The Great Road Trip of China!
China is often thought of as a melting pot of culture, history and cuisine. Having emerged as one of the world’s earliest civilisations, thousands of years of culinary history and geographical diversity has shaped all aspects of Chinese culture, especially its traditional cuisine which is defined by its regional variety. It is said that you can get a taste for the long history of China through the dishes of each province; the old Chinese saying “The East is sweet, the South’s salty, the West is sour, the North is hot” is testament to these variances renowned throughout the huge country.
In the UK we are especially keen on British-Chinese food, with 35% of us stating it is our favourite takeaway*  and in more recent years, a rise in popularity for authentic traditional Chinese cuisine.
On a recent visit to Beijing (North East), Dali (South West) and Shenzhen (South East), we were lucky enough to try some of the traditional regional dishes, visit one of the world’s wonders and visit some of the most new and exciting, innovative producers the country has to offer.
On arrival in China’s mega city capital Beijing (its former namesake Peking most recognisable from it famous duck recipe), we were met by Raymond, head of a large Chestnut producer in the region, who took us on a visit to their newly upgraded processing site. Here we were able to view their Chestnut and purple sweet potato production and as chestnuts are harvested in September through to February, our February visit was the perfect time to see peeling, roasting and packing in full flow!
Chestnuts originated in Central Asia and were carried to Europe from China by the Silk Road so have long been in use in Chinese cooking. Often eaten as snacks, they are also added to soups and stews and are a favourite addition to a sweet dish called Eight Treasure Pudding, a dish commonly used to celebrate Chinese New Year and is a combination of dried red dates, lotus seeds, candied plums, sweetened winter melon and assorted beans and nuts.
At dinner we enjoyed the famous delights of the traditional duck pancakes. We found them to be slightly different to the duck pancakes we are used to; fatter and juicier duck is served along sides such as fermented bean pastes. A little different to the version often served in the UK but delicious none the less!
We also sampled the very traditional and if not a little peculiar for us; fried chicken feet. These Chinese delicacies can be served as a snack, in a soup or as the main dish and are in huge demand in China, far outweighing the demand for the more popular western cut of choice – chicken breast.
On day 2 of our Chinese adventure we drove to visit another factory in the Yancheng province, a 2.5 hour drive from Beijing and seated in the central coastal area of Jiangsu Province, facing eastward to the Yellow Sea. Once there we had the chance to see the Chestnut field’s first-hand. A chestnut tree typically produces 25-45kg of chestnuts and the trees we saw on this visit (in the photos) were around 20 years old, maturing with age the Chestnut tree yields its best harvests at around 50 years old. The two oldest chestnuts trees in these fields were planted in 1303 and still produce chestnuts every year!
Look out for the smiling chestnuts! The skin is split with a knife and then steamed and roasted. The outer skin remains but you can see the cooked chestnut inside.
The following day allowed us time to visit possibly the most famous icon in all of China: The Great Wall of China. We arrived at the Mutianyu section, which was built in the early Ming Dynasty and is famous for its many watchtowers and passes which were built on the 1000m high mountain ridge. The Forbidden City (also called the Forbidden Palace) awaited us that afternoon which is so called as no one could enter or leave without the emperor’s permission.
On to our next stop; Dali, a city in the South West of China to visit a sun- dried tomatoes producers. After being greeted with some traditional green tea, we headed out to the growing fields where we saw chives, broccoli, Chinese cabbage and 3 million tomato plant seedlings. This supplier grows about 100,000 tonnes of fresh produce each year, of which the bulk is sold into the fresh vegetable Chinese market. The growing fields are 1960 metres above sea level and you can really feel the heat of the sun here!
Having seen the chestnuts growing the day before, we finally got to see washing, cutting, grading, marinating and freezing of the tomatoes. The processing site is only 5 years old but production scale is impressive!
At dinner, it is custom to have a light soup first, which is followed by all the dishes of meat and vegetables and finally the rice comes last separately. This is so you can enjoy the delicious main dishes first and then fill up on the rice if you’re still hungry. Dessert will also be a sweetened rice dish.
Our trip then took us to Shenzhen (11 miles directly north of Hong Kong); Shenzhen literally means “deep drains” as the area was once crisscrossed with rivers and streams, with deep drains within the paddy fields. It is now a major financial centre in Southern China. Here we visited a dried mushroom producer where we got to see the sorting and packing which is very detailed work!
14,000 miles and 10 days later we arrive back in London, delighted and amazed at some of the new and innovative producers that China is now home to and the great standard of goods it is producing across its regionally diverse and nutrient rich land.