When I think of Chinese food, dishes from the Chinese takeaway menu like Sweet & Sour Pork, General Tso’s Chicken, and Beef with Broccoli come to mind. I’m embarrassed to say this is mostly what my education on Chinese food consisted of. That, and maybe dumplings – the kind you find in crowded tea houses in New York with little old women pushing carts of hakaw, siu mai, chicken feet, taro something-or-other, and sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves.
That being said, getting to try the complex Huaiyang dishes put together by the super talented Chef Anthony Dong from Futian Shangri-la in Shenzen puts my big serving of beef with broccoli to shame, looking sloppy and sad in its Styrofoam container. Huaiyang cuisine, for those of you who haven’t been inducted into the art of Chinese cooking (like yours truly), is widely seen in Chinese culinary circles as the most popular and prestigious style of Jiangsu cuisine and is considered to be amongst one of the Four Great Traditions that dominate the culinary heritage of China, along with Cantonese cuisine, Shandong cuisine and Sichuan cuisine. Chef Dong was a guest chef at Shangri-la Makati last July 20 – 30, 2014 and gave gourmands a taste of the complex cooking style of Huaiyang.
To start the Huaiyang meal, there were the pretty tasting portions of the Jiangnan Style Appetizer Combination. It’s a mouthful to say but is basically five starters to nibble on to whet the appetite and looked like little pieces of art. Don’t let the small size fool you, all of them do their job of whetting your appetite and leaving you wanting for more.
Clockwise starting from the bright green ball:
The Marinated Minced Spinach with Green Mustard was devilishly hot, with the sweet, sweet pain trying to climb its way into your nostrils, making you tear up while you relish the heat. Someone at our table made the mistake of eating the whole spinach ball in one go, so he just tried to choke the sphere of wasabi-ed spinach down without completely breaking down and gasping for the pitcher of water at the far end of the room.
The prettiest appetizer on the plate that people almost didn’t want to touch (because it was so dang cute!) was the Stewed Snail with Garlic and Chili Sauce. The suave-looking snail was made out of some type of hardened glutinous rice of some sort (I really couldn’t make out what it was), but the morsels of abalone that made up the shell was delightful.
The little cup of Marinated Chicken and Sliced Abalone with Wasabi is best savored slowly, so you can taste all the flavors that just seem to melt in your mouth. I can only describe the chicken to be similar to that of Hainanese Chicken, with a little heat from the touch of wasabi – the hotness level being relatively mild when compared to the fiery green spinach ball.
My favorite of the five flavor-wise was the Deep-Fried Fish with Five Spices, which looked and tasted more like crispy pork belly than anything else. Biting into the fish let out a whisper of a crunch, with the five spices melding in ones mouth, coating the meat and breaded skin with a sweet, sour, spicy, salty flavor, typical of most Chinese cuisines.
And lastly, what I thought were simple cucumber slices in a slice of squid was actually a very delicate-tasting Marinated Cuttlefish and Japanese Bean Curd. This was gone in two bites, with the flavor of the marinated piece of cuttlefish just shining through.
Huaiyang cuisine characteristically founds each dish on its main ingredient, and the way that ingredient is cut is pivotal to its cooking and its final taste. After showing off just how beautiful he can make the simplest of dishes look, Chef Dong showcased his knife skills with the Braised Bean Curd Ball in Superior Broth. What I thought were stands of noodles was actually strips of very, very, very thin tofu, a technique that can only be achieved by a very skilled chef and a very sharp knife.
A crowd favorite is the simple yet delectable Deep Fried Shrimp with Oatmeal. Similar to the cereal prawns more commonly found in Singaporean cuisine, with the big difference being this big prawn ball was coated in light, flaky cereal after it was cooked through.
As if I wasn’t already impressed by Chef Dong’s creativity and culinary skills, this next dish just blew me out of the water. What looked like stewed apple in a sweet sauce was actually an amazingly executed Braised Beef Cheek with Red Wine Pear. The Chinese pear, which is firmer and not as sweet as its Western counterparts, is steeped (and I’m guessing even stewed) in red wine until the fruit absorbs the liquid and the color, hollowed out in the center and filled with a very generous chunk of braised beef cheek. You would never think this combination would ever work, but it did, and I bravely tried to get through as much of the beef and pear as I could before the next dish came out.
The Braised Bamboo Asparagus in Superior Broth was a rather odd dish, with bright green asparagus spears wrapped in thin, almost translucent slivers of bamboo shoots with wolfberries on top. I have mixed feelings towards this plate of vegetables as it tasted a bit sweet yet medicinal at the same time. This is not something I’d particularly enjoy.
As with any Asian dish, rice is always a staple at the dining table, and Huaiyang Cuisine is not exception. The Fried Rice with Preserved Meat and Shrimp was both sweet and salty at the same time. I’m not really a ricevore, but my friends at the table gobbled it all up pretty fast, so it’s safe to assume it was pretty good.
To end the incredibly filling meal, there were plates of Assorted Fruits with Gelatin going around. Juicy globes of watermelon, honeydew, and dragon fruit circled a heat-shaped piece of candy red strawberry gelatin in the center, a rather befitting end to the meal.
Chef Anthony Dong’s introduction to Huaiyang cuisine was not only delicious, but educational as well. The attention to detail, the knife skills, and the thought that goes into each dish is extraordinary – definitely light years away from the beef stir fry we get from those hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurants!