Cuisine

People dine at a restaurant in Beijing, China, 13 August 2021. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)

Chinese economics professor: If you like salty and spicy food, your ancestors might have been poorer folk

The Big Mac index as an informal gauge of the economic standards and consumption capacities of countries is well known. But actually, there’s also the pickle index, the lipstick index, and the ultimate indicator from everyday life — the regional food flavours index. What do the saltier, bold-flavoured food in regions like Hunan, Jiangxi and Shandong, and the clean, light flavours of Jiangsu say about the relative states of their regional economies?
An ancient town in Suzhou, China. (iStock)

Cultural historian: Could we have eaten this elusive perch of Lake Tai?

Gathering with contemporaries in Nan Shi Pi Ji, a Chinese garden in Suzhou, cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai is reminded of a rare perch found in the east side of Lake Tai called lugui (鲈鳜). This was the fish that Western Jin dynasty poet Zhang Han and other ancient literati craved when they were away from home. Served raw or in its modern rendition steamed, the delicacy is almost too good to eat. Did Cheng get a chance to taste it?
A hearty bowl of swamp eel noodle soup.

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai: The ancients loved a good bowl of swamp eel noodle soup

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai enjoys a refreshing bowl of swamp eel noodle soup in Zhenjiang, Jiangsu province. He reflects that this local dish continues to be made by nameless chefs in a simple shop frequented by unassuming diners. But there’s nothing simple about that broth — simmered down with generations of humble cooking, it’s nothing short of heavenly.
People walk along an alley in Zhenjiang Xijin Ferry site, said to be the birthplace of Zhenjiang ham jelly. (iStock)

A Chinese deity and a ham jelly with a 300-year-old history

With each bite of Zhenjiang ham jelly, a traditional dish of Jiangsu province, Cheng Pei-kai remembers local folklores and heroes. There was Zhang Guolao, an immortal who dared to try meat accidentally cured with saltpeter, and also national hero Shi Kefa, who defended Yangzhou with his last breath. What would they have thought of today's tourists, nonchalantly trying a slice of ham jelly or two?
Makgeolli, usually served in a shallow bowl and downed with gusto. (iStock)

East Asian literati, Korean rice wine and writhing octopus tentacles

Sampling makgeolli or Korean rice wine with friends from the academic community in Seoul, cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai is transported back in time to the world of ancient literati in China and Korea — would they also have exchanged a story or two over a bowl of makgeolli?
A delicious bowl of Kunshan Aozao noodles. (WeChat/玉茗堂前)

A bowl of Suzhou noodles named by Emperor Qianlong

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai is lucky to have tried all ten of the most highly rated noodle dishes in China. Among them, Kunshan Aozao noodles from Suzhou stands out. Best consumed piping hot, this noodle soup served with smoked fish or braised duck leg is steeped in folklore.
A long-awaited date with hairy crabs. (iStock)

From New York to Suzhou: A professor's guide to eating hairy crabs

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai recalls the very first time he tasted Yangcheng Lake’s famed hairy crabs, not in China, but in New York. Since then, he has been smitten with the Chinese mitten crab, and is in no doubt as to why this delicacy takes pride of place in China’s food heritage.
A humble plate of scallion pancake with chive sauce. (Facebook/蔣勳)

The simple beauty of Taiwan in a heavenly scallion pancake with chive sauce 

Chiang Hsun marvels at the way a chive sauce made with Taiwan-grown produce brings out the flavours of a street stall scallion pancake so well. No question about it — this dish would win hands down against any Michelin-starred restaurant’s version. When will we learn to appreciate the natural and the down-to-earth, and eschew the shiny bright lights of the material and the shallow?
A man eats Lanzhou-style noodles at a restaurant that once served workers of the now decommissioned Liancheng coal-fired power plant in Heqiao village, Yongdeng county, Gansu province, China, 16 September 2020. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The power of food memories in shaping who we are

Food memories form part of our intangible cultural heritage. To lose them is to lose part of our culture, says cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai. The ancients certainly knew a thing or two when they laid down the golden rules of healthy eating. But they’re not the only bastions of wisdom. Every region, every village with its own terroir, has a unique food culture to pass down for generations to come — if only we’d let them.