Can there really be a list of ‘Chinese food you have to try before you die’? I did a snap survey and asked four of my Chinese staff at The Red Chamber to give me a list of their 20 favourite dishes. Only one appeared twice: Peking duck, obviously. And most of the remaining 78 food items were either specific to that person’s region (Shanghai crab) or an acquired taste (spicy chicken feet!). It just shows you how subjective food is. Our taste buds are affected by so many factors too.
Article by Emma Chen
Food is an emotional experience, tied to memories and feelings, so while my research has been particularly unscientific, here are the dishes without which my life would be incomplete:
1. Cucumber salad with salt- vinegar and sesame oil
There is nothing that quite compares to a salad made from cucumbers that have been picked that very morning. Each cucumber should be so fresh that it still has the yellow flower attached and a faint coat of white powder on the midsection. Just press a handful of them with a cleaver, add a sprinkle of salt, a few drops of rice vinegar and sesame oil, and the salad is ready. It’s like eating freshness itself.
2. Boiled pork dumplings
My all-time personal favourite Chinese food is simple boiled dumplings. From time to time, I call my friends Wang and Liang to my home and we make Dumplings together. Dumpling making is a division of labour. Some of us prepare the filling: pork mince, Chinese cabbage, a handful of chives and chunk of ginger. Others knead the dough. And then we stand around the kitchen counter to roll the dough and fill in the filling. “Can we start the water now?” I keep asking them, as I cannot wait to start. Then we throw the dumplings into boiling water and wait for them to float to the top, each one fat and glistening. I eat them with garlic and rice vinegar. I never count how many I eat so that I do not have to lie. A lady is not supposed to eat more than a dozen, you know.
3. Pecking duck
This has to be one of the most famous Chinese banquet dishes – and with good reason. Nobody makes it at home and it is a dish to enjoy when the whole family goes to a restaurant for a special treat. Succulent duck meat with crispy skin, combined with spring onion and plum sauce is wrapped in the pancake. The quality of the pancakes is as important as the duck itself. The pancakes must be totally pliable and a little resistant to the bite. This sensation, combined with the juicy meat, works like magic. Even the bones are delicious. We often ask the restaurant to stir-fry the bones in leeks and chilli, and we chew and suck the bones like snacks throughout the whole evening.
4. Autumn crabs
In autumn, when it is the season for crabs, I like to have them cooked in ginger and spring onion with glass noodles in a pot. I love seeing large sections of crab in the shell, red in colour, shimmering in a light sauce against the white glass noodles with green spring onion. I eat one or two pieces of crab first, until my fingers are full of sauce. Then I pick up the glass noodles and inhale deeply. The crab flavour is totally absorbed by the noodles. I enjoy it with my nose first before I bite into it. I even pick up pieces of ginger and spring onion and mix them in the noodles. There is no seafood like autumn crabs.
5. Beggar’s chicken
The original recipe for beggar’s chicken involved stealing a whole chicken (feathers and all), covering it in clay and cooking it in an open fire in the wild. The feathers came out with the clay and the resulting chicken was tender and juicy. Nowadays, we stuff a featherless chicken with herbs and spices, wrap it in lotus leaves and then cover it in clay to bake. The hard clay shell is cracked open at the table, releasing the aroma that has been sealed in the clay. It is a dish full of theatre and flavour.
6. Double-cooked pork
I only agree with Chairman Mao on one thing – the delights of double-cooked pork. It was one of his favourite dishes. The pork belly is boiled until slightly underdone, immediately chilled and then sliced (not too thinly). The meat is tossed in the wok on a high heat with leeks, chilli, Sichuan peppercorns and cabbage. The crunchy cabbage is there to provide contrast to the soft and rich, but not greasy, pork slices. Mao used to demand it every second day – he was not known for self-restraint.
7. Lamb fire pot
This is a must-try for winter but you need a crowd to share it with. We sit around the pot of boiling broth with piles of lamb slices (shaved paper thin), tofu, vegetables and assorted herbs and sauces. Everybody rinses pieces of lamb in the hot broth and eats them immediately. There are many different sauces to choose from. I prefer mine without much sauce but with some pickled chives and garlic. There is no better way to make tender lamb. Each piece just melts in the mouth. We drink fire water with the meal and at the end of the evening noodles can be added to the broth, which by then will be so rich in flavour that I always find it a pity that I am too full to have any.
8. Chinese leafy greens
Any seasonal leafy greens, flash-cooked, must accompany most meals. I add a whole crushed garlic, or thinly sliced chilli, or oyster sauce, or tofu or mushrooms, or just some salt – whatever takes my fancy. The secret is simply not to overcook the greens. A spoon of oil is more than enough; toss the vegetable in the wok until the colour changes to dark green and dish up straight away.
9. Sichuan cold noodles
This favourite is another example of an effortless dish made from fresh ingredients. The key element is good home-made noodles – none of that instant rubbish. Then all I need is some fresh bean sprouts, cucumber, garlic and a handful of Sichuan peppercorns. I fry the peppercorns until the aroma is drawn out, then I mix in the cooked and chilled noodles, add the chopped vegetables and a spoonful of sesame paste and soya sauce. It is a cold dish, most suitable for summer lunch. It is so full of garlic that after this dish the only appointment you should have is with your landlord.
10. Taro moji
Taro (amadumbe) moji is taro sorbet wrapped in rice cake. The whole thing is served frozen. The thin rice pastry is dry to the touch and soft and slightly sticky to the bite – until you reach the sweet taro filling. The flavour is smoky, nutty and creamy. This is a typical Chinese dessert, not so sweet, subtle in flavour yet rich in texture. One can have it throughout the day in summer.
“My best food is the simplest and freshest… The only way to eat the best Chinese food is, next time you travel to China, Taiwan or Hong Kong, eat at the restaurant or street stall with the longest queue. Chinese people are prepared to wait for good food and you should too!”
Emma Chen is the owner of the Red Chamber Chinese restaurant in Hyde Park, Joburg.