Sunday, March 20, 2011

China's greatest unknown cuisine: Anhui

Today I'm moving west from the incredibly wonderful dishes of Jiangsu and Zhejiang to another of the Eight Great Cuisines of China, Anhui. 

Of all the eight cuisines, Anhui's has remain the most elusive and mysterious, and just about no one I've met outside of Anhui has an inkling of what this cuisine is like. 

However, some of my best friends over the years have hailed from Anhui - or at least their parents did - and even if they don't have a clue about how to make even a single Anhui-style dish, they are such great people that I was excited about exploring the culture and the foods that had nourished their families throughout the centuries. 

Generous to a fault, invariably happy to be alive, and dedicated to eating well, these friends over the years have made my life richer that I could have ever believed possible, and I think it has a lot to do with the fantastic food of Anhui!

With my new goal firmly in mind, I snapped up every Chinese-language Anhui cookbook I could find. Now, after having made a number of Anhui's dishes, I am nothing less than flabbergasted that not a single Anhui-style restaurant existed in Taipei when I lived there in the seventies and eighties.  And that is saying something, because in that metropolis of dedicated foodies just about every other cuisine, major and minor, had at least a handful of restaurants or storefronts there and a loyal coterie of customers. Let me just note for the record that people have really, really, really missed out on something special, and I am going to do my best to change that.

Huangshan

Smoked poultry, game, and fish are beloved here, as well as domestic and wild beasts cooked with a rich wine lees sauce or a delightful handful of fruits and sugar. Combining meats with fruits and nuts and herbs and spices has resulted in some dishes that cause deep pangs of hunger from their aroma alone.  

Right now I'm enjoying the aroma of Anhui's most famous poultry dish, Fuliji Poached Chicken, gently simmering away on the stove downstairs.  This is an organic whole fryer coated in maltose, fried to a mahogany brown, and then braised for hours in a rich stock flavored with a shelf full of exotic herbs and spices. 

The whole house smells edible at this point. The result is a chicken that is incredibly moist and flavorful, the skin deliciously soft and lean, and the meat so tender that it falls off the bone if you look at it too hard. The recipe for that will follow shortly, as will ones for Braised Chicken Legs in a Spiced Caramel Sauce, Walnut Pork, Fluffy Shrimp "Noodles," Maofeng Tea Smoked Fish, and Cilantro Beef, and many more, in addition to a my normal off-topic sidetracks where I talk about some of the other dishes I'm currently cooking.
Fuliji Poached Chicken (see next blog entry)

So why does Anhui have such a great cuisine? Everyone I've asked has said the same thing: Anhui was the home of some of China's great traders and merchants, and all that wealth allowed them to eat quite well.  Anhui is actually two very different areas: the north is part of China's great plains, so its foods tend to be more that of the nomads, with their pastas and breads, a reliance on beef and mutton, and the dishes that a cold climate fosters. 

Southern Anhui hugs the Yangtze River with its more temperate climate, rich fields, and bountiful resources, and so the dishes here are very much like the eastern cuisines of its neighbors, Jiangsu and Zhejiang. When people lump China's cuisines into four regions, Anhui's is invariably considered an eastern cuisine, which in a way is fair, since its greatest dishes do come from the south, and in a final note the mountainous regions of southern Anhui are also home to gorgeous  Huangshan, one of China's five great mountains.

Please join me in this culinary excursion to China's last great unknown cuisine, one that has opened my eyes and taste buds to some truly remarkable dishes.
 
Map courtesy Wikipedia Commons.
Huangshan photo courtesy china.org.cn

2 comments:

  1. I'm currently looking for cookbooks on Anhui cuisine and am happy to consider english, bilingual or chinese texts. Are there any that you recommend or know where I can get them? Many thanks! I've really enjoyed your blog since discovering it early on this week!

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    1. That's a great question. I do have a couple, but I'm in the process of moving, so everything is in boxes. Send me an email, and I'll write to you when I finally get settled. (madamehuang at gmail)

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