I apologize for the accidental blurry, romantic lighting on my photo here.
Who would have expected a ‘Mao Zedong’ themed restaurant operating in a small city in Shandong province, Jinan? The restaurant origin is not one but a typical: a businessman simply decided to sell-off the Mao craze which had run thick since the Cultural Revolution in the late 60’s to the late 80’s. Imagine the divinity associated with having the pleasure of dining the food of the great Chairman Mao?
Although the charm is still there, the restaurant’s business has become noticeably quieter. Nevertheless, the food is still pretty tasty, as pretty much all Chinese food are.
We were at Maojia or “Mao’s House” for dinner. We managed to secure a smoke-free seating, where our table were sandwiched between two chain-puffing tables. The restaurant was not the grandest – actually smaller than the No. 56 restaurant (which I was reviewing in my previous post http://obsessivenutritioncompulsive.wordpress.com/2014/07/31/no-56-restaurant-%e9%ab%98%e7%ac%ac%e8%a1%9756%e5%8f%b7-cantonese-style-cuisine-final-review-with-bbq-pork-and-famous-hunan-chillies-fish-head/) with an entrance that could substitute for a 4 stars Chinese hotel lobby, and a dining area that had reminded me of an old-time Chinese Gangster’s lounge (so did the people who came to dine).
The menu were of mostly Hunan dishes (Mao Zedong’s birthplace), while also featuring some of Shandong’s own i.e. sea cucumber in gravy 海参 (Shandong is known for seafood), caramelized sticky sweet potato 拔丝地瓜 (which is one of the most delicious thing ever!!), etc.
Alledgedly, most of the Hunan dishes listed were what Mao Zedong would prefer to eat for his meals. The most famous one of which included:
Twice cooked pork 红烧肉 is a dish lots of Asian people drool over, wolf down, then worship the remnance. It basically uses chunks (or slices, in Thailand and Japan) of pork at its fattiest, and with the skin on, which are then stewed, or boiled in dark-coloured and seasoned soup until the skin is soft enough to bite into.
Most of the time though, in China, the skin is still unable to be chewed into because it is so elastic and tough. This is either because they had used older/wilder pigs, or didn’t cook the pork long enough. I hope for the former.
In China, this sort of dish which uses super fat cuts of pork is also called Fei rou 肥肉 “fatty meat” or Ba zi rou 把子肉. In Thailand they are named “Three-layered pork” which is exactly what they are: The top part is the skin which is rich in collagen the same way as this protein is present in other animal skin such as fish skin, chicken skin, or fish belly i.e. salmon belly (grilled – famous Japanese specialty). And the rich amount of collagen in twice-cooked pork is what makes it a dish for ladies wanting softer-looking skin, as it helps increase those amount of skin-firming proteins. The next layer of twice-cooked pork is the most dangerous – the pure, solid fat (also what makes Asians go gaga for it due to the melt-in-mouth texture it creates), then the last layer is the meat.
Hong shao rou is more glamourous version of twice-cooked pork 把子肉 as it doesn’t uses the typical Chinese five-spice combination most used in cooking twice-cooked pork, or hog trotter, but features other ingredients which makes the stewed sauce reddish in colour. And this I have no idea how to make.
However, I know the ingredients which goes in the most typical twice-cooked pork:
1. Chinese Five spices – Cinnamon, Star Anise, Coriander seed, Anise seed and cloves.
2. Other seasonings i.e. soy sauce, brown sugar and salt.
All you need to do is combine all the ingredients together with the pork and hot water and boil/simmer until the pork looks “twice-cooked”.
The taste: It was pretty averagely delicious. The flavouring was on the salty side with a tinge of sweetness in the sauce, the pork was well-cooked and not too soft or hard. There were also some string beans put at the bottom which tasted like the sauce it was cooked in (duh) (String beans are one of the sides often eaten with twice-cooked pork).
I have seen a rise in Japanese cuisine in Chinese culture, although sushi is still not very widespread (About seven years ago, a language student in her 20’s whom I had known through a language school had never eaten a sushi before in her life), elements of Japanese food is quite welcomed by the Chinese population i.e. Japanese tofu (mixed with eggs) and teppanyaki-style cooking.
The teppanyaki mushroom here was pretty delicious! It had consisted of: chopped garlic, chili, juicy and flavorful shiitake mushrroms, possibly Japanese shoyu and lots of oil. The oil was too much for my liking but nothing can diminish the deliciousness of crispy browned garlic, yum.
Then I had made a somewhat fail order in terms of taste with this super bland dish:
The name braised pumpkin sounded very tasty and healthy at the same time, but in fact, the dish was simply unseasoned steamed pumpkin covered in healthy little nibbles and a strange tasteless glaze. It was healthful alright.
The dish had consisted of: slices of pumpkins, steamed then pressed together into a bowl, before undergoing another moment of steaming to create the above form. Inside and around the pumpkin dome includes red dates and Bai He 百合 or Lily bulbs, as mentioned in the previous post, is a popular Chinese herb known as a nutritious “cooling” food which can help reduce coughs and other minor discomforts.
I was clearly unimpressed on my first encounter with this dish since A. It was over-price for taste and ingredients i.e. basically being half a steamed pumpkin, B. It was completely tasteless apart for the very, very faint sign of sweetness.
But then, I had discovered this is a common Chinese dish that can be made delicious, and is very simple to prepare. On the street, this dish is known as Honey Pumpkin 蒸蜂蜜南瓜 or syrup pumpkin 糖水南瓜 and although its main flavour is sweet, the dish is often eaten with rice as a side dish.
(This is a part to my slow recognition of the Chinese’ interesting habit of having dessert along with their main meal i.e. seeing people having deep fried red bean-filled sesame balls with savory breakfast, or other sweet side dishes like chopped tomatoes coated with sugar, birthday cake with long-life noodles…)
The food at my canteen is never consistent in flavors, at other times the chef has struck gold with their mad stir-frying skills, at other times it seems they had forgotten to put salt in, or splashed in a tablespoon too much of vinegar or chillies.
As a result, my ‘Honey pumpkin’ can sometime be sickeningly sweet or just perfectly flavoured. Pumpkin in itself already has a fair amount of natural sugars, possessing a mildly sweet flavor, additions of sugar or honey should be minimal. This side dish has no surprising flavors, but is delicious in itself, making this a good recipe to make for kids (to get them to eat more veggies), especially since some variations also include raisins (which kids seems to like)
I will put up a recipe post for Honey pumpkin next, but here are some basic ingredients for ‘Chinese University Canteen Honey Pumpkin’:
Pumpkin (chopped into bite sized pieces), raisins (in place of red dates which are more expensive) and honey or sugar.
The method is simple: put everything together then steam until the pumpkin is well cooked.
And now onto the other menu on Mao’s favourites list:
Steamed spicy tofu 蒸豆腐. I must say, Mao’s got pretty good taste for tofu. This dish is made using soft tofu which is then carefully sliced and placed in a dish for steaming. The tofu is then poured on top with a sauce mix of: soysauce, vinegar, chili oil, soybean oil, possibly salt, and topped off with crushed and minced mixture of pickled green chilli and cabbage, fresh chilli, chopped spring onion and then poured on top with black bean sauce and sesame oil.
It had tasted very amazing! It was simply a perfect combination of salty, sour and spicy to a Thai person’s satisfactory standard.
In conclusion, this restaurant had delicious dishes, and it was very interesting to try the food Mao Zedong himself had enjoyed (apparently he especially loved eating the twice-cooked pork). We didn’t get to try the famous Hunan fish head which is a shame, but I can’t imagine it to be such a great loss since the overall cooking was sort of ‘averagely-Chinese-tasty’. The dishes didn’t struck me as being especially delicious, so in the end, I would give this old-charm restaurant a three and half stars.