Taking the Chinese takeaway back to Peking: Introducing a short series based on a period of travel around the mainland in search of the country's authentic cuisine

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Indy Lifestyle Online
MOST national cuisines are saddled with a few generalisations, some pretty insulting. The French call us les rosbifs because of the rich complexion, short fuse and underdone culture they associate with the stage Englishman; we call them frogs because they eat all sorts of disgusting things.

The equivalent images associated with China are extensive: the rice bowl, chopsticks and takeaway; the fact that Chinese cuisine on the mainland has been under state control since 1949; the idea that if I didn't finish the food on my plate ('Think of those starving Chinese') this was going to have a drastic effect on flood victims along the Yangtze; the nightmare of more than a billion of them (they all seemed to be in Peking or Shanghai while I was there, mostly on bicycles); and a propensity to eat things we don't: dogs, jellyfish, expired eggs.

But one of the reasons one travels at all - now that it has become the most wearisome of modern activities - is to disabuse oneself of cliches. How true are they? Is the Chinese food we eat in the UK, or just about anywhere else in the world, anything like the real thing? Is it true - as many friends and connoisseurs advised me before I left - that the best Chinese food is to be had, not in China, but in Taiwan or Hong Kong?

Certainly I remember well my first visit to Asia (which was as recent as when Joe Bugner fell to Muhammad Ali in Kuala Lumpur) and my instant realisation - since backed up by many further visits - that Chinese food outside Asia is a pale shadow of its true self.

This does not mean that it isn't often excellent (I've had remarkable Chinese meals, especially of fish, in Peru, and in private houses in Paris), but it's not the same thing. My revelation in Malaysia came one night when several members of the boxing-scribe fraternity decided to break away from Ali's entourage and go to the coast 'to eat Chinese'. The dish that converted me was a pepper-crab. This was a large crab, indeed, carefully steamed; the miracle of it was that a tiny hole had been drilled in its shell and a hot pepper sauce inserted; the hole was then resealed and the crab cooked.

It was a genuine revelation not just because the crab tasted delicious, but because the care and ingenuity involved in cooking it (nay, even thinking of such a dish) showed an aspect of Chinese food that I had not yet seen in operation: the extraordinary care that goes into a labour-intensive preparation.

Now I have eaten Chinese food (most South-east Asian food is Chinese in tradition) throughout the region: on splendid strolls in the Singapore markets, eating food from the abundant stalls; in superb banquets served by friends in Hong Kong, deliciously miscegenated Portuguese-Chinese cooking in Macao, and simple seaside meals around the Philippines. At the same time, having just spent nigh on two weeks eating in mainland China, I can report that while very good Chinese food is served elsewhere, there is a certain authenticity to eating in China itself that is worth the trip.

If you ask me why I use that word 'authentic', I have to answer that it is because Chinese cuisine is extraordinarily traditional, and while those traditions are inevitably altered and adapted to local tastes in other parts of the world, they remain - at least in the better restaurants - reasonably unsullied by innovation in China itself.

In part this is due to the fact that most Chinese cooking abroad is taken there by the more enterprising and mobile of the Chinese, the southern Chinese, or, more exactly, the south-eastern Chinese, with the result that most Chinese restaurants in the Western world represent the traditions of Canton and Shanghai; and, fine though these are, they are not the totality of Chinese cooking.

Then, too, as with learning a language, there is something to be said for total immersion in a foreign cuisine, in learning to eat it the way the locals eat it, accepting its limitations, appreciating its values, and enjoying those ingredients which are native to the place. In practical terms, this meant maintaining a delicate balance between the most expensive and 'fancy' restaurants in town, and the simplest.

It must be said that there are difficulties to accomplishing a gastronomic tour of China in a short time. First, there is the matter of internal communications. These are, in a word, hopeless. When I inquired how to get to Xi'an in particular and western China in general, I was told I could have a seat on a plane on 6 July]

Second, there is the matter of Chinese eating hours, which require dislocation of one's habits: eating lunch at 11 and dinner at five. Third, there is the question of information. There is no Michelin (or any other) guide to Chinese restaurants, so it is next to impossible to guess (without expert local advice) where one might best eat. Fourth, there is the painful subject of selection. As everyone knows, a Chinese menu is vast. And also inscrutable to a foreigner. In not a single restaurant did I find anyone who spoke any language but Chinese (this in a country which aspires - as a 'more open China' - to the Olympics for the year 2000])

The results of this learning experience I will be passing on to you over the next few weeks.