Spring is probably the most inspiring season for Chinese chefs. Warm, often wet weather creates the ideal conditions for growing crops filled with vigor and vibrancy, providing a wide diversity of vivid seasonal produce.
Hotel chefs pay homage to Mother Nature through spring menus featuring clean, often delicate flavors, colorful presentation and creative thinking to break down barriers between Chinese and Western cooking.
Fresh, crunchy bamboo shoots can be seen as epitomizing spring, according to John Ma, Chinese Executive Chef at Fairmont Peace Hotel.
Bamboo shoots harvested in spring are known for their versatility. When used in soup, the delicate flavor will not overpower other ingredients but instead create a distinctive freshness and natural sweetness.
Chef sometimes braises them with pork in a sauce to absorb the juices and flavor from the meat and at the same time cut through the pork’s fattiness.
Various wild greens such as malantou (kalimeris), juhuaye (a kind of chrysanthemum) and xiangchun (young leaves of the Chinese toon tree) at their best in early spring are favored by Chau Qi-Fong, Chinese executive chef at Shanghai Marriott Hotel Parkview.
Those growing by rivers, in mountains or in woodland, combining herbal or floral aroma and slight bitterness, are traditionally believed to absorb the essence of heaven and earth to bring health benefits. Xiangchun is one of the most popular among chefs.
“White and tender tofu goes perfectly with bright green xiangchun. Balanced flavor, intense fragrance and contrasting color in plate make the dish impressive,” says Mark Chen, Chinese sous chef at Fairmont Yangcheng Lake.
Max Zhao, Chinese executive chef at Renaissance Shanghai Yu Garden is keen on fungi as a spring special.
“Various fungi turn fat and thick in spring and their aromas and flavors become particularly intense, which is good for your health,” says chef Zhao.
Seasonal vegetables, such as Chinese yam and water chestnut, are also highlights in the spring kitchen.
Besides fresh ingredients, this spring has also seen the emergence of some fresh culinary thinking.
Elements of home cooking — simple techniques using inexpensive ingredients — have found a place in hotel fine dining Chinese restaurants.
David Du, chef de cuisine at Hyatt on the Bund highlights his seafood paofan — a kind of soaked rice usually made by thrifty housewives from the crust of scorched rice on the bottom of the wok — in his spring menu.
Fusion cuisine is not forgotten either as chef Du also creatively combines ingredients such as tuna and avocado with Chinese lily bulbs.
Chef Zhao from Renaissance Shanghai Yu Garden, inspired by Western salad, adding pineapple, lemon, kiwi and strawberry to his Chinese cooking. In pursuit of fresh flavors, he shortens the shelf life of his ingredients. Diners hoping to taste his signature spring dishes need to book two days in advance to ensure fresh ingredients.
Spring presentation is not forgotten either. Simon Choi, executive Chinese chef at the Four Seasons Hotel Pudong says he is thinking of adding plum blossom to his dishes to add a bit of romantic appeal.
This week, we consider seven Chinese restaurants, one of which is located by Yangcheng Lake, northeast of Suzhou, in neighboring Jiangsu Province.
You can either choose one in downtown for a quick lunch or drive out to the suburbs to enjoy both the food and the countryside views. These restaurants either serve Jiangnan cuisine (a general expression of various cuisine cultures in the southern part of the Yangtze Delta ) or Cantonese food. Both represent fine and sophisticated Chinese culinary tradition.
Classical with a touch of fusion
Chef David Du’s spring menu features Western inspired presentation and traditional Shanghai flavors. His newly created appetizer marinated tuna fish with avocado and lily bulb (88 yuan (US$14) + 15%) looks like tuna tartare yet tastes like a local dish — with a balanced sweet spicy and sour taste from Du’s homemade sauce featuring tomato, chili, garlic and Worcestershire sauce.
Creamy avocado goes harmoniously with tuna, while fresh and sweet lily bulb cuts through the fattiness of the fish. Chef’s Chinese toon tofu (68yuan+15%) looks like a layered pudding, a layer of tofu alternated with a layer of dried pork floss and topped with a layer of shredded Chinese toon. It offers rich textures and layers of flavor, ranging from light to rich.
Hot dishes are highlighted by seafood paofan — crispy rice in soup, traditionally served as breakfast — (208 yuan+15%), combining umami soup and a toasty aroma from the rice.
Some dishes on the menu feature a Japanese-Chinese fusion taste, for example the goose web marinated in wasabi sauce (78 yuan+15%). Below the goose web is soybean braised in soy sauce. Diners will be impressed by its complex taste, starting from clean and fresh before gradually turning deep and rich.
Don’t forget to order chef’s dimsum set (78 yuan+15%), which includes a cup of water chestnut tea. It includes a sweet and soothing and glutinous rice ball stuffed with shepherd’s purse, matsutake pine mushroom and dried ham.
Chef Chau Qi-Fong highlights wild greens this spring through more than 10 new dishes. These seek to showcase the original beauty of the greens but at the same time cover some of their natural bitterness.
Recommended cold dishes include spicy and sour wild fiddlehead (48 yuan+15%), said to whet the appetite; shredded malantou mixed with diced dried bean curd (58 yuan+15%), in which the bean curd absorbs the herbal aroma from the greens; and luhao (a kind of mugwort) mixed with snail, featuring rich textures and fresh taste.
Highlight hot dishes include pan-fried eggs with xiangchun (58yuan+15%). The harmony between the egg and Chinese toon is comparable to egg and truffle in French cuisine. Pan-fried guanyincai (a kind of wild green) with shrimp (188 yuan+15%) is also a highlight.
Chef also puts wild greens into his dimsum, represented by his pan-fried potherb pie (28 yuan+15%), each bite of which is a burst of aroma; and deep-fried xiangchun spring roll (28 yuan+15%).
Chau’s menu is available in the hotel’s Chinese restaurant Man Ho, offering authentic Cantonese dishes and classical Shanghai flavors. Chef pays great attention to seasonality, so the menu changes every four months.
Chef Max Zhao uses sweet and sour fruit to give his spring menu a vibrant, zingy touch. Shanyao (Chinese yam) topped with blackberry sauce (price to be decided) features crunchy fresh texture and clean and fresh flavors. The cod with spinach and fruit puree (108 yuan+15%) is especially recommended. Creamy, fatty cod is flavored with spinach sauce so that each bite is rich and balanced. The fruit puree adds a touch of tartness.
As well as those fruit dishes, chef has launched his spring soup (58 yuan+15%) combining seasonal ingredients — highlighted by fresh fungi and bamboo shoots, at once delicate and umami, with the bamboo providing a crunchy texture and subtle natural sweetness.
To ensure super-fresh ingredients, these dishes need to ordered two days in advance. They are served in the hotel’s Chinese restaurant, which offers Shanghai and Cantonese cuisine and where diners have a view of Yu Garden, one of the oldest gardens in Shanghai built in Ming Dynasty (1559).
Chef Mark Chen practices the concept “from farm to table,” trying to show the beauty of local seasonal produce. Besides popular spring ingredients such as wild greens and vegetables, he uses plenty of water snails, shrimp and fish in his recipes, since his restaurant is close to Yangcheng Lake.
His assorted spring appetizer plate (168 yuan+15%) is good value, including five dishes covering most of the classic spring produce in the Jiangnan area. A highlight is tossed sliced lettuce and Chinese toon mixed with tofu and marinated freshwater prawns.
Hot dishes include distinctive local produce — Yangcheng Lake snails braised with basil in sauce (68 yuan+15%), glutinous rice cake stewed with pickles, shrimp, thornback and carp (238 yuan+15%), Chinese yam stewed with spinach and medlar (38 yuan+15%).
Chef recommends his double boiled bamboo shoots with salted pork (138 yuan+15%).
“I choose the best part of the pig, together with seasonal bamboo shoots, locally produced salted pork and radishes and boil it slowly until all the flavors are released in the soup,” chef explains.
Desserts are also made from local produce. Glutinous rice dumplings filled with red bean paste (28 yuan+15%) have a green hue due to chef adding aicao (Chinese mugwort).
Address: 3668 Ma’anshan Rd W., Kunshan City, Jiangsu Province
Chef John Ma uses his cooking skills to show his respect for the 1930s — the time when Shanghai was influenced by Western countries and at the same time absorbed culinary culture from neighboring Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces.
Ma highlights traditional Shanghai style hotpot (68 yuan+15%), bringing together tofu, salty pork belly, bamboo shoots and other seasonal veg. His foie gras (198 yuan+15%), marinated in cherry sauce, is classically French. Deep fried hairtail (128 yuan+15%) is flavored by pepper and salt, featuring a crisp exterior, while inside the fish is tender with a rich flavor. Wok-fried greens with black carp marinated in rice wine (78 yuan+15%) showcases classical Zhejiang flavor, savory and umami, with a long aftertaste, courtesy of the wine.
Chef Lames Wang considers that smooth and sweet pumpkin best expresses warm and gentle spring. So he has launched steamed fish balls with pumpkin and lily (118 yuan+15%) this spring. The fish ball has a distinctive, almost bouncy, texture while fresh crisp lily balances the creamy pumpkin. Lam’s pan-fried shepherd’s purse cake (98 yuan+15%) mixed with shredded crispy Chinese yam and crunchy lotus root, is a rich treat, while his lotus seed and rice stewed in coconut milk dessert (38 yuan+15%) also deserves a try.