Delicious cuisine … and no bones about it

Li Anlan Ma Xuefeng
From down-to-earth street food to fine dishes celebrating ultimate craftsmanship, the pursuit of perfection is what makes Chinese cuisine charming and inclusive. 
Li Anlan Ma Xuefeng

Shot and edited by Ma Xuefeng. Subtitles by Wang Xinzhou, Li Anlan and Andy Boreham.

From down-to-earth street food to fine dishes celebrating ultimate craftsmanship, the pursuit of perfection is what makes Chinese cuisine charming and inclusive.

Chinese people love to eat bones, let it be pork trotters, duck neck or chicken feet. To Westerners, chicken feet used to be a very daunting food and eating them messy and far from elegant.

But in Huaiyang cuisine, which originated in Yangzhou and Huai’an in Jiangsu Province and is among the four major cuisines in China, removing bones from fish, poultry or even a pig’s head to make spectacular dishes is almost an art form.

Gao Xiaosheng, executive Chinese chef at the Pudong Shangri-La, East Shanghai who’s been heading the acclaimed Huaiyang restaurant Gui Hua Lou for 16 years, is a master of traditional Chinese fine cuisine, and he noted that Huaiyang cuisine places an emphasis on diverse knife skills, such as the famous wensi tofu dish made by chopping soft tofu in extremely thin shreds that could pass through the eye of a needle.

The classic Three Heads Feast is the apex of Huaiyang cuisine’s knife skills and cooking.

The first head is shizitou, or lion’s head meatball, which creates its perfect tender and juicy texture by chopping the lean and fatty pork in specific ways, thus avoiding the meatball being overly sticky or dry when cooked in broth.

Then, the fish head made with the giant head of silver carp, and the twist to this dish is that the fish head that looks intact has no bones.

“Cooking the silver carp head is about experience and knowledge of the fish’s bone structure, every single bone is extracted after a whole fish head is steamed, which must remain unbroken, then the deboned fish head is flipped over in a container, seasoned and cooked thoroughly, the dish is served with bamboo shoots and green vegetables on the side,” Gao said.

The third head is braised whole pig’s head, also served whole without any bones. An experienced chef would pick a pig’s head of moderate size, preferably from a black pig. After removing all the hair from the meat to eliminate any unpleasant smell and taste, the bones can be extracted from the raw pig’s head, which is then braised in rich sauces.

Another way to remove the bones in the pig’s head is cook it over a high heat so the meat shrinks to make deboning easier. The chef must know every part of the ingredient very well to achieve the perfect shape.

Not every Huaiyang restaurant would make this dish, said Gao. People seldom eat the braised whole pig’s head nowadays, and a chef may not even make the dish once or twice in a year.

Another Huaiyang classic is santaoya, a dish that wraps a pigeon inside a mallard, which is further stuffed inside a Gaoyou duck. All three birds are deboned without the skin, meat or shape broken. The concept is similar to the holiday dish turducken, which consists of deboned chicken, duck and turkey.

“For santaoya, we need a Gaoyou duck that’s at least 2 years old. While removing all the bones, the duck must remain intact without any scratches on the skin, the process is a test of the chef’s knowledge of anatomy,” said Gao.

“The idea of combining the three kinds of poultry is to blend the fragrance and taste of the three ingredients — rich Gaoyou duck, flavorful mallard and delicate pigeon.”

He demonstrated the deboning technique of the birds, which starts with removing the skeleton from the body. Using a small knife and a pair of scissors, Gao carefully separated the bones while preserving as much meat as possible, paying extra attention to handle the skin so no marks are left during the process.

The neck and head of the poultry was also preserved. The joints connecting the legs and wings with the body were separated, so all the bones of the body part could be pulled out.

“The Gaoyou duck requires most work because as the outer layer, it must be perfect, and while removing the leg bones, we would break the large chunks of meat in the process so it cooks better in the broth,” Gao said.

The mallard and pigeon were deboned in the same way as the Gaoyou duck, and after they are stuffed into one another and then closed up, the final product is boiled in water to remove blood and then stewed over a low heat for more than two hours, seasoned with ginger and scallion. Yellow wine is added later to boast the aroma of the dish, and slices of bamboo shoot and ham are placed on top of the Gaoyou duck.

The peak of Huaiyang cuisine was during the time of Emperor Qianlong’s reign in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). He traveled down to the south of the Yangtze River on tours. The salt merchants in Yangzhou were very wealthy people who sought after the best things in life, and extravagant feasts like the Three Head Feast and santaoya were popular.

Delicious cuisine … and no bones about it
Li Anlan / SHINE

Santaoya is a classic dish from Huaiyang cuisine that consists of a deboned Gaoyou duck, a mallard and a pigeon combined to present different flavors and textures after it’s simmered in a clay pot for five hours and topped with ham and bamboo shoots.

Delicious stuffing

Besides deboning poultry and pig’s heads, fish can also be served bone-free and stuffed with a delicious filling.

Traditionally, Huaiyang chefs used mandarin fish to make this fine dish. Using a small, narrow knife, the bones are extracted from the raw fish from the mouth without breaking the delicate skin.

“You must know every part of the fish well to remove the bone, the knife enters the fish from the mouth to separate the meat from the bones, then carefully break the bone at the tail by feeling it with your hand, the entire bone is then pulled out, leaving the fish in perfect shape and form,” said Gao.

Gao uses yellow croaker to make the classic stuffed fish dish, and he can remove the bones from a small, raw yellow croaker in less than a minute. The empty fish is then stuffed with a filling of sautéed shrimp, crab roe, fish balls and grapefruit flesh, which creates a balanced, compound flavor.

“In the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), there was a tale of an assassin who hid a sword in a fish to kill the Wu emperor. If a sword can be hidden inside the fish, we can also fill it with delicious food,” said Gao.

In terms of technique, santaoya is more difficult to make than fish or pig’s head.

These dishes are also seasonal — santaoya is at its best in the fall because ducks are most succulent at the time, so is the silver carp head.

“It takes a chef at least three years to master the basic knife skills and deboning techniques of Huaiyang cuisine, and it takes a lot of attention, patience and hard work,” said Gao.

Delicious cuisine … and no bones about it
Ti Gong

Chef Gao Xiaosheng fills the deboned yellow croaker with crab roe, shrimp, fish balls and grapefruit flesh.

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