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Peking Cuisine: The Food of Emperors

-- Peking Cuisine in Taiwan

By Lydia Brown Chiang

Hanging in the window of a restaurant in your neighborhood you might see rows of ducks, waiting to be roasted, carved, and served as Peking duck, once a dish of emperors. The emperor of China, however, could not survive on roasted duck alone. You will be surprised at the remarkably wide array of Peking foods, many of them unknown to most diners.

Chinese food is categorized into geographical categories: Eastern food, including Shanghai style dishes, are known for their seafood and sugary taste. Western Chinese foods, such as Szechwan and Hunan dishes, inporate a lot of chili peppers, making them very hot and spicy. Southern cuisine includes Cantonese-style dishes with sweet and sour combinations. Northern foods, also called Peking foods, are famous for their flour dishes such as breads, noodles, and dumplings. According to Ming-shen Chen, chief chef at the Celestial Restaurant, there are three main distinctions of Peking food. The first is that it is not greasy. "Very little oil is used to cook northern foods," he said. Secondly, Peking food is a "little more salty" than other Chinese foods. And lastly, Peking cuisine is not considered spicy.

The origin of food from Peking dates back hundreds of years. Chef Chen explains that "Chefs from all over China went to Peking to cook for the Emperor, and many cooks opened their own restaurants offering the best foods from all different regions." Also known as "foods of the emperor," many of the recipes were smuggled out of the palace and variations were created by local cooks, adding to the uniqueness of the dishes. With the fall of the Ching dynasty in 1911 and the rise of the Republic, all of the court chefs were forced to leave the Forbidden City. Many of them established restaurants in Peking rather than returning to their native provinces.

Today, many of the original Peking style dishes cannot be found in China; however, the traditional cooking methods still survive--even thrive--in Taiwan. Over 50 years ago, the people of Taiwan began to enjoy Peking foods from small shops and street carts operated by Peking immigrants. Today, the shops and street carts have evolved into noted restaurants, giving Taiwan many venues offering true Peking food made by the same traditional methods that once pleased the emperors. Few changes have been made to the recipes, giving diners a royal treat. However, most of the cooking methods have been modernized to meet the demands and standards of today's consumers.

Imperial Selection

Taipei has Peking restaurants that range from the exclusive, gourmet dining experience to the relaxed local setting. The Celestial Restaurant is located on the second floor at No. 1 Nanking W. Rd. Prices range from moderate to very expensive. Under the guidance of general manager Tiger Chen, whose father was chef to a famous warlord in mainland China, the Celestial Restaurant serves food fit for a king in sterling, china, and crystal place settings. This restaurant has won international awards for its food.

Chen says that many of his customers are tourists who have heard about the restaurant by word of mouth and make a point of stopping by while in Taipei. "Many of our guests come back to Taiwan just to eat here," Chen claims. If atmosphere is what you are looking for, try the King Join restaurants with several locations in Taipei (one at No. 18 Szuwei Rd.). King Join restaurants are famous throughout Taiwan for their desserts. Although King Join offers an authentic-type setting, it specializes in hsiao tien hsin (small sweets) which consist of cakes, congees, and cold sweet soups rather than full-course meals.

The manager of King Join's Jenai restaurant, Chang-der Liao, said that many of their recipes "date back to the 14th century, during the Yuan dynasty." Although there are many kinds of Chinese snacks, the ones offered at King Join are known as "the favorites of the Forbidden City," according to Liao. At King Join, diners can enjoy snack cakes and desserts such as Junket (flavored sweet milk), Many Grain Cake or papao wo wo tou (....), and Sweet Pea Curd or wan tou huang (.....). For a more relaxed, family style setting, you can dine on Peking food at Do It True, which offers rare delicacies without the luxurious atmosphere at moderate prices. You might spot local celebrities or famous international visitors at this well-known establishment. Located at No. 506 Jenai Rd., Section 4, Do It True is owned and operated by Gee-shen Hsu, who is one of Taiwan's veteran Peking chefs.

Peking Favorites

The most famous Peking dish is Peking Duck (Peiching kao ya). Preparation takes several hours. The ducks are first cleaned; then air is blown into them so that they puff up, allowing the meat to cook evenly and the juices to flow throughout the birds. The ducks are marinated and basted with a sugar and water combination and air dried for three to four hours. This allows the skin to cook crispy and tasty. They are then roasted in a barrel-shaped oven over a low charcoal fire for more than 40 minutes. The charcoal adds a distinct flavor to the birds. The proper way to eat Peking Duck is to place slices of meat and skin, scallions, and a drop of sweet soy bean paste on a thin pancake, and then roll it into a pocket. Although not in the same standing as the Peking Duck offered at restaurants like the Celestial, Peking Duck can be bought on street corners as Chinese take-out food.

Another famous northern foul dish is Smoked Chicken. Prepared in almost the same way as duck, Peking Smoked Chicken (Peiching hsun chi) is a beautifully presented whole chicken, golden brown on the outside and juicy soft on the inside. Prepared using the traditional method, the chicken is marinated in a special sauce and then roasted over a charcoal fire which is covered with pine nuts, giving the meat a nutty flavor and the skin a crispy texture. This delicious dish is served in chopped quarters; there is no special method for eating it, except to simply enjoy it.

Among the most popular Peking foods are dumplings (chiao-tzu). It is not uncommon to hear of one person eating 30 or more dumplings at a setting. Steamed, boiled, or fried, Chinese dumplings are small flour pies, shaped like fruit tarts and filled with vegetables, pork, or beef. The large, steamed variety is best. Try dipping your dumpling into a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar, chili sauce, and sesame oil to enhance the flavor. Fried dumplings are slightly thinner and longer than the steamed and boiled varieties.

Healthy and Savory

A mainstay in Asian diets, tofu, or bean curd, is high in protein and fiber. Celestial Bean Curd was a favorite dish in the Forbidden City. However, you won't find it in Peking today. The name and the cooking method have changed drastically since its conception in order to make it "prettier." Called lao yeh tofu in the past, this dish consists of tofu covered with mushrooms, abalone, and ham slices. Served in the center of a big platter with vegetables and a gravy made from chicken broth, the result gives both the eyes and the palate a treat.

Unique to Peking cuisine is a quick, dry-frying method without added oil. This allows meat to blend with other ingredients, enhancing the flavor but leaving the meat tender. Lamb with Leeks (chang pao yang jou) is made in this fashion, giving it a smoky, burnt flavor. Another meat dish is Fried Pork Balls, which are small meat balls that have a crisp outside and soft juicy inside.

Unique to northern style tastes is the Sour Cabbage Chafing Dish (suan tsai huo kuo). A cold-weather favorite, this dish contains vinegar-flavored vegetables preserved for the cold season. A traditional Peking-style hot pot is cooked in a copper chafing dish over a charcoal fire, and served with a combination of fatty pork, lamb, or deer, sour cabbage, and mixture of 16 sauces and spices.

One dish that must be tried at a Peking-style restaurant is the Chinese "hamburger" (chiang jou hsao ping). It is a combination of two dishes--sesame biscuits (shao ping), which are hand-made from wheat flour topped with sesame seeds, and fatty pork (chiang jou) baked in a charcoal oven. Do It True is well known for its shao ping. The way to eat one is to put a slice of the fatty pork inside the biscuit, making a juicy sandwich. Chiang jou shao ping is a good side dish with noodle dishes or hot pot, or as an appetizer.

Hsiao tien hsin, found in a number of restaurants and bakeries, are served as desserts or late-night snacks. Unlike Western-style desserts they aren't overly sweet, but instead are a little tart and gummy. Here are some of the more famous Peking desserts: Lotus seeds with Crystal-sugar (ping tung lien tzu), a soupy, sweet seasonal snack; wan tou huang, a yellow-colored steamed cake made from garden-pea flour and sugar, and said to have been a favorite of the Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi; papao wo wo tou , a steamed dumpling famous in the Manchurian court; Junket (nai lao), fresh milk with fermented rice and sugar; and Violet Rice Congee (tzu mi chou), a purple-colored sticky rice served in a sugary soup. Another unique favorite is yogurt, which, unlike Western-style yogurt, is plain with a sweet, milky flavor.

To accompany any of these Peking dishes, one must try a glass of Peking plum juice (suan mei tang), which is not only a traditional drink but a tasty addition to the meal. It enhances the taste of the food. Now, hurry right out to enjoy a delicious meal "fit for an emperor."

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