Anhui Cuisine: A Taste of Home

Anhui cuisine is one of the Eight Culinary Traditions of Chinese cuisine. Anhui Province is a poorer inland province west of Shanghai and its dishes value the original flavour of raw materials and its cooking style emphasises the use of heat and is characterized by heavier use of oil, thick starchy sauces, and dark reddish-brown colour of the food.

Anhui cuisine

Confucius Institute Reporter Liu Mo
文/ 刘寞
Anhui cuisine has its origins in She County, which is located at the foot of Mount Huangshan and was known as Huizhou in ancient times. Its dishes value the original flavour of raw materials and its cooking style emphasises the use of heat and can be categorized into lower temperature stewing, quick frying and slow frying, paying close attention to changes in cooking temperature. Anhui cuisine is known for its cooking techniques such as frying, stewing, steaming, braising, etc. and is characterized by heavier use of oil, thick starchy sauces, and dark reddish-brown colour of the food.

Zhang Quanxin, a typical Anhui native, is the executive head chef at a well-known Anhui restaurant in Xicheng District, Beijing. At the age of 17, he left his hometown in Anhui with his uncle and started his career in the kitchen by trimming and washing vegetables. He has always stayed with the same restaurant and was finally appointed its executive head chef, responsible for the style of its dishes. In his thirties, he got married and settled down in Beijing, and his wife is also an Anhui native. When it comes to Anhui cuisine-his livelihood, he said: “The dish ‘stinky mandarin fish’, introduced in the documentary A Bite of China (Episode I), really made Anhui cuisine instantly popular. Yet unlike Sichuan and Shandong restaurants, which can be found everywhere, Anhui restaurants are not so visible. Anhui cuisine is characterized by ‘heavy use of oil, darker colouring of the food and strict use of heat’, which generate a strong smell of cooking. At work I am immersed in the smell; when I get home the smell is still there. Fortunately, my wife is also from Anhui and she always says that my smell reminds her of our home province”. The excited look on Zhang Quanxin’s flushed face and the strong “home province” smell he emits gives the impression that Beijing has become his new home, where he has his own family, his own career, his sentiment towards home and his smell of home.

Anhui cuisine

Zhang Quanxin is most adept at making “stinky” mandarin fish, and its deliciously “stinky” aroma permeates throughout his restaurant. The smell is not the odour of rotting fish, but a peculiar smell resulting from the brining and fermenting process in making the dish. The fresh mandarin fish is first soaked in light brine in an earthen jar at a temperature of around 25°C. After six or seven days, the fish will give off a slightly stinky smell; however, the gills are still red, the scales are still attached and the texture of the meat has not deteriorated-the characteristics of “stinky” mandarin fish. It is said that over two hundred years ago, along the Guichi area of the Yangtze River, a fishmonger was to deliver barrels of mandarin fish to customers in She County. In order to prevent the fish from rotting, he rubbed salt onto the fish. Unfortunately, when he reached his destination the fish had already started to smell. As he didn’t want to throw them away, he cleaned and cooked the fish for himself. To his surprise, it tasted extremely delicious! As a result, other people began to follow suit and the recipe for this dish has been passed from generation to generation and improved at the same time.

Anhui cuisine

Anhui cuisine, a remedy for homesick Anhui merchants

The Anhui merchants’ guild was one of the ten largest merchant guilds of ancient China. Its origins date back many hundred years and the first records of Xin’an merchants can be traced back to the East Jin Dynasty (317-420AD). They travelled long distances all over China, opened channels of trade among different regions, strengthened connections among centres of trade, and contributed to the rise and prosperity of regional and city markets. As a major force in ancient Chinese trade, merchants from Anhui enjoyed hundreds of years of prosperity and were unmatched in term of the amount of their capital, their numbers, the size of their trading area, the number of professions they worked in and their management ability. Following the footsteps of Anhui merchants, Anhui cuisine spread across the country, bringing a flavour of home with them on their travels.

Being able to enjoy foods from home became the best way for the merchants to quell their homesickness. Anhui cuisine, therefore, became more and more popular. Anhui  chefs often went on similar journeys to those taken by Anhui merchants, which can be described by the saying “Due to mishaps in the previous life, they were born in Anhui. At the age of twelve or thirteen, they were left to fend for themselves”.

Due to the long journeys and business needs, Anhui merchants had to put up with the hardships of being away from their families for long periods of time and the financial hardships of running a business. Their families, therefore, would console and comfort them by sending them homemade foods that can survive long journeys. Being able to enjoy foods from home became the best way for the merchants to quell their homesickness. Anhui cuisine, therefore, became more and more popular. Anhui  chefs often went on similar journeys to those taken by Anhui merchants, which can be described by the saying “Due to mishaps in the previous life, they were born in Anhui. At the age of twelve or thirteen, they were left to fend for themselves”. They would leave home at a young age and turn to their relatives and friends to help them start their careers. Many of the Anhui chefs did not acquire their culinary skills at home. Instead they left at the age of twelve or thirteen for such economically developed regions as Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Shanghai and were apprenticed to cooks to learn the culinary skills of Anhui cuisine. The Anhui restaurant business has become the means by which those “who were left to fend for themselves” can earn a living and settle down. The commodity of their trade is simply Anhui cuisine. “A town without merchants from Anhui cannot be a real town; in every town, there must be an Anhui merchants’ guild.” “Wherever there is an Anhui merchants’ guild, there must be an Anhui restaurant.” With Anhui restaurants, those who are away from their homes and families and nave travelled long distances to do business are able to enjoy tasty hometown dishes even in faraway lands, an effective remedy for their homesickness. Anhui cuisine is a taste reminiscent of home. Others may enjoy Anhui dishes for their flavour, while the people of Anhui can taste the nostalgia for their hometown.

Anhui cuisine
Jujube

Sweetness of the original flavour

Heavy use of oil, darker colouring of the food and strict use of heat are the distinctive characteristics of Anhui cuisine, but its core lies in preserving the “original flavour” of its ingredients. Just like when love is strong, its sweetness can become irresistible.

The preparation of glazed jujubes bound in golden silk serves to demonstrate this point. Fresh jujubes from Huizhou are prepared through many delicate steps such as slicing, candying, drying, shaping and baking, among which the most difficult step is slicing, requiring even slices at the appropriate depth. The end product has multiple slits on the surface, and is oval in shape and golden amber in colourhence the name “glazed jujubes bound in golden silk”. It is said that the recipe for glazed jujubes originated from Xiaofukeng Village in Baiyang, She County in ancient Huizhou, when a woman once cooked and dried fresh home-grown jujubes and sent them to her husband who was a merchant away in Suzhou in order to show her love for him. The husband, however, sent a message back which read “The jujubes are not bad but they are not sweef’. In the following year, she boiled the jujubes in some honey, but the husband sent another message back that read “Although they are sweet, the sweetness is only in the skin”. In the third year, the wife cut the fresh jujubes to make a lot of slits in the skin before boiling them with honey. This time her jujubes were highly praised by her husband. After that, the recipe spread in popularity and has :flourished ever since.

Being able to enjoy foods from home became the best way for the merchants to quell their homesickness. Anhui cuisine, therefore, became more and more popular. Anhui  chefs often went on similar journeys to those taken by Anhui merchants, which can be described by the saying “Due to mishaps in the previous life, they were born in Anhui. At the age of twelve or thirteen, they were left to fend for themselves”.

Five years ago, Zhang Qiaoyin went to Beijing to work and she took some glazed jujubes with her, as is her habit whenever she was away from home. She found that her workmates also enjoyed eating the jujubes so she started a business selling glazed jujubes. She registered an online store on Taobao (a Chinese website for online shopping similar to eBay and Amazon) and got in contact with a manufacturer back home that produced authentic glazed jujubes. In three years, the rating of her online store reached crown status. “My aim is to be the most successful seller of glazed jujubes on Taobao. Then, I’d like to set up a factory of my own and make the tastiest jujubes so that I can sell Anhui ‘s best glazed jujubes to the whole country.” In ancient times, the woman only made glazed jujubes to satisfy her own husband’s appetite when he was away from home, but what Qiaoyin wants to do is to bring this Anhui delicacy to all parts of the country.

Anhui cuisine

The “flavour” of home-made Anhui dishes

On the day of laba, the 8th day in the last lunar month just before the Spring Festival, every household in Anhui would make sun-dried tofu or laba tofu. It is made with a particularly firm tofu from Huizhou that is then dried in the sun. Each piece of laba tofu is in the shape of a disk, 20cm in diameter and 10cm thick, and made by compressing tofu in a round cloth bag. The top surface of laba tofu dips a little in the middle to make it easier to rub it with salt as a part of the drying process. It is placed on a plate so that salt water that drains through can be held and reabsorbed by the tofu. Above the tofu, fish net or red ribbons are hung to protect it from birds during the drying process. The finished laba tofu is golden on the outside but silvery inside. It can be eaten raw in slices and it not only smells delicious but also has a nice texture and taste. With the appearance of yellow jade, it is very soft, moderately salty and a little sweet but deliciously savoury. It tastes even better if it is flavoured with dried sea shrimps and other seasonings when being dried. Laba tofu is usually strung on a straw string and hung in a well ventilated place, and can be kept this way for three months without going bad. It can be enjoyed on its own or fried or stewed with meat. Laba tofu is easy to transport and convenient for Anhui merchants to carry on their travels. It can also serve to remind them of their families and homes. Moreover, since each laba tofu appears to be coated with gold and silver white inside, it also gives the male merchants from Huizhou the auspicious description, “those taking in gold and silver”.

The top surface of laba tofu dips a little in the middle to make it easier to rub it with salt as a part of the drying process. It is placed on a plate so that salt water that drains through can be held and reabsorbed by the tofu. Above the tofu, fish net or red ribbons are hung to protect it from birds during the drying process. The finished laba tofu is golden on the outside but silvery inside.

Ms. Zhang has been living in Beijing for many years and can speak proper mandarin Chinese. Nevertheless, every year when she returns home to celebrate the Spring Festival, she always brings back some laba tofu made by her mother from her hometown in Anhui. “I have to have the tofu twice a week. I also eat it whenever I miss my mother. She is getting on in years. Since she refuses to live with us in Beijing, sometimes we only see each other once a year. Whenever I have laba tofu, it brings back my childhood memories of Spring Festival celebrations, as the flavour of the tofu is exactly the same as before. Time really flies. I was a child back then and now my son is of the same age. He also likes eating laba tofu,” said Ms. Zhang, lost in her memories, as if she was lamenting the passing of time or reminiscing about the time she was with her family…

Chinese people have a very stubborn attitude toward food. What they look for is not only the unchanging favour, but also the deep sentiments associated with the food. When they eat food, they taste the flavour of home, and it is that heart-felt affection that quells their homesickness. In a sense, food is no longer simply food, but a source of longing, a characteristic of Anhui cuisine and also of China.


Confucius Institute 40

pdfPublished in Confucius Institute Magazine
Magazine 40. Volume 5. September 2015.
View/Download the print issue in PDF

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