food, a mere 1000 years or so in the making?
Sybil Kapoor traveled
with Abercrombie & Kent. A 10 day
itinerary to China including Beijing, Lijiang, Yunnan and Xian from £3,795 per
person based on two people travelling together, including flights, transfers,
accommodation with some meals and excursions. 0845 618 2214, www.abercrombiekent.co.uk