Cold dishes in Chinese cuisine are not just for summer. They are served year round and feature great variety. They can include a simple salad, a meat platter or crunchy fried nibbles.
A standard formal Chinese banquet often features six to 10 cold dishes before the hot main entries are served.
Light and fresh
The salads in Chinese cuisine are different than Western ones in that they are usually simple side dishes as opposed to an entire meal. The dressing or sauce is mixed in with the vegetables and a plate is often shared among a group.
Ban san si, or three mixed shreds, is a staple cold dish that originated in Sichuan Province. There are no rules of what ingredients can be used to make this dish. The most common versions feature some combination of shredded carrot, radish, kelp, potato and cucumber to go with a simple dressing made of vinegar, sesame oil, chili oil, salt and garlic.
Another famous three-ingredient cold dish is baby leeks with tofu. Using the soft and tender bean curd, this refreshing creation is seasoned with finely chopped baby leeks and salt.
Chinese cuisine’s smashed cucumber salad has become trendy in Manhattan this summer, according to the New York Times. It’s one of those dishes where the unexpected part of the vegetable is highlighted to make something new.
Gao Xiaosheng, executive chef at Gui Hua Lou of Pudong Shangri-La, has created a cold dish called spicy and sour cucumber skin, which is the restaurant’s most ordered cold dish.
“The cucumber skin is fresh and crunchy. After removing the flesh, the skin curls up naturally into a delicate shape, and that’s how I came to create this crisp and flavorful appetizer,” Gao says.
The key to making this dish is the cutting technique with the chef peeling the cucumber evenly to get the thin skin.
“When preparing a dish with an ingredient like cucumber, you need to thoroughly marinate it, then rinse with water to wash away the salty flavor before seasoning with sugar and vinegar to best show its fresh taste and texture,” Gao adds.
Luwei and poultry are essential Chinese cold dishes although the cooking methods vary in different regions of the country.
For example, baizhanji, or boiled chicken, is a must-have on dinner tables in Shanghai, while in Henan Province the chicken dish is often a roast chicken from Daokou.
Cold meat dishes are usually lighter than hot dishes and often come with a vinegar based dipping sauce on the side.
Luwei is made by simmering various ingredients in a master stock to allow time for all the flavors to be absorbed.
Often served cold, popular luwei dishes include beef shanks, beef or pork tongue, eggs, ox tripe, duck as well as non-meat ingredients like kelp and fried tofu.
A touch of sweetness
Though most cold dishes are light and savory in order to boost the appetite before the main courses, there are a few classic sweet dishes.
Glutinous rice jujube is a traditional sweet cold dish that’s soft and fragrant.
It’s also simple to make. After soaking the dried red jujubes in water for 30 minutes, slice in the middle to take out the kernel and stuff a piece of dough made with glutinous rice flower, then steam for 10 minutes and serve with a honey glaze.
Another famous cold dish made using glutinous rice is osmanthus flower sweet lotus root. It’s tricky to make, but the result can genuinely impress a crowd.
After soaking the glutinous rice in water overnight, peel a fresh lotus root and wash thoroughly.
Stuff the glutinous rice into the holes of the lotus root, secure both ends with toothpicks and then slow cook in a mixture of brown sugar and water.
Slice into pieces about 8mm thick when it’s chilled and serve with a sprinkle of osmanthus flower on top.
Tomato slices tossed with white granulated sugar make a popular summertime treat in Chinese households, especially among children. Ripe tomatoes are sliced into 3mm thick pieces and then topped with a generous sprinkle of sugar.