There’s an interesting, and at times hilarious, thread on Chinese cooking tradition on Chowhound – lwong’s dryly witty comment had me laughing out loud:
‘We see that the posters here on the “Home Cooking” Forum are a very tough bunch. Especially when 1400 years for the technique of “stir fry cooking in a wok” is not considered a sufficient time to have passed the “long test of time” in terms being considered a classic cooking technique, nor the introduction of the New World foods, which would only be in the neighborhood of a mere 700 years.’
It reminded me of the fact that many of the professional Chinese cooking manuals I have encountered in my work begin their introductions with an account of the discovery of fire, the moment when human beings ceased being savages who 茹毛饮血 (literally ‘ate feathers and drank blood, i.e. ate birds and animals raw), and embarked on the path of civilisation by cooking their food. It also reminded me of the late Chinese premier Zhou Enlai who, when asked for his assessment of the 1789 French Revolution, supposedly replied that it was ‘too early to say’.
Anyway, the Chowhound discussion was triggered by a question about what brand of soy sauce to serve with xiao long bao (小笼包）. Actually, as some of the posters suggested, these deliciously juicy dumplings are normally served simply with a dip of rice vinegar and slivered ginger. Chinkiang vinegar, or black vinegar as it’s often called, is actually made from glutinous rice, and the dark colour comes naturally from scorched ricegrains.
Incidentally, I went recently with a chef friend to the wonderful Islington wine shop The Sampler, where you can taste small amounts of a wide range of wines. We began with modestly-priced examples of some fine Sancerres and New World Sauvignon Blancs, and ended up with a swig of a 1955 Pauillac, which was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever tasted – utterly delicious, as rich as an old Spanish ham, smooth and glorious, in a league of its own. Afterwards, we went back to my place and had an impromptu tasting of Chinese sesame oils, soy sauces and vinegars.
My friend, who is currently working as head chef at a very well-known restaurant in the West End of London, could not believe the quality of the artisanal sesame oil I’d brought back from Hangzhou, from the small factory I wrote about recently in the Financial Times. He was bowled over by it – it was SO much better than the toasted sesame oils available in the UK.
Of the soy sauces, the stand-out favourite was the Clearspring Tamari I use most often at home. It had a richer, more rounded flavour than the Kikkoman and Pearl River varieties we also tasted. I find this the closest soy sauce to the artisanal soy sauces I’ve tasted in China.
As to vinegars, I gave him a few different kinds of Chinkiang vinegar to try. We tried three produced by the famous Hengshun vinegar factory in Zhenjiang (Chinkiang), and a cheap Chinkiang vinegar that I’d bought in London’s Chinatown. Two of the Hengshun vinegars were fairly sharp, but the 10-year-old vinegar that I was given by the manager of the factory when I went there was superb, a bit like an Italian balsamic in some ways. The cheaper one tasted dull and musty by comparison. I wish the matured Zhenjiang vinegar was more widely available.