December 15, 2014
In a country of 2 billion people, many of whom live very simple, subsistence lives, it is perhaps not surprising how important the ritual of eating is in China – and how an immersion in the real Chinese food culture changes all of one's preconceptions about the world's most ubiquitous takeaway.
Even though my roving journey in September was to visit the nation's wine regions (and conduct a few wine tastings with some very enthusiastic young Chinese), deliciously fresh, flavoursome and for the most part identifiable food never seemed to be very far from one's elbow.
Like the quick Sunday night snack of chook's heads in Yantai in Shandon Province before slumbering in the amazing Treaty Port Winery – a replica of a medieval castle built by an enterprising Scot.
Or the Junding Winery located near Pang Li, a massive complex comprising a hotel, racecourse, golf club, and some pretty good dry Riesling, followed by beers, pigs ears and a market seafood smorgasbord. This remarkable dining experience was capped off by a decent bottle of Yalumba’s The Virgilius Viognier.
And the small winery of Jia Bei Lan – great wine, small vineyard, state of the art winery – on the border of Inner Mongolia, where it is customary to toast the butterflied barbecued lamb (many times) before demolishing it.
In this historic region of Genghis Khan we swung alternately between some of the cheapest, simplest and most delicious roadside stir fries to Western style wine dinners featuring Yinchuan lamb - dry marinated with lots of pepper and spices and perfect with Yalumba The Signature Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz.
We ate banquet style at almost every meal, so we got to try many dishes, but my favourite was always duck. Wherever it was served it was cooked perfectly with fragrance and tenderness. In fact, the most expensive meal was in Beijing – Peking Duck (of course).
But diversity is everything. One of the cheapest and most satisfying meals we had was at a small village in the Ningxia region. Off the beaten track, we ate at an amazing street restaurant – full of hungry local residents it was clearly very popular. We had pork with chilli, fresh vegetables, fungus and noodles. It was crunchy and tender at the same time, spicy enough, yet beautifully balanced with a number of other rich sweet and sour flavours.
Many of the meals we ate were swimming in tanks as we walked in. But the one meal I just couldn’t eat was pigs ears! Served as an appetiser with peanuts, to enjoy with a nice cold Tsingtao Beer, I was promised they were crunchy, but they were far from it.
An "ah ha" moment was the understanding that came with the tradition of eating many different dishes at once.
The Chinese table is always groaning with taste sensations and I grew to appreciate that alternating fresh and textural foods (and wines) keeps the palate fresh and invigorated. The Spanish also do it with tapas style meals too, and it made me think more about the Western order of eating – appetiser, entrée, main course, dessert versus a table full of surprises.
Some Chinese dishes are amazingly simple, others a blend of a complex combination of all sorts of spices and textures. In “MasterChef Australia” we've learnt to talk about the hero of the dish: pork, duck, beef. But in China the dishes have a perfect blend of acidity, saltiness, and sweet and sour flavours. It makes you consider the dish as a whole – a taste sensation, which leaves one satisfied, not bloated. Fresh and full of flavour, you don’t feel like you need to eat a huge volume to be satiated.
As a winemaker I'm always seeking similar balances: acid, tannin, structure, savouriness and line. It’s not about the individual components, rather, the overall sensation.
If I had to spend the rest of my life eating Chinese food I'd want a good supply of two wines: Grenache and Viognier. I knew these were great Asian food wines anyway, but enjoying them with authentic Chinese cuisine really highlighted how well they matched the complexity and vividness of spicy flavours.
And of course there is always tea. It is consumed by the litre in China and for good reason. Like a good glass of wine it offers a balance of astringency and refreshment, which seems to work well with every food. One of the most sublime experiences of the journey was in a tiny tea shop in Hong Kong. Hidden away from the rest of the busy, bustling humid world outside I enjoyed an exclusive tasting session, similar in so many ways to a wine tasting, where all of the senses are alert to the nuances of colour, aroma and taste. I enjoyed it immensely.
So given that this was really a wine tour, would I leave the Barossa for the local Chinese red wine I tasted?
Without trying to cause a diplomatic incident – no.
But for that fragrant, plentiful and energisingly joyful and affordable food culture.