Chances are unless you’ve travelled to the mountainous province of Anhui in China, you’ve never tasted Anhui cuisine. Unlike the food of Shandong, Sichuan, Guangdong and Jiangsu, Anhui specialities haven’t travelled far beyond China. Which is a crying shame, considering that the Anhui style of cooking is highly skilled and intently focused on preserving the fresh flavours of local produce.
As Adam Liaw says on Destination Flavour China, “Anhui has long been one of the poorer provinces of China, and its cuisine is a far cry from the elegant court dishes of the capital.
“It’s simple food, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.”
Historically significant roots
It may seem surprising that such uncomplicated fare is included as one of China’s famous eight major cuisines. However, historically the influence of Anhui cuisine is everywhere in Chinese cooking.
From as early as the Song Dynasty, Huizhou merchants began travelling far beyond Anhui. Traditional farming was not enough to support a family in the mountainous region, so enterprising Huizhou (an administrative area in ancient China, made up mainly of the modern Anhui province) became sales merchants.
Throughout the Ming and Qing Dynasties, hard-working Huizhou merchants thrived. They were soon controlling large industries across China and, as they moved further and further from their homeland, they took Anhui cooking to every corner of the country.
“It’s simple food, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.”
In particular, it was part of Huizhou business culture to gather together over a Huizhou style meal to show their respect for their guests. As a result, Huizhou restaurants began springing up all over China to accommodate the Huizhou merchants’ preferences. Anhui cuisine has been considered one of the major cuisines ever since.
Frogs and pangolin tails
The flavours that the merchants were so intent of reproducing are bound to the mountainous Anhui region, so cooks across China often styled their own version of Anhui cooking with what they had available. Outside of the Anhui region, the cuisine is, therefore, less distinctive than other, more regulated Chinese cuisines.
Speciality ingredients from the Anhui province include wild-caught stone frogs, white shrimp, fish and Mati turtles from mountain streams in Northern and Central Anhui. The Southern Anhui district focuses on wild game like boar, pangolin and fowl.
There is “absolutely nothing to fear from this stinky fermented fish."
Wild and farmed pig is also widely available, so Anhui cuisine has many popular pork and ham dishes. Mushrooms of every kind, including xianggu, a tasty shitake-style funghi found on trees, are hand gathered. Dates, tea leaves and bamboo shoots are other local ingredients essential to recreating the flavours of Anhui cuisine.
Stinky fermentation is not to be feared
One of Northern Anhui province’s most famous dishes is stinky mandarin fish. Despite the name, the fermented and cured fish dish is a flavour bomb, but not especially smelly at all. Liaw tries the dish on Destination Flavour China and reports that there is “absolutely nothing to fear from this stinky fermented fish."
"I can definitely see why it’s an Anhui speciality,” he says.
So, stinky fish passes muster, but what about hairy tofu?
In the mountains, soy beans grow effortlessly, giving rise to the unproven legend that tofu originated in the Anhui province. Whether it’s true or not, the region is famous for tofu specialities like fresh tofu made in the morning to be eaten later in the day, and hairy tofu.
Gathering herbs to stir fresh into dishes is a way of life for Anhui people.
'Mao tofu' is named for the white, hair-like mould that grows on the tofu during the fermentation process. It looks understandably scary, but the delicate tendrils are what gives hairy tofu its distinctive flavour.
Foraged wild herbs are life
Of all the ingredients used in Anhui cooking, it is the abundance of wild-picked and farmed herbs and vegetables that set it apart. The region is famous for foraged bitter greens from the mountains, bayberry, tea leaves, mustard seeds, lotus root, garlic, ginger and bamboo shoots. Gathering herbs to stir fresh into dishes is a way of life for Anhui people.
In many ways, Anhui’s fermented dishes, brimming with fresh herbs, are a kind of medicine in a bowl. Indeed, the raw ingredients and low-temperature cooking techniques like braising and steaming are a healthy way to cook. Not so healthy is the tendency to add thick, starchy sauces or excess oil to dishes to optimise flavour. Anhui cooks are also known to add a sprinkle of sugar to finish a dish.
It seems fitting that the dish most attributed to Anhui cuisine never actually originated there.
Bits and pieces
The Anhui style of cooking inspired one of the most famous American takes on Chinese cuisine – ‘chop suey’, (or ‘bits and pieces’) a dish that doesn’t actually exist in China. One story has that it was created in 1896 in America by chef’s travelling with a Chinese diplomat and Anhui province native Li Hongzhang, to appeal to both American and Chinese palates.
It seems fitting that the dish most attributed to Anhui cuisine never actually originated there. Instead, the genuine flavours of the Anhui province remains best eaten in Anhui itself. Only there can the pure beauty of foraging, gathering and catching wild food to create the day’s meals be truly experienced.
Bask in a Chinese food bounty like no other in Adam Liaw's brand-new series Destination Flavour China airing 7.30pm Wed nights on SBS, with an encore Sun 9.30pm on SBS Food (Channel 33) and then after broadcast via SBS On Demand. Join the conversation #DestinationFlavour on Instagram @sbsfood, Facebook @SBSFood and Twitter @SBSFood. Check out sbs.com.au/destinationflavour for recipes, videos and more!
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