In this month’s deluge of holiday gift giving manuals and wishlists, I thought I’d contribute a few tasteful ideas of my own. After all, if it truly is better to give than to receive, what better way to reward our journeys to sainthood than with the most shareable gift of all, food. And if you, like me, have embraced the admonitory predictions in glossy magazine that one will inevitably gain ten to fifteen kilos over the holidays, you may as well consume only the most exquisite calories. Here are some delectable gifts to buy or not-so-subtly hint to receive that will give collective pleasure to all around the table.
Jinhua Ham One of the triumphs of Chinese cuisine is the delicate, dry-cured Jinhua ham from the town of the same name. Made from a local slow-bred pig called “two ends black” 兩頭烏 with black hair on its head and rump and a white midsection, only the hind legs of castrated pigs are traditionally used for their high fat content, which depart a better texture and umami. The incomparable flavour of the ham is due to the pig’s genes and a meticulous nine month production process of salting and fermentation in the ideal climate of the Jinhua basin. The most prized examples have dark pink meat with slightly golden skin that turn a glossy translucent when cooked, mostly in broths to lend its rich umami taste. Unfortunately for Americans, your country doesn’t currently allow Jinhua to be imported, so you’ll need to substitute with Smithfield or ‘Jinhua-style’ ham from your local Chinese supermarket. And if you prefer to live dangerously, you can smuggle a leg of ham on your next trip to China.
Artisanal Sauces Shanghai is lucky to have one of the few remaining producers of artisanal soy sauce still made in the traditional slow-fermentation method. The family-owned Qian Wan Long Heritage Soy Sauce Factory in the Zhangjiang district of Pudong has quietly preserved this craft over the last 130 years, but has only recently been recognized with an “Intangible Cultural Heritage” award. The labour intensive process can take up to three years and is closely supervised by the brew master. To ensure the soy beans develop the layer of fluffy mold crucial to the fermentation process, he sometimes sleeps in the same room, waking up in the middle of the night to make subtle adjustments to humidity and temperature. The entire, fascinating process is documented by Fiona of Life on Nanchanglu here. The soy sauce is now sold out before its bottled, but a call to the factory revealed there will be a new batch released next month…just in time for Chinese New Year.
Just as high on the pantry list of quality sauces and slightly more accessible is the Hengshun brand of vinegar from Zhenjiang, Jiangsu province. I first visited the factory last year during a pilgrimage in search of my roots; Zhenjiang is the hometown of my maternal grandparents, and some of my extended family still live in the city and surrounding countryside. The Hengshun vinegar factory was founded in 1840, and has become one of the most well known, traded on the Shanghai stock exchange and sold in 43 countries around the world. In spite of its popularity, the factory manages to preserve its original brewing technique which begins with quality glutinous rice followed by 40 steps of fermentation, cooling and filtering before it is aged for between six months and several years to give its mellow, sweet fragrance. There’s several different varieties, including the original cooking vinegar, seafood vinegar for state banquets, table vinegar and also a ‘honey health’ vinegar in small vials that are taken once a day as a tonic. You can find the regular grade vinegar very easily in Chinatowns around the world but for a taste of the aged variety or the health tonics, you’ll have to pay a visit to the factory or specialty food stores in Shanghai.
For more on China’s artisanal food production methods, read Fuchsia Dunlop’s account of cold-pressed camellia oil in southern Zhejiang province.
Pixian Douban What is often called the ‘soul’ of Sichuan cuisine, broad-bean paste is the indispensable seasoning in classic dishes such as mapo tofu, fish-flavoured eggplant and twice cooked pork, and the brand always spoken in the same breath comes from Pixian county on the outskirts of Chengdu, where the artisan paste has been produced for the last 300 years. The area’s close proximity to Dujiangyan Dam is the optimal grounds for quality fava, or broad beans to grow in abundance, and these are the primary ingredient in Pixian douban, setting it apart from the legions of fermented soy bean pastes produced throughout China. A few years back I paid a visit to the factory and watched as the old masters with leathered skin and red-stained hands stooped over gigantic earthen crocks, stirring the mixture of broad beans, chili peppers and salt as it ferments, some batches up to eight years. The final product is a deep, dark, glossy red, and has an immensely satisfying, savoury and spicy flavour to round out your Sichuan culinary exploits.
Hanyuan Huajiao The best Sichuan peppercorn comes from Hanyuan county, about 300 km south of Chengdu. Those from the town of Qingxi in particular are prized for their pungent flavour and were even mentioned in the Book of Songs by Confucius himself. The novice to Sichuan peppercorn might be surprised to discover it is not related to black peppercorns but is rather the husk of the fruit of the Xanthoxylum prickly ash tree. The little balls of greenish pink peppercorns, clustered on thorny branches, were a symbol of fertility in ancient China and were often ground up and rubbed into the clay walls of concubines’ bedrooms, famously known as ‘pepper rooms’ jiaofang, to encourage reproductive prowess.
In “On Food and Cooking”, McGee describes the flavour as much more than just pungent; ”they produce a strange, tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation that is something like the effect of carbonated drinks or of a mild electrical current (touching the terminals of a nine-volt battery to the tongue). Sanshools (the bioactive component of the Xanthoxylum family) appear to act on several different kinds of nerve endings at once, induce sensitivity to touch and cold in nerves that are ordinarily nonsensitive, and so perhaps cause a kind of general neurological confusion.” It is this confusion that makes up the indescribable magic of much of Sichuan cuisine. It is one of the key ingredients of five-spice, and used together with chili, salt, sugar, soy sauce and vinegar to create the numerous flavour combinations for which Sichuan chefs are known nation-wide. Sichuan peppercorn unfortunately does not maintain its flavour for long, so you need to look for vacuum sealed packs or extract its essence by making your own Sichuan peppercorn oil.
If you do manage to get your hands on a fresh batch, do not miss an opportunity to whip up a dish of delicious mapo tofu. (Read my friend Jessie’s blog for excellent photos and narrative of her trip to Qingxi during harvest season.)
Wenjun Baijiu Like many expats in China, I have played out my love-hate relationship with baijiu, starting with irresponsible games of baijiu-roulette while I was an exchange student at Tsinghua, to irresponsible games of baijiu roulette when I later worked for a multinational tech company in Beijing. Baijiu is China’s national drink, a distilled grain alcohol that is omnipresent at weddings, banquets, celebrations of any kind. There are so many varieties and distillation methods that it would be unfair to sweep them all under one rug of contempt labeled with words like ‘repellant’ or ‘turpentine’ or ‘the devil’s hooch’, just ask Derek Sandhaus, who is setting out to prove that not only will baijiu not kill you, it will grow on you after the anecdotal threshold of 300 shots.
Some of the finest baijiu in China come from Sichuan province, including the famous Wuliangye, a variety made with five organic grains; millet, corn, glutinous rice, long grain rice and wheat. But my favourite to date comes from a 400 year old Ming Dynasty distillery in the town of Wenjun, about an hour away from Chengdu. Wenjun is located in the wine county of Qionglai, the ideal climate to harvest quality grains and collect unpolluted spring water from neighbouring mountains. A few years back, it caught the attention of LVMH, looking to gain a foothold on China’s luxury alcohol market, and has since been reinvigorated under the Moet Henessey brand. At the time I was asked to host a tea tasting ceremony with LVMH execs at Wenjun, and was able to taste some of the liquor straight from the distillery. It was mellow, complex, and delicate, nothing like the harsh, abrasive liquids on the shelves of Family Mart, and when added to a light green spring-water tea from Wenjun county, the result was, dare I say it, immensely enjoyable.
Feast your eyes, feast your mind And when you’ve consumed all the calories you can, it is now prudent to sit back with a good book or film…about food. Some of my favourites right now include the layman’s version of Modernist Cuisine, called Modernist Cuisine at Home, the book is much more accessible to the home cook in both its economics and sheer weight. Nathan Myrvhold and his team, including my good friend Larissa have pared down the essential techniques and recipes for a modern kitchen and given it the same stunning treatment we are familiar with from the original MC.
Not far down the shelf is Thomas Keller’s tried and true Ad Hoc at Home, America’s celebrated chef of high cuisine interpreting American comfort classics that warm the soul. Because there’s no better way to cook your way into someone’s heart than chicken pot pie, biscuits and potato hash with bacon.
For the diehard Chinese food and culture lover in your midst, consider the book To the People, Food is Heaven, a well written collection of stories about food and life in a changing China by former AP journalist Audra Ang. One of the better books of its kind, it follows Ang as she explores and seeks to understand this vast, seemingly impenetrable country where she found her subjects letting her in more often over a warm, shared meal than an interview, where police who held foreign journalists for questioning made sure her tea cup was never dry, and where the most enduring greeting is still “Have you eaten yet?”
And if visual stimulation is more your thing, simply gather around a dvd player and pop in the ever-satisfying Tampopo or the deliciously seductive Eat Drink Man Woman, both of which present a welcome opportunity to reinvigorate and reset between feasts.