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A Culinary Tour of China

On an epic culinary tour with international tastemaker Han Feng, Andrew Solomon feasts on the country’s rich and subtle flavors, from soup dumplings at a streetside stand in Shanghai to the haute-Sichuan abalone and crispy rice in Chengdu.

Before my first trip to China, in 1983, I was warned that the food would be terrible, and it more than met expectations: greasy, gristly, dismal, prepared with that brutal indifference Communism seemed to celebrate, and served up gray and ugly. Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore kept alive the Chinese culinary tradition, three tiny candles standing in for the greatest bonfire in the world. By the early nineties, the situation was somewhat better, as long as you stuck with simple things or ate in people’s homes. In the past five years, Chinese cooking has risen phoenixlike from the ashes, and divine food is now to be found in the country’s unnumbered restaurants. It is hard to understand how the Chinese have retained some semblance of sanity in a country so utterly transformed, because the China of today is as dissimilar to the China I first visited as Topeka is to Zanzibar. Where miserable-looking people in Mao suits once pedaled rusty bicycles down dirt alleyways while unconvincing workers celebrated the Communist state in unbearable factory performances, one now finds a level of efficiency and sophistication in the cities that leaves me feeling that New York is quite nearly a provincial backwater. There are of course still legions of peasants laboring in poverty, but the advances in China, unlike those in Russia, seem to have spread through a broad swath of society. The improvement in the food reflects a profound social transformation: what was once unpleasant is now thrilling. And while much of these changes are in Beijing and Shanghai’s smartest restaurants, they can also be found in country inns and at street dumpling stands.

I had the good fortune to do a culinary tour with the fashion designer Han Feng, who is warm and glamorous and sparkling with life, and who led us to both the fanciest restaurants in China and the best street food imaginable. “You won’t believe it,” she said on our second day in Shanghai as we drew near to Jia-Jia Juicy Dumplings, in the old Yu Yuan district, a grungy-looking stand where a huge meal costs about a dollar. Seated on plastic stools on the sidewalk, we gorged on dumplings filled with soup and pork, shrimp, or hairy crab (a regional delicacy). You dip them in rice vinegar with ginger, and when you bite down, first the warm soup floods your mouth, and then you experience the smooth skin and the rich meaty filling. Mobs descend on the place in all sorts of weather, and the eight women who work there are crowded so close together that you wonder how they can move their arms. A great steamer sits outside, piled high with bamboo baskets, watched over by a woman whose face is constantly shrouded in vapor. But everyone smiles and laughs. “How can this be so good?” Han Feng asked us, glowing with pride.

She was the inventor of our trip—and it took some considerable inventing—and she is also the inventor of herself, as miraculous and unlikely as modern China in all its glory. Han Feng left China in 1985 to move to New York, but has recently taken a Shanghai apartment, relocated her production to her homeland, and started dividing her time between the two countries. I first met Han Feng 12 years ago at a dinner party. I had recently returned from a trip to China to write about contemporary art, and we made desultory conversation until I mentioned one of the artists I had interviewed by name. “From Hangzhou?” she asked. “Really good-looking? About our age?” “Yes,” I said. “Wow, he and I dated in high school and I never knew what happened to him.” She came from China and I’d been to China, so why wouldn’t we know people in common?

Since then, I’ve learned that Han Feng knows most of the world’s interesting people, and I’ve been lucky to be invited to the divine dinners she cooks at home and those she organizes in Chinatown, where one runs into Jessye Norman, Lou Reed, Susan Sarandon, Rupert Murdoch, Anthony Minghella, or, just as likely, her wisecracking upstairs neighbor or the fur buyer who once paid her a compliment. Her satisfying throaty laugh makes every evening feel like a celebration.

Han Feng is profoundly international. ” I love wherever I am and whatever I’m doing,” she once said to me. She arrived in the United States as “a Chinese peasant potato,” as she says. “Some people climb staircase of success,” she told her then husband. “I take express elevator.” Soon she met someone who wanted to back her design activities and promised to make her rich and famous. “I said, ‘Maybe we can forget about famous and concentrate on very rich.'” Since then, she has developed a private label that has been sold at Bendel’s, Takashimaya, Bergdorf’s, and Barneys; designed opera costumes for the English National Opera; and made a line of clothes for the Neue Galerie in New York.

After her divorce, she had a long-term relationship, which ended when her boyfriend said he wanted to move in. “I can’t believe it! I say, ‘Move in? Move in? I don’t have that kind of closet space!'” Most people fall in love with Han Feng if they get half a chance. The King of Morocco has commissioned her to make many of his clothes, and she has been a regular guest at his palace. “I stay there and see all the pomp and circumstance,” she confided, “and I think how glad I am to live a simple life!” It’s the most high-powered simplicity I’ve ever encountered; whatever potato she was when she left China, she’s now an orchid of the first order.

My favorite place in Shanghai was the YongFoo Élite, brainchild of a local decorator who leased the former residence of the British consul and spent three years and $5 million restoring the space, furnishing it with antiques, and replanting its gardens, giving it the aura of the old Shanghai: decadent, elegant, lavish, and sophisticated. While we rhapsodized about the sweet shrimp, the fish fried with pine nuts, and the quail’s eggs roasted with octopus and pork, our Chinese friends were impressed by the romaine salad—an exotic touch in such a setting. Dessert is not always Chinese cuisine’s strong point, but I will remember the crisp date pancakes with sesame seeds forever.

After dinner there, we went to a jazz club that felt like a speakeasy, and met up with artist friends; later, we headed off to the perennially fashionable Face Bar, where we met a Chinese doctor friend of Han Feng’s who took my pulse and prescribed a health regimen even as we lounged on opium beds drinking hot brandy toddies; the next day, I found myself being whisked off to the acupuncturist.

Ordering in Chinese restaurants is an art. In New York, Han Feng will spend half an hour talking to a Chinatown waiter about what she wants. If saints are usually represented with their primary attributes, then Han Feng should be painted with a menu. She reads the pages as if they were poems—poems in need of editing—and seems to inspire the kitchen with her particularity and her fervor. She inquires about the freshness of ingredients and tries to balance the meal so that it has hot, cold, and tepid dishes; spicy and mild tastes; fish, meat, and vegetables; heavy flavors and lighter ones. Each meal needs to be conceived as a whole. The Chinese spend a larger proportion of their income on food than almost any other nationality. In his great book, Food in Chinese Culture, K.C. Chang talks about “food as social language” and “food linguistics”; in dynastic China, you respected a visitor by cooking a dish yourself even if you had servants; you honored ancestors with food sacrifices. The food is the society.

The best food in China is not necessarily in the splashiest places. Crystal Jade is in a Shanghai mall and looks like it, but the Cantonese dim sum there is divine—fried potato dumplings that melt in your mouth; roasted skin of baby pig, duck, and chicken; shredded daikon with dried shrimp layered in a kind of phyllo pastry. Across town at Jade Garden, the throbbing bass beat from the nightclub downstairs obtrudes, but not enough to diminish the lotus root stuffed with sticky rice or the tea-smoked duck, which is to waterfowl what Lapsang souchong is to Lipton.

On New Year’s day, we drove to Hangzhou, where Han Feng grew up. There is a saying in China that when you die there is heaven, but when you live there is Hangzhou. The city lies beside the West Lake, where pleasure boats travel from island to island, and the sun glints off the urban skyline on one shore and elegant, tall pagodas on another. A typical local dinner includes chou doufu, or “stinky tofu,” which tastes like elderly athletic socks left through a muggy summer in a dank locker and then boiled in sour milk; a street hawker of chou doufu was recently arrested for violating air-pollution laws. It is an acquired taste I have yet to acquire. We headed to the gala opening of the new Hangzhou Opera House, and afterward, unready to call it a day, indulged in a late-night foot massage: our feet were soaked in Chinese herbs, pounded with rubber mallets, rubbed with heated salt, and kneaded in every conceivable direction. We drove back to the hotel at 2 A.M. in a state of absurd bliss.

The following day, we went to lunch at Longjing, a tiny establishment with just eight tables arranged in private pavilions around a beautiful garden in the middle of a tea plantation. This was Chinese cooking so refined that some of its particular triumphs were lost on our inexperienced palates. We had 22 dishes: rare delicacies such as steamed turtle wrapped in lotus leaves; a broth of locusts and old duck (old ducks are supposed to warm you up in winter), which sounds rather bizarre but was in fact glorious; a rich, delicate soup called Heroes’ Soup in honor of the fish in it, which are boiled alive; fatty pork slow-cooked for four days and served with eggs; and braised venison. We had quenelle-like fish balls, made by nailing a fish to a plank, scraping the flesh off one layer at a time so that it becomes completely soft, beating the resulting mush with cold water into a foam, then poaching it. “Making that is hard like hell,” Han Feng said, “and no one has ever done it better for an emperor.”

We drank the fresh local Longjing tea, for which the restaurant is named, while a violin prodigy, winner of the Paganini competition and part of Han Feng’s extended circle, gave a sweeping virtuoso performance, at once precise and passionate and thrilling. Han Feng took us to the Ming-era Guo Family Garden at the west end of the lake, less touristed than some other Hangzhou parks and magnificently restful, and later we visited the Zhiweiguan restaurant. Where Longjing served up food that was very exotic to a Western palate, rare and understated tastes impossible to conceive outside of China, Zhiweiguan was so glitteringly splendid and yet so wholly accessible that it could sustain a hopping trade on New York’s Upper East Side. For one dish, the chef cut a single narrow 11-foot-long strip of pork (like a continuous ribbon of apple peel), spiraled it into the shape of a stepped monument at Chichén Itzá, and roasted it. At the table, the server unwound it, cut off short pieces, and wrapped them in spinach pancakes. A whole chicken stuffed with garlic had been wrapped in thin paper and then encased in salt before baking—the meat was almost implausibly juicy.

Few foreigners go to Shaoxing, and it is hard to understand why. The canals are romantic and dreamy, and the Ch’ing dynasty houses are built right down to the water; the windows are adorned with carved wooden screens, and women kneel beside the water to scrub laundry; the canal boats are as intimate as gondolas, and the boatmen use their feet to push the big oars. You can always see the grand pagoda on the hillside just beyond the city, and on the day we were there, someone was listening to Beijing opera quite loudly, and the music echoed down the byways. To get to and from the canal boats, you travel by bicycle rickshaw through winding, enigmatic streets too narrow for cars. We ate at Xianheng, and had several variations on chou doufu, some palatably mild. I took more eagerly to another local fermented specialty: Shao­xing rice wine. We also had eggplant with a peppery okra-like vegetable, and caramelized-pork buns, sweet and rich. For dessert there were sticky rice cakes with black sesame seeds, an almost bitter flavor, and honey. Han Feng led the toasting, and we felt ready to burst with food, alcohol, and pleasure. We realized that we were having an average of 12 dishes at each meal, and that we were having two meals a day, and that we were going to be in China for 21 days, which meant that by the time we left we would have tried more than 500 dishes. We took some deep breaths.

For the Chinese, there are two great cuisines—Sichuan and Cantonese. Travelers know Cantonese, because it is the cuisine of Hong Kong, but the Sichuan province is still off most tourist maps. Chiles are to Sichuan cooking what salt is to the sea. Sichuan natives talk about peppers the way other people talk about sports teams. Their cuisine makes Mexican food seem bland, but the heat is layered and complex, the different kinds of hot spices mixed and remixed, toasted and fresh, soaked in different agents to create a range of intense pleasure and exquisite pain. The trademark Sichuan pepper is hua jiao, which is in fact not a pepper at all, but the dried fruit of the prickly ash plant. Amazingly potent, it makes your mouth numb, but it is a wonderful numbness. You can feel it setting about its anesthetic work as soon as you taste it, yet at the same time it seems to make your taste buds somehow more intensely awake. It’s almost as if whatever you’re eating has been stewed in cocaine. Strange at first, it becomes an object of longing.

We had lunch at My Humble House, a very unhumble restaurant in Chengdu in a park surrounded by bamboo groves and waterways. The style is upmarket modern Chinese, with giant scholars’ chairs, a silk-draped four-poster bed on which you can loll, pools of carp, halogen lights, and tables scattered with silk rose petals. The food is Chinese fusion—incorporating the influence not of Western food, but of the multiple branches of Chinese and Southeast Asian cuisine—so, for example, the traditional Cantonese shark’s fin soup is made here with the addition of creamy pumpkin.

Sichuan is justly famous for its teahouses. Most Chengdu businessmen leave their offices in the afternoon and conduct business over tea. Women go to play mah-jongg, gossips to gossip, children to play. We went to Yi Yuan, the most beautiful teahouse in Chengdu, in a restored Ming garden with a dozen courtyards, reflecting pools, pavilions, walkways, gaming tables, great sculpted lake rocks, and bridges framed by pines. We sat at a table next to some Buddhist monks and drank perfumed tea.

On entering China Grand Plaza for dinner, I felt as Marco Polo must have at the gates of the Forbidden City. Here in what I had foolishly thought was the middle of nowhere was dazzling opulence. You walk through enormous doors into a vast lobby where a pianist is playing Chopin on a concert grand, and see porcelain and furniture that could easily be in one of the world’s better museums. China Grand Plaza includes an art gallery, a spa with three gigantic heated pools and a bevy of gorgeous masseuses, two karaoke bars (one of which has a glass ceiling in which fish swim around), four restaurants, and hotel guest rooms. The feeling is of extravagant elegance, albeit with a touch of Goldfinger.

A member of the staff, in black with white apron and gloves, stands before each of the doors down a long, vaulted red-lacquer hallway. We were ushered into one of these private rooms, which make up the haute Sichuan restaurant; there is no communal space. Amid burnished Ch’ing candle stands and expressive Ming calligraphy, we were given fresh tea and glasses of bai jiu (Sichuan brandy), which burns like wildfire all the way down. We had “husband and wife” (spiced beef and pork lungs) and jellyfish with coriander, and then a light consommé of fresh worm-herb, which, famous for its health-giving qualities, sells on the open market for as much as $2,000 a pound; food and medicine are not clearly delineated in China. Floating in the broth was a poached soufflé of bean curd and chicken. Abalone came over bricks of crisped rice. Kung pao chicken was full of the freshest hua jiao. Halfway through dinner, a dancer came to our room to do a private “face-off.” In this old Sichuan tradition, a sequence of brightly colored cloth masks is worn in layers. As the dance unfolds, the dancer pulls a hidden string and one mask after the next is revealed. After dinner, we were offered Cuban cigars and a bottle of 1988 Château Lafite Rothschild, but, choosing our indulgences, had massages instead.

Chengdu is the great unsung city of China. In addition to incomparable food, it has wonderful sights: a panda-breeding center, where you can see the animals up close, including the adorable new cubs; the Wenshu monastery, with its chanting monks and holy processions; and, a two-hour drive away, the 233-foot-tall Leshan Grand Buddha, carved into the Lingiun Hill rockface in the eighth century A.D. to subdue the violent confluence of two rivers. It is the largest Buddha in the world—its big toe is 28 feet long.

We went native that night: Sichuan hot pot. Hot pot restaurants abound in Chengdu, and a local friend led us to Huang Cheng Laoma, where there are two burners built into the middle of each table, allowing us to have one cauldron chockablock with chiles, and one with a mild broth of chicken and sea horse. We ordered some 20 trays of stuff to cook in them, including sirloin steak, chicken, alligator livers, bamboo pith, bamboo-pith fungus, Chinese spinach, sausage, freshwater and saltwater eels, five kinds of mushrooms, Sichuan ferns, fresh lotus root, and slivers of beef throat. Whatever we cooked in the spicy soup we dipped in sesame oil with onion; whatever we cooked in the mild one we doused in a salty herb sauce. After dinner, we went to another teahouse to see Sichuan opera—a cavalcade of face-off, puppetry, dance, dexterous clowns performing folktales, acrobatic stunts, magic tricks, and masked flame-blowers.

Beijing residents, prohibited from debating who would be the best Party leader, have instead turned their critical attention to a more pressing question: Who makes the best Peking duck? There are many details to consider. Is the preparation too refined or flashy? Is the skin too fatty or dry? Is it cooked over applewood or apricot? Is the sauce bean- or fruit-based? Should the skin be dipped in sugar? How should the duck be carved? We went duck-hunting seven times. Among the restaurants that cater in good part to Westerners, we liked Commune by the Great Wall and Made in China; among those more for the locals, we preferred Xiangmanlou. Commune by the Great Wall is a hotel composed of villas by leading contemporary architects. From each villa, you can climb up to the Wall and walk along a pleasantly unrestored section that is yours alone. We had the restaurant’s traditional Peking menu, which includes fried shrimp balls, duck soup, braised cod, dumplings, and the duck.

Made in China is in the Grand Hyatt, so you certainly don’t feel as if you’re discovering someplace obscure; you could be in L.A. or New York. Nonetheless, the wisdom in Beijing is that it’s the city’s top restaurant, and everything we had there was delicious. We ate shrimp boiled in green tea, and poached chicken with spicy peanuts. The duck skin had separated entirely from the duck; it was crisp and firm and unfatty, but not brittle. The pancakes were papery thin, and the sauce was made from sweet beans mixed with honey and sesame oil, then reduced to a satisfying thickness.

Xiangmanlou has no frills, though it is clean and pleasant, and the bill for six people would barely have covered sandwiches in New York. Beijing families crowded every table. The duck skin here is divided—the best is put on a special plate, and the so-called “hard skin” is served separately. The duck is fattier than at Made in China, but in a sinful way, like foie gras. A soup of duck bones follows. We had fish too, brought to us flopping around in a basket before its execution.

The best Beijing street food is the jianbing, and the best place to get it is the stalls outside the Baoguo Temple complex, now a flea market. The seller first spreads batter on a wide iron griddle to make a crêpe with scallions in it; then breaks an egg over the top and spreads it around so it cooks into the batter; then flips it over and slathers on bean sauce and chile sauce; and finally wraps the whole thing around a piece of sweet fried bread. It’s steamy and fresh and eggy and starchy and delectable.

To vary our massage addiction, we tried out a late-night ear massage. The Beijing place was like a comfortable hospital—extremely clean, and the massage girls wore nurses’ hats. Before a statue of the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kuan Yin, a variety of offerings had been made, including a high-calorie health drink—in case mercy was getting a little thin on the ground.

We celebrated and mourned our last night in Beijing at the ultra-high-concept Green T. House, with its chairs upholstered in feathers, revolving colored lights, exhibitions of contemporary art, rocking horse in the corner, mirrored tables, and so on. The scene is very sceney, screamingly cooler-than-thou. The menu is an absurdist document, the poetry of which, already strained in Chinese, becomes endearingly ludicrous in English: “A Little Caviar Sashimi with Unimaginable Sauce” or “Mystic Beef Rolls Stuffed with Enoki Mushrooms and Mozzarella” or “Bliss Upon Cuttlefish” or—my favorite—”Erotic Dance by Six Mushrooms Around a Lonely Chestnut.” The food is somewhat less impressive than the titles, but the models smoking long cigarettes and the young hipsters with amazing haircuts are unparalleled.

For 21 days, we ate Chinese food at every meal, except for one night, in Beijing, when some beloved American expat friends threw a dinner party for us at their apartment. They had managed to borrow the chef from the French Embassy, and he did a terrific job. But Western food tasted strange after the alluring flavors of China. Having to cut things up seemed vulgar and tedious; the buttered fresh vegetables seemed to lack imagination; and the beef, though cooked to perfection, seemed sort of chunky and bland. It was hard to switch back. We had culinary jet lag and all the familiar things felt wrong for a little while; like scuba divers, we had to come up gradually to avoid getting sick as the atmosphere changed. Then we got into the sweep of the evening, and loved every minute.