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Henan taste: From dragon's whiskers to mutton soup
By Li Anlan

Henan Province is known for its rich history and civilization. Located in the heart of China, Henan has fertile land and numerous heritage sites. Four of the eight great ancient capitals of China are in Henan - Anyang, Kaifeng, Luoyang and Zhengzhou.

Henan cuisine reflects the fundamental traditions of Chinese cooking. Unlike spicy Sichuan cuisine and light Guangdong cuisine, Henan cuisine seeks a balance among sweet, sour, spicy and salty. Cooking methods are diverse and include stewing, stir-frying, sauteing and others.

Chefs don't aim for glamorous presentation, instead, they focus more on the ingredients and flavor. A variety of ingredients, including different kinds of meat and vegetables, are used to create dishes that highlight the original, natural taste. Spices like chili powder, five-spice powder, pepper and others are used to enrich the flavors.

Specialties include sweet-and-sour carp with fried dragon whiskers noodle (tangcu liyu bei mian 糖醋鲤鱼焙面), stewed noodle with mutton (yangrou hui mian 羊肉烩面), Kaifeng soup dumplings (Kaifeng guan tang baozi 开封灌汤包子), hot pepper soup (hu la tang 胡辣汤), mutton soup (yangrou tang 羊肉汤), steamed vegetables (zheng cai 蒸菜) and many others.

In Shanghai, a number of restaurants serve Henan-style cuisine from entrees to snacks and serve the most famous dishes. Shanghai Daily selects three Henan restaurants that offer typical dishes, and two of them have multiple locations.

Zhang Gui Restaurant (掌柜的店)

Cuisine: Henan/Zhongyuan style

Ambience: The restaurant has five locations across Shanghai. The Yalong branch is convenient, right at the exit of Metro Line 8. It features a vintage and country-style design, with wooden tables and chairs and bird cages suspended from the ceiling for decoration. The atmosphere is cozy, casual and comfortable, though tables are a bit crowded.

Who to invite: Family and friends to hang out

Pros: Both famous authentic Henan dishes and popular dishes from other cuisines are on offer. Portions of hot entrees are typically large; the texture is rich and flavors are bold. Service is pleasant and efficient, quite fast during lunch time. The menu is in both Chinese and English.

Cons: The Yalong branch doesn't have many tables, there can be waits for those arriving precisely on time for lunch or dinner.

Recommended: Pan-fried catfish or xiang jian nianyu (香煎鲶鱼) is one of the most items. The fish is very tender and is layered with green onion. The sauce is rich but not spicy. There's a hint of sesame.

Stewed noodle with mutton or yangrou hui mian (羊肉烩面) is one of the most famous Henan dishes. Thick noodles are stewed in delicious mutton soup with green onion and cilantro sprinkled on top. It's a comfort food choice. The noodle soup is light and fresh, and can be ordered with quail eggs (鹌鹑蛋), bean noodle (粉条) and tofu skin. Hot pepper is served on the side.

Fried starch jelly or chao liangfen (炒凉粉) is a snack dish. The jelly is generally made from bean starch and stir-fried with garlic, green onion and chili pepper. A plate costs only 5 yuan (78 US cents). It's an interesting dish with strong flavors and jelly-like texture.

Don't order: The roasted crisp chicken or shou si shao ji (手撕烧鸡), a cold dish, comes in very small portions, compared with other entrees. When we visited, it was quite salty.

Drinks: Roselle tea (洛神花茶) served in a glass jar is sweet and sour, great for summer. Beer, soft drinks and freshly made beverages are on offer.

Cost: About 75 yuan (US$11) per person including a glass of tea

Address: B2, Yalong International Plaza, 500 Jinling Rd E.

Tel: 6328-6879

Bo Wang Po (博望坡)

Cuisine: Henan style

Ambience: Traditional Henan cuisine is offered in a more formal environment. The spacious, well-lighted restaurant with high ceilings contains many large, round tables. It's a place for both casual lunches and more formal dinners. Decorations at the Caoxi Road branch - one of four branches - are in traditional Chinese style.

Who to invite: Family and friends for a hearty meal

Pros: The four locations are convenient and food is prepared rather quickly. The menu is in both Chinese and English.

Cons: The service is not so efficient since the dining area is large and crowded.

Recommended: Stewed noodle with mutton or yangrou hui mian (羊肉烩面). Beef is also offered. The dish is served with green onions, cilantro and hot pepper on the side. The soup is simple but rich in flavor. The noodle with mutton is cooked with more spices.

Garlic roasted chicken or suan xiang ji (蒜香鸡) is one of favorites. A whole chicken is roasted with mild garlic flavors and served hot. Portions are large and the dish isn't very oily.

Steamed vegetables (蒸菜) contains shredded carrots and radish, carob, and celery leaves, which are covered in flour and then steamed. The dish is served with garlic dipping sauce, hot pepper and vinegar. It's a healthy vegetarian dish containing less oil and is good in summer.

Don't order: The Henan-style pancake (河南油馍). When we visited, the pancake was a little dry.

Drinks: Beer, soft drinks and other beverages

Cost: About 120 yuan (US$18) for two

Address: 260 Caoxi Rd

Tel: 6483-6340

Wolong Gang (卧龙岗)

Cuisine: Henan/Zhongyuan style

Ambience: Casual, family style. The exterior looks vintage and the interior is decorated with calligraphy, paintings and traditional arts. Food is served family style and the menu features hot pepper soup, mutton soup, steamed vegetables and other typical Henan dishes.

Who to invite: Family and friends

Pros: Many choices for a casual, satisfying meal of authentic specialties

Cons: There's only one location and it's quite distant from downtown.

Recommended: The hot pepper soup (胡辣汤) has a strong pepper and chili flavor and contains fried tofu strips, bean noodles, beef or mutton, green onions, and other ingredients. It's very warming and ideal for cooler weather.

Don't order: Though the soup is famous, those who don't like strong pepper and chilies shouldn't order.

Drinks: Beer and soft drinks

Cost: About 50 yuan per person for lunch

Address: 491 Guohe Rd, near Zhengzhi Rd

Tel: 6558-3719

Customer Service: (86-21) 52920164