The G20 Series: China

16 Jun

By Chris Garbutt

I wrote about China last year, when I reviewed an engaging book by a Chinese-American who sought to work with master Chinese chefs, and learn about the roots of Chinese food (and learn a little about her own roots at the same time). Nothing opened my eyes more about food in China than this one book.

One of the central storylines is the author’s quest for the perfect xiao long bao. Her descriptions of this pork “soup dumpling” had me drooling, and it wasn’t long before I went on a little quest of my own, to at least try them for myself. So Mary and I went with some friends for lunch in Markham, to Ding Tai Fung, on Highway 7 near Woodbine We sat in the crowded bright room, watching the dumpling makers through the kitchen window. When the xiao long bao arrived, our friends showed us how to eat them, using both a spoon and chopsticks. What can I say, it was soup and pork belly in a dumpling and it was great. It wasn’t even the best thing on the menu – that prize would have to go either to the green onion pancakes or the stir-fried Chinese broccoli (I imagine in China they would just call it broccoli…)

It’s just another stop in my long journey with Chinese food. But I would embarrass myself in front of my Chinese friends if I were to claim to even begin to be an expert. Besides, China’s food heritage is so rich and diverse and ever-changing, I’m sure you could write whole books on just one dish.

I’ve done a little Chinese cooking, and the highlight for me was from a wedding present – a book called Beyond the Great Wall by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. Though we in the West mostly think of Chinese food as what people eat in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, the authors of this book wanted to discover (and photograph) the foods of the people who live in primarily non-Han regions of the country. It’s a beautiful book, worth reading even if you don’t like to cook.

So to thank the couple that gave us this gift, and to try something new, we had them over for dinner and I made some dishes from the book. Here was the menu:

Quick-pickled radish threads (Tibetan)

Sprouts and Cabbage Salad (Kazakh)

Vegetable Hot Pot (Hui)

Steamed Momos (Tibetan dumplings)

I had also planned to make beef-sauced hot lettuce salad (Mongolian), but figured that these four dishes would fill us up, and I was right. Finding some of the ingredients was more challenging than I expected – the most unusual was black rice vinegar, which I actually never found and just substituted regular rice vinegar instead. Seemed to work out okay. And have you ever tried to find a daikon radish at Yonge and Lawrence? I guess I never thought of it as exotic, but in store after store, I was out of luck. Eventually I found a single one in a flower shop that had vegetables in the back. I said to the guy at the counter, “I think this is the only one in the entire neighbourhood.” He replied, “the only one for sale – I have two at home.”

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