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Poof! Playing with fire for the holidays
By Gao Ceng

THERE'S nothing like flame, high-proof alcohol, and food to create a sensation for the eyes, ears, nose and, of course, the palate.

Many people are familiar with flambe, or flame-cooked desserts presented with showmanship at the table, such as baked Alaska, cherries jubilee and bananas flambe. But flambe as a technique is also used for crepes Suzette, steak Dianne, coq au vin and other dishes before they reach the table.

Typically, high-proof Western spirits such as cognac, rum or Grand Marnier (among many) are warmed and then the vapor is ignited in a saucepan, creating small explosion and blue-tinged flame. Poof! This further cooks the food, changing chemistry and taste.

But Chinese chefs have traditionally cooked with alcohol (spirits and wine), and the fiery technique is now popular in both Chinese and Western restaurants.

"Flame not only enhances the dining atmosphere, but more important, expresses my respect for traditional Chinese cooking," says Du Caiqing, chef de cuisine at Xindalu - China Kitchen at Hyatt on the Bund. By controlling the flame and temperature, the chef creates different textures and flavors.

Generally, Chinese chefs wrap the main ingredients, cooked or partially cooked, in lotus leaf or oiled paper, then apply a layer of clay to lock in the flavors, aroma and water. When serving, the clay is ignited with spirits.

For more aroma and flavor, wine, such as rice wine, may be added. The alcohol permeates the clay and ingredients, enhancing the flavor and aroma, while the alcohol itself is burned off.

"The food inside, after absorbing the fragrance from the wine/alcohol, develops new flavor with more character and complexity," Du explains.

Thus, alcohol becomes an essential ingredient in the flavor and aroma. Baijiu, Chinese distilled spirit made from grain, is commonly used. Du prefers premium aged baijiu, such as Moutai and Wuliangye, for their intense, appealing fragrance.

Sometimes, he chooses flower wines, such as rose or osmanthus for elegant flavor and aroma, combined with a high-proof alcohol that ignites.

Accidental discovery

In Western kitchens, flame is mainly used to make desserts, flambe meaning "flame" in French. The technique is said to have been created by accident in Paris. In 1895, an apprentice waiter served crepes with brandy to the Prince of Wale, but he mistakenly set it alight while serving. The flavor was excellent and the Prince approved.

Choosing the right liquor for the right ingredients is essential.

"For me, Grand Marnier (orange-flavored liqueur) with citrus and rum with bananas are golden pairings," says Terrence Crandall, executive chef at The Peninsula Shanghai.

He emphasizes that the beauty of the flame is not limited to showmanship and spectacle, but actually changes and improves the taste.

"After the flame rapidly burns off the alcohol, the dessert is enhanced with a beautiful aroma and hence, the flavor. Further, the sugar is caramelized during the process," Crandall says.

Shanghai Daily explores four flame dishes in Shanghai - from Chinese to Western, from classic to modern.

Beggar's chicken (258 yuan+15%)

The name comes from its origin. It is said that in the Song Dynasty (1127-1279), a hungry beggar luckily got a live chicken, but he lacked a proper cooking pot or pan, and had no seasonings. As a result, he used straw to make a fire and wrapped the chicken in a lotus leaf, which he covered with clay. The chicken was then placed in the fire and embers. The lotus leaf and clay imparted a distinctive aroma and flavor. It became popular among beggars, as well as people of means.

Based on a Song-era recipe, chef Du creates a dish for modern palates.

The chicken is stuffed with 17 kinds of mushrooms and fungus, turnips, chestnuts and pork combined with a stock made from pork bones, chicken and ham. The stock keeps it juicy. Then it's wrapped in lotus leaf and clay and baked in an oven. Before serving, it's ignited with osmanthus wine and spirit.

After the flame burns out, diners use small hammers to break the clay shell. It's said that the first to break the clay will have good luck all year.

When the clay and lotus leaf are removed, diners are greeted by an aroma of meat, mushrooms, osmanthus flower and lotus leaf. The chicken absorbs all the flavors of the stuffing and wine; it's juicy and rich, with multiple layers of flavor.

It's one of the most popular dishes at the restaurant and must be ordered at least a day in advance.

Venue: Xindalu - China Kitchen, Hyatt on the Bund

Address: 1/F, 199 Huangpu Rd

Tel: 6393-1234 ext 6318

Fragrant osmanthus chicken soup (288 yuan+15%)

The award-winning dish was recently launched by Jacqueline Qiu, executive chef at Andaz Shanghai, known for her creative and poetic Chinese way of presenting chicken soup.

Before serving, waiter rolls to the table a trolley with a teapot containing chicken soup, a Chinese-style flagon of rose wine, and an already cooked spring chicken wrapped in oil paper, egg white and a layer of crystal salt.

The serving process suggests a Chinese tea ceremony. The wine is poured over the wrapped chicken and burned until an intense wine aroma emerges. The soup is poured into small bowls. The chicken is removed from the wrapper and cut into pieces that are placed in the soup bowls.

The chicken is cooked in advance with abalone, sea cucumber, lotus seek, gingko and medlar, giving it more flavors and nutrition.

The soup topped with fragrant osmanthus flower tastes clean, with a sweet, floral aftertaste. After being flambeed, the chicken has a tender, juicy texture and light wine aroma.

Venue: HaiPai, Andaz Shanghai

Address: 1/F, 88 Songshan Rd

Tel: 2310-1700

Western interpretation

From the 1920s to 1940s, flambe desserts were quite popular in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Chef Crandall has launches his flambe desserts menu in hopes of "bringing back the old traditional feeling to Shanghai."

Five different dishes are rotated on a weekly basis, except for baked Alaska (vanilla and chocolate ice cream, meringue, berry compote and dark rum), which is available every day.

All the desserts are prepared and set alight in front of diners.

The vanilla ice cream is homemade from vanilla beans and the sugar is also infused with vanilla. He adds a little salt during the flambe process, bringing out more flavor from the fruit and caramelized sugar, and balancing the sweetness.

Bananas Foster (120 yuan+15%)

Made with sweet bananas, both oaky aged rum and dark rum, raisin ice cream, caramelized sugar and cinnamon. The taste is deep and rich, with tones of coffee.

Crepes Suzette (120 yuan+15%)

Made with crepes, vanilla bean ice cream, caramelized sugar, orange segments and Grand Marnier. Menu available daily from 7pm to 11pm.

Venue: The Lobby, The Peninsula Shanghai

Address: L/F, 32 Zhongshan Rd E1

Tel: 2327-2888

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