It’s time to say goodbye to the Dog and hello to the Year of the Pig. This year’s Lunar New Year, which marks the beginning of the 15-day Spring Festival in China, begins on February 5th. It’s the biggest holiday of the year for many Chinese — and for some the only time they get enough leave from their jobs to travel home and see their loved ones. But along with the reunions come a lot of traditions aimed at making sure the year ahead is lucky and prosperous.
Food is a major part of the celebration, even for citizens living on the other side of the world. But while ingredients are easy to transport, feelings of home aren’t. Nor are certain specialities that only taste their best in the place they were born. With 56 ethnic groups, eight recognized major cuisines and countless cooking styles, this menu of favourites in China could run longer than a finely pulled noodle. But these following dishes are almost guaranteed to waken the homesick bug in most mainland Chinese who live or travel abroad. In no particular order, these are the real deals, even hard to find at your local Chinese restaurant.
1. Guilin Rice Noodles
Located in southern China among clear rivers and Karst Mountains, Guilin isn’t only famous for its heavenly landscape, but bowls of refreshing rice noodles topped with preserved long beans, peanuts, bamboo shoots and spring onions.
There are noodles stalls everywhere in Guilin and surrounding areas. Locals like to mix the silky noodles and ingredients in a spicy and sour brine then eat them dry, or savour the whole combination in the beef stock. Different meats can be added. The most popular tend to be slices of beef and chunks of beef belly.
2. Yan Du Xian Soup
Yan Du Xian is a nutritious soup known as the great comfort food of the Yangtze River Delta in early spring. It’s a typical homey dish – restaurants serve it, but the best always comes from a loving mum. Seasonal delicacies, such as young bamboo shoots, chunks of pork belly, cured pork slices, firm tofu sheets and premium yellow rice wine, are put together in one clay pot for hours of simmering.
Xian is a taste unique to China and hard to find in Western food. Similar to umami, it’s subtler and often achieved by quickly cooking fresh seafood or slowly boiling meat and bones from poultry.
3. Stinky Tofu
Fried, braised, steamed or grilled – stinky tofu is delicious no matter how it’s prepared. Somewhat similar to cheese, it’s an acquired taste or one that perhaps you have to grow up with to fully appreciate. Stinky tofu is most popular in Hunan Province in central China, the Yangtze River Delta region (especially Shaoxing) and Taiwan.
Recipes vary from region to region, but the basic method is to let bean curd ferment in a special brine then deep-fry it. It can be eaten with chilli sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil or kimchi. Despite its underwhelming appearance and sharp smell, stinky tofu has a pleasant texture — crispy on the outside, tender inside.
4. Harbin Red Sausage
Harbin Red Sausage is a hugely popular cold cut in China. People get it from delicatessens and eat it on its own as a snack, with bread as a picnic food or cook it with vegetables (especially cabbage). Although traditional sausages in China are wind-dried and much sweeter than their Western counterparts, Harbin red sausages are smoked and have evolved from Lithuanian sausages.
The texture is more tender than salami, firmer than an American hotdog and drier than cooked British sausages. It’s one of the wonderful Eurasian legacies of Harbin, capital of the Heilongjiang Province, which shares a border with Russia. It was brought to China by Russian and Eastern European immigrants who came to construct the Trans-Siberian railways.
5. Lamb Hot Pot
Outside of China, spicy Sichuan hot pot and nourishing Cantonese hot pot are well known. But in China, a country closely linked to Mongolian nomads, heavy and hearty lamb hot pot is hugely popular, especially in the north during the bitterly cold winter.
Likely originating during the Yuan Dynasty and made popular by Qing Dynasty emperors, lamb hot pot is dramatic to look at – the copper container has a tall chimney in the middle to release steam from burning coal below, while the broth cooks in the outskirts of the pot. Although a variety of meats, seafood and vegetables can be cooked, the star of the meal is plate after plate of wafer-thin lamb slices.
6. Proper Street Kebabs
The most unforgettable meals in China don’t come from Michelin-starred restaurants. They’re eaten in the streets in noisy, crowded, pungent food quarters in the heart of cities. In places like Guijie in Beijing, Yunnan Nan Lu in Shanghai and Mingwalang in Nanjing, foodies can sample all sorts of freshly cooked skewers while witnessing the ultimate in food theatre.
Islamic lamb kebabs with cumin, teppanyaki-style squid with five-spice sauce, gigantic “swords” of mind-blowing spicy chicken wings, grilled fresh oysters, fried pork tenderloin slices and razzle-dazzle exhibitions of vegetables-on-sticks. Every bite of China’s street kebabs is a combination of good food and a street-side buzz unique to the country.
7. Lanzhou Hand-Pulled Noodles
The flagship halal dish of China – hand-pulled noodles – hails from the wild, sandy lands of northwest China. Each bowl is as much handicraft as hearty meal. In what’s usually a makeshift open kitchen, formidable Islamic noodle masters beat, fold and pull a flour-based dough, turning it into hair-thin noodles faster than most people can decide what to order.
A classic bowl of hand-pulled noodles comes with beef broth, slices of beef, coriander and spring onions. Another popular derivation is knife-sliced noodles, or Dao Xiao Mian. To make this, the chef slashes chunks of dough in boiled water with eye-opening speed to make shorter, thicker and wider noodles.
8. Sugar-Coated Haws (Candied Haw/Tong Hu Lu)
This is an iconic snack in northern China, especially in Beijing. Sold by the stick, the dessert-to-go tastes great and looks greater – bright red haws line up on a skewer in auspicious shapes, their sugary outer layers glimmering in the light.
Its nearest counterpart in the West might be toffee apples (known as candy apples in North America). But haws are sourer than apples, so they offer a refreshing contrast to the sweet coating. Cold northern winters ensure the sugarcoating is firm and crispy.
After all that, we hope you’ve built up a good appetite! Happy Lunar New Year to all our readers, and may the Year of the Pig bring you all great prosperity and good health!