Foodie Corner,Stories

Anhui Cuisine (徽菜)

Anhui Green Tea

Anhui Cuisine might be one of the lesser-known Chinese kitchens, yet it has plenty to offer. Densely populated Anhui Province has an interesting geographic position: While the plains north of Huai River are considered part of China’s North in climate and culture (beifang), the hilly area in the South, marked by Yangtze River, is part of China’s South (nanfang). Thus, there are considerable differences in culture and customs within the province, which lead to a very diverse food culture.

Luckily, I found Dandan, an Anhui local here in Zurich, to tell me all about the food in her home province. She is getting her Master’s degree at ETH and is a passionate foodie. Talking about her favourite Anhui dishes we started craving Chinese food, especially as we were munching on a not-so-delicious canteen meal.

Dandan explained that the ”Hui” of Anhui Cuisine (Chinese: 徽菜, literally “Hui Dishes”) derives from historic Huizhou, which now is the area of Huangshan City. This means that the famous dishes of Anhui Cuisine are originally mainly from the area around Huang Mountain in the very South of the province.

However, her hometown is in the East of Anhui next to Yangtze River and close to Nanjing, which is one reason why she is not too familiar with famous Anhui dishes such as “Stewed softshell turtle with ham” (火腿炖甲鱼) or “Stinky Mandarin Fish” (臭鳜鱼). For the latter, watch this beautifully shot video from a CCTV documentary:

The other reason why she hasn’t tried many of these famous dishes is that these are rather dishes for a fancy restaurant but not for home-style cooking. Just like my interviewees on Jiangsu and Guangdong Cuisine, Dandan sees a marked difference between what common people (老百性) eat and what is considered a “famous dish” (名菜) of a local cuisine.

One of the local specialities she likes to snack on is a kind of tofu called “Caishiji Chagan”. Caishiji (采石矶) is the name of a beautiful spot on the shore of Yangtze River, which attracted poets and calligraphers alike. From our introduction to Jiangsu Cuisine, you should already know what “Chagan” is: A rather firm kind of marinated and sometimes smoked tofu which can be eaten as a snack but also makes a great addition to many dishes.

From the same area is also a beef sauce from the brand “Jincaidi” (金菜地, literally: Golden Field). Around 2014, there was a huge hype around their sauce with hearty chunks of beef, caused by an influencer on Weibo who put up a post about it. It is popular not only because of its taste but also because it can be added to almost everything to make it taste better.

As for general flavor, the food of Dandan’s hometown is rather salty. Many dishes are made adding preserved meat and veggies or other fermented ingredients that give Anhui dishes a special note. So apart from the “Stinky Mandarin Fish”, there’s also the famous “Stinky Tofu” which also gets its special flavour from fermentation.

Because Yangtze River is so close, freshwater fish are an important staple of her home cuisine. There are many delicious fish soups, including soups using Crucian Carp (鲫鱼) as the main ingredient which gives off a rich, white broth. The ingredient Dandan misses most are fresh bamboo shoots which can be made into many delicious dishes such as Wenzheng Mountain Bamboo (问政山笋) but will add a fresh note to almost any dish.

Anhui cuisine bamboo shoots
Freshly picked Bamboo shoots. Image from Wikimedia:

Lastly, Anhui Province is also famous for its tea. Most popular are its green teas such as Huangshan Maofeng or Liuan Guapian, but also the most popular Chinese black tea in the West, Qimen or, as the English called it, Keemun Black Tea. It is part of the English Breakfast Tea blend which you might have tried. As you know, I am a huge Chinese tea fan (yes, visit my site and could go on and on about tea, but let’s save that for another occasion.

Anhui Green Tea

To finish off, here are two recipes for you to try at home because I couldn’t decide for just one. One is a summer dish and one a winter dish, or, to be exact, a Chinese New Year dish. As in the vein of this interview, these are rather simple dishes that may not be the most recognizable dishes from Anhui but will give you an impression of simple, home-style Chinese food.

Egg Dumplings (蛋饺)

These dumplings with a skin made of eggs are a typical New Year’s dish in the Yangtze River area. As for the filling, you can choose whatever you would like. The most popular choice in China is minced pork but I am sure you can come up with other options. For the skin, you just beat up several eggs and make a small omelette. Then add the filling in the middle and fold the omelette. Wait until it’s golden and move on to the next one!

Fried Watermelon Skin Stripes (炒西瓜丝)

Have you ever tried the white part of a watermelon? It is actually quite tasty! When fried, the stripes become crispy but still preserve a moist inside which makes it a great dish for hot summer weather.

For the watermelon skin, you need to cut off the dark green outer skin as well as the inner red part. Then, cut everything into thin slices and then cut the slices into strips.

Add oil to a frying pan and, if you like a little bit of spice, some dried chilli. Once the oil is hot, add the watermelon skin stripes and toss them a bit. Then add salt and chicken powder to add flavour. Continue frying for about one minute. Enjoy!