Indeed, the changing nature of Chinese dishes embodies the spirit of the kitchen: it is a celebration of time and place. Just as Nom Wah food is a reflection of the Cantonese food of New York over the course of 100 years, the food of different regions in China reflects the history and distinctive terrain of each location. It’s hard to define authenticity in Chinese food – or in any cultural cuisine for that matter – just because it includes so many things.
“Chinese food is not a homogeneous block,” says Betty Liu, cookbook author (and Epi contributor), who has written a cookbook focused on Shanghai food, to which her family belongs.
She describes Shanghai food as fresh, lively and aromatic. “The whole purpose of the spices and ingredients we use—like star anise, Shaoxing wine, and aromatics like ginger and green onions—is to enhance the inherent flavors of our fish and other types of protein,” she says.
Shanghai and its neighboring provinces such as Jiangsu and Zhejiang lie on a historically fertile estuary – where the river meets the sea, teeming with freshwater fish, crustaceans, and rice fields. Because of their transitional nature, estuaries are one of the most productive ecosystems in the world. And over the centuries, the kitchen has developed a keen respect for the abundance of proteins that arose from this center of productivity. The region’s recipes and techniques are engineered to allow the key ingredient to shine through.
One of the region’s favorites is sweet, coin-sized river prawns, gently coated with egg whites and starch, quickly deep-fried, and served with wisps of green tea. And every fall, large numbers of hairy mitten crabs are steamed whole, opened, dipped in earthy black vinegar, and enjoyed in their creamy guts. There is also a special affinity for salted ducks in the area, because in ancient times, ducks were used in rice fields to help farmers remove weeds and eat insects. Everything is a little experienced, but very interesting. That is why it is called the “Land of Fish and Rice”. With each intersection of all the streams, there is a lot of focus on what can be grown in the area and because it is so agriculturally rich, that’s what made the kitchen focus so heavily on the produce that is grown,” says Liu.
But although Liu’s cookbook is a tribute to her family’s food, her recipes are often accused of not representing Chinese food enough. The accusations you receive are mostly rooted in people’s lack of understanding of the nuances of the kitchen.
“People think Chinese food is too salty,” she says, recalling a moment when one of her co-workers claimed that eating Chinese food would make one’s hands swollen due to the naturally high sodium level. “This is a big misconception.”
The fact of the matter is that China is a vast country with 1.4 billion people making up 18% of the world’s population, and its vast area – roughly the size of the continental United States – includes parts of the towering Himalayas and tropical forests. Teeming with feral elephants, lyrical sand dunes, and rocky karst mountains. All of these distinctly different regions have unique culinary traditions. Sometimes they are very special, and they can also be completely separate kitchens.