Originating from the mountains of present-day Anhui Province, Hui cuisine is renowned for fresh, natural ingredients, delicately cooked. Zhou Yubin checks out how these rustic dishes fare in city restaurants.
One of the eight major Chinese styles of cooking, Hui cuisine doesn't - as many people mistakenly think - refer to Anhui Province dishes but food from Huizhou.
Huizhou, with its center in today's Huangshan City of Anhui Province, was a historic region in southeastern China.
It was first established in 1121 and corresponded to five counties in southern Anhui, plus Wuyuan County in the northeast of Jiangxi Province.
After stable development over more than 500 years, Huizhou became one of China's most important economic and cultural centers during the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.
Anhui combines the first characters of Huizhou and the city of Anqing, in the southwest of the province.
Huishang, the Huizhou businessmen, gained a national reputation and formed a formidable political force.
They also spread Hui cuisine to other parts of China in their business activities, so that it eventually became one of the eight major Chinese culinary styles.
Originating from a mountainous area with a mild, wet climate, Hui cuisine makes use of a rich array of ingredients from the mountains and rivers, such as bamboo shoots, fresh mushrooms, black agaric, jue cai (bracken), huanghua cai (daylily), mandarin fish and other local specialties.
With so many herbs and fresh vegetables, Hui cuisine boasts not only a fresh taste but is also healthy. Huizhou people mainly stew, simmer or steam ingredients to keep their original taste and freshness.
Frying and stirfrying are used much less than in other Chinese culinary styles.
Traditionally in winter local people enjoyed taking their meals near the fire, with a large pot boiling different ingredients that were ideal for fighting the cold. The Hui tradition reflects this old lifestyle. Oil and soy sauce are the most important flavors in Hui cuisine, while the cooking period is also a big factor.
To taste authentic Hui cuisine, the best place to go is Yellow Mountain. In addition to the stunning scenery, the restaurants nearby provide the freshest mountain produce and retain authentic flavors.
Despite its unappealing name, stinking mandarin fish tops the must-have list at many Yellow Mountain restaurants. The fish is preserved in salty water for six to seven days, then fried and braised in soy sauce. Although salting gives the fish a distinctive smell, the original texture of the flesh is well preserved and infused with a delicious and unique taste.
Another signature dish is Jixi stew, which features the typical cooking technique of Hui cuisine. Ingredients such as ham, chicken, beef, bamboo shoots, mushrooms and green vegetables - mostly fresh and seasonal - are carefully selected and put in a large pot in a delicate and precise sequence and arrangement, then stewed with soup stock.
Jixi stew is one of the best choices during festivals and family get-togethers. Its rich array of ingredients creates a warm atmosphere and should include something to suit everyone's taste.
Hui cuisine also offers different snacks such as dried vegetable cake , wonton and sesame pastries. Again, the best examples are found in the Yellow Mountain area.
Some Hui cuisine restaurants in Shanghai have incorporated elements of local Shanghainese cuisine and lost the authentic taste as a consequence. But they can still provide a taste of Hui fare before you plan your trip to the actual Huizhou area.