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Fishing for compliments
By Holin Wang

When it comes to food from Fujian, snacks from the province's Shaxian County (Shaxian xiao chi 沙县小吃) are often the first thing that springs to mind. But Fujian cuisine is much more than Shaxian dumplings (rou yan 肉燕,也称燕皮馄饨), which are noted nationwide for their thin meat skin and rich broth.

On the southeast coast of China, Fujian abounds with bounty from the sea. Naturally, locals like seafood and are renowned for their skill in cooking it. They often make seafood the main ingredients in snacks like fried oyster (hai li jian 海蛎煎) and sea worm jelly (tu sun dong 土笋冻).

Considered one of the eight influential culinary styles of China, Fujian cuisine (Min cai) is typically stewed, simmered, sautéed, braised, steamed and occasionally, fried.

Dishes from Fuzhou, the capital city, are considered representative of Min cai (Min is another name for Fujian). Living not far from Zhejiang Province to the north, Fuzhou residents have the same fondness for sweet and sour flavors as Zhejiang people. Famous dishes include fo tiao qiang (佛跳墙) soup and Fuzhou big fish balls (Fuzhou da yu wan 福州大鱼丸).

Fo tiao qiang - which literally means "Buddha jumps over the wall" - consists of 18 precious ingredients, including abalone, shark's fin, fish maw, sea cucumber, ham mixed with peanuts, winter bamboo shoots and cinnamon and aniseed in aged rice wine. It is said that this dish, dating back more than 100 years, has an aroma so delicious that even the Buddha will jump over the wall to eat it - hence the name.

Regarded as a national dish, fo tiao qiang has been served at state banquets in China to many heads of state, including the late Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk, former US President Ronald Reagan and the United Kingdom's Queen Elizabeth II.

Taxiang Alley in Fuzhou is said to have the best Fujian big fish balls. As the name suggests, they are larger than the ordinary variety.

Made using fish pieces shaped into a hollow ball and stuffed with minced pork, traditional Fuzhou fish balls are usually boiled and eaten with soup.

Besides Fuzhou dishes, Min cai also has two other schools: western Fujian cuisine and southern Fujian cuisine. The former takes the cuisine of the Hakka people as its basis, mainly using poultry, with ingredients such as Changting Hetian chickens (长汀河田鸡) and Liancheng egret ducks (连成白鹭鸭).

Xiamen dishes represent southern Fujian cuisine, with sha cha sauce (沙茶酱) - barbecue sauce - and mustard sauce the typical seasonings. Sha cha noodles (沙茶面) are one of the most traditional snacks in Xiamen.

As the province with the highest percentage of forest cover in China, at almost 63 percent, Fujian cuisine features many wild herbs unknown outside the area. Fujian people use ingredients such as patrinia or ku zhua herbs (苦抓,或称败酱草) and purslane (马齿苋) in everyday dishes. However, the distinctive flavors are sometimes less popular with non-Fujian residents.

Earlier this year, a Hebei-born young man living in Longyan City in west Fujian, who was appearing on famous TV matchmaking show "If You Are the One," remarked that "patrinia soup tastes like smelly feet."

His comment put the local herb in the public eye and for a time made it famous (or infamous). Longyan residents came to the defense of the Fujian plant, insisting that patrinia, which is used to flavor soup containing pig intestines, is delicious.

While the cuisine may divide opinion today, as more and more Fujian natives came to Shanghai, the popularity keeps increasing and numerous Fujian restaurants have sprung up in the city.

Shanghai Daily picks three that offer the province's distinctive dishes.

Good Food 谷得福

Cuisine: Anxi County style (泉州安溪菜)

Ambiance: Open for three years, this two-story restaurant is neatly, if plainly, decorated. There is a spacious dining room on the first floor and eight private rooms on the second. The largest can hold 14 people and the smallest, eight. If you want to dine in a private room, reservation is highly recommended. With songs from southern Fujian as the background music, Good Food creates a cozy and casual Fujian-style atmosphere.

Who to invite: Lots of family or dozens of friends.

Pros: The chef, from Anxi, has brought authentic Quanzhou-style dishes - characterized by light, non-greasy flavors. Good Food attracts many Fujian natives living in Shanghai.

Many ingredients are sourced in Fujian - such as the Fujian black-haired pigs (黑毛猪) and Guanqiao dried tofu (官桥豆干) from Anxi. Good Food also serves Shanghai-style dishes.

Cons: There is no English service, though there are pictures in the menu. Prices are reasonable but entrees are typically too large, even for two. While Good Food is ideal for a family reunion or casual friends gathering, it's not really suitable for formal business lunches or dinners.

Recommended: Quanzhou overcooked noodles (泉州面线糊) are a must. The fresh and tasty noodles are simmered with oysters, duck blood and pig intestines, and then coriander is added. The dish - enough for three or four people - costs 22 yuan (US$3.49).

Mashed garlic sweet potato leaves (蒜泥地瓜你) is a distinctive dish, tasting like amaranthus, or Chinese spinach.

Fried oyster and five fragrance rolls (五香卷) are worth trying. Fujian people are also fond of soup and here more than 10 varieties are available.

Don't order: The bouncy meat balls (弹力丸) fails the elasticity test; they're not as chewy as they should be.

Drinks: Free with top-up or Tie Guanyin tea from Anxi.

Cost: About 60 yuan (US$9.5) per person

Opening hours: 10am-10pm

Address: 17 Yuping Rd S., near Zhongshan Rd W.

Tel: 6228-7888

Ronggang Seafood Restaurant 榕港海鲜大酒楼

Cuisine: Fuzhou style (福州菜)

Ambience: Decorated in an opulent European style with crystal chandeliers and Western oil paintings, this restaurant in Xuhui District has been open for a year.

It has many private rooms; the biggest room can hold around 18 people and they all have good sound insulation. If you dine at its main hall at peak times, it can be noisy.

Who to invite: Business partners and clients, family and friends.

Pros: Like many seafood restaurants, instead of a menu, Ronggang has its uncooked seafood on display, all clearly priced. It has a wide menu, all at reasonable prices.

Cons: Ronggang charges each diner at the main hall 3 yuan for tea and 5 or 6 yuan in private rooms.

Though Ronggang has a Fujian manager, its main specialty is Guangdong cuisine, and its chefs are from there. While there are models of dishes on display, there is no English menu.

Recommended: Obviously, seafood is a must-try here, especially the big mussels (大淡菜) and razor clams (蛏子), which are bigger than standard ones. Try the pan-fried mussels with soy sauce, and savor the delicious, fresh taste.

Fish dumpling with soup (清汤鱼饺), a representative Fuzhou dish, is renowned for its thin fish skin and thick minced meat. Ronggang's is pretty close to authentic.

Reasonably priced special dishes are always on offer, for example, sautéed shelled shrimps (清炒虾仁) for two people costs 9 yuan.

Don't order: Although representative of Fuzhou cuisine, the handmade fish balls filled with minced meat (福州手工大鱼丸) and fo tiao qiang are not exceptional.

Drinks: Try corn juice (玉米汁, 18 yuan), black kernelled rice juice (黑米汁, 16 yuan) or red jujube juice (红枣汁, 16 yuan). All are freshly made and healthy choices.

Cost: Around 150 yuan (US$24) per person

Opening hours: 11am-2:30pm; 5-9:30pm

Address: 2588 Kaixuan Rd

Tel: 6439-6999

Amoy Restaurant 鼓浪屿的风

Cuisine: Xiamen style (厦门小吃)

Ambience: A newly opened snack bar on Kunshan Road - a short, narrow but busy street full of places to eat and drink, including barbecue stalls and milk tea shops. Decorated with blue-and-white bricks, the 20-square-meter eatery looks bright and quiet, almost making you feel that you are dining on scenic Gulangyu Islet, part of Fujian's Xiamen City.

Ordering won't prove stressful either, as photographs of all the dishes are hung on the wall. So just point away.

However, it can get busy as Amoy has only four tables, each seating four. It's frequently crowded during lunchtime and diners often have to wait. Afternoons and nights are quieter.

Who to invite: Boyfriend/girlfriend or friends

Pros: The small restaurant, owned by a young Xiamem native, serves authentic Xiamen snacks - and quickly too.

Cons: No English service, though the menu is in both Chinese and English. Credit cards are not accepted. There's no parking nearby, so if you drive there, leave your car on the street and keep an eye out for traffic police as you munch on your Xiamen goodies.

Recommended: Sha cha noodles, fried five fragrance (炸五香) and fried oysters are representative Xiamen snacks. The first two are especially recommended.

Adding fried bean curd, bean sprout and greens, traditional sha cha noodles are boiled with barbecue sauce. There are various varieties served here, and you can order meatballs, pig's liver, cuttlefish balls or fried pork.

fried five fragrance is another must. It's a fried bean curd stick with minced meat and vegetables inside; crisp and delicious.

Don't order: If you're not a big seafood fan, avoid the fried oysters as they can be a little too fishy.

Drinks: Try the stewed winter melon tea (冬瓜茶) and lemon tea. Winter melon tea is a little sweeter, and tastes better when adding some ice.

Costs: About 25 yuan (US$4) per person

Opening hours: 11am-9pm

Address: 128 Kunshan Rd

Tel: 1356-4455-989

Customer Service: (86-21) 52920164