In the dining room of the Yunteng Hotel in Beijing, amid dangling plastic creepers and stands of bamboo, we slurped up some of the gorgeous fresh flavours of the Chinese south-west: deep-fried bee larvae as crisp as little shrimp, slices of white cheese fried golden and dusted with Sichuan pepper, and the famous Yunnan cured ham, tossed in a wok with fresh green peppers. Yunnan may lie 2,000km from the Chinese capital, but its provincial government, like many others in China, runs a restaurant in Beijing, where Yunnanese chefs conjure up authentic food from ingredients transported specially from their far-flung home.
The Chinese take gastronomic homesickness seriously: they say one fourth-century official, Zhang Han, was so consumed with longing for the water shield soup and minced fish of his native region that he abandoned his official post and went home. For Sichuanese craving their daily fix of chillies, or a Hunanese native dying for a whiff of stinking beancurd, regional restaurants are a lifeline as much as a recreation. And few match the thrilling authenticity of the food found in the Beijing restaurants run by provincial and city governments.
In the past, these were simple canteens attached to the guesthouses that hosted officials visiting from the provinces, but with China’s reform they began to welcome other customers, and many were rebuilt and relaunched as commercial enterprises. Some are hard to find. We spent half an hour driving up and down dimly-lit backstreets before we identified the Yunteng Hotel, a nondescript block with no sign. But it was worth the inconvenience: the food was like a breath of fresh air from the tropical south.
Another night, we decided to take a virtual trip to Ningxia, an autonomous region with a large Muslim minority on the brink of Inner Mongolia. In 2006, the Ningxia government replaced its old courtyard buildings with a bright high-rise but the menu in its restaurant speaks of a pastoral landscape of grasslands and desert, with dishes made from mutton and lamb, wolfberries and wild herbs, and breads and noodles in the place of southern rice. The dinner itself reminded me of my own adventures, years ago, in the great north-west, of lively noodle shops and markets, where customers pinched the flesh of live sheep before they bought.
We sipped from bowlfuls of “eight-treasure” tea, ubiquitous in the region, the green leaves mixed with dried jujubes, walnuts and craggy chunks of crystal sugar. Pieces of steamed lamb were gorgeously tender in their rich broth, which we sopped up with steamed flower rolls.
After the furthest reaches of the Chinese empire, we directed our magic carpet to the southern Yangtze region, in the form of lunch at the restaurant in the marbled lobby of the Nanjing city government hotel. Nanjing is a sophisticated metropolis not far from Shanghai, and our food showed off the clear, light flavours of eastern China. We began with cool salted duck and a salad of slivered vegetables, and then shared a magnificent “lion’s head” meatball, hand-cut and unbelievably succulent in its dark reduced sauce.
The best-known government restaurant in Beijing is the Sichuan Chuan Ban. There is always a queue for tables and the air is alive with the lazy drawl of Sichuan dialect and the roar of people having a good time. The kitchen turns out the whole gamut of Sichuanese specialities: tea-smoked duck and sliced pork in garlic sauce; more unusual delicacies, such as fresh walnuts with Chinese chives; and hearty street food, like the spiced rabbit heads that were my favourite late-night snack during my Chengdu schooldays.
Really to eat one’s way around China would be a lifelong task. Aside from the four grand old cuisines that tend to hog the limelight, there are countless provinces, cities and towns with their own claims to culinary attention, from the Korean and Russian-influenced north-east, to the wild delicacies of northern Fujian. But if a comprehensive gastronomic tour of China seems like a tall order, a microcosmic tour of Beijing is the next best thing.
Fuchsia Dunlop’s ‘Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking’ is published by Bloomsbury in June
Beijing Ningxia Hotel
13 Fensiting Hutong
+86 10 6400 9999 or 6888 6889
5 Gongyuan Toutiao
+86 10 6512 2277 x6101
Nanjing Great Hotel
No 5 Wanfujing West Street
+86 10 6523 8658
Building 7, Dongqu
South of Dongbianmen
+86 10 6713 6439
For more listings of regional and municipal government restaurants in Beijing, see the Beijing Eats guidebook by Eileen Wen Mooney, or visit her website at http://eileeneats.com
From Dongbei to Shanghai: regional Chinese in London
The past few years have seen the overthrow of the Cantonese dominance of the city’s Chinese dining, with new restaurants sprouting up to offer Sichuan, Dongbei, Fujian, Hunan, Xinjiang and other specialities. Here are a few of the best
Manchurian Legends (Dongbei or north-eastern)
The cold north-east of China, known as Dongbei, is renowned for its hearty food. This Chinatown newcomer offers cooking leagues ahead of other Dongbei restaurants in London. Do try the glorious “homemade mixed chilled vegetables” and “deep-fried pork in sweet and sour sauce”.
Manchurian Legends, 12 Macclesfield Street, W1D 5BP (020 7437 8785)
This neighbourhood favourite in Pimlico is best-known for its off-menu feasts of delicacies that may include Dongpo pork and bitter melon with salted duck egg. The cooking is a refined, Taiwan-influenced version of Hunanese food. For more earthy and authentic Hunan flavours, try Local Friends in Shoreditch, run by Ren Jianjun, a chef from the Hunanese city of Yueyang. (Order from the Hunan section, unlabelled in English but recognisable from the chillies in the photographs.)
Hunan, 51 Pimlico Road, SW1W 8NE (020 7730 5712)
Local Friends, 132 Bethnal Green Road, London E2 6DG (020 7729 9954)
Red Sun (Shanghainese)
It is almost impossible to find eastern Chinese cooking in the capital, but this popular backstreet joint offers a few delicious Shanghainese supper dishes, such as drunken chicken and stir-fried green soybeans with pickled greens and slivered pork.
Red Sun, 2a New Quebec Street, W1H 7RD
(020 7723 5350)
Fuchsia Dunlop works as a consultant for Barshu, Bashan and Baozi Inn restaurants.