(This is a guest post from the LSH who suffers from premature publication….its still only Thursday)
Enough picnics, lets get to some serious eating…. but first….
Martine and I did not discover Chinese food until we were in our twenties when we lived in LA. The first slurp of hot and sour soup and we were hooked, and various forms of Cantonese food quickly became a staple in our house. Our kids were introduced to it as soon as was decent and they relished it too. We have fond memories of the ED in a high chair lashing into a plate of bones (BBQ Ribs) in our local. So I was delighted when I won a consulting contract that required me and a colleague, GI, to travel to Nanjing for close on three weeks. This would give me the chance to try some Real real chinese food, while hopefully indulging my love of photography at the same time.
Chinese takeaways in Ireland were never like this.
ZXG was our host and co-worker for the duration. And what a host he turned out to be. We were made welcome and comfortable right from the get go, no request was to awkward for ZXG and he really went out of his way to ensure we had the best stay possible as well as the most productive work environment. We felt he had a real sense of pride in his country.
Unfortunately there was a lot of work that needed to be done so we only had one day off during our stay there, but hey we were there to work. Even for that day off ZXG came up trumps and personally escorted us on a tour. Nanjing is steeped in history, since 450AD it has been built up, razed to the ground and rebuilt more times than you and I have had hot dinners. While it’s a modern city it also has a lot of “old” China to enjoy too. ZXG informed us we would start our tour at 7.30am.
On the city wall you can see the new and the old China.
It was cloudy, grey but warm even that early in the AM. First up was the Nanjing City Wall, built during the Ming dynasty, which is to say it is 600 years old, but you can still walk all the way around it if you so choose. We entered the wall by Xwanwu lake, a popular park and lake in the centre of the city. We walked part of the wall and gazed down on the Lake and the locals performing T’ai Chi. “See that mountain over there?” asked ZXG, “thats where we are going next”. “By Taxi” I asked, “Nope, we are walking up to the top, and then to the top of the second one, but first we should walk by Xwanwu Lake”
Xwanwu lake and Purple Mountain, ZXG wanted us to walk up both…
The mountain in question is The Purple Mountain and it is home to many important sites. The first we visited was Sun Yat Sen’s Mausoleum. Dr. Sun, ZXG informed us, was the founder of modern China. He presided over the demise of the last emperor and founded the republic of China. ZXG was clearly proud of Dr. Sun and said this was a person modern Chinese saw as a role model.
Sun Yat Sen’s Mausoleum, only 399 steps to go 🙂
Next up was the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, tomb of the founder of the Ming dynasty. A beautiful place, but quite hard to photograph as you never get a bead on the full building itself.
Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum
If you put letters to your dear departed in this shrine it awakens their spirits, Ming X Mausoleum.
The more gloden balls the more important the owner is. This guy had the full set…well he was the Emperor.
By now the sun was in full force, and the temp was somewhere in the 30s with high humidity. Nontheless we climbed up behind the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum and back down to the sacred way. Roughly 2KM long, the road is lined with 12 pairs of animals all carved in stone.
Elephant Road, part of the Sacred Way
Although we had a good lunch the heat was starting to get to us, so we hiked another couple of KM to the subway to visit the Presidential Palace, the gardens of which were quite stunning.
Gardens at the Presidential Palace. New and Old China in harmony.
Court Room, Presidential Palace
Throne of the Heavenly Kingdom, Presidential Palace
By now we had been walking for close on seven and a half hours and we had covered somewhere between 20 and 25kms in hot sticky weather. We all were tired but very happy with the days sights.
Next stop Qinhuai River… and time for the serious eating to begin.
Qinhuai River. The little boat to the left has two dancers in green. The photo does not do them justice
Qinhuai River Boats
ZXG took us to a restaurant overlooking the River, and ordered a meal. All he told us was he asked them to prepare some traditional Huaiyang dishes for us. Huaiyang cuisine is one of the four Grand Chinese cuisines, the others being Cantonese, Shandong and Sichuan (Szechuan). It originates in the lower regions of the Huai and Yangtze Rivers in the Jingsu provence of China. Although it is predominantly associated with other cities in the region it heavily influences the style of food available in Nanjing.
In Ireland we would be familiar primarily with the Cantonese style of cooking with heavy, rich sauces made from Soy, Hoisin, Plum and Oyster sauces mixed with cornstarch, rice or wine vinegar and spices such as Five Spice powder. We would also have some exposure to Sichuan, but not many Irish people like hot and spicy food. So GI and I had no idea what to expect.
It turns out Huaiyang cooking is very very different. I am not sure where to begin to explain what I mean, so I will go with the order in which things struck me. Not surprisingly the first things I noticed were all visual: there is almost a colour coding going on with many dishes consisting of foods of a similar or identical colour. Unfortunately the colour is often very bland, particularly compared to Cantonese cuisine, and consequently the dishes have less eye appeal. There is almost a complete absence of sauce, instead a soup or clear broth either accompanies the main dish or is part of the main dish. The dishes also seem to be very simple in that they tend to have very few ingredients, I am told that this is to place an emphasis on the main element in the dish. In many of the dishes, the vegetables were overcooked to my taste, lacking any of the bite one associates with stir fried veggies.
As to the taste. So this is where it gets harder to explain. I think we in the west are now so used to big flavours of China, India, Mexico, America and other places, often with tons of fat, salt, sugar and in some cases MSG added to be sure we get the point, that we can misinterpret less adorned food as being bland. All the dishes we had during the three weeks were good, with one notable exception, and enjoyable. I suspect if I stayed there longer my taste buds would get re-calibrated and I would be able to give a better account. But for now the best I can say is that the the emphasis seemed to be on fresh, light and slightly sweet tastes.
The waitress brought out the first dish: Marinated salty duck, pickled carrots, pork in a piquant sauce and some greens no one could identify. Simple but really very good.
Salty Duck and spicey pork…nom nom nom
Before we could finish the first dish the next three were brought out. Vegetable broth, beef cheek and bok choi. I looked at ZXG and said “How many dishes did you order”. Twenty was the reply. A big grin spread on my face and out came the iPhone to record the event. This was to good an opportunity for Martine’s blog to miss.
Veggie Broth – tastes much better than it looks
The broth although bearing a visual resemblance to dish water, was surprisingly tasty. I suspect our bodies needed salt after copious sweating during the day. The bok choi was…well bok choi simple as that.
Beef Cheeks and Bok Choi
The beef cheek was melt in the mouth tender. It was quite heavily spiced with peppers and served in a strong soy sauce. We were off to a good start, and by now the chef and waitress were in sync and food was flying out of the kitchen.
Next up was stinky tofu. It looked great and to be fair ZXG said we may not like it, but being game for a laugh I tried it. What can I say. The smell is revolting and to me the taste is even worse. Stinky Tofu is fermented tofu that is not for the faint hearted. If you are ever offered it… just say no. I did not realise until much later in the meal that ZXG had handed his back to the waitress as soon as she had brought it out, as had GI. Shades of that scene in Crocodile Dundee…”well it won’t kill you but I’d never eat that sh..”
Stinky Tofu….Just say no
Stinky tofu was followed by just plain old Tofu in broth. This and other dishes later in the meal are exemplars of the colour coding I referred to. The tofu itself had the consistency of a rubbery omelette, but it tasted slightly sweet and salty – very nice indeed.
See the colour coding ?
Then came the pork meatballs in sticky rice. This was one of the highlights of the meal. Think of the pork filling from a steamed bun/dim sum and your on the right track. So tasty I forgot to photograph it until it was almost all gone.
Sticky rice and pork meatball
Then on to the Beef with potato noodles. Not much to say about this dish. The beef was fine and tender and the noodles were a bit tasteless to me. I forgot to photograph this dish, but you might spot it in the dishes below :-).
Just some of the 60 dishes
By now the table was full with 60 dishes, 20 for each of the three of us. So I could pick and choose in which order I ate the dishes. The Century Egg had been taunting me since it was put down on the table, not least because I had no idea how to attack an egg with chop sticks. Century Eggs are made by marinating eggs in quicklime, salt, ash and rice husks. Typically they are left in the mixture for 2-3 months. The yoke goes grey and gelatinous while the white goes a dark almost pearlescent brown. I suspect these eggs were done in the more modern process which takes less time but can produce a different visual result. The egg yolk tasted more like sulphur than normal eggs, while the white had very little flavour at all. The aroma was that of crispy duck as served in Ireland and the UK, with mild ammonia overtones (if ammonia can be mild). I guess I was disappointed in this dish as it held such promise. Nice but not awe inspiring.
The only way to eat an egg with chop sticks is to stab it
Century egg – the inside story. It looks like it has not been fermented for as long as it should be,
From there I went for the stringy Tofu in a strong meaty soup. The texture of the Tofu was totally different to before, close your eyes and you could be eating strips of beef. Very nice but again no eye appeal.
Stringy tofu in meat broth – just like beef
Next the Potato noodles and spicy sauce caught my attention. Alas this dish did not hit the mark. I did not expect it to be freezing cold. The spicy sauce was very very salty and the noodles were slimy in texture. If I was unkind I would say it was like eating worms. Overall the flavour was ok but not enough to compensate for the rest of the shortcomings.
Potato noodles and spicey sauce.
No the next dish was not a baby dolphin in soup but the seed of the lotus blossom, served with a prune according to ZXG. This had a very delicate flavour and by now I was beginning to realise that this was a bit like wine tasting in that you should start with the delicate stuff and then move to the full bodied reds. After the heavy spice and salt of the previous dish the delicacy of this dish was lost on me. Strangely, while we had some tea before the first dish we were not offered any drink with the meal, not even water. This was to be repeated in all restaurants that we went to during the three weeks. So there was no way to cleanse the palate between dishes. So all I could do was plough ahead.
Is it a baby dolphin ?
The next dish was the star of the show. It was a special white fish from the Yangtze. I am sure there is a Chinese name for it but ZXG just referred to it as white fish from the river. It was really stunning, all you could taste was fresh and sweet fish. It was a pity that it was only a small strip.
The best of the dishes – white fish from the Yangtze
By now GI and ZXG had finished their meals. In part because they had handed back some dishes, but mostly because I was taking my time to photograph and take notes on each dish. I explained why I was doing it and they were happy to wait, but I could see that tiredness and overeating were taking their toll, so I had to speed up a bit.
So on to the familiar pot sticker. This one was stuffed with spinach and sesame – yum yum is all I can say.
Next up was Tofu with pork sauce and spring onion. Yet another texture for Tofu, this time it was like an egg custard. Very tasty, but not the texture we westerners associate with meat.
Tofu in another form…versatile stuff.
Then I opted for the plain dumpling with rice at least thats what they called it but it was more like a boiled wanton to me – ok but I would not queue up for it.
Dumpling with Rice.
The sticky red rice was crying out to be eaten. I should have waited. This was like a very heavy, as in stick to your mouth, strawberry rice pudding. Lovely but hard to chew and really more like a dessert. I should have left it to the end.
Sticky red rice..should have kept it to the end
Particularly since the next dish was scallops with garlic, or should I say GGGGGAAAARRRRRLLLLLLIC with the merest hint of scallop. There was so much garlic it burned my mouth.
Death by Garlic
Rice wrapped in vine leaves, and another dumpling were the antidote. Again these would have been better eaten at the start of the meal, but they were good.
Plain old dumpling
Rice wrapped in vine leaves. Very sticky stuff
Finally to dessert. A sweet sesame bun stuffed with red beans and slices of water melon. The bun was excellent I could have eaten a few of those.
Sweet bun stuffed with red beans
Water melon, needs no introduction
GI and I were stuffed and totally knackered. ZXG had served up a truly great day for us. We got to sample some of the many attractions of the city and some of the great Huaiyang cusine. I only wish I knew more about it at the time to make the most of it.
Many thanks ZXG
You can see more photos from Nanjing at wideanglecafe.worpress.com
Star Rating (out of 5) :
Service : ✮✮✮✮
Food : ✮✮✮✮
Value : ✮✮✮✮ You won’t get a meal this cheap this side of the world
Ambiance : ✮✮✮✮ Sitting by the river was really nice