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Cold dishes to fire up your taste buds
By Gao Ceng

The texture and flavor of an ingredient can be totally different when it is served hot or cold.

Shrimp, served hot, has a soft, flaky texture and delicate flavor. However, when being served cold, it tastes firm and bouncy, with appetizing sweetness.

Cooling cold dishes, popular in hot southeastern China, are among the representative dishes showcasing how a chef uses temperature contrasts, explores unexpected aspects of ingredients and interprets a subtle and changeable relationship between temperature, texture and flavor.

Like Chinese cuisine, cold dishes are known for their regional diversity, with ingredients, seasonings and cooking methods differing from place to place.

This explains the big taste difference between two cold dishes - koushui ji (steamed chicken marinated in spicy sauce), a signature Sichuan appetizer featuring strong flavors mixing sweet, spicy, numbing and tingly, and yanshui ji (boiled kitchen marinated in salt and yellow wine), Shanghai's interpretation of chicken that is savory and tastes strongly of wine.

In Shanghai, local cold dishes, known as "benbang liangcai" (本帮凉菜) are generally the most popular among Shanghainese.

Then comes the Cantonese dishes known for their "cold" interpretation of meats.

Recently, innovative modern cold dishes attract local diners with their influences of both Southeast Asian and Japanese cuisine.

We explore the city, looking at cold dishes that are both traditional and modern.

Shanghai-style cold dish

The authenticity of Shanghai cold dishes can be identified through their ingredients and flavor.

"Shanghai style emphasizes use of seasonal greens and vegetables, especially those only available in a short time, from early July to early August," says Jacqueline Qiu, executive chef at Andaz Shanghai who recently launched her new summer cold dishes in her HaiPai restaurant, specializing in authentic Shanghai cuisine (haipai means Shanghai style)

Such seasonal foods include maodou (毛豆), or edamame bean with a very beany flavor; biandou (扁豆), or hyacinth bean, often fried with sweet bean sauce; white gourd; wosun (莴笋), known as Chinese lettuce usually coated with sauce and radish.

"Regretfully, many chefs give up the tradition of cooking seasonally to increase the diversity of summer dishes 'thanks' to greenhouses," Qiu says.

Benbang (local style) flavor has its strong personality, defined by sweet and sour, zao (糟, see below) flavor and soybean taste.

Sweet and sour comes from the use of sugar and vinegar flavoring to promote secretion of saliva and digestive fluids, hence, stimulating appetite that may be diminished in hot weather.

Typical cold dishes include spare ribs with soybean sauce, sugar and vinegar (糖醋小排) and crispy shredded jelly fish mixed with sugar and vinegar (糖醋海蛰).

Zao flavor, a taste unique in Shanghai and neighboring cities is salty, umami, a flavor combining spices such as star anise and fennel and a bouquet of Chinese yellow wine, which is sweet, mellow and a little spicy.

The flavor comes from zaolu, an alcoholic drink traditionally made by local in summer.

In Shanghai in summer, not only chefs but also housewives open the fridge and bring out their secret-recipe zaolu, a thick translucent liquid decocted from Chinese yellow wine, fragrances and spices, usually including dried orange peel, bay leaf and cinnamon. Individual tastes vary.

Then, various just-boiled ingredients, from maodou, chicken's feet to freshwater shrimp, are marinated in cold zaolu.

"At the instant the hot ingredients cool and absorb all the flavors from zaolu, which becomes savory and rich," Qiu explains.

Soybean taste, a savory flavor balanced with sweetness and bean flavor, comes from hongshao or red cooking, a Shanghai technique of slow braising meat with soybean sauce and sugar. This imparts a deep brown color and caramel-like sweetness. The flavor is typically found in jiangya (酱鸭), red-cooked duck, a Shanghai specialty

Shanghai restaurants also serve cold dishes in a distinctive way, presenting six or eight small dishes usually as a starter. The numerals six and eight have auspicious meaning in China.

Marinated prawn, duck's tongue and maodou

This traditional dish is actually prawn, duck's tongue and maodou marinated in zaolu, a traditional cold dish.

After it is marinated, maodou loses some of its bean flavor but expresses the flavors of yellow wine and cinnamon. The wine brings out the sweetness of the prawn.

Eating seems a bit complicated for foreigners, since the duck's tongue is surrounded by a papery layer of cartilage. The shrimp is served in its shell to lock in the flavor and the maodou is inside its pod. But, as they say, authentic Shanghai food is best served in Shanghai style.

Where to order

Venue: HaiPai, Andaz Shanghai

Tel: 2310-1700

Address: 88 Songshan Rd

Red-cooked duck

The duck is dark braised with soybean sauce and has a rich soy flavor. It tastes rich and juicy with typical caramel sweetness caused by red cooking. We recommend pairing a wine with this dish. Santa Rita Reserva Melot, its rich fruity note and round taste echo duck's sweet and salty flavor, while the fine tannins cut through them the slightly greasy taste of the duck.

Where to order

Venue: Summer Pavilion, The Portman Ritz-Carlton, Shanghai

Tel: 6279-8888 ext 4770

Address: 1376 Nanjing Rd W.

Modern flavor

While preserving tradition, Chinese chefs are trying to create some new, out-of-the-box flavors in their cold dishes, resulting in modern flavors. These have a fruity taste and a flavor style that chefs call "fuhe wei" (complex flavors), referring to changing layers with good complexity.

"Fruit is a big trend," says Du Caiqing, chef de cuisine at Xindalu Kitchen, Hyatt on the Bund. "To some extent, it's influenced by Southeast Asian countries using a large amount of fruit in their cuisine."

According to Du, fruits like orange, lemon, pineapple and apple not only give the dish bright colors but also a refreshing taste. These work well with Chinese ingredients.

Fuhe wei can be achieved either through using spices and fragrances or though a creative combination of ingredients and seasonings.

Chef Du soaks goose liver in Shaoxing wine, a Chinese yellow wine made from fermented rice. The wine cuts through the fatty taste of goose liver and more complex flavors, creamy and buttery at the front, concluding with an aftertaste that is slightly fruity, with a hint of millet.

Chef Qiu mixes dragon beans with fresh walnut, which gives a complex texture that is crispy and crunchy. Addition of fresh walnut gives the whole dish a long and creamy aftertaste.

Aloe flesh tossed with coconut milk

This dish, aloe meat flesh tossed with coconut milk, cherry and honey, can be served as both a cold appetizer and as a dessert. It represents modern cold-dish flavor since Chinese chefs rarely make cold dish dominated by fruity and sweet flavors. Coconut flavor is intense, milky and sweet. The aloe texture is bouncy, slightly chewy and silky. The cold temperature gives the taste more layers.

German Riesling complements this dish. Sophie Shen, wine educator at ASC Fine Wines, recommends Joh.Jos.Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spatlese Riesling, which is moderately sweet and goes well with the coconut flavor.

Where to order

Venue: Xindalu Kitchen

Tel: 6393-1234

Address: 199 Huangpu Rd

Luwei platter

The platter is made by Cantonese chef Choi, who wants to deliver authentic Cantonese flavor. Diners can appreciate various textures in the dish, including the gelatinous and bouncy knuckle, lean and firm goose meat, as well as soft and juicy bean curd.

Lushui tastes rich and fragrant, implying quite a few fragrances and spices, although chef Choi declines to disclose his recipe.

Where to order

Venue: Summer Pavilion, The Portman Ritz-Carlton, Shanghai

Tel: 6279-8888 ext 4770

Address: 1376 Nanjing Rd W.

Cantonese cold dish

Compared with complex and diverse Shanghai cold dishes, Cantonese ones seem much simpler, dominated by two cold platters, luwei (卤味) platter and shaowei (烧味) platter.

The luwei platter contains more than six kinds of food - generally tofu, sliced squid, whelk, duck feet and goose feet - simmered in lushui, a soy-based sauce decocted and extracted from around 10 spices and fragrances such as cinnamon, cardamom and fennel.

Some sauces even have more than 30 ingredients, according to Kong-Kong-born Vincent Choi, executive Chinese chef at The Portman Ritz-Carlton, Shanghai.

"Lushui flavor combines sweet, savory, herbal, peppery and slightly smoky," he says.

When serving it cold, the texture of the ingredients are highlighted, which means the tofu tastes more silky, whelk becomes more bouncy while duck feet are less spongy still gelatinous.

The shaowei platter contains various meats and poultry, including pork, chicken in barbecue sauce, goose and duck. It's served cold but actually in room temperature, the dipping sauce meizijiang, a sweet-and-sour plum condiment, cuts through the fatty meat.

The shaowei platter by chef Choi is offered in his Summer Pavilion Restaurant. It's a kind of Cantonese interpretation of roasting, featuring sweetness, juicy meat and a moderate portion of fat, which is much less greasy than Beijing cooking.

Usually, Cantonese prefer serving luwei platter with a glass of chilled beer and serving shaowei platter with a bowl of rice.

"When the mild rice absorbs the fat and juice inside the meat, it soon becomes rich and fragrant. It's my way enjoying the summer evening," says Cindy Chen, a Cantonese living in Shanghai.

"Traditionally, Cantonese cold dishes are simple and meat dominated but things are starting to change," Choi says.

He adds that recently Cantonese chefs have been inspired by Japanese sashimi and are trying to serve greens and vegetables such as jielan (芥兰), or Chinese broccoli, and kugua (苦瓜), known as bitter squash, on crushed ice and serving them in an aesthetically appealing manner.

The food is then dipped in soybean sauce and wasabi. After cooling, the greens have a crisp texture and subtle sweetness.

Chilled flower crab

This is flower crab chilled in crushed ice, served with cherry tomato and soybean curd mousse. Crab meat, after chilling, tastes much firmer and sweeter than unchilled. Chef Du at Hyatt on the Bund makes some changes based on the Cantonese way of chilling greens, turning the original liquid dipping sauce into a mousse-like sauce made of soybean sauce, wasabi, rose, fermented tofu and other soy-based ingredients. He says the combination not only improves the complexity of flavors but also coats the crab meat with more sauce during the dipping process. The dish has a delicate flavor of crab and other ingredients and it tastes sweet and savory.

Where to order

Venue: Xindalu Kitchen

Tel: 6393-1234

Address: 199 Huangpu Rd

Customer Service: (86-21) 52920164