We all hanker after a Chinese every now and then, but it’s unlikely that many of us have stopped to think what exactly constitutes as ‘Chinese food’. In a country that covers around 9.6 million square kilometres of the earth, has a population of 1.2 billion people, and is split into 22 provinces (many the size of European countries), five autonomous regions, four municipalities and two special administrative regions, it’s fair to say that the food is a tad more varied than the sweet and sour chicken we’re served in Wok This Way on the high street back home. Luckily, with Dubai’s dining scene as varied as it is, there are a number of restaurants that specialise in, or at least serve, traditional provincial dishes. With the Time Out Restaurant Awards but a week away (which features a ‘Best Chinese’ category), we take a closer look at where exactly the Chinese food we’re eating is traditionally from.
Beijing: It’s a tough job being a duck in China – the waddling pond dweller became a favourite food of the emperors of Imperial China and has since found its way into all manner of Chinese dishes. Of course, the most famous of China’s duck dishes is the Peking duck. Authentic versions of the dish feature servings of the crispy, flavourful skin, followed by the juicy meat – both of which should be cut in front of the customer. Traditionally, ducks are slaughtered for the dish when they reach 65 days, before being seasoned and roasted in a hung oven. Hukama (The Address Downtown, 04 436 8880) serves traditional Peking duck, with pancakes, cucumbers, spring onions and hoisin sauce.
Fujian: Today, the ‘Chinese tea ceremony’ takes place for the benefit of tourists. Nonetheless, the drink still plays an integral part in Chinese dining culture, being drunk before, after, or during meal times. The rose tea served by the acrobatic tea master at Noble House (Raffles Dubai, 04 314 9888) is a combination of traditional Chinese green tea with dry rose petals. The restaurant also serves Tikunyin tea, a green tea that originates from Anxi county in Fujian.
Guangdong: While many of us might not be too familiar with the province in the south of China, we’re likely to have tucked into its food – better known as Cantonese. In its day, Canton was a great trading port, which partly explains how the food managed to travel so far across the globe (that and the fact it’s really very tasty). Guangdong cooking methods predominantly incorporate steaming and stir-frying, and popular dishes include sweet and sour pork, ribs and Cantonese fried rice. Good examples are Hukama’s black-pepper beef or the wok-fried king prawn with black pepper sauce served at Shang Palace in the Shangri-La (04 343 8888).
Hainan: This island province off the south coast of China is similar to Dubai in that it’s sunny and full of Russian tourists. It also happens to be home to a number of Chinese delicacies, such as Wenchang chicken, Hele crab, and lobster dishes. China Club (Radisson Blu Deira Creek, 04 205 7333) serves stir-fried crab in a rich Hainan sauce.
Jiangsu: There’s probably no better place to eat Jiangsu food, from China’s northeast coastline, than China Club (the chef’s from Jiangsu, you see). The restaurant’s Nanjing-style roast duck, offers a tasty alternative to the more prevalent Peking duck, in that it is marinated, dried and roasted in the oven and then served at slightly above room temperature (lukewarm) to ensure that the duck skin remains crispy. Other Jiangsu offerings come in the form of sea scallop dumplings, stewed vegetables wrapped in bean curd sheets (tastier than it sounds, we assure you).
Shanghai: Sugar plays a large part in Shanghainese cuisine, which is exemplified by the smoked fish at Shanghai Chic, which is deep fried, dried and braised afterwards with cinnamon stick, peppercorn and icing sugar. The dish is rounded off by a mixture of oyster and soya sauce, which give the dish layers of unique flavour. Shanghai is also home to a number of lighter dishes that, in Western terminology, are probably best described as ‘salads’. China Club serves bean curd noodle salad, tossed with garlic and coriander or a crispy cucumber salad tossed in garlic.
Sichuan: Sichuan food, like its people (specifically, we’re told, the womenfolk), is hot and spicy. This works to stave off the cold (especially in the northern regions of the province, towards the Tibetan border), as well as helping deal with the hot muggy summers that afflict the central regions of the province (the logic being that the spicier the food, the more you sweat and keep cool). Xiao Wei Fang in Deira (04 221 7177) is the real deal for authentic Sichuan hotpot, serving spicy vats of broth in which diners dunk slices of raw beef, fish balls (literally balls of minced fish) or vegetables.
Other than bubbling pots of hot oil, Sichuan is home to a number of iconic Chinese dishes: Chi’Zen (Festival City, 04 232 9077) serves zesty kung pao chicken (or gong bao ji ding in Mandarin), Shang Palace serves spicy poached beef, while Shanghai Chic at Ibn Battuta Gate Hotel (04 444 0000) serves a dainty mapo tofu – soft tofu boiled with ginger, chilli and onion, and served with pepper and chilli sauce. The dish is tantamount to an iron fist in a velvet glove – a soft texture that packs a punch.