Localities lend names to foods
When traveling to new places, sampling local food is one of the best and most delicious ways to understand a different culture.
In fact, food and place are sometimes so intertwined that the mere name of a location can conjure up mouth-watering associations. Think chicken Kiev, Kalamata olives, Edam cheese, Angus beef, spaghetti Bolognese and Vichyssoise soup. China is no exception. Many of this nation’s most famous dishes take their names from their places of origin, like Peking duck. The travel map of China is dotted with such namesake delicacies.
Dezhou braised chicken
Among the famous dishes in China, Dezhou braised chicken is named after the city of Dezhou in the eastern seaboard province of Shandong.
Notable brands of Dezhou braised chicken include a restaurant named Deshunzhai (德顺斋), where chef Han Shigong was credited with creating this dish in the late Qing Dynasty (1644–1911).
Dezhou braised chicken is all about shape. After all the feathers and innards are removed, the wings are twisted at the back and the legs tucked into the cavity of the bird.
This configuration is described as “a duck floating on the water.”
The whole chicken is coated with maltose and deep-fried until golden brown. The bird is then braised in a rich stock containing more than a dozen herbs and spices for six to 10 hours, depending on size. It’s important to note that no green onions, garlic or chili should be added.
The long cooking time allows the chicken meat to soften and absorb the flavors. When served, the meat easily falls off the bones.
Dezhou braised chicken rose in prominence after it became a signature dish on the old Tientsin-Pukow Railway. The Tianjin to Nanjing route, predecessor of today’s Beijing-Shanghai Railway, opened to traffic in 1912, and passengers were delighted with something so good to eat on a long journey. When Soong Ching-ling, then vice chairman of the People’s Republic of China, traveled from Shanghai to Beijing, she used to stop in Dezhou to buy Dezhou braised chicken as gift for Chairman Mao Zedong.
Today, vacuum-packed versions of the chicken are often sold on trains and in railway stations, but the highest quality Dezhou braised chickens can be found only in the city.
Hainanese chicken rice
In the past two years, Hainanese chicken rice, one of the national dishes of Singapore, has stormed the streets of Shanghai. Franchises that specialize in the dish, like Five Star Hainanese Chicken Rice, and restaurants serving Nanyang cuisines from Southeast Asia have all jumped in to offer this dish.
Hainanese chicken rice was brought to Singapore by early Chinese immigrants from the southern island province of Hainan. The dish originated in the city of Wenchang and was made with flavorful local fowl.
Hainanese chicken rice requires very fresh chickens, which are poached at a simmer. Older, plumper birds are preferred for their more intense flavors. To achieve the jelly-like skin, the poached chicken is dipped in ice right after cooking.
The flavorful rice is cooked in chicken stock and fat, along with ginger and garlic. A dipping sauce featuring freshly minced red chili, garlic, soy sauce, ginger and cucumber traditionally accompanies the chicken. Sometimes a bowl of chicken soup is also served as a side.
This dish is now popular in many countries, where recipes have been varied to suit local tastes. During Shanghai’s hot, humid summers, many people turn to Hainanese chicken rice when their appetites are sapped by the heat.
Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles with beef
Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles with beef, or Lanzhou beef lamian, originated in its namesake city, the capital of Gansu Province.
This big bowl of chewy hand-pulled noodles and delicious beef soup with slices of meat is comfort food. Many restaurants serve a simplified version that lacks some of the traditional authentic flavor.
Lanzhou beef lamian was created in the Qing Dynasty by Chen Weijing. In its most authentic version, is requires one clear (soup), two whites (daikon radishes), three reds (chili oil), four greens (cilantro and garlic sprouts) and five yellows (noodles).
The hand-pulled noodles are made with high-gluten, high-protein flour. The dough is kneaded with warm water in the winter and cool water in other seasons because the temperature of the dough should be kept at around 30 degrees Celsius to create ideal elasticity for extensive pulling.
Penghui (potash) was often added to the dough to achieve even greater elastic texture, but safer additives are substituted in modern production.
The stock is made of beef meat, bones and liver, with chicken and white radish.
West Lake vinegar fish
This sweet-and-sour dish made with freshwater grass carp is named after Hangzhou’s iconic West Lake, home of the fish. The sauce that gives this fish its distinctive flavor is made with thick, black vinegar and sugar. Traditional West Lake vinegar fish has a glazing of brown sauce.
After cleaning, the fresh carp is poached gently to keep the skin intact. It is then set aside on a plate. Some of the poaching water is then added to a mixture of soy sauce, yellow wine, sugar and ginger, which is brought to a low boil. The salt and vinegar are added, along with some cornstarch water to thicken the sauce. The sauce is poured over the fish and the dish is ready to serve.
This dish can be found in the famous restaurants of Hangzhou, though some replace the bony carp with bass.
Dishes named after places where they didn’t originate
Chongqing rooster pot
Chongqing rooster pot is a chicken hotpot found across China, but it’s not from the city of Chongqing in southwestern China. In fact, you might be hard-pressed to find the dish in Chongqing. It was named after the person who created it — Zhang Chongqing, a Shanghainese. The dish is a hybrid of two dishes that do come from Chongqing: shao jigong (braised rooster) and griddle-cooked chicken.
Yangzhou fried rice
Though bearing the name of the city in Jiangsu Province, this fried rice with egg and shrimp was not created there.
It comes from Cantonese cuisine because the word yangzhou means “roast pork and shrimp.”
The dish has become so famous that the city of Yangzhou is proud to call it its own.
The first Yangzhou fried rice competition was held in the city in 2015.