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Food In China - Five Years After Tianamen

by Ken Hom

Food in History

Fall Volume: 1994 Issue: 1(1) pages: 4 to 10

For the last few decades, if one wished to find the best and most authentic Chinese cuisine, Mainland China was the last place to look. During my many visits to Hong Kong in the 1980’s, word about mainland cuisine was invariably gloomy. In that period, the grand traditions and delectable experiences of Chinese cookery were being preserved outside of the heartland, in peripheral areas of Hong Kohn and Taiwan and in Chinese restaurants in London, Melbourne, New York, and San Francisco.

Remarkably, under the administration of the People’s Republic, farmers were managing to provide enough in the way of daily calories for a billion Chinese; an astonishing feat, given China’s history of recurrent famines and that her population had almost doubled between 1950 and 1975. Beyond that, culinary news was depressing. Business travelers and tourists returning to their own countries unanimously reported that restaurants served wretched food made sloppily, and with poor quality ingredients. The great regional cuisines and venerable traditions of Chinese cookery were blighted, castigated as 'bourgeois' and 'imperialists' during the 1960’s Cultural Revolution.

Accelerating a process begun in the 1950’s, culinary institutes were abolished; master chefs fled or were forced into politically acceptable professions. The infrastructure that supported grand cuisine was destroyed. Specialized gardens, farms bakeries, kitchens, private restaurants, and food stalls were abolished or seriously impacted by centralized planning.

In state-owned restaurants of those decades, clientele ate what might charitably be called 'functional' food. Staff were deemed equivalent to factory workers with no grades of talent or expertise recognized or allowed, a practice hardly conductive to the preparation of excellent cuisine since all restaurant workers were paid on an equal scale and prices of meals controlled; there were no incentives to strive for excellence.

Furthermore, most restaurants closed at seven in the evening eliminating fabulous banquets that used to last late into the night. Thus, food was mere sustenance, not art or cultural and social expression. During those years, I refrained from visiting China. I knew I would find it too appalling.

However in 1976, following the death of Chairman Mao, an astonishing reassessment and resurgence of many aspects of Chinese life occurred in arts, education and especially economic matters. The result was an accelerated modernization. Among the changes was a reconsideration of the social virtues and commercial potential of the cuisine. By the early 1980’s, gastronomy and even epicurianism were no longer counterrevolutionary. The People’s Republic initiated a planned and officially sanctioned resuscitation of the venerable Chinese culinary traditions.

On one of my many visits to Shanghai, I discussed this period with Mr. Zhao Qiren, the principal of the city’s leading cooking school. He told me that before 1949, foods were cooked as tradition required, in good stock made from chicken and ham, while in the “difficult decades,” shortages of essential ingredients led to unsatisfactory substitutions.

For example, with the decline in availability and freshness of ingredients, monosodium glutamate began to be added to everything. A constant refrain during my frequent visits to China was, bu yao weijing (no monosodium glutamate). Mr. Zhao also noted the breakdown of regional and local cuisines over that thirty-year period as part of a deliberate policy to nationalize the spirit of the people and make uniform what had been different and separate. How tragic for a rich culinary tradition which, however much it was an amalgamation of many styles, had prided itself on recognizably regional specialties.

Mr. Zhao also enlightened me on another factor, the government’s need for hard currency. In the 1970’s, high-quality Chinese foodstuffs produced in the mainland were not available locally. I know that they were sold in Hong Kong allowing much needed money to flow back to China.

Now in the nick of time, mainland Chinese cooking has begin a dramatic comeback. Private gardens are once again supplying fruits and vegetables in abundance, private restaurants and food stalls are becoming commonplace, and culinary institutes and cookery schools are flourishing meeting a long pent-up demand for quality foods and ingredients. This long campaign to reestablish authentic Chinese cuisine in its homeland was in full sail by 1986. Since then, I have spent many months at a time in China, traveled thousands of kilometers throughout this enormous and complex country, dining, tasting, exploring, observing, discussing and learning. I sampled literally hundreds of different dishes from practically every regional cuisine. I visited coastal areas of Shanghai and Guangzhou (Canton), the interior Sichuan, southwestern Kunming (Yunnan), northern China, and the capital of Beijing (Peking); and I have eaten in private homes, state-owned restaurants, dining halls of collectives and communes, private restaurants, and street stalls. The quality of the food I ate there ranged from outstanding to dreadful.

In most of the places I visited, state-owned stores were almost always empty while customers were patronizing the free markets. Farmers have seized the opportunity to grow and sell excess fruits, vegetables, or meats after they fulfill their required government assigned quotas. Their thriving enterprises have been fed by a rise in disposable income of many Chinese. A notable increase in demand fro consumer goods in urban areas has led to a revival of private restaurants that are keyed to market demands rather than state directives.

A good example of how things are changing is seen in Shanghai’s lowly but popular fried donut, readily available until the late 1950’s. When the government set a retail price on them, they disappeared as they were impossible to produce at that price. Today, price is determined by the market and once again they are plentiful in food stalls.

I must emphasize, however, that things are not yet where anyone can find good food anywhere in China. You must have 'quanzi' or personal local contacts. Most tourists are shunted to hotel restaurants where they experience something not too exotic but certainly safer than some local kitchens. This official policy insures control of tourists and funnels profits to the state as hotels are state-owned.

In my case, through the help of relatives and many Chinese friends, I was able to dine in all parts of China in many different local restaurants, some of them superb. For example, in Chengdu (in Sichuan province), I ate in a collective-owned restaurant that opened just three years ago. The staff, committed to the revival of authentic regional Sichuan food, have succeeded marvelously; so much so that I returned fro a second visit. I enjoyed among other dishes: The best Aromatic Ta-Smoked Duck I have ever tasted, a strikingly unusual Stir-fried Bitter Melon with Fresh Chili, and delicious Fragrant Hot and Spicy Chicken with Stem-Lettuce.

In Guangzhou where late dining is again common, I enjoyed an excellent supper meal at a dai pai dong, the Cantonese term for street restaurant. Local friends guided me to this restaurant festooned with cages containing various live wild animals, all ready for the pot. I rather timidly selected an already dispatched pigeon, partially cooked and swinging in the sultry heat to dry. It shortly reappeared in deep-fried form, with skin crackling and glistening, accompanied by fresh seasonal vegetables and a tasty bean curd dish with delicious sauce. This was as good a simple meal as I have ever enjoyed anywhere.

In Kunming, I went a bit native. Friends took me to a private restaurant and ordered braised bear paw and elephant trunk. As I ate my well prepared but rather bland and gelatinous portion, I thought how affronted my environmentalist friends would be. I could not learn how these items were obtained as my friends became uncharacteristically reticent about discussing the provenance of these animals.

One day I enjoyed a real tour de force, a meal two days in the making. It comprised fifty-four dishes, all made from one goat. There were twenty-seven cold dishes, including some made from the entrails, tail, stomach, and liver, and twenty-seven hot dishes featuring braised and stir-fried parts of the goat. It was an outstanding and impressive accomplishment and to my surprise, delicious, too. The next day at a private restaurant, I sample a mild toasted goat cheese, simply pan-fried in a wok. This dish was probably of Mongol or Muslim origin, or of this influence. By this time, I felt really deprived when I learned the restaurant was out of their specialty, fried grasshoppers.

I think the best news concerning the revival of the great cuisine of China is that good and even superb food is being prepared by families in their own kitchens. In my ancestral home outside Guangzhou, I enjoyed a meal that include freshly killed steamed chicken together with roasted goose and vegetables plucked fresh from the fields, a homey touch that warmed both stomach and heart.

And in Beijing, one of the best meals of my visits was in a private home. It was a simple classic delicious meal and a marvelous dining experience, one whose preparation I had the privilege and pleasure of assisting. The meal featured jiaozi, meat-filled dumplings cooked in two styles, fried and boiled, along with ground pork stuffed between slices of eggplant then dipped in batter and deep-fried, spring rolls stuffed with cabbage and simply fried, cold cucumber salad, and fine food fresh tomatoes sliced and garnished with thousand year-old eggs, available in many cities, in the so-called night markets. Enterprising entrepreneurs armed with family recipes, cook up a storm right out in the streets making hand-pulled noodles, dumplings in soup, fried pastries, spicy cold and hot noodles, braised eels, or stir-fried frogs with garlic. All were quite tasty and at very reasonable prices. They are one of the new success stories of contemporary China that tap into popular taste and need.

In 1989, in late spring in the midst of the turmoil which griped the nation, I was raveling with one of Asia’s best know photographers, Leong Ka Tai, and his assistant: both are Chinese from Hong Kong. We were extremely excited and cautiously optimistic about the student and worker demonstrations which seemed to portend momentous fundamental changes in Chinese society.

In Chengdu on the 4th of June, we awoke to ominous Maoist rhetoric emanating from street loudspeakers; they said that troops had moved into and occupied Tiananmen Square. There was no hint of violence. We switched on the television; the only telecast featured happy peasants picking cotton. It was Sunday, on the street there was an eerie atmosphere of both tension and normality as people headed for markets. The main square, where student demonstrators had camped, had been cleared off and sealed, as were many streets. We spent the day with a peasant family in the countryside; all seemed normal. When we returned in the late afternoon, our driver advises us to stay in our hotel. Rumors were flying about the hotel lobby.

We heard there had been violence in Chengdu and in Beijing but we were unable to get official confirmation. My shortwave radio was jammed as I tried to pick up the BBC world service or Voice of America; and phone lines to the outside world were cut. It was when we went to have dinner in the restaurant on the top floor of the hotel, the tallest building in Chengdu, that the situation began to unravel and we were witnesses to it.

On the streets below, crowds gathered apparently trading rumors, trying to assess the situation and at times blocking traffic at the intersections we could see. In about a half hour, heavily armed security police swiftly moved into the crowds, beating men, women and children without warning. A few times we saw and heard what we thought was gunfire. We did see a few people fall to the ground and were close enough to see blood, and crowds scattering quickly then regrouping, coming back to carry away those left on the ground. It was an unforgettable and horrible scene to watch through our telephoto lens. When it was too dark to see, we returned to our rooms, and thereafter, heard muffled gunfire throughout the night.

Early the next morning, June 5th, we were awaken by the light of what looked like an enormous bonfire. The whole city seemed on fire; our deep concern for others now turned to uneasy fright.

Our scheduled driver showed up on time at 7 a.m., and on the way to the airport described in angry tones what happened the night before, telling of heavy casualties, of hundreds of men, women and children killed, and hospitals filled with wounded. We asked if it was safe to go to Beijing and were assured that all was now calm and that Chengdu airport was operating normally. On our arrival there two hours later, we waited four hours for our driver to appear and then were told that no one in their right mind would take us to our hotel, near Tiananmen Square.

With no driver, I managed to book us at The Great Wall Sheraton. We hopped into a baggage truck and on route saw the sides of roads lined with rows of tanks and soldiers. Once in the hotel, we were confronted with the terrors of the situation, this time on the television. Our sympathy was so deep and anxiety so great, we found ourselves watching and weeping.

A frantic evening and night trying to make international phone connections was useless as flights to Hong Kong were overbooked. We were able to secure the last three reservations to Guangzhou. Since I held the only American passport, I was appointed carrier of our 150 rolls of film, representing over 3 years of work and research. At 4 p.m. we got to the Beijing airport; there turbulent crowds of frighten Chinese and foreigners waited to catch flights out of China. This was reminiscent of photographs I had seen of people in 1949 evacuating Shanghai. We got to Guangzhou and the next morning took the train to Hong Kong, all exposed film intact.

Safe there, we began to take stock of what had happened. As witnesses to the actions of tanks and soldiers with automatic weapons, having seen people beaten, chased through the streets, shot down indiscriminately and lying in pools of blood, and knowing nothing about what was going on, clearly, we were still terribly frightened. During the events, I had comforted myself with the knowledge that I was an American. I held my passport like a talisman, a fragile comfort. I was marginally better off than my Hong Kong Chinese companions, who had even more reason to be concerned about their immediately safety.

After a day or so in Hong Kong, with access to reliable information, and among friends and familiar sights, we soon recovered our nerve. One week later, with some trepidation, we returned to the mainland to finish our work. Our mission went smoothly, the authorities had no wish or need to encumber us, our work was mainly in the countryside where there was not even a ripple of discord to remind us of the disruptions.

Now, five years later, I can see that Tiananmen was inevitable given the nature of society and the leadership; and that traditions of liberalizing political and social arenas are impossible to do overnight or even in a decade or two because of stresses between those who can or wish to seize economic opportunities and those who will or can not reduce freedom to economic exchanges. These stresses take on political and social dimensions the Chinese leadership won't tolerate, nor would or could the masses of Chinese people.

It is well to recall that China has an overwhelmingly rural population unversed in democracy and used to bureaucratic centralization; most people are seeking means to earn or produce their daily bread. Democracy needs special soil and generations of cultivation to become viable. The efforts of students and workers of Tiananmen Square was one seed of liberty.

Despite the horrors of June 1989, I believe that Chinese cuisine and other arts and sciences remain on the mend. These fields of creative expression can be cultivated by the Chinese leadership. They want to modernize and to become economically and culturally respectable. Despite the reassertion of centralized controls and guidance after Tiananmen, I believe that the seeds of economic liberalization will grow.

The astonishing energies of so many aspects of traditional cuisine with its kitchens, restaurants, food stalls, tea houses, specialized gardens and farms, transport networks, culinary schools, and the entire substructure necessary to any grand cuisine have not gone unnoticed. After all, beyond economic value, Chinese cuisine is one of that country's cultural glories; it is also a very important aspect of China's contribution to world civilization.

Note: The above article has been abbreviated from the Journal of Gastronomy (Volume 6, 1990) with permission of the author, a culinary consultant, author of cookbooks and articles, and a featured TV food show host. He shares the pair of recipes below saying they are selected from the dozens upon dozens of wonderful dishes he enjoyed in China during his many visits there.

Braised Red Pork Casserole, Shanghai-style
1 pork shoulder, boned in with rind (about 3-4 kg)
2 pints Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
3 pints Chicken Stock or water
1 pint dark soy sauce
5 ounces light soy sauce
6 ounces rock sugar or ordinary sugar
10 slices fresh ginger
8 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
6 scallions, whole
1 and 1/2 Tablespoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
5 whole star anise
5 cinnamon sticks, Chinese cassia
3 Tablespoons cumin seeds
3 dried red chili peppers
4 pieces dried tangerine peel
1. Bring a large pot of water to the boil, add the pork shoulder and when it comes to a boil again, skim, reduce the heat and simmer gently, partially covered for thirty minutes. Drain throughly.
2. Make sauce by combining rice wine, stock, soy sauces and sugar in a very large pot and bringing the liquid to a simmer.
3.Place spices in a cheese cloth and tie together tightly.
4. Add the blanched pork shoulder to the liquid, bring it back a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. skimming all the while.
5. Now cover the pot tightly and continue to simmer gently for two or three hours until the pork fat and rind is very soft and tender.
6. Remove meat and reduce the liquid to a syrup, and serve it with the pork.
Savory Home-style Steamed Egg Custard II
3 eggs
12 ounces chicken stock
1 and 1/2 Tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 Tablespoon peanut oil
2 Tablespoons oyster sauce
3 Tablespoons spring onions, white part only, finely chopped
1.Mix the everything except the scallions and the oyster sauce in a heatproof shallow bowl.
2. Prepare a steamer or deep pan with two inches of water, and bring it to the boil over high heat.
3. Carefully lower the bowl into the steamer or onto a rack in the pot. Then turn the heat to low, cover tightly, and steam gently for twelve minutes or until the custard has barely set.
4. Remove the custard and sprinkle with the spring onions.
5. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a small pan until it begins to smoke, pour this over the custard. Add the oyster sauce and serve at once.

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