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Peking-style is Northern Cuisine

by Jenna Ventorino

Chinese Food in China, Hong Kong, and/or Taiwan

Spring Volume: 2002 Issue: 9(1) page(s): 19 and 20

China is the largest country in Asia, about the same physical size as the United States. However, there are major differences, and about one-quarter of the world’s population lives in this country. China has a more diverse climate and an even more diverse population than the United States. In addition, there are probably many more styles of cooking. Many Chinese people look at these differences and say they are best explored and discussed based upon geography.

Cookbook authors most often report four cooking styles and name them to match the points on the compass. Previously, this magazine wrote about Shanghai cooking. Its method in the four-point system would be called the Eastern style of cuisine. The Shanghai culinary was revisited in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 8(4) on pages 5, 7 and 22. This article overviews Peking-style cookery, which in this geographic simplicity, is known as Northern cuisine. It is interesting to note that both of these regions have taken on the name of their major population center. Also of interest, is that this regional style is named after the Imperial city that was once called Peking. With a change of the way we now transliterate it in English, it is now called Beijing-style regional cooking. Peking-style is also used, and because spelled as Peking was so popular, both are considered correct.

Indeed, the legacy of the Imperial Palace remains in what is considered the traditional cooking of the North. For many years, premier chefs moved to Peking to cook for the Emperor when he lived there. Before that residency, they moved to wherever the Imperial palace was. One such place was Xian; there were others. Many of these chefs were summoned to come by the emperor who had tasted their dishes when traveling, or who had heard of their expertise. The chefs brought with them recipes, ingredients, and techniques from their respective regions.

Continuous meshing of various regional styles, plus manipulation of recipes to suit the tastes of countless Emperors, lead to the creation of distinct dishes, and many were banquet dishes. Recipes for many of these Imperial presentations were smuggled out of the palace and then these dishes became popular. Local cooks added their own influence, and thus variations of royal dishes became the staples of what is now called Peking/Beijing or Northern Cuisine.

Many factors dictate the ingredients of indigenous Northern cooking. The cold climate in this region allows wheat to grow well and rapidly, so flour dishes such as noodles, buns, and pancakes are all specialities of the region. Dumplings, some called bao and others known as jao tze are filled with meat, meat and shrimp, and/or vegetables and they are extremely popular. These particular specialities, in winter, are made in advance and can be stored outside in the cold air--a natural freezer. When ready to cook, they are dropped into boiling water and are ready in a short period of time. They can also be cooked and set aside and then later fried. As such they are known as pot stickers. No matter how they are made, they are enjoyed as a meal in themselves, part of a hot meal, or simply as a snack.

Wheat substitutes for rice as the main staple in Northern China. The food here is light, and often mild in taste. Many dishes are thought of as prestigious, and they are delicate in taste and in presentation. Wine is often used in dishes in both sauces and stocks. Fancy foods such as bird’s nest, shark’s fins, and abalone are popular ingredients; at least they are for those that can afford them.

Among meats, lamb, beef, and mutton are especially common in the north. This is likely due to the influence of a large Muslim population who shun pork meat for religious reasons. Many Muslims came to this region during one or another of several invasions, others were brought here by rulers of earlier times. Subsequent rules of Mongolian emperors in the 13th century CE enlarged the Muslim population. The Mongols brought with them roasting and barbecuing of meats, and popular dishes among Mongolians, Muslims, and now almost all northern peoples include Mongolian Hot Pot and Mongolian Barbeque.

Though slightly salty, Peking cooking is usually less oily than other regional styles. Northern cooks use a unique, dry-fry technique that produces tender nutritious meat. Prepared in this dry-fry manner, foods can have a smoky, burnt flavor. This taste is carefully made, and one way--called fired-over, is to put a little oil on the inside edge of the wok, then tip the wok until the oil catches fire and flavors the food. The flames quickly use up the fuel and go out.

Perhaps the most well known Northern dish is Peking Duck. This complicated dish takes many hours to prepare. Efforts begin when someone makes a slit in the neck and blows in air so that the skin of the duck separates from the flesh; it then dries from the inside and the outside at the same time. Once only a banquet dish, Peking Duck can be found in formal restaurants but now also at street-side food carts. Classically, it is roasted, modern methods find some of it deep-fried. To serve Peking Duck in the classic manner means that the skin is sliced with no meat attached. It or the pancakes it is wrapped in can be brushed with hoisin sauce usually diluted with tea. The pancake can be thin as is a crepe, or it can be more bun-like, The brushing is done with two-inch pieces of scallion whose edges are cut the long way, half-inch in on each end, then dipped in ice-water to curl them like brushes. The thin pancake is wrapped around the duck-skin and scallion, and both items are stuffed into the thicker bun variety.

When served at a banquet, Peking Duck and every dish is a single course. The whole duck is shown, head to foot, the entire body glimmering and a gorgeous brown color. It is common to see it carved table-side. The meat and the carcass are removed to the kitchen where the former is made into a stir-fried dish and the bones made into a soup. Thus, classically served, Peking Duck is a three-dish item.

Surely, the best Northern cooking was done at the Imperial Palace where Peking Duck was a popular item on Imperial tables. However, it is not the only, nor necessarily the best Imperial banquet dish. Others include Bird’s Nest Soup, Chicken Velvet, Diced Chicken in Bird’s Nest, Fillet of Fish with Rice-wine Sauce, Fried Whole Fish in Sweet and Sour Sauce, Bok Choy and Abalone Mushrooms, Hot and Sour Soup, and Mu Shu Pork. These dishes are considered common-place today, even ordinary, but their origins are from Imperial tables. Some food historians say they come from Shandong, which is near Beijing, and all agree they are from a Royal Court.

In this four compass point grouping Northern foods include those of Beijing, Honan, Hopei, Qingdao, Shensi and Shanxi. The foods of this region are light and mild, and generous in use of wine, leeks, scallions, and garlic. Family cooking in this region is country-style and wholesome, sort of medium cooked in terms of time, certainly not as rare or quickly cooked as in Guangdong, nor as sweet and long cooked as in Shanghai.

While each region has dishes characteristic of or thought to have roots in a particular area, most are known and consumed all over China, and have been for hundreds of years. They are also eaten and enjoyed everywhere Chinese people live, enjoyed at ordinary meals and at banquets, and beloved by the non-Chinese, as well.

The recipe that follows is adapted from The Northern Chinese Cook Book by Wonona W. and Irving B. Chang and Lillian G. and Austin H. Kutscher (Crown Publishers, NY, 1973), is provided with thanks to the Changs.
Jenna Ventorino is a Masters candidate in the Family, Nutrition, and Exercise Sciences Department at Queens College. This article was one component in a course she took there entitled: Writing for the Professional. She dreams of following a career in writing.
Chicken Velvet
6 Tablespoons corn oil
6 ounces fresh peas, shelled
3 Tablespoons chicken soup
2 chicken breasts, minced fine
3 slices fresh ginger, minced
3 scallions, minced
1 teaspoon dry sherry
2 teaspoons light soy sauce
6 egg whites
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
dash of ground white pepper
2 ounces Smithfield ham, minced
1. Heat oil in a wok or fry pan and fry the peas for one or two minutes, then add the chicken soup.
2. Mix everything else very well, except the ham, being sure there are no lumps. Add this to the wok or pan and stir-fry one to two more minutes.
3. Put this into a serving bowl, sprinkle the ham on top and serve.

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