Letter from China (3): Food from the Provinces

If my first two days in Sanlitun had made me wonder whether they still offer Chinese food in China, I should not have worried. But things have certainly gotten more sophisticated – and gone way beyond Peking duck! On my first night out with a Chinese friend, I am introduced to one of the fanciest Yunnan restaurants in town. Its name, 一座一望, suggests that once you sit down on one of those elegant wooden benches between palm trees, you forget everything that is cumbersome in your life.  The Yunnan cuisine knows an abundance of wild herbs, mushrooms and edible flowers, which turns every meal into an aesthetically pleasing experience.

The taste of the tropical Southwest is the latest wave in the often grey and dreary-looking Chinese capital. “Have you tried 中8樓 in Sanlitun?”, asks another friend, an exiled Beijinger, via email from Washington, DC. According to the city magazines, that place has the best “Yunnan fusion food”. The owner of 小雲南 (Little Yunnan) on the other hand keeps it authentic. His tiny place is located in a traditional Chinese courtyard house – the perfect setting for a warm summer night.  Apart from the obligatory Boletus mushrooms (a version of the good old German Steinpilz), the menu reminds of Yunnan’s vicinity to Tibet, offering deep-fried goat milk in several variations. I need a lot of rice wine to neutralize the flavor.

A few days later, someone suggests to have dinner at the Guizhou Dasha. The big Guizhou building? Guizhou is another Southwestern Chinese province, it shares borders with Yunnan and Hunan and therefore Yunnan’s preference for exotic herbs and Hunan’s for red hot chili peppers. When I meet my contact at the agreed address, we are facing a multi-storeyed building which has been gutted to its frame. Workers tell us that it is being renovated. „Come back in three months.“ We can’t wait for so long, so we drive down the street looking for alternatives. Why not the Anhui Dasha?

At last, I find out what the secret of those buildings is. They are the „hotels“ of the Chinese provinces in Beijing, similar to the embassies of the German federal states in Berlin. In Germany, those „Landesvertretungen“ treat their guests to regional specialties at their annual receptions – and invitations to the embassies of Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria are usually the most sought after. In Beijing, as it turns out, provincial officials stay in those embassy hotels when they visit the capital. And most of those places have restaurants that are open to the public all year round!

This is how I get to try food from Anhui. Anhui is a province in central China, famous for the Yellow Mountain in the South and poor peasants in the North, but not for its cuisine.  The restaurant still has that certain Communist touch: big round tables, neon lights and slow waiters. We order a „stinky mandarine fish“ 臭鮭魚, which tastes a lot better than its name suggests. We eat a version of jiaozi, the Chinese dumplings, which are not wrapped in dough, but in paper-thin tofu.  The highlight is a hearty stew named after the famous intellectual Hu Shi, the father of Chinese liberalism in the early 20th century – and a native of Anhui. The dish is a delicious mix of deep-fried tofu, quail eggs, chicken and ham.

On the way home, my stomach feels full and lazy, but my mind is already busy speculating what people might eat in Henan and Hebei, in Heilongjiang or in Ningxia? I have to find out where their embassy hotels are. Who knew that one could visit all of China’s more than 30 provinces and regions without leaving Beijing?

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