Outside one of the many small stalls lining Beijing's Wangfujing Snack Street, I sat down on a simple bench and leaned my nose into a bowl of fragrant noodle soup, getting a close-up encounter with the past, present, and future of Chinese cuisine. Dao xiao tang mian (literally, knife-sliced-noodles soup) is one of the most popular street foods in Beijing. And like the capital city, it combines tradition with an unexpected hint of modernity.
The aroma tickled and pinched the back of my nostrils ever so slightly, producing a tingling, almost anesthetic sensation—the exotic taste category known in Sichuan cooking as ma. A few wonderfully fresh green Sichuan peppercorns floated on the surface, but for me the most sublime ingredient was the coiled ribbons peeking through the broth. The Chinese began making noodles thousands of years ago, so it's no surprise that you can find dozens of varieties here, from big lumpy strands made of wheat to transparent silken threads composed of mung beans. Dao xiao mian, originally from Shaanxi Province, are my favorite. Chefs prepare them by kneading wheat dough and then cutting it by hand into wide, unevenly shaped strips. Once cooked, they have a satisfying and comforting chewy feel, quite like a handmade fettuccine you might eat in Florence.
On this backstreet in Beijing, hundreds of miles from their origin, the noodles and the peppercorns from two different parts of China mingled in one bowl—a tasty metaphor for the increased cosmopolitanism and mobility in this land of new prosperity. In China today, fusion food isn't just the province of star chefs but is rather a kind of spontaneous combustion that takes place effortlessly at street level, as migrant cooks from distant and distinct regions bring their local traditions and ingredients to the snack stalls and restaurants of the big cities.
From a food-lover's perspective, mainland China is currently one of the hottest tickets on the culinary circuit. For many years the world's oldest—and what may be the most sophisticated—cuisine languished under a Communist system that produced hardship and almost obliterated fine restaurant culture. But now, with money from the surging economy lifting living standards, Chinese cooking is undergoing its most creative boom in 50 years.
The bowl of dao xiao tang mian turned out to be just the first of many amazing food moments I would experience during 11 days of eating my way through four cities in China, each with its unique regional cuisine. I planned and booked my adventure with Imperial Tours in Beijing. I knew from the start that it would be impossible to do justice to the richness and variety of China's cuisine. It's a huge and culturally diverse country, and it would take much, much longer to do a comprehensive sweep.
Nevertheless, I wanted to taste as much of China as possible. So I had narrowed the focus to a few cities, each of which represents a major style of cuisine. I would start in Beijing, the center for what is loosely known as northern food—the wheat- (not rice-) based cuisine most famous for its dumplings and noodles. From Beijing I'd fly southwest to Chengdu, the ancient capital of landlocked Sichuan Province and home to some of the spiciest food in the world. Then I would head back east to the coastal city of Hangzhou, another ancient former Chinese capital, where the food is a refined, almost literary court cuisine that uses a sweet rice wine as its signature grace note. Finally, I'd end in Shanghai, the booming hot center of China's new haute restaurant culture.
Imperial Tours was eager to whisk me to all the trendiest high-end restaurants, such as Beijing's Green T. House, a high-ceilinged modernist space run by the beautiful chef Jin R, who is also a musician and presents each dish as though it were a piece of performance art. That was fine with me. But I live in Hong Kong and I am of the opinion that the Chinese are more obsessed with food than they are with decor. Multimillionaires will elbow alongside taxi drivers in humble plastic-tablecloth joints to eat the "perfect" dumpling. So I tried to juggle my itinerary to allow time to root around for these authentic grassroots culinary experiences, too.
It's a measure of how far the city's restaurant scene has come in a short time that there are now places where one can have it both ways: a beautifully designed setting and terrific food that refines traditions while respecting them. Made in China, the flagship restaurant at the Grand Hyatt Beijing, hits both targets. The setting is urban casual, laid out around an open kitchen.
The centerpiece of Made in China's menu is the city's signature dish, Peking duck, prepared in the exacting imperial court style that dates back to the 13th century. Now, as then, it is the ultimate in luxurious excess. The preparation is all about the skin: It should be crisp but moist, and full of flavor. Here, Peking duck is assembled in the old-fashioned way (now largely abandoned in Beijing) of roasting the bird in a brick oven with apricot-wood chips. This process produces a duck that is juicy and fragrant, with crisp, sinfully fatty, and delicious skin. Although it is customarily served with pancakes and sweet plum paste, I quickly abandoned the sandwich method and ate the skin the way Beijingers often do—holding a piece with my chopsticks and passing it through a plateful of sugar on the way to my mouth.
Executive chef Jack Aw Yong, a transplant from Singapore, said he researched every duck restaurant in Beijing before deciding on this particular preparation. He also traveled through China investigating local street food to create the rest of the menu, which replicates famous local specialties such as "doornail" dumplings, shaped like the hobnails that adorn the houses in Beijing's hutong, the historic neighborhoods now prey to the developer's wrecking ball. We talked a bit about the challenge of adapting Chinese food to the high international restaurant level. "I've succeeded because I'm located in China," he asserted. His steadiest customers, mostly well-to-do Chinese, have the knowledge and the palate to appreciate the extra steps he takes to reach for perfection in a dish like duck.
The demanding, sophisticated local audience and the skilled experts are two of the best reasons to travel all the way to China to eat. But as I moved the next day—almost a thousand miles—from Beijing to Chengdu, the capital of China's remote and mountainous Sichuan Province, I found a third, even better reason to sample Chinese food at the source.
Chengdu is in the middle of a very fertile valley east of Tibet. It lies along the southern part of the ancient Silk Road, and the city's rich merchants were renowned for their love of fine food. That gourmet tradition, plus the proximity of a rich palette of foodstuffs with which to devise dishes, is why Sichuan cooking is some of the most creative and varied in China, perhaps the best-known Chinese cuisine worldwide.
Arrangements were made for me to meet Professor Lu Maoguo of the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, and together we visited one of Chengdu's public food markets, where we were surrounded by the sharp smells of smoked ham hocks and vegetables pickling in rice vinegar. As I poked around the stalls, I came across mysterious new vegetables such as wo sun—a green that's similar to romaine lettuce but grows from a long, thick sugarcanelike stem. I found stalls devoted to various types of edible fresh bamboo, as well as vendors who sold assortments of the renowned Sichuan peppercorn, both dried and fresh, which until recently was banned in the States. (The peppercorns can harbor the citrus canker virus.)
The professor, noticing my bewilderment at the unfamiliar market items, chuckled and said, "This is why you must come to Sichuan Province to eat Sichuan food. You can't get the ingredients as fresh anywhere else." He has a point. The special quality of the peppercorns, for example, begins to fade after only a short time. The dark, almost black, smoked pork bellies are made exclusively in the province. As I discovered, the Sichuan food that is a staple of takeout restaurants from San Francisco to Singapore is only a shadow of what they serve in Chengdu. Which was a good excuse, I decided, to eat with total abandon during my stay.
The first evening, arriving late, I dragged my companion out to an all-night outdoor restaurant to eat rabbit innards and cold pickled green vegetables diced and mixed with tofu. (Innards are extremely popular in Chengdu; the rabbit tripe tastes a bit like a chewier calf sweetbread.) Early the next morning the professor and I began with breakfast at the beloved Long Chao Shou, a formica-table chain that's an outgrowth of a popular old Chengdu street stall that sold little snacks. The house specialty, shui jiao (water dumpling), is a handmade raviolilike wonton filled with tasty minced pork, served in a variety of sauces.
For lunch, it was time to indulge in Sichuan's famous hot pot, at Huangcheng Laoma (Imperial City Old Mother's), an excellent example of how China's restaurants are upscaling their image for a newly savvy and well-traveled local audience. Even in provincial cities like Chengdu, the emphasis is on modern design. Gone are the bright lights, round tables, and gaudy dragons. In their place are spare lines, earth tones, and an ample use of empty space.
The hot pot sits over an open gas flame in the middle of your table. If you ask for the Yuanyang version, the pot comes divided into two compartments, one containing a bubbling red broth laced with several kinds of pepper, and the other holding a much milder brew. Then you order small dishes of beef, squid, vegetables, and exotic innards and cook them in the boiling pot yourself, dunking pieces in with chopsticks, then fishing them out with a slotted spoon. It's a very social meal, and it got even more social when I ordered a bottle of baijiu—grain "wine." This firewater, which tastes a bit like poire, was strong enough to inspire the poetry of Tang dynasty masters such as Li Bai.
The shot of spirits was a perfect farewell aperitif to the fire-filled meals of Chengdu. The following day we left behind the intense and audacious flavors of Sichuan for the calmer, more courtly pleasures of its central coast. A two-and-a-half-hour plane ride (plus a short drive) away, a peaceful, almost Buddhalike bliss awaited in Hangzhou, a city built around a beautiful small lake, surrounded by rolling hills and pastoral tea plantations.
That China is an enormous country of far-flung regions was something I understood intellectually, but when you try to eat your way across the nation, the contrasts become a physical and sensory experience. Hangzhou, its quiet lake rimmed with lovely old mansions and willow trees, is a backwater that was an imperial capital 800 years ago. Refined and a bit insular, it is a city where traditions long forgotten in other places remain part of daily life.
The cuisine, which I sampled at a lakeview restaurant called Zhiweiguan (You Know the Good Taste), whispers rather than shouts. The main flavor is a sweet, fermented tang—a bit like port—that's derived from the local rice wine, Shaoxing. As befits a city where scholars and artists once thrived, most of the signature dishes, such as Hangzhou's clay-baked beggar's chicken and the supremely rich Dongpo pork (a creamy, almost custardlike cube of tender fat, meat, and caramelized pig skin), are attached to parables and stories.
In Hangzhou, even the tea has a tale to tell. In the Taiji Teahouse, which looks a lot like a set from the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the tea masters, who dress and move like kung fu adepts, performed for me the ceremony of wanwan ququ (zigzag) tea. It is a "red," or partially fermented, tea, strong and a little bitter, and it tells the story of love. The "zigzag" refers to the ups and downs of a romance. The master pours the first brewed batch into a set of elegant brown clay cups. Then, almost immediately, he pours the contents of each cup back into the pot. "Because love sometimes falters at first, you have to give it time," the master explains.
My time, unfortunately, was running out on this culinary juggernaut, but I still had one stop left: Shanghai. Although Shanghainese cooking is similar to that of Hangzhou's (both are considered cuisines of the "eastern" school), it is relatively new compared with that of other Chinese cities. The evolution of Shanghai cooking was shaped by foreign trade, not imperial dynasties. Here I could get a taste of what is happening to Chinese food and restaurant culture as the country fast-forwards into the future.
Over drinks on the roof of Three on the Bund, the multilevel complex of restaurants and shops, I enjoyed two of the best views in the city. The first one was the panoramic backdrop of brightly lit 19th-century bank buildings and 21st-century skyscrapers. The second was the glimpse of Shanghai's unique mix of people. Around me were wealthy Chinese from all over Asia, speaking in the dialects and accents of Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Beijing. There were also bankers from Australia and London, young financial wizards from Wall Street, and a sprinkling of European artists and designers.
This is a crowd accustomed to fine dining, and Shanghai's restaurateurs have, almost overnight, stepped up to meet the demand. At the high, international end is Three on the Bund, home to a Jean-Georges Vongerichten outpost, and the nearby M on the Bund, one of the pioneers in haute Western dining in the country. And on the second tier are new restaurants that take advantage of the city's history and architectural heritage to create mood and atmosphere. Ye Olde Station Restaurant, for example, is a study in nostalgia. It occupies a French monastery from the twenties, and in its courtyard the owners have parked an antique railroad carriage once belonging to Song Qingling, the wife of Sun Yat-sen.
As chic and gorgeous as Shanghai's new restaurants can be, the food doesn't always live up to the glamour. Three on the Bund's Whampoa Club has a well-known chef, Jereme Leung, who seems to be bringing some of Jean-Georges' ideas to bear on traditional Chinese cuisine. As is often the case with such ambitious experiments, the results are a mixed bag: A classic dish of Shanghai drunken chicken arrived as a bite-size bit of hacked meat presented with Shaoxing wine-laced ice, a clever idea that reads better on a menu than on one's plate.
But there are signs that a new, more polished international Chinese cuisine, utilizing top-flight ingredients and preparation, might be emerging in the metropolis. I was impressed by a long multicourse lunch at Club Jin Mao, a high-end Shanghai restaurant in the Grand Hyatt's Jin Mao Tower. The chef, Bill Shen, worked in Japan but was born and bred in Shanghai, and he takes a quite serious and traditional approach to the local cuisine and ingredients. Although it was not the season for the city's trademark "hairy crabs," Shen prepared an outstanding dish that combined a bright orange sauce made from local crab roe with tiny cubes of silky tofu. He also showed off his Japanese expertise in the presentation: An elegant plate of minced Shanghai green vegetables wrapped in tofu-skin rolls arrived, and these were then sliced into round cylinders, sushi-style.
After two days of eating at the top end of Shanghai's food world, I began to crave simpler fare. So one morning a friend and I grabbed taxis and met at the Starbucks (the coffee chain is everywhere on the mainland) in the middle of Shanghai's major tourist trap, Yu Garden, a complex of souvenir shops and faux teahouses. It's not a place that would normally be on my itinerary, but the garden has a branch of Nanxiang, one of the city's oldest establishments serving xiao long bao—the little steamed soup dumplings that are probably the city's most famous contribution to world cuisine.
I had wondered if Shanghai's newfound celebrity, and China's new prosperity, might have dulled the luster of dishes like xiao long bao. The bamboo basket that held six little answers to that question soon arrived at my table. I raised the lid and a furious cloud of steam flew up. I waited for it to clear, then carefully lifted one of the morsels out and set it in my porcelain spoon. When it cooled, I placed a drop of black vinegar and a sliver of ginger on top and popped it in my mouth.
The dumpling wrapper, neither too thin nor thick, collapsed and melted on my tongue, along with a teaspoonful of chive-scented pork broth. The liquid was meaty, not greasy, and the filling tasted as though it had been made that morning. There was no question: It was as delicious as ever. I reached back into the basket for a second helping of Chinese culinary perfection—past, present, and, I hope, always.
IMPERIAL TOURS 11-day culinary tour: $7,730 per person; 888-888-1970; www.imperialtours.net
GREEN T. HOUSE Dinner, $25-$60. 6 Gongti Xi Rd., Chaoyang district; 86-10/6552-8310; www.green-t-house.com
MADE IN CHINA Dinner, $80. Grand Hyatt, 1 Chang'an Dong Blvd.; 86-10/8518-1234, ext. 3608; www.beijing.grand.hyatt.com
HUANGCHENG LAOMA Dinner, $85. 20 Qintai Rd.; 86-28/8614-8510; www.hclm.net
LONG CHAO SHOU $ Dinner, $15-$25. 8 Chen Xi Rd.; 86-28/8666-6947
TAIJI TEAHOUSE $ Tea ceremony, $5. 184 Hefang Blvd.; 86-571/8780-1791; www.tea001.com
ZHIWEIGUAN Dinner, $185. 83 Renhu Rd.; 86-571/8701-8638
CLUB JIN MAO Dinner, $100. Grand Hyatt, Jin Mao Tower, 88 Century Blvd., 86th Fl., Pudong; 86-21/5047-1234, ext. 8778; www.shanghai.grand.hyatt.com
JEAN GEORGES Dinner, $160-$190; 86-21/6321-7733. WHAMPOA CLUB Dinner, $60-$100; 86-21/6321-3737. Both at Three on the Bund, 3 Zhong Shan Dong Yi Rd.; www.threeonthebund.com
NANXIANG Dinner, $12. Yu Garden, 85 Yuyuan Rd.; 86-21/6355-4206
YE OLDE STATION RESTAURANT Dinner, $50. 201 Caoxi Bei Rd.; 86-21/6427-2233
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.