A cook's tour of China without the crispy caterpillars

How must our recipes appear to the inheritors of thousands of years of tradition?

4 January 2014

9:00 AM

4 January 2014

9:00 AM

As I pick my way around the debris in Zhongyi market in Lijiang, our guide points out the yak section. Windpipes, cleaned intestines and huge wobbly magenta livers are neatly laid out on the filthy floor, while the more expensive cuts are arranged on trestles. My eyes are drawn to a row of small boys enthusiastically slurping up noodles swimming in a dark beefy-looking broth. ‘Would you like to see the dog section?’ our guide asks politely. ‘Umm, no, that won’t be necessary,’ we say quickly, then head out to the bustling, willow-lined streets.

It’s October and National Holiday Week and the stone-paved streets of Lijiang (a Unesco world heritage site) are filled with Chinese tourists enjoying themselves. People are munching everything from sweetcorn and pomegranates to yak kebabs and roast sweet potatoes. Music is coming from the small restaurants that line the pretty waterways. Inside guests play cards and sip the famous local Pu’er tea. Our guide stops by a stall selling what look like bee grubs, grilled cicadas and some form of crispy caterpillar. With a teasing smile she asks, ‘Would you like to try some?’ For a second I think of Lin Yutang’s words in Chinese Gastronomy: ‘the inherent textural variation of innards is interesting to gourmets’. I decide I’m not a gourmet and decline.

It’s hard to believe that two nights ago we were sitting in the restaurant at the Aman at Summer Palace hotel in Beijing, with bamboos rustling at the door. The soft lights and subtle fragrances seem like heaven now, as one exquisite Cantonese dish followed another. Every course was delicious, from the succulent fried shrimps with crispy shredded egg with butter and dried chilli sauce, to the aromatic clear soup with poached bamboo pith and green vegetables. It was as though we’d stepped into the rarified 18th-century world of Cao Xueqin’s The Story of the Stone.

Eating is one of my great pleasures when travelling. Understand a country’s food and you gain a greater insight into its culture. Not that this holiday was a gastronomical tour. Our aim was to journey into the beautiful mountainous area of Yunnan known as the Three Parallel Rivers region. This encompasses Lijiang, Shangri-la (or Zhongdian as it used to be called) and Deqin, high up in the Himalayas, near the Tibetan border. Naturally, I’d allowed a few days in Beijing and a stopover in Xian.

It’s impossible not to think about food as you travel around China: it’s there, in the raw, all around you. Step into a Tibetan farmhouse near Benzilan, cradled between high mountains, and you have to walk through the animals’ quarters before climbing up a ladder to the house’s courtyard where pumpkins and fruit trees grow. A tethered calf looks on as we inspect the pine cones laid out in readiness to extract their kernels. Great bunches of garlic, marigolds and chillies festoon the eaves, and corncobs turn the courtyard gold as they dry in the autumn sun. Outside, pigs wander the lane. Yunnan’s famous air-dried ham adds a rich taste to soups and stir-fried dishes.

That night we eat one of the chickens. Our hotel, Songtsam Benzilan, kills it after hearing that my husband is suffering from flu. It’s transformed into a delicate broth, the perfect cure, they say. While he sips it, I tuck into the soft Tibetan flatbread, and enough garlic and chilli-laden stir-fried vegetables and crispy yak kebabs to scare away any virus.

The perimeters between food and medicine blur in China. Many dishes are infused with symbolism and every ingredient has a benefit. Bite into a crisp, locally grown snow-peach and you’re munching a juicy piece of longevity — provided you’ve washed it in mineral water. Drink sweet ginger tea at 3,600m at Songtsam Meili, near Deqin, and you’re supposed to be able to breathe easier at altitude.

Rural cooking in northwest Yunnan is punchy in its flavours. It tastes of its environment — smoky, earthy, occasionally acrid. It’s always interesting, whether its Naxi-style deep-fried curd cheese sprinkled in sugar, or Tibetan barley cakes doused in mountain honey.

After total immersion in this remote Himalayan world, it feels positively decadent to be seated in the luxurious comfort of the Tian Xiang Ge restaurant in the Shangri-la Hotel in Xian. The city is famous for its dumplings, snacks and noodles. In front of us is a feast of local delicacies: lightly vinegared cucumber skins seasoned with dried chilli and garlic, crunchy fungus with cordyceps, crispy chicken with a divine sesame soy dipping sauce, sautéed lotus root, and wok-fried cumin-spiced lamb that we stuff into the fluffiest steamed buns.

In China, cooking is a form of artifice. A chef’s skill lies in understanding what tastes good and what tastes bad, so that he can enhance the former and counter the latter by technique, variation in texture and clever flavour combinations. Every dish must appear artlessly to express its true hsien (flavour) and hsiang (aroma). The tradition has evolved over thousands of years and, after we have been allowed to handle some of the exquisite ancient ceramics at the Jingwen Cattle Culture Ceramics Museum in Xian, such ideas feel more immediate and relevant somehow.

Back in Beijing, we had one more meal that perfectly expressed every element of the art of Chinese cookery. It was at Fook Lam Moon in the China World Summit Wing. Everything from the refreshing shredded bean curd Yang Zho-style to the creamy deep-fried stuffed baked crab was delicious. The restaurant is famous for seeking out the finest ingredients and cooking them in a classical Cantonese style. What, I wondered, would their chefs make of classic British food, a mere 1,000 years or so in the making?

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Sybil Kapoor travelled with Abercrombie & Kent. A ten-day itinerary to China including Beijing, Lijiang, Yunnan and Xian from £3,795 per person based on two people travelling together, including flights, transfers, accommodation with some meals and excursions. 0845 485 1527; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk

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