Martin Yan Interview by Kate Heyhoe
Kate: In your latest book and TV series, Culinary Journey Through China, you lead us through the heartland and even most remote areas of this vast nation. Would you walk us through China now, in the form of word association, and give us a snapshot of what each area is all about? Let's start with Beijing...
Martin: Beijing—The main staple of Beijing is wheat flour and noodles, because there is a lot of wheat grown. Their most famous foods are Peking Duck and potstickers. Wheat fields in Northern China grow in a dry area, and they have a lot of winter wheat. And in Northern China, you cannot grow rice because the weather is too cold. So because of the weather, geography and soil, they can grow wheat, and the wheat ends up on the table, as the main staple. So that's why you have a lot of potstickers, noodles, dumplings, all kinds of buns and all kinds of baos, all wheat based.
Martin: Canton is known for seafood, the simplicity of cooking, the integrity of the ingredients. So there's a lot of steaming, stir-frying, seasonal ingredients. Canton is in the southern tip of China, exposed to a lot of rivers and lakes as well as the ocean. So you see a variety of seafood, and it's also an area of four seasons, which are not available in the north and the west of China.
Martin: Shanghai—Being also a port city and also a metropolitan, international city and a center of commerce. You know, you see a lot of food from different parts of China in Shanghai because it is metropolitan—I mean, the best of Beijing, the best of Canton, the best of Sichuan, you find them all in Shanghai. And also, Shanghai being a coastal city, you have a lot of seafood. They are very famous for red-cooked dishes, which means that meat, chicken, or seafood is cooked in a rich, brown, sweet sauce and they are cooked to a point that end up like stews, and braising. So they are very famous for that.
Kate: So Shanghai sounds a lot like Venice, which as a port town, had all of the different spices and flavors there because of the trading ships.
Martin: Yes, and also because of Hangzhou and Suzhou being the center of silk and embroidery. During the famous silk road, a lot of those spices and foods and cultures were introduced to this area.
Kate: So would you use star anise in Shanghai?
Martin: Yes, and you see a lot of richness, sugar, soy sauce... everything is cooked very richly.
Martin: If you see yourself when you get out of a Sichuan restaurant, you have instant perm! Your hair will smoke! Just like being in a Thai restaurant. Sichuan— being a basin where it's very very harsh and cold in the winter, yet in the summer, it's very hot and humid. And because of that, the foods, whether it's winter or summer, use chile peppers, spices, and become important. Because in the summer, when it's hot and humid, you really don't have as much of an appetite. And the use of chile also serves to preserve the food, as well as to cool you down. Because when you eat, you perspire and it cools you down. And you also eat the chile in winter because it's so cold, it kinda warms you up! But I think Sichuan and Hunan, being in the west, share the same spicy chile as the tropical areas. You go to Singapore or Thailand, it is so hot, 95 degrees, 95% humidity—you don't really have an appetite. You are soaking wet...and unless your food is spiced, it is too hot to eat. Also, the food spoils practically instantly, unless you have something like chiles to cook with, then even the bugs won't hang around too much. So I think that's another reason why spices and chiles are not only used as a flavoring, but also as a preservative.
Kate: Do you have a favorite of those provinces?
Martin: Actually, a lot of people think of Chinese cuisine as those four regional cuisines. But in true Chinese cuisine, it is subdivided into eight regional cuisines, and then into subregional cuisines. For instance, in southern China, a lot of people don't realize that, aside from the typical Cantonese food that we know of, there is Chiu Chow food, which is very famous, and then there is Harkar, which is also famous. You go to Canton and there are actually Chiu Chow restaurants, and there are Harkar restaurants, which serve a specific menu. Even in San Francisco, there are Harkar restaurants, which are of a very distinctive menu.
Kate: and that's what I find fascinating, the deeper and deeper you go, there are going to be these variations.
Martin: Yes, just like in the West, you see regional cuisines: Northwest, Southwest, Tex Mex, New England, and each one of them a little bit different. The US of course is the land of emigrants and also the US is relatively new in terms of history, so it has not yet really developed a truly distinctive cuisine. The chefs like Mark Miller, Wolfgang Puck and so on, they create something exciting locally, but a country like Italy or India, they have a northern Italian cuisine, southern Italian...and India, the same. So you see a lot of these very specific regional and subregional cuisines. People don't travel as much as we do in the West, so what is local stays local. So if it's from a region, it stays regional because it doesn't move around as much.
Kate: Now that you've been through mainland China, do you see a lot of difference in the rural areas, where many of these people never leave, so the customs and traditions last? Whereas in the urban areas, as you are pointing out about the US, it gets more disenfranchised or diluted?
Martin: When you go and visit the heartland of China, you know that the cuisine is very one-dimensional. It's the same way they have been cooking for hundreds of years, thousands of years, and they pretty much stay like that, because they are not exposed to any Western influence, or big cities, or different parts of China. You go to Beijing, you go to Shanghai, you go to Qwanzhou, you see a Sichuan restaurant, Hunan restaurant, Beijing restaurant. But when you go to these areas, it's the local food, and these are the foods that the grandmother, the great grandmother made—
Kate: So it's like going back in time—
Martin: Exactly! and this has not changed. It's like time has stopped. And they have been doing the same thing forever. They eat everything locally, they gather the locally available ingredients, and they just create—no, they don't even create. They just do it, and they are not very creative, because they have been doing it so long, there's not enough new ideas, there's not enough new ingredients, for them to actually create. But they're flexible, whatever they have, whatever is in season, they just cook it.
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This page originally published as part of the electronic Gourmet Guide between 1994 and 1998.
Modified October 2007
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