ORIGINATING from the mountains of present-day Anhui Province, Hui cuisine is renowned for fresh, natural ingredients, delicately cooked. Zhou Yubin checks out how these rustic dishes fare in city restaurants.
One of the eight major Chinese styles of cooking, Hui cuisine doesn't - as many people mistakenly think - refer to Anhui Province dishes but food from Huizhou.
Huizhou, with its center in today's Huangshan City of Anhui Province, was a historic region in southeastern China.
It was first established in 1121 and corresponded to five counties in southern Anhui, plus Wuyuan County in the northeast of Jiangxi Province.
After stable development over more than 500 years, Huizhou became one of China's most important economic and cultural centers during the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.
Anhui combines the first characters of Huizhou and the city of Anqing, in the southwest of the province.
Huishang, the Huizhou businessmen, gained a national reputation and formed a formidable political force.
They also spread Hui cuisine to other parts of China in their business activities, so that it eventually became one of the eight major Chinese culinary styles.
Originating from a mountainous area with a mild, wet climate, Hui cuisine makes use of a rich array of ingredients from the mountains and rivers, such as bamboo shoots, fresh mushrooms, black agaric, jue cai (bracken 蕨菜), huanghua cai (daylily 黄花菜), mandarin fish and other local specialties.
With so many herbs and fresh vegetables, Hui cuisine boasts not only a fresh taste but is also healthy. Huizhou people mainly stew, simmer or steam ingredients to keep their original taste and freshness.
Frying and stirfrying are used much less than in other Chinese culinary styles.
Traditionally in winter local people enjoyed taking their meals near the fire, with a large pot boiling different ingredients that were ideal for fighting the cold. The Hui tradition reflects this old lifestyle. Oil and soy sauce are the most important flavors in Hui cuisine, while the cooking period is also a big factor.
To taste authentic Hui cuisine, the best place to go is Yellow Mountain. In addition to the stunning scenery, the restaurants nearby provide the freshest mountain produce and retain authentic flavors.
Despite its unappealing name, stinking mandarin fish (臭鲑鱼) tops the must-have list at many Yellow Mountain restaurants. The fish is preserved in salty water for six to seven days, then fried and braised in soy sauce. Although salting gives the fish a distinctive smell, the original texture of the flesh is well preserved and infused with a delicious and unique taste.
Another signature dish is Jixi stew (绩溪一品锅), which features the typical cooking technique of Hui cuisine. Ingredients such as ham, chicken, beef, bamboo shoots, mushrooms and green vegetables - mostly fresh and seasonal - are carefully selected and put in a large pot in a delicate and precise sequence and arrangement, then stewed with soup stock.
Jixi stew is one of the best choices during festivals and family get-togethers. Its rich array of ingredients creates a warm atmosphere and should include something to suit everyone's taste.
Hui cuisine also offers different snacks such as dried vegetable cake (梅干菜烧饼), wonton and sesame pastries (墨子酥). Again, the best examples are found in the Yellow Mountain area.
Some Hui cuisine restaurants in Shanghai have incorporated elements of local Shanghainese cuisine and lost the authentic taste as a consequence. But they can still provide a taste of Hui fare before you plan your trip to the actual Huizhou area.
Hui Zhen Yuan 徽珍源
Cuisine: Hui cuisine and dishes from other areas in Anhui
Ambience: The decor features the typical Hui architectural style of white walls with a black roof, while ink-wash paintings give customers a glimpse of the ancient peaceful villages at the foot of Yellow Mountain. Some beautiful poems about old Huizhou can be found around the dining area.
Who to invite: Family and friends or a casual business dinner
Pros: As a chain restaurant, Hui Zhen Yuan has three outlets in different districts in Shanghai, all near Metro stations. Its menu covers most Hui favorites, plus some new creative dishes based on Hui cuisine. The environment is casual and friendly and prices are reasonable.
Cons: Some dishes are unavailable when ingredients are out of season.
Recommended: Beef stew served in a copper pot (大山盆黄牛腩). The beef is tender and full of flavor after stewing. Although the bean sauce has a heavy flavor, it doesn't overpower the taste of the beef. Soft corn flat cakes in an appetizing vivid yellow color are served as side dish, providing a good balance to chewing the salty beef.
Wenzheng bamboo shoots (问政山笋) are worth trying if you are going in spring. The young shoots are cooked in the most authentic way of boiling without over-flavoring. Green vegetables are also cooked with the bamboo shoots, creating a more refreshing taste.
Don't order: Luwei (soy sauce braised meat) platter (卤味拼盘). It tastes like standard luwei in Cantonese style, and is a little bland compared with that offered by Cantonese restaurants.
Drinks: Tea or plum juice are recommended.
Cost: 70-80 yuan (US$11.1-12.6) per person
Address: 162 Weifang Rd, Pudong
Bai Jia Qian Wei佰家仟味
Cuisine: Hui cuisine and dishes adapted from Shanghai and Sichuan food
Ambience: The restaurant is decorated in the style of a typical modern Chinese restaurant. The tables are not too close together, which allows customers to have a proper conversation while dining. It's on Nanjing Road W,, close to many shopping malls and the Metro Line 2.
Who to invite: Family and friends
Pros: The restaurant offers authentic Hui cuisine, plus popular Shanghai and Sichuan dishes. There is no English menu, but photographs on the menu help customers who can't read Chinese.
Cons: As the area is surrounded by office buildings and shopping malls, the restaurant is often crowded during lunch and dinner time, so making a reservation is recommended. Some of the steamed dishes need a longer preparation time.
Recommended: Stewed chicken (百佳如意鸡). The chicken is cooked in a ceramic pot without water, so the original flavor of the tender meat is retained, while the soup has a mouth-watering aroma. Bamboo shoots and ham steamed with the chicken add more flavor and are equally tender.
Tender young pea shoots (豌豆苗) are also steamed - rare in other Chinese cooking styles. Compared with stirfrying, steamed shoots are greener and fresher and have a strong aroma of fresh peas, plus a natural taste. For diners who like strong flavors, spicy sauce is available, but the natural original taste is recommended.
Luwei pig's tail with Maofeng tea leaf (黄山毛峰猪尾). Maofeng tea from Yellow Mountain is one of the most famous varieties of green tea in China. The marinated pig's tail - a common dish in Cantonese and other Chinese cuisine - is imparted with the refreshing taste of the tea, making it less oily.
The bright yellow millet cake (家乡小米糕) is a tasty snack which is not too sweet.
Don't order: Stinking mandarin fish. It has the strong smell of the dish but without the rich and delicious taste to compensate. The texture is poor as well.
Drinks: Rice milk tea (玄米奶茶), a specialty of the restaurant. It has a rich aroma of - appropriately enough - rice and milk, and is warming in winter. Other drinks, such as soft drinks and tea are also available.
Cost: 80-100 yuan per person
Address: 5/F, 818 Nanjing Rd W.
Yinxiang Huizhou 印象徽州
Cuisine: Typical Hui cuisine
Ambience: The restaurant has an open dining area on the second floor and separate rooms on the third. It features a vintage rustic design with wooden tables and chairs and blue and white porcelain tableware. Farming implements from the mountain area are on display to emphasize the Huizhou heritage. There is no written menu and all dishes are displayed for customers to make their choice.
Who to invite: Family and friends
Pros: The restaurant has a strong cultural ambience and the service is friendly. All the dishes are close to homemade food in south Anhui, allowing diners a taste of local daily life.
Cons: It is not close to Metro stations and can be a little bit difficult to find as it's located in a residential area. There is no English menu or service, so it's better to go with Chinese-speaking friends.
Recommended: Stewed beef steak with tea plant mushrooms (黄牛排茶树菇). Beef and tea plant mushrooms both have a strong flavor and it's rare to put these ingredients together. The beef and tea plant mushrooms are stewed in soy sauce for just the right amount of time, so that they are neither too chewy nor too soft. The stew is served in a hotpot heated from below. The longer it's stewed, the better it tastes.
Jixi stir-fried fensi (bean vermicelli 绩溪炒粉丝). Fensi is a kind of crystal noodle made of mung beans. It does not have a special flavor, so the taste of the dish is dependant on the other ingredients - ham, bamboo shoots and soy sauce. The fensi absorbs the flavors of the other ingredients and is deliciously chewy.
Stirfried little dried shrimp and bamboo shoots (河虾炒野笋). As one of the most important natural products of the mountain region, bamboo shoots are served in many different ways. In this case, they are stir-fried with little dried shrimps. The shrimps are salted and have a distinctive strong, salty flavor, while the bamboo shoots are tender, their natural taste balancing the flavor of the shrimps. The dish is typical homemade cuisine popular in Anhui.
Don't order: Dishes in this restaurant are a little salty, so do not order too many braised choices.