If China carved its own Mt. Rushmore, whose faces would be there? I believe that George Washington would be replaced with Mao Zedong; Thomas Jefferson with Confucius; Theodore Roosevelt with Deng Xiaoping; and Abraham Lincoln with Laozi. But what if the American presidents were replaced with famous Chinese food? The results would be fabulous! I am the world’s biggest fan of authentic Chinese food, and I had to think carefully about which food should go on the mount.
Traditionally, there are eight Great Cuisines of China. They are the cuisines of Shandong, Guangdong, Sichuan, Hunan, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian, and Anhui. I personally include Beijing Imperial Cuisine, as I feel that it is unique enough, and special enough, to be its own style. Unfortunately, Mt. Rushmore only has room for four faces (dishes), so it is necessary to narrow the vast, diverse, delicious cuisine of all of China down to four dishes. What are they?
1. Dim Sum.
This Guangdong and Hong Kong specialty is a delight to all of the senses. Dim sum is a style of food that includes multiple, small portions of treats, served in bamboo steam trays by waiters pushing around carts. Traditionally, dim sum includes savory and sweet steamed buns, dumplings, and rice balls. It also includes rice porridge with century egg, and shrimp balls. The sweet buns are filled with sweetened bean paste, sweetened egg yolks, or other such delicacies, while the savory buns can be stuffed with anything from mushrooms to pork to green onions to taro root and more. The presentation is dainty and beautiful, often combining textures and colors and flavors to create little works of art.
2. Beijing Duck.
This is probably China’s most famous dish internationally, and there is good reason for it. Beijing duck is a real culinary treasure of the world. It is a whole duck, roasted over flame until the skin becomes crispy, then served in pieces with various garnishes and thin pancakes. The specific process is a bit more complicated. The preferred duck is Anas platyrhynchos domestica. They are allowed free range, but much like the foie gras ducks raised in France and in the Hudson River Valley in New York state, they are force-fed to make their meat fatty and oily. This adds flavor, or more specifically, enhances and carries the flavor of the meat itself.
After the duck is killed, air is pumped into the neck cavity resulting in the skin separating from the flesh. This is important to the roasting process, as it produces a thin, crispy skin, and moist meat. The duck is then glazed in a maltose-based syrup, and hung for at least one day before the cooking process. The duck is then roasted in a traditional fire brisk oven, often a closed one. The fuel used is straw. This imparts a slight sweetness to the duck.
Serving the duck is an art. The chef will bring out the entire roasted duck on a cart. Standing close enough to the table to be seen, but not close enough to accidentally get food on the diners, he will cut and separate the entire duck into three parts: the skin, the meat, and the fatty meat. These are placed on three different serving dishes. On other dishes around the duck will be the condiments. The traditional set is julienned scallions, thicker julienne cuts of cucumber, and a sweet, bean-based dipping sauce. More elaborate sets may include pickled radish and other condiments. The final serving dish includes a stack of extremely thin pancakes.
3. Sichuan Hotpot.
From the province of fiery hot, spicy food comes the iconic hotpot. Hotpot originated in Sichuan, but it is popular all over China (and in Mongolia), especially in cold weather. In fact, I would say that hotpot and beer on a cold China night is a truly memorable night out. Hotpot involves several plates of raw ingredients — meat, vegetables, and mushrooms — that the diners cook in their own boiling pot of pungent, flavored, spicy broth. Not all broths are in fact spicy, but I personally do not see the point of eating Sichuan hotpot without burning your gums off.
Chinese hotpot restaurants have specially designed tables with electric burners at each place. Some restaurants alternately have a single burner in the middle to heat a larger, communal hotpot. I cannot imagine this setup in the US: people would burn themselves and sue the restaurants out of existence. The best hotpot dinners include lots of meat, usually beef and lamb, lots of mushrooms, lotus root, lettuces, and other vegetables. You can also order fishballs (balls of fish meat), many of which, despite how they sound, are of high-quality.
Hotpot is an especially social style of dining. In order to sample all that the restaurant has to offer, you need to order many, many dishes of ingredients — too many for one person to eat. And because eating hotpot is a process of dipping, waiting, and eating bite-sized pieces, it is by nature long and drawn-out. So it perfectly suits a table of friends talking, laughing, drinking, and generally have a boisterous, great time.
4. Fish Head Soup.
A surprise contender enters the ring! I’ll bet you were not expecting this one. Sure, Kung Pao chicken or sweet and sour pork would have been the obvious candidates, but I wanted to choose something that is authentic, iconic, different, and delicious. Enter fish head soup.
It is most likely that this dish, at least its codified form, comes from Guangdong originally. But there are as many variations of fish head soup as there are Chinese mothers cooking it in their kitchens. And as the name indicates, it is soup with one or more fish heads in it — bones, eyeballs, and all.
The fact is that a fish’s head holds an enormous amount of flavor. This is, in fact, why the Chinese like to cook their meat on the bone — it adds flavor. And a fish head has so many different textures too. The eyeballs are slippery but meaty, while the cheek meat is dense and sweet. And the gelatinous parts of the head are also fatty and delicious, with the pure flavor of the ocean. What constitutes the broth is up to the cook.
Chinese food is flavorful, pungent, delicate, delightful, dainty, strong, pure, and spicy, and sometimes all of these in the same dish. It is ancient and glorious, complex and mysterious. And if any cuisine deserves its own Mt. Rushmore, surely it is Chinese cuisine.