Flavours of the east

February 5, 2017

A trip to China turns out to be a spectacular culinary journey

Flavours of the east

I have been a great fan of China over the years and every interaction strengthens my belief that the future lies in the east. For the past 14 years, my exposure to China is through Alibaba, a B2B portal where I have come across highly-committed, hardworking and industrious people from all over China.

Recently, I was very lucky to be part of a delegation of female entrepreneurs visiting China as guests of the Chinese government, and experienced the richness of their culture firsthand.

Little did I know that a trip to the economic super power would turn out to be a rich culinary journey. Most of the Pakistanis I had met or talked to were very skeptical of the food choices in China. Here we were, a diverse group of women from varying age-groups and ethnic backgrounds, embarking upon what would turn out to be a trip of a lifetime.

Our first introduction to Chinese food was through Hunan cuisine, well-known for its hot spicy flavor, fresh aroma and deep colours. The food was light and delicious and a treat to look at. Braised fish, stir-fried cumin beef, chilli and loach tofu and sautéed bok choy with vibrant colours was not only beautiful to look at, but equally satisfying for the palette. Braised whole fish cooked to perfection retained the moisture and flavour leaving more to be desired.

Every dish had a distinct flavour, was delicately cooked and presented elegantly. All this, accompanied by hot drinking water made digestion easy.

The next day we went to a multi-storey restaurant that only served Peking duck and that too with reservations well in advance. Peking duck is a duck dish from Beijing that has been prepared since the Imperial era. Sliced, crispy duck served with pancakes covered with Hoisin sauce was a complete knockout. The deeply-flavoured crunchy skin crackled with every bite. The meat was extremely moist and tender and full of flavour. True to its reputation that nothing gets browner, crunchier and duckier than Peking duck, this was a mouth-watering experience. The main course was wrapped up with duck soup made from the remaining duck bones - the perfect way to close the lunch and a must-have in Beijing for anyone who enjoys good food.

Our next treat was the Mongolian hot pot. The Mongolian version of the steaming feast has been called ‘the father of all Chinese hot pots’. Chinese hot pot has a tradition of more than 1,000 years. A festival of flavours, the simmering broth was individually served in beautifully-crafted cloisonné pots with all raw ingredients placed in the centre. From thinly-sliced meat to the colorful vegetables to the raw shrimp and sliced fish, each item was delicately cut and artistically presented. The flavour and the freshness of food served in beautifully-crafted pots that could find a place in tableware museum, and the thrill of trying out a new way of cooking made for an extraordinary dining experience.

I always thought that cooking is an art, and here we were sitting in this restaurant marvelling at this unique experience and the ability of this great nation to be the best at almost everything.

We also had the opportunity of visiting a bustling local fast food restaurant. We were running late for dinner after the Kung Fu show and insisted on dining in a casual local restaurant but ended up instead in a five-storey fast food Chinese restaurant that was open 24/7. For reference, the restaurant was 20 times the size of BBQ Tonight in Karachi and twice as busy. I cannot imagine a place doing this volume of business around the clock anywhere else in the world other than China. With the kind of traffic that this restaurant was attracting, it is needless to say the food was very good.

Our next stopover was Shanghai. I have travelled from Chicago to Madrid, Amsterdam to Istanbul, and Bali to Barcelona covering more than 20 countries but never have I seen the breakfast spread that I experienced at Pu-dong Shangri-la.

The buffet, spread over a couple of hundred yards was reminiscent of vibrant food markets where you can spend hours on end exploring. The aroma, the presentation, humming crowd in the backdrop of multiple culinary stations featuring Chinese, Western, South-East Asian, Japanese and European cuisine was a spectacular culinary experience. To add to this unending variety was the tantalising array of fresh seafood on ice, a selection of charcuterie and cheese, and intricately-prepared desserts.

One could easily spend hours exploring the width and breadth of this delectable spread; hence, I missed out on breakfast the first day just enjoying the experience of looking at this gorgeous set-up until it was time to leave because our guide was waiting outside. For the next 2 days, I made sure to be amongst the first few people who turned up at 6:30 am so that I could have 2 hours clear before we started our planned visits. This was a food gallery showcasing food from around the world unlike anywhere else and was not to be missed!

We, in Pakistan, always talk about the west - be it education, shopping malls, food franchises or exploring touristic places. Based on this wonderful experience, I believe China is the place to visit. It offers a lot more than what one can imagine in all spheres of life. The hospitality of Chinese people makes it even more desirable. Making the most of Pak-China friendship, we should look eastwards and explore this relatively less-travelled country.

Flavours of the east