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Major cuisine ... minor profile

Chinese cuisine is famed for its regional schools, such as Cantonese, Sichuan and Hunan, each with their famous specialties.

While Hubei cuisine is not one of China's traditional "eight culinary schools," since 1983, its dishes have been ranked as one of the 10 major cuisines in China.

Yet despite this recognition, dishes from the central province, with Wuhan as its capital, still remain something of an enigma to many diners.

The Wuhan Morning Post reported that many diners who order Hubei-style courses in restaurants don't even realize that they are eating the province's typical fare.

Hubei cuisine is characterized by the use of different homemade sauces. Pouring a starchy sauce over dishes creates the beautiful appearance associated with Hubei cuisine.

A signature soft and glutinous quality is achieved through assorted cooking styles involving steaming, stewing, frying, braising and sauteing.

And most dishes are characterized by retaining their original flavor, with slightly spicy and salty nuances.

In China, cuisine styles were first recorded 2,800 years ago in the middle reaches of the Yangtze River.

Hubei was given the title of the "province dotted with lakes" and "rich in fish and rice."

"Wuhan is noted for its location connecting nine provinces like a hub. This is reflected in its cuisine, generating flavors based on both local and immigrant preferences," says a Hubei native and manager of Lotus Restaurant in Shanghai, surnamed Zhang.

"Flavors blend Hunan, Sichuan and Cantonese cuisine," he explains. "Some dishes are light, while others remain spicy and rich."

The province also boasts an abundance of freshwater fish, such as the longsnout catfish. One of the most important ingredients in Hubei cuisine, fish is typically braised, steamed - alone or with rice flour - or boiled.

Wuchang fish, a dish made from the bluntnose black bream, is one of the signature fish dishes of Hubei cuisine. The steamed version is especially popular.

Lotus root is another characteristic ingredient of the province's cuisine. Famous options include lotus root sandwiches with meat, lotus root balls and pork chop soup with lotus root.

Hubei locals are also fond of "ball dishes," composed of whatever they can shape into spheres. These may include rice, fish, prawns, tofu, green beans and lotus root.

Pearl-shaped balls are a typical local specialty, mixing meat and sticky rice.

Finely combined steamed dishes, with ingredients such as fish, meat and seasonal vegetables, topped with rice, are also a distinguishing feature of Hubei fare - which is also called Chu-style or Jing-style cuisine.

Three steamed dishes in Mianyang-style are meat, fish and vegetables steamed with glutinous rice flour. Steamed food is popular with locals as it adheres to a healthy diet.

Hubei cuisine as a whole is divided into four schools, in terms of flavors and ingredients, based on regional characteristics in the province. These are Jingnan, Er'zhou, Hanmian and Xiangyun styles, each with its own distinctive flavor and taste.

Jingnan has many lakes, offering a bounty of fish. Its dishes combine meat and fish, served with starchy thickeners for an original taste.

Er'zhou is known for its agricultural produce, especially beans and vegetables. Dishes are often pan-fried.

Hanmian-style is popular for its fish dishes, steamed vegetables and soup - plus snacks and refreshments.

And Xiangyun-style cooking is characterized by poultry cooked in spices.

Hubei cuisine makes good use of home-made sauces to add special flavor. Jingsha sauce perhaps best represents this sauce-oriented cooking style. Divided into broad bean and chili sauces, its flavoring gives a distinctive Hubei spicery.

Some diners claim it is difficult to tell the difference between Hunan and Hubei dishes. Yet, they should differ in cooking styles and richness.

"Hubei dishes are mainly steamed and simmered with a light taste, while Hunan dishes are greasier, much stronger and spicier," explains an employee surnamed Li at Xiang Er Qing, a Hunan and Hubei restaurant in Shanghai.

For instance, he says, sauteed Chinese kale cooked Hubei style tastes crisp and tender.

A wide range of accompanying snacks and refreshments are also popular features of Hubei cuisine.

Regan noodles from Wuhan are ranked as one of the most famous five noodles in China. San xian dou pi (三鲜豆皮) - sticky rice, meat emulsion and tofu, covered with egg paste - is another popular snack.

While there are few Hubei cuisine restaurants in Shanghai compared with the other nine major cuisine schools, there are options offering an authentic taste of the province.

Xiang Er Qing

Cuisine: mainly Hubei and Hunan cuisines, also Cantonese dishes

Ambience: A large restaurant over two stories, decorated in typical modern style with big round banquet tables in the hall and private rooms.

Who to invite: Family and friends. Also suitable for a casual business dinner or something more formal, like a wedding banquet.

Pros: It's a chain with five large outlets in Shanghai, including one on Nanjing Road. Service is good and the menu includes many favorites. The big, bright luxuriously decorated hall creates a comfortable dining environment. There's also free parking and an online menu.

Cons: Prices are slighter higher than other Hubei-style restaurants. Some outlets are far from downtown areas. Some rustic dishes, like sauteed Chinese kale, although available if you ask, are not on the menu.

Recommended: The steamed Wuchang fish served with vinegar (醋浇武昌鱼): The tender fish is plump, succulent and rich in flavor. Pearl-shaped balls(珍珠丸子) are another must-try, the soft glutinous rice filled with fresh pork and water chestnut. The flavor-filled dish is served with poached egg, which adds to appetizing flavor. Also recommended is the pork chop soup with lotus root (排骨藕汤). Simmered for several hours makes the lotus root melt-in-the-mouth tender and the soup is slightly sweet and pleasant to the palate.

Don't order: The Regan noodles (热干面) are too salty, and some people say lack authentic Wuhan taste.

Drinks: Corn juice. Freshly extracted, not very sweet but good.

Cost: 120-140 yuan (US$19-22) per person

Address: F3-4, 971 Dongfang Rd, Pudong

Tel: 5058-0777

Lotus Restaurant

Cuisine: Hubei cuisine, some dishes adapted to local tastes.

Ambience: The restaurant has a hall plus private rooms. It's decorated in a simple yet elegant style, with Chinese paintings of lotus roots and Chinese characters hung on the wall. A crafted wooden door with a bell is a feature. Usually, it's pleasantly quiet.

Who to invite: family, friends or your partner.

Pros: The location makes it easy for transport. Portions are big enough for locals. The menu includes both light and spicy dishes. It also offers an e-menu to place orders in advance. Free Wi-fi is available.

Cons: Only three reserved rooms are available. Some dishes are too greasy. And there doesn't seem enough waiting staff for peak periods.

Recommended: Catfish served in sour soup (酸汤鲶鱼): Big portions of plump, tender fish with a sour and slight chili flavor. Very refreshing. Fried pig feet (黄金炸猪手): The golden-yellow deep-fried pig feet feature crispy skin and tender succulent pork. Kungfu soup (功夫汤): Various seafood, chicken and mushrooms soaked in Chinese herbs, making it both delicious and nutritious.

Don't order: Bullfrog served in chili soup (辣的跳). It's extremely spicy.

Drinks: Homemade rice wine (自酿米酒): A twist on traditional Chinese rice wines with added raisins for a smooth, cool, sweet taste. As it's alcohol-free, this is a good option for drivers.

Cost: 80-90 yuan per person.

Address: 641 Changning Rd (close to Huayang Rd)

Tel: 5238-2919, 5238-2657

Chu Xuan Tang Fish Restaurant

Cuisine: Hubei cuisine, particularly fish hotpot

Ambience: The restaurant is decorated in traditional Chinese style with Western influences. Chinese elements with an antique flavor are everywhere, including lighting, screens and paintings. Private rooms are luxuriously decorated.

Who to invite: Family, friends and business associates.

Pros: The restaurant offers a wide range of fresh fish. The fish soup is tasty and there is also fried and grilled fish available. Private rooms are partitioned off so privacy ensured.

Cons: The hall is noisy at peak times. Service can be slow.

Recommended: Fish soup with yam(山药肥鱼汤): Fresh fish, mushroom with yams release all delicate flavors out. Fish flesh remains a whole piece tasting soft and smooth as grease. Milk-white fish soup brings rich and strong tasty flavors.

Don't order: Country-style sauteed pork fillet (农家小炒肉): The pork is cooked with sweet red pepper, not chilies, losing the authentic spicy flavor.

Drinks: Fresh juices and specialty health drinks, such as yam juice

Cost: 90-120 yuan per person

Address: 2/F, 96 Plaza, 796 Dongfang Rd (close to Zhangyang Rd)

Tel: 6106-0025, 6106-0023

By Xie Fangyuan

Customer Service: (86-21) 52920164