Depending on where you are in China, the weather in winter can vary between chilly and finger-numbingly cold. Where I grew up in the north of China in the Heilongjiang province capital of Harbin, temperatures of minus 30 were not uncommon.
In traditional Chinese philosophy, winter represents the most Yin aspect, in essence, the cold and shadowy aspect of the universe. To achieve harmony between your body and the cold season, the Chinese have a phrase “秋收冬藏” (qiu shou dong cang) , which means harvesting in autumn and storing in winter. If you apply this concept to what you eat in winter, then it is clear. Warm, hearty and slow-cooked food helps your body store energy against extremes of cold.
Certainly when I was a child, stews were a mainstay. Lamb, chicken and beef, preferably with the bones and some fat. Not processed fats I hasten to add, but proper healthy fats. Root vegetables, such as potato, carrot, turnip and ginger, mushrooms and roasted nuts were also a vital element in creating a consistency and body in the stew, perfect for reinvigorating the flesh.
Another important element for winter food are spices, which provide incredible health benefits, complex flavours, aroma and colour to the dish. Typical winter spices include star anise, cumin seed, cinnamon, cloves and pepper.
This leads to this week’s new addition to the menu - Xinjiang aromatic lamb chops. Good quality lamb marinated with Shaoxing wine, Chinese five spices, cumin seed, cayenne, Sichuan peppers, and soy sauce, cooked on a smoking hot grill. It’s tender, juicy, mouth-tickling, and… You need to try it.
Another one of my favourite winter dishes is chicken, mushroom and chestnut stew. Ask any northerner in China and they will know this dish. The chestnut yields a semi-crunchy texture that blends nicely with the slipperiness of the mushroom and the tender flavour of the slow-cooked chicken. We like to keep our bones in our stews and as a kid, I’d often suck on the soft marrow at the end of the meal. But don’t worry, no-one’s expecting you to do that in Denmark!
What about winter drinks? In Europe you have hot-mulled wine. In northern China we drink warm BaiJiu (BaiJiu is China’s equivalent of vodka but comes in at 56%). It is not boiled alcohol, but a small jug of BaiJiu soaked in hot water which raises the temperature without losing any alcohol percentage.
And if you had the impression Chinese food is deep fried and oily, these dishes should prove otherwise. Certainly, light use of oil is one of the principles we adhere to at Kewei’s Kitchen!
Ultimately, to get an understanding of how we approach food in China, it really is all about a balance of the Yin and the Yang. It’s not rocket science in the end. If it’s cold outside, it’s important to have winter warmers.
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