Friday, February 7, 2014

Perfecting provincial tastes

Standing in front of a huge cooking pot, chef Wu Haiwen meticulously kneads noodles into paper-thin strips before casting them into a boiling broth. Since leaving home in Shanxi Province for Beijing in 1999, the 32-year-old has worked as a chef at Hongbinlou, the official restaurant of the Shanxi liaison office in Xicheng district.

Wu is one of the chefs who specialize in cooking authentic jincai (Shanxi cuisine), which is renowned for its noodles, fried flatbread and sour flavors.

Beijing is home to more than a dozen liaison offices representing different provincial and regional governments, each of which has their own State-run restaurant specializing in local cuisine. The restaurants cater not only to government officials visiting Beijing on business, but also regular folk living in the capital who yearn to try or rediscover authentic flavors from their hometown and homeland.

A bite of Shanxi

Yuan Hongye, manager of Hongbinlou, said when it opened in 1985 as the Shanxi Liaison Office Restaurant it exclusively served civil servants. It eventually commercialized by serving regular diners some years later. The restaurant underwent a makeover last year before reopening in September under its current name.

"Shanxi Province has 108 kinds of noodles and wheaten foods," said Chai Yutong, food and beverage manager at Hongbinlou. Nineteen of these types of noodles and wheaten foods are available at the restaurant, with three hot dishes, two cold dishes and 14 staple menu items.

Hongbinlou has 14 chefs from Shanxi Province, each of who has different areas of expertise related to northern, central and southern Shanxi cuisine styles.

A recent original cold dish created by the restaurant has proven to be a hit with vegetarian diners. Called yimian qingshen (love at first sight), it is sliced carrot coated in multigrain flour served steamed and garnished with chives. Although steamed dishes are normally soft and light, this dish is surprisingly tender and chewy.

There are also many flour-based dishes that require expertise to prepare, including kaolaolao (steamed buckwheat rolls), huiyuyu (stewed, fish-shaped noodles) mahua (fried dough twists) and cajian (small fried dough slices served with meat, gravy and ketchup).

"I'm afraid no one can sample all of our dishes in one sitting because most famous Shanxi dishes are flour-based foods that are extremely filling," Chai laughed.

Putting freshness first

While Hongbinlou's unique selling point is the expertise of their native chefs, the restaurant of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region's liaison office takes pride in their fresh, authentic ingredients.

He Yuanying, food and beverage manager of the Inner Mongolia Grand Hotel Restaurant in Dongcheng district, noted that although beef and mutton are common in Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang cuisines, the two are prepared very differently.

"The most famous specialty of Inner Mongolia cuisine is shoubarou," said He, referring to boiled mutton. "It differs from Xinjiang cuisine, in which meat is typically cooked and coated with heavy seasoning."

Shoubarou is served with a specially made sauce at the restaurant, but He said the authentic way to eat it in Inner Mongolia is without any sauce or seasoning.

The restaurant owns a pasture in Xilinhot, a city in central Inner Mongolia, where sheep and cattle graze on prairie plains. Most livestock is slaughtered in November and December, with meat frozen in temperatures well below zero to ensure it doesn't spoil during the four-hour flight to Beijing.

The restaurant also uses other ingredients flown to Beijing from Inner Mongolia, including dairy products like milk and yogurt.

"Our human resources are our most important ingredient," said He. "Our chefs are all veterans who keep alive traditional culinary skills, even if they can't all speak Putonghua."

Spicing up expectations

There are countless Sichuan restaurants in Beijing, but being spoiled for choice makes it difficult for diners to decide which restaurant has the most authentic flavors. Gongyuan Shulou, the restaurant of the Sichuan liaison office, is one of the city's most popular Sichuan restaurants.

Fan Jinling, 27, has dined at the restaurant thrice, and confirmed its reputation as one of Beijing's best Sichuan restaurants is well deserved.

"I had long heard of Gongyuan Shulou before I actually dined there," said Fan. "Their maoxiewang (spicy cow stomach and duck blood) is my personal favorite. I have also eaten the same dish at other places in Beijing such as [Sichuan restaurant chain] Mala Youhuo, but I always think the dish at Gongyuan Shulou is slightly different."

Wang Xiaofeng, manager of Gongyuan Shulou, said even though the restaurant employs more than 60 chefs, diners still have to queue every day.

Wang instills in his kitchen staff the importance of preserving traditional flavors, while also experimenting with innovation. For example, the restaurant serves boiled bullfrog with tender ginger, a special kind of crisp ginger with more potent health benefits than regular ginger, produced in Zigong, Sichuan Province.

"About 15 to 20 percent of our customers are foreigners," said Wang. "Their favorite dishes are zhangchaya (smoked duck with camphor wood and tea as fuel) and laziji (spicy chicken), but most of them aren't game enough to order maoxiewang, because they are turned off by blood and entrails. I simply remind them that blood is good for people's lungs and liver, according to traditional Chinese medicine theory."

Service standards

While liaison office restaurants pride themselves on serving the best regional cuisines in Beijing, not every foodie is convinced they rank among the best.

"I don't believe you can call any cuisine 'authentic' if the food is not prepared and cooked in its original place," said Dong Keping, a prominent food critic who has appeared on TV and written for magazines. "For example, I don't think any Sichuan cuisine is standard outside of Sichuan. Even if peppers and chilies from the province are used, their transportation can affect their aroma. You can taste the difference."

Dong also criticized the level of service at State-owned restaurants, some of which he said adopt double standards depending on if they are serving civil servants or regular diners.

Dong's top picks for dishes served at liaison office restaurants in Beijing include boiled mutton of the Tanyang sheep from Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, huiyu (braised catfish) from Hubei Province, hand-made yogurt from Qinghai Province, fotiaoqiang (seafood and poultry cooked in a rice wine flagon) from Fujian Province, and rice noodles and sour bamboo shoots from the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

"Every diner has their own tastes. It is kind of arbitrary to say that all authentic dishes are delicious," said Dong. "The best way to make the most of your dining experience is to simply follow your taste buds and enjoy whatever you find delicious."

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