A Culinary Tour of China
Published: April 2009
By Andrew Solomon
On an epic culinary tour with international tastemaker Han Feng, <b>Andrew Solomon</b> feasts on the country's rich and subtle flavors, from soup dumplings at a streetside stand in Shanghai to the haute-Sichuan abalone and crispy rice in Chengdu.
Before my first trip to China, in 1983, I was warned that the food would be terrible, and
it more than met expectations: greasy, gristly, dismal, prepared with that brutal indifference
Communism seemed to celebrate, and served up gray and ugly. Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore
kept alive the Chinese culinary tradition, three tiny candles standing in for the greatest
bonfire in the world. By the early nineties, the situation was somewhat better, as long as
you stuck with simple things or ate in people's homes. In the past five years, Chinese cooking
has risen phoenixlike from the ashes, and divine food is now to be found in the country's
unnumbered restaurants. It is hard to understand how the Chinese have retained some semblance
of sanity in a country so utterly transformed, because the China of today is as dissimilar
to the China I first visited as Topeka is to Zanzibar. Where miserable-looking people in Mao
suits once pedaled rusty bicycles down dirt alleyways while unconvincing workers celebrated
the Communist state in unbearable factory performances, one now finds a level of efficiency
and sophistication in the cities that leaves me feeling that New York is quite nearly a provincial
backwater. There are of course still legions of peasants laboring in poverty, but the advances
in China, unlike those in Russia, seem to have spread through a broad swath of society. The
improvement in the food reflects a profound social transformation: what was once unpleasant
is now thrilling. And while much of these changes are in Beijing and Shanghai's smartest restaurants,
they can also be found in country inns and at street dumpling stands.
I had the good fortune to do a culinary tour with the fashion designer Han Feng, who is warm
and glamorous and sparkling with life, and who led us to both the fanciest restaurants in
China and the best street food imaginable. "You won't believe it," she said on our second
day in Shanghai as we drew near to Jia-Jia Juicy Dumplings, in the old Yu Yuan district,
a grungy-looking stand where a huge meal costs about a dollar. Seated on plastic stools on
the sidewalk, we gorged on dumplings filled with soup and pork, shrimp, or hairy crab (a regional
delicacy). You dip them in rice vinegar with ginger, and when you bite down, first the warm
soup floods your mouth, and then you experience the smooth skin and the rich meaty filling.
Mobs descend on the place in all sorts of weather, and the eight women who work there are
crowded so close together that you wonder how they can move their arms. A great steamer sits
outside, piled high with bamboo baskets, watched over by a woman whose face is constantly
shrouded in vapor. But everyone smiles and laughs. "How can this be so good?" Han Feng asked
us, glowing with pride.
She was the inventor of our trip—and it took some considerable inventing—and
she is also the inventor of herself, as miraculous and unlikely as modern China in all its
glory. Han Feng left China in 1985 to move to New York, but has recently taken a Shanghai
apartment, relocated her production to her homeland, and started dividing her time between
the two countries. I first met Han Feng 12 years ago at a dinner party. I had recently returned
from a trip to China to write about contemporary art, and we made desultory conversation until
I mentioned one of the artists I had interviewed by name. "From Hangzhou?" she asked. "Really
good-looking?About our age?" "Yes," I said. "Wow, he and I dated in high school and I never
knew what happened to him." She came from China and I'd been to China, so why wouldn't we
know people in common?
Since then, I've learned that Han Feng knows most of the world's interesting people, and
I've been lucky to be invited to the divine dinners she cooks at home and those she organizes
in Chinatown, where one runs into Jessye Norman, Lou Reed, Susan Sarandon, Rupert Murdoch,
Anthony Minghella, or, just as likely, her wisecracking upstairs neighbor or the fur buyer
who once paid her a compliment. Her satisfying throaty laugh makes every evening feel like
Han Feng is profoundly international. " I love wherever I am and whatever I'm doing," she
once said to me. She arrived in the United States as "a Chinese peasant potato," as she says.
"Some people climb staircase of success," she told her then husband. "I take express elevator."
Soon she met someone who wanted to back her design activities and promised to make her rich
and famous. "I said, 'Maybe we can forget about famous and concentrate on very rich.' "
Since then, she has developed a private label that has been sold at Bendel's, Takashimaya,
Bergdorf's, and Barneys; designed opera costumes for the English National Opera; and made
a line of clothes for the Neue Galerie in New York.
After her divorce, she had a long-term relationship, which ended when her boyfriend said
he wanted to move in. "I can't believe it! I say, 'Move in?Move in?I don't have that kind
of closet space!' " Most people fall in love with Han Feng if they get half a chance.
The King of Morocco has commissioned her to make many of his clothes, and she has been a regular
guest at his palace. "I stay there and see all the pomp and circumstance," she confided, "and
I think how glad I am to live a simple life!" It's the most high-powered simplicity I've ever
encountered; whatever potato she was when she left China, she's now an orchid of the first
My favorite place in Shanghai was the YongFoo Élite, brainchild of a local decorator
who leased the former residence of the British consul and spent three years and $5 million
restoring the space, furnishing it with antiques, and replanting its gardens, giving it the
aura of the old Shanghai: decadent, elegant, lavish, and sophisticated. While we rhapsodized
about the sweet shrimp, the fish fried with pine nuts, and the quail's eggs roasted with octopus
and pork, our Chinese friends were impressed by the romaine salad—an exotic touch in
such a setting. Dessert is not always Chinese cuisine's strong point, but I will remember
the crisp date pancakes with sesame seeds forever.
After dinner there, we went to a jazz club that felt like a speakeasy, and met up with artist
friends; later, we headed off to the perennially fashionable Face Bar, where we met a Chinese
doctor friend of Han Feng's who took my pulse and prescribed a health regimen even as we lounged
on opium beds drinking hot brandy toddies; the next day, I found myself being whisked off
to the acupuncturist.
Ordering in Chinese restaurants is an art. In New York, Han Feng will spend half an hour
talking to a Chinatown waiter about what she wants. If saints are usually represented with
their primary attributes, then Han Feng should be painted with a menu. She reads the pages
as if they were poems—poems in need of editing—and seems to inspire the kitchen
with her particularity and her fervor. She inquires about the freshness of ingredients and
tries to balance the meal so that it has hot, cold, and tepid dishes; spicy and mild tastes;
fish, meat, and vegetables; heavy flavors and lighter ones. Each meal needs to be conceived
as a whole. The Chinese spend a larger proportion of their income on food than almost any
other nationality. In his great book, Food in Chinese Culture, K.C. Chang talks
about "food as social language" and "food linguistics"; in dynastic China, you respected a
visitor by cooking a dish yourself even if you had servants; you honored ancestors with food
sacrifices. The food is the society.
The best food in China is not necessarily in the splashiest places. Crystal Jade is in a
Shanghai mall and looks like it, but the Cantonese dim sum there is divine—fried potato
dumplings that melt in your mouth; roasted skin of baby pig, duck, and chicken; shredded daikon
with dried shrimp layered in a kind of phyllo pastry. Across town at Jade Garden, the throbbing
bass beat from the nightclub downstairs obtrudes, but not enough to diminish the lotus root
stuffed with sticky rice or the tea-smoked duck, which is to waterfowl what Lapsang souchong
is to Lipton.
On New Year's day, we drove to Hangzhou, where Han Feng grew up. There is a saying in China
that when you die there is heaven, but when you live there is Hangzhou. The city lies beside
the West Lake, where pleasure boats travel from island to island, and the sun glints off the
urban skyline on one shore and elegant, tall pagodas on another. A typical local dinner includes
chou doufu, or "stinky tofu," which tastes like elderly athletic socks left through
a muggy summer in a dank locker and then boiled in sour milk; a street hawker of chou doufu was recently arrested for violating air-pollution laws. It is an acquired taste I have
yet to acquire. We headed to the gala opening of the new Hangzhou Opera House, and afterward,
unready to call it a day, indulged in a late-night foot massage: our feet were soaked in Chinese
herbs, pounded with rubber mallets, rubbed with heated salt, and kneaded in every conceivable
direction. We drove back to the hotel at 2 A.M. in a state of absurd bliss.
The following day, we went to lunch at Longjing, a tiny establishment with just eight tables
arranged in private pavilions around a beautiful garden in the middle of a tea plantation.
This was Chinese cooking so refined that some of its particular triumphs were lost on our
inexperienced palates. We had 22 dishes: rare delicacies such as steamed turtle wrapped in
lotus leaves; a broth of locusts and old duck (old ducks are supposed to warm you up in winter),
which sounds rather bizarre but was in fact glorious; a rich, delicate soup called Heroes'
Soup in honor of the fish in it, which are boiled alive; fatty pork slow-cooked for four days
and served with eggs; and braised venison. We had quenelle-like fish balls, made by nailing
a fish to a plank, scraping the flesh off one layer at a time so that it becomes completely
soft, beating the resulting mush with cold water into a foam, then poaching it. "Making that
is hard like hell," Han Feng said, "and no one has ever done it better for an emperor."
We drank the fresh local Longjing tea, for which the restaurant is named, while a violin
prodigy, winner of the Paganini competition and part of Han Feng's extended circle, gave a
sweeping virtuoso performance, at once precise and passionate and thrilling. Han Feng took
us to the Ming-era Guo Family Garden at the west end of the lake, less touristed than some
other Hangzhou parks and magnificently restful, and later we visited the Zhiweiguan restaurant.
Where Longjing served up food that was very exotic to a Western palate, rare and understated
tastes impossible to conceive outside of China, Zhiweiguan was so glitteringly splendid and
yet so wholly accessible that it could sustain a hopping trade on New York's Upper East Side.
For one dish, the chef cut a single narrow 11-foot-long strip of pork (like a continuous ribbon
of apple peel), spiraled it into the shape of a stepped monument at Chichén Itzá,
and roasted it. At the table, the server unwound it, cut off short pieces, and wrapped them
in spinach pancakes. A whole chicken stuffed with garlic had been wrapped in thin paper and
then encased in salt before baking—the meat was almost implausibly juicy.
Few foreigners go to Shaoxing, and it is hard to understand why. The canals are romantic
and dreamy, and the Ch'ing dynasty houses are built right down to the water; the windows are
adorned with carved wooden screens, and women kneel beside the water to scrub laundry; the
canal boats are as intimate as gondolas, and the boatmen use their feet to push the big oars.
You can always see the grand pagoda on the hillside just beyond the city, and on the day we
were there, someone was listening to Beijing opera quite loudly, and the music echoed down
the byways. To get to and from the canal boats, you travel by bicycle rickshaw through winding,
enigmatic streets too narrow for cars. We ate at Xianheng, and had several variations on chou
doufu, some palatably mild. I took more eagerly to another local fermented specialty:
Shaoxing rice wine. We also had eggplant with a peppery okra-like vegetable, and caramelized-pork
buns, sweet and rich. For dessert there were sticky rice cakes with black sesame seeds, an
almost bitter flavor, and honey. Han Feng led the toasting, and we felt ready to burst with
food, alcohol, and pleasure. We realized that we were having an average of 12 dishes at each
meal, and that we were having two meals a day, and that we were going to be in China for 21
days, which meant that by the time we left we would have tried more than 500 dishes. We took
some deep breaths.
For the Chinese, there are two great cuisines—Sichuan and Cantonese. Travelers know
Cantonese, because it is the cuisine of Hong Kong, but the Sichuan province is still off most
tourist maps. Chiles are to Sichuan cooking what salt is to the sea. Sichuan natives talk
about peppers the way other people talk about sports teams. Their cuisine makes Mexican food
seem bland, but the heat is layered and complex, the different kinds of hot spices mixed and
remixed, toasted and fresh, soaked in different agents to create a range of intense pleasure
and exquisite pain. The trademark Sichuan pepper is hua jiao, which is in fact not
a pepper at all, but the dried fruit of the prickly ash plant. Amazingly potent, it makes
your mouth numb, but it is a wonderful numbness. You can feel it setting about its anesthetic
work as soon as you taste it, yet at the same time it seems to make your taste buds somehow
more intensely awake. It's almost as if whatever you're eating has been stewed in cocaine.
Strange at first, it becomes an object of longing.
We had lunch at My Humble House, a very unhumble restaurant in Chengdu in a park surrounded
by bamboo groves and waterways. The style is upmarket modern Chinese, with giant scholars'
chairs, a silk-draped four-poster bed on which you can loll, pools of carp, halogen lights,
and tables scattered with silk rose petals. The food is Chinese fusion—incorporating
the influence not of Western food, but of the multiple branches of Chinese and Southeast Asian
cuisine—so, for example, the traditional Cantonese shark's fin soup is made here with
the addition of creamy pumpkin.
Sichuan is justly famous for its teahouses. Most Chengdu businessmen leave their offices
in the afternoon and conduct business over tea. Women go to play mah-jongg, gossips to gossip,
children to play. We went to Yi Yuan, the most beautiful teahouse in Chengdu, in a restored
Ming garden with a dozen courtyards, reflecting pools, pavilions, walkways, gaming tables,
great sculpted lake rocks, and bridges framed by pines. We sat at a table next to some Buddhist
monks and drank perfumed tea.
On entering China Grand Plaza for dinner, I felt as Marco Polo must have at the gates of
the Forbidden City. Here in what I had foolishly thought was the middle of nowhere was dazzling
opulence. You walk through enormous doors into a vast lobby where a pianist is playing Chopin
on a concert grand, and see porcelain and furniture that could easily be in one of the world's
better museums. China Grand Plaza includes an art gallery, a spa with three gigantic heated
pools and a bevy of gorgeous masseuses, two karaoke bars (one of which has a glass ceiling
in which fish swim around), four restaurants, and hotel guest rooms. The feeling is of extravagant
elegance, albeit with a touch of Goldfinger.
A member of the staff, in black with white apron and gloves, stands before each of the doors
down a long, vaulted red-lacquer hallway. We were ushered into one of these private rooms,
which make up the haute Sichuan restaurant; there is no communal space. Amid burnished Ch'ing
candle stands and expressive Ming calligraphy, we were given fresh tea and glasses of bai
jiu (Sichuan brandy), which burns like wildﬁre all the way down. We had "husband
and wife" (spiced beef and pork lungs) and jellyfish with coriander, and then a light consommé
of fresh worm-herb, which, famous for its health-giving qualities, sells on the open market
for as much as $2,000 a pound; food and medicine are not clearly delineated in China. Floating
in the broth was a poached soufﬂé of bean curd and chicken. Abalone came over
bricks of crisped rice. Kung pao chicken was full of the freshest hua jiao. Halfway
through dinner, a dancer came to our room to do a private "face-off." In this old Sichuan
tradition, a sequence of brightly colored cloth masks is worn in layers. As the dance unfolds,
the dancer pulls a hidden string and one mask after the next is revealed. After dinner, we
were offered Cuban cigars and a bottle of 1988 Château Lafite Rothschild, but, choosing
our indulgences, had massages instead.
Chengdu is the great unsung city of China. In addition to incomparable food, it has wonderful
sights: a panda-breeding center, where you can see the animals up close, including the adorable
new cubs; the Wenshu monastery, with its chanting monks and holy processions; and, a two-hour
drive away, the 233-foot-tall Leshan Grand Buddha, carved into the Lingiun Hill rockface in
the eighth century A.D. to subdue the violent confluence of two rivers. It is the largest
Buddha in the world—its big toe is 28 feet long.
We went native that night: Sichuan hot pot. Hot pot restaurants abound in Chengdu, and a
local friend led us to Huang Cheng Laoma, where there are two burners built into the middle
of each table, allowing us to have one cauldron chockablock with chiles, and one with a mild
broth of chicken and sea horse. We ordered some 20 trays of stuff to cook in them, including
sirloin steak, chicken, alligator livers, bamboo pith, bamboo-pith fungus, Chinese spinach,
sausage, freshwater and saltwater eels, five kinds of mushrooms, Sichuan ferns, fresh lotus
root, and slivers of beef throat. Whatever we cooked in the spicy soup we dipped in sesame
oil with onion; whatever we cooked in the mild one we doused in a salty herb sauce. After
dinner, we went to another teahouse to see Sichuan opera—a cavalcade of face-off, puppetry,
dance, dexterous clowns performing folktales, acrobatic stunts, magic tricks, and masked flame-blowers.
Beijing residents, prohibited from debating who would be the best Party leader, have instead
turned their critical attention to a more pressing question: Who makes the best Peking duck?
There are many details to consider. Is the preparation too refined or flashy?Is the skin
too fatty or dry?Is it cooked over applewood or apricot?Is the sauce bean- or fruit-based?
Should the skin be dipped in sugar?How should the duck be carved?We went duck-hunting seven
times. Among the restaurants that cater in good part to Westerners, we liked Commune by the
Great Wall and Made in China; among those more for the locals, we preferred Xiangmanlou. Commune
by the Great Wall is a hotel composed of villas by leading contemporary architects. From each
villa, you can climb up to the Wall and walk along a pleasantly unrestored section that is
yours alone. We had the restaurant's traditional Peking menu, which includes fried shrimp
balls, duck soup, braised cod, dumplings, and the duck.
Made in China is in the Grand Hyatt, so you certainly don't feel as if you're discovering
someplace obscure; you could be in L.A. or New York. Nonetheless, the wisdom in Beijing is
that it's the city's top restaurant, and everything we had there was delicious. We ate shrimp
boiled in green tea, and poached chicken with spicy peanuts. The duck skin had separated entirely
from the duck; it was crisp and firm and unfatty, but not brittle. The pancakes were papery
thin, and the sauce was made from sweet beans mixed with honey and sesame oil, then reduced
to a satisfying thickness.
Xiangmanlou has no frills, though it is clean and pleasant, and the bill for six people would
barely have covered sandwiches in New York. Beijing families crowded every table. The duck
skin here is divided—the best is put on a special plate, and the so-called "hard skin"
is served separately. The duck is fattier than at Made in China, but in a sinful way, like
foie gras. A soup of duck bones follows. We had fish too, brought to us flopping around in
a basket before its execution.
The best Beijing street food is the jianbing, and the best place to get it is the
stalls outside the Baoguo Temple complex, now a flea market. The seller first spreads batter
on a wide iron griddle to make a crêpe with scallions in it; then breaks an egg over
the top and spreads it around so it cooks into the batter; then flips it over and slathers
on bean sauce and chile sauce; and finally wraps the whole thing around a piece of sweet fried
bread. It's steamy and fresh and eggy and starchy and delectable.
To vary our massage addiction, we tried out a late-night ear massage. The Beijing place was
like a comfortable hospital—extremely clean, and the massage girls wore nurses' hats.
Before a statue of the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kuan Yin, a variety of offerings had been
made, including a high-calorie health drink—in case mercy was getting a little thin
on the ground.
We celebrated and mourned our last night in Beijing at the ultrahigh-concept Green T. House,
with its chairs upholstered in feathers, revolving colored lights, exhibitions of contemporary
art, rocking horse in the corner, mirrored tables, and so on. The scene is very sceney, screamingly
cooler-than-thou. The menu is an absurdist document, the poetry of which, already strained
in Chinese, becomes endearingly ludicrous in English: "A Little Caviar Sashimi with Unimaginable
Sauce" or "Mystic Beef Rolls Stuffed with Enoki Mushrooms and Mozzarella" or "Bliss Upon Cuttlefish"
or—my favorite—"Erotic Dance by Six Mushrooms Around a Lonely Chestnut." The food
is somewhat less impressive than the titles, but the models smoking long cigarettes and the
young hipsters with amazing haircuts are unparalleled.
For 21 days, we ate Chinese food at every meal, except for one night, in Beijing, when some
beloved American expat friends threw a dinner party for us at their apartment. They had managed
to borrow the chef from the French Embassy, and he did a terrific job. But Western food tasted
strange after the alluring flavors of China. Having to cut things up seemed vulgar and tedious;
the buttered fresh vegetables seemed to lack imagination; and the beef, though cooked to perfection,
seemed sort of chunky and bland. It was hard to switch back. We had culinary jet lag and all
the familiar things felt wrong for a little while; like scuba divers, we had to come up gradually
to avoid getting sick as the atmosphere changed. Then we got into the sweep of the evening,
and loved every minute.
Served by numerous direct flights, China is more accessible than ever, but most travelers will want expert help in obtaining visas and booking local guides. For our roster of recommended, China-focused agents, see www.travelandleisure.com/alist.
WHERE TO EAT
DINNER FOR TWO $50
UNITS 12A AND 12B, HOUSE 67, XINTIANDI S. BLOCK, LN. 123, XINGYE RD.;
DRINKS FOR TWO $16
118 RUI JIN 2 RD.;
DINNER FOR TWO $74
1121 YAN AN ZHONG RD.;
Jia-Jia Juicy Dumplings
DINNER FOR TWO $4
638 S. HENAN RD.;
DINNER FOR TWO $120
200 YONG FOO RD.;
DINNER FOR TWO $98
10 WAI JI LONG SHAN, LONGJING RD.;
DINNER FOR TWO $100
83 REN HE RD.;
DINNER FOR TWO $50
149 LU XUN ZHONG RD.;
China Grand Plaza
DINNER FOR TWO $100
8 HUO CHE NAN ZHAN XI RD.;
Huang Cheng Laoma
DINNER FOR TWO $49
20 NAN SHAN DUAN SECOND RING RD.;
My Humble House
DINNER FOR TWO $125
18 SONG XIAN QIAO JING HUA RD.;
Yi Yuan Teahouse
TEA FOR TWO $25
8 JIN QUAN RD.;
Commune by the Great Wall
DINNER FOR TWO $100
BA DA LING HWY., SHUI GUAN EXIT;
Green T. House
DINNER FOR TWO $125
6 GONG TI XI RD.;
Made in China
DINNER FOR TWO $100
GRAND HYATT BEIJING, 1 EAST CHANG AN AVE.;
DINNER FOR TWO $50
XIN YUAN XI LI;