The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” – G.K. Chesterton

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Jiangnan Cuisine @ Zhou Zhuang Kitchen, Hong Kong

Although I have Chinese heritage, I am ashamed to admit that I have a rather limited knowledge of the Chinese cuisine. Limited in the sense that I have only been exposed to Chinese food that are well-known internationally, such as Szechuan, Cantonese and Shanghainese. Because China is geographically large, to say a dish is "Chinese" would be quite broadly speaking. In fact, Chinese cuisine can be divided into eight regional cuisines, each one having its own distinctive characteristics based on produce and cooking methods used in each region. I think there is no better place than Hong Kong to try out the food that each region has to offer and to expand my experience with the Chinese cuisine.

I'd recently read a Time Out review on Zhou Zhuang Kitchen, a restaurant that specialises in traditional homestyle dishes from Jiangnan, a region south of the great Yangtze River. The restaurant's location on the 10th floor of one of the many commercial buildings along Canton Road and its name in Chinese characters could have meant that - under ordinary circumstances - we would have easily overlooked it in favour of something more foreigner-friendly. Zhou Zhuang Kitchen's interior is fairly understated, with basic and simple decor, but the food is clearly the draw as we saw the place fill up with people in search for a good no-frills meal. It certainly seems that this restaurant doesn't get many foreign customers, but I was relieved to find that they have the menu in English (although I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't list all the dishes from the Chinese version). We were assigned a waitress who could speak some English, and with my fledgling Mandarin, we could communicate well enough. Having lived as an expat in non-English speaking countries for more than 4 years, I'm always grateful to people who took the time and effort to learn English (and yes, it applies to Hong Kong too, especially when venturing away from popular tourist and expat areas). Our waitress was happy to suggest dishes, so we didn't take very long to place our order.

I ordered a serving of Smoked Duck Egg, which had been cooked perfectly (opaque whites but soft silky yolk), and then smoked to a brown tint. It had a lovely smoky aroma, something which only I appreciated (neither Rob nor the 2 year old was a fan of the smoked egg), so I had the privilege of eating most of it. A dash of Chinese black vinegar was all this egg needed. Simple but pleasurable.

The Spicy Cold Zhou Zhuang Noodles with Smoked Duck was really good and refreshing. The mound of al dente noodles were covered in a sauce that had a good balance of sour and sweet with a nice spicy kick. The crunch of the fresh julienned cucumbers provided a textural contrast to the noodles.

We also got a plate of Spicy Fried Beans, which was greasy but in an irresistible way. I'm pretty sure the health benefits of this vegetable dish had been nullified by its oil treatment, but I couldn't stop picking at the tasty beans!

For meat, we ate one of Zhou Zhuang Kitchen's signature dishes, the Beijing-Style Roast Mutton. The skin was roasted to a perfect crisp, and the meat was tender. Even though I'm not a fan of red meat, I must admit that this was pretty yummy. I could only handle eating a couple of pieces as the meat was quite rich and fatty.

I quite enjoyed this experience, as it's always fun trying something new. I look forward to eating more Chinese cuisine from other regions!

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