My friend apologized that the area of Beijing had only local restaurants, nothing grand, but I learned long ago that there is fabulous food in hole-in-the-wall places in China. I didn’t explain just how down and dirty I would happily go, since I’d already shocked enough people by riding the subway to meeting with senior executives. I’ve sat on little plastic stools eating steaming dumplings from round bamboo tray, damp and dark with years of use, and gnawed on cumin-crusted skewered meat alongside scrawny workmen in stringy tshirts, who found us as exotic as we found them. A story for another day, when we weren’t discussing business.
Thisrestaurant was simply “local,” a big downstairs restaurant with a vast menu of northern Chinese dishes. We were there to discuss a food publishing project, so my friend ordered distinctive dishes she thought I would like to try, including sour cabbage dumplings and sea cucumbers in a dark, sweet sauce. But the dish I gravitated to was this surprising salad, Qian Long Bai Cai, or Emperor Qian Long’s cabbage.
Uncooked vegetables are not typical of Chinese cuisine, and I was fascinated by how simple it was, and how beautiful. Sesame sauces are one of the treasures of Chinese cooking (more on that in future posts), and this is as simple as they come. The rich sauce slips into the rippling curves of the green cabbage leaves, and glistens on the fine leaf ridges. The dish came to the table first and we nibbled it, plucking pieces with chopsticks, throughout the meal.
I was glad to try an emperor’s dish because on our trip to Hunan a few days earlier I’d been frustrated by not getting the province’s most famous dish, Hong Shao Rou, or Red-cooked Pork. This dish is often served in Beijing, always with the announcement that it was Mao Zedong’s favorite dish, and I assumed it would be front and center at every meal in Mao’s home province. Perhaps it is too homely to be served to foreigners.
In French cuisine, many dishes bear the name of the king or general they were known to please, or of a famous battle or location where the dish first provided sustenance and pleasure. Crab Louis, for example, bears the name of Louis XIV, the Sun King (1638-1715).
Mao’s favorite dish, Hong Shao Rou, is made from fatty pork belly, stewed until melting and tender with sugar and rice wine, ginger and star anise. There were small plates of the pork at a couple of the banquets, amongst a vast array of other delicious dishes, but they weren’t hot. This doesn’t matter with most Chinese dishes, but it does with such fatty meat, and when I’ve even Hong Shao Rou before it’s come in a deep casserole. I decided, regretfully, that I would simply have to satisfy my craving at home when the weather got cold. Fortunately, Hong Shao Rou is easy to make. I’ll post the recipe soon, and do some extra laps in the pool, too, since it is very rich indeed.
This salad, though, is light, and perfect for a summer meal. It would go nicely with grilled chicken, or as a side with hamburgers. First, the recipe sent by Scarlet, in Chinese and then in machine-translated English and our adaptation:
步骤 1 把白菜洗净，用手把白菜叶撕成适当大小的块
步骤 2 调料比例（以芝麻酱为1）芝麻酱：老陈醋：蜂蜜：糖=1:3:3:0.3 搅拌均匀，依个人口味放少许盐和味精，说明先用醋把芝麻酱稀释好了以后再放其他作料。
步骤 3 然后将调料放进冰箱冷藏室存放半小时后，和撕好的白菜搅拌均匀即可 小贴士
1.醋一定是老陈醋 2.必杀剑：蜂蜜 3.白菜一定要叶 4.白菜要手撕
The WeChat translation:
Step 1 wash the cabbage by Hand leaves torn into pieces of appropriate size cabbage
step 2 sauces (sesame paste 1) Sesame: vinegar: honey: sugar = 1:3:3:0.3 uniform, according to individual taste with a little salt and MSG, that made sesame sauce diluted with vinegar first and then other ingredients.
Step 3, and then store your spices in the refrigerator freezer in half an hour, and you tear cabbage stir tips
1. vinegar must be aged vinegar 2. kill sword: honey 3. cabbage must be 4. cabbage shredded
- 12 large Napa cabbage leaves
- Red pepper
- 1 Tablespoon Chinese sesame paste (tahini mixed with a little dark sesame oil is a good substitute, since Chinese sesame paste is made from darker, roasted sesame seeds)
- 3 Tablespoon Chinese dark or aged vinegar (balsamic is a rasonable substitute)
- 3 Tablespoon honey
- 1 teaspoon sugar (brown or white)
- Salt to taste
- Wash and dry about 12 large Napa cabbage leaves. Tear them by hand into pieces about an inch across. Use only the beautiful crinkled leaf, not the white stem (save the stems to slice and use in a stir-fried dish). Chill.
- Make a sauce from the ingredients above by creaming the vinegar and sesame paste together with a fork until very smooth, then adding remaining ingredients. As per the original recipe, if you have time, chill for half an hour to allow flavors to harmonize. (These are US measures but should be easy to adapt, as it’s all about proportion.)
- Toss the cabbage pieces with the sauce until each piece is coated evenly.
- Garnish with cilantro and red pepper pieces. (This steps comes from the dish we were served in Beijing, pictured above.)
The sauce is very plain and quite sweet. I used more sesame paste than the recipe called for, to get to the creamy thickness that would gently coat the cabbage leaf pieces. As a side dish, this was a great contrast with Sichuan bean-sauced tofu, fried with fresh garlic chives and red pepper. Emperor Qian Long wouldn’t approve, but I also plan to try the dish with a more piquant sauce such as Barbara Tropp’s “Sweet and Silky Sesame Sauce.” This recipe comes from page 472-3 of The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking. I think a really spicy sesame or peanut sauce would also work well, and we’ll include recipes in another post, another with some amazing sauces based on French dijon-style mustard!
- 2½ tablespoons Chinese sesame paste
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon Chinese or Japanese sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon thin (regular) soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon black soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon wild-flower honey
- 1 teaspoon hoisin sauce
- ¾—1 teaspoon hot chili oil
- about 2 teaspoons warm water, as required for a ribbony consistency
- Add all the ingredients except the water to the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife.
- Process until completely smooth and emulsified, scraping as necessary.
- Gradually add water as required to obtain a silky sauce that will fall in overlapping ribbons from a spatula. Alternatively, mix the ingredients in a blender, or by hand until smooth and well blended.
- For best flavor, put aside for several hours at room temperature or refrigerate overnight in a clean, airtight jar.
- Use at room temperature for full flavor and aroma. Sealed and refrigerated, the sauce keeps indefinitely. If it thickens, blend with additional water as required.
Qiánlóng 乾隆 (1711–1799) was the sixth emperor of the Manchu-led Qing dynasty and had one of the longest reigns in China’s dynastic history and the longest tenure of political power. Initially, Qianlong increased China’s military power, economic prosperity, social stability, and cultural achievements. During the last decade of his reign, however, excessive military costs, overpopulation, political corruption, and deteriorating relations between China and the West led to China’s decline and contributed to the eventual demise of the Qing dynasty.
Qianlong commissioned the renowned collection (some 36,000 volumes) of rare books entitled The Complete Library of the Four Treasuries (Sìkù quánshū 四库全书), designed to surpass Ming dynasty reference works, to preserve ancient literature, and to root out topics that were hostile toward the Manchus. He and the famous poet and gourmet Yuán Méi 袁枚 (1716–1798), whose Recipes from the Garden of Contentment Berkshire will soon publish, were almost exact contemporaries. Qianlong’s supposed appreciation of this humble cabbage dish reminded me of the corn cakes that the Empress Cixi is said to have craved. Simple rustic dishes are one of the intriguing sides of both Chinese and French cuisine. The photo here comes from an interesting blog post about eating in Beijing. Click here to read the whole post.