During the Spring Festival, we are once again very busy organising and attending dinners. Traditional Chinese culture has strong farming culture influences, and in this culture, ‘eating’ is a very important activity. Whether there is enough food for the year cannot simply be controlled by hard work, therefore our ancestors had full expectations of food, and invented all kinds of food to celebrate the festivals.
In my memory, the most unforgettable ‘eating’ occasion was when my parents took me to a canteen. I had a portion of noodles with gravy whilst standing by a corner of a table; the reason that I still remember this clearly is because this was the first time I had dinner outside home. There were three groups of people eating on the same table; someone sitting there eating had someone else standing right behind him waiting for the seat…
For a long period of time, ‘eating’ was just for the energy to keep on working. In this case, thinking about ‘what I am eating’ or ‘how do I eat it’ was not important at all. And different dishes were just some names on the restaurant menu; nobody cares about the ‘authentic taste’ of them. In the even worse cases, it wasn’t just the people who ordered the food who didn’t know how the dishes were cooked, the chefs themselves also - deliberately or unintentionally - ‘didn’t know’ about it.
Nowadays, people normally wouldn’t have the problem of starving, and don’t need to worry about how to get three meals a day, thus more and more people are raising their expectations of food. Some of them begin to study intensively about ‘eating’, even though they don’t work in the food industry. There are endless innovations across a variety of dishes, making the originally complicated Chinese cuisines more difficult to understand - and there is nothing left in terms of understanding the classic dishes apart from the names. I pay close attention to Chinese cuisines because wine and Chinese food matching is one of the topics I am studying, and my research about Chinese food is about much more than whether it tastes delicious. However, I am not an expert of Chinese food, and I always encounter questions when studying a certain dish, that I couldn’t find the answer for.
Luckily, I recently received a book entitled Gourmet’s Luck口福, which gives details about ‘100 Chinese dishes you must try in your lifetime’. What really touchs me in the book is that most all of the dishes listed in the contents are the ones I am familiar with. None of them are expensive kinds of dishes – they are all ‘ordinary’ and ‘won’t be talked about by the upper classes’. For example, ‘fish-flavoured shredded pork with chilli sauce’ is on the list – this is a very famous and popular dish, which once even became the centre of the price war between many restaurants. However, there aren’t many restaurants that can actually use ‘pickled pepper, onion, ginger, garlic, salt, sugar, vinegar and soy sauce to stir-fry the shredded port until the fish-flavour appears’. When the guests concentrate too much on the price on the menu, rather than the taste in their mouth, the restaurants would lose the traditional flavour.
Knowing that I can afford the dishes listed in this book, I feel very relaxed reading it, just like the tone of the book itself. However, thinking about some wine introduction books, that also use titles like ‘100 wines…’, but the wines on their list are either impossible to find on the market, or forbiddingly expensive. It is such a shame!
The author of Gourmet’s Luck recommended 100 famous Chinese dishes from a gourmet’s perspective – it is not an easy task to pick up 100 dishes from the immense list of Chinese food; the author must have bared the pain of not including some of the dishes. Moreover, the author explains the reason for recommending each dish, and how to appreciate them. The author also interacts with chefs who are famous for those dishes, asks for the key steps of cooking the dishes and what the chefs learnt from cooking it. All of these make the book a guide for people like me who love Chinese food but couldn’t find the door to get into that world. Through this book, we find a direct and easy way to enter the palace of Chinese food.
For each dish in the book, there are the ingredients, cooking skills, taste and characters, the origins or legends of the dish, related history and geography knowledge, local customs and practices, and how we can tell if it is authentic through appreciation. The book also explains different styles and techniques of one dish, and provides the photos of the materials and the finished dish, making it easy to understand. For the professional terms used in the book, there are also explanations. For example, when introducing the dish ‘home style sea cucumber’, it mentions the use of ‘normal soup’, which leads to the difference of ‘clear soup’, ‘milk-white soup’, ‘chicken soup’ and ‘normal soup’.
Gourmet’s Luck doesn’t just bring us the gourmet’s luck to enjoy delicious food, but also provides support to our study of introducing wine to Chinese food.
So, please let’s stop using tannic red wines to pair with squirrel-shaped Mandarin Fish with sweet and sour sauce; though the two are both lovely when tasted separately.
Translated by Nina Fan Feng / 冯帆
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