Most Chinese people believe that eating isn't just about good food; it's also a social ritual that brings people closer together and helps create harmony within the family. Cooking isn't just a way of processing different ingredients, but also a reflection of local lifestyle and values. Hui cuisine is one such culinary tradition.
Originating in today's Anhui Province, in central China, the dishes of this cuisine are prepared with a precise selection of ingredients, cooking times and temperatures so that textures, colours and flavours are balanced throughout any meal. Our reporter Qian Shan-ming has more.
One of the eight culinary traditions of China, Hui cuisine doesn't refer to Anhui Province dishes as many people mistakenly think but food from Huizhou.
Huizhou is based in today's Huangshan City in Anhui Province. It was a historic region in southeastern China, first established in the Song Dynasty more than a millennium ago. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, it became one of China's most important economic and cultural centers.
In the same period, Hui merchants became one of the ten most powerful merchant groups in China, and had a strong influence in the country's business circles for about 300 years. It is said that more than 70 percent of the male population in Huizhou back then were engaged in business of some sort, and Hui merchants topped all other merchant groups across China in terms of their number, economic power and the spectrum of their trading activities. Their footprints could be found nationwide, and there was even a saying that said: "there is no town without a Hui merchant."
Its economic prosperity at the same time spawned a flourishing Hui culture which was reflected in every aspect of local life in the late feudal period with its Hui-style architecture, commercialism, the patriarchal clan system, Neo-Confucianism, Hui Opera and Hui cuisine.
'Smelly mandarin fish' is a famous Hui dish which came out of Hui commercialism. Like many fermented foods, the dish assaults the nose but definitely pleases the palate.
Anhui's geographical location is perfect for gathering raw ingredients as it is surrounded by mountains and water. That's why the local chefs try to insist on using fresh ingredients and simple cooking methods which mean the dishes maintain the original flavors of the ingredients. So if this is the case, why would a Hui chef use fermented fish instead of fresh for this dish? Food expert Xuan Guolin explains.
"Mandarin fish is not a local product of Huizhou and was, in fact, introduced into the local cuisine by Hui merchants when they came back from their business trips. Back then, merchants had to rely on primitive modes of transport to carry their goods, and trips could take 5 to 7 days or even longer. In these days before refrigeration technology it was essential to find ways to preserve perishable foods like this fish, so the merchants would slather it with salt so it would keep on the long trek back to Huizhou. When they got home and found the fish had acquired a peculiar smell, they decided to give it a try anyway and bingo, once braised, it tasted great. The taste eventually caught on. "
The fermented mandarin fish shares a pungency similar to blue cheese or stinky tofu, but once you get past the first impressions, you'll be rewarded with a braised flavor that's highly addictive.
It's said that the best time to eat this dish is when the peach blossoms bloom. This is the season when the small river shrimp hatch, become the Mandarin fish's main food source and hence its predator's flavour.