Chinese regional cuisine: Shandong food, defiantly humble, and the best places to eat it in Hong Kong
Shandong food is one of China’s eight classic cuisines. Big on dumplings, cornbread and noodles, its influence is seen across northern China. Restaurant operators in Hong Kong describe its traditions and how they adapt them for local palates
“Shandong food reflects Shandong people’s personalities – straightforward, generous and down-to-earth,” says Wang Hongchun, a native of the eastern Chinese province who runs a restaurant serving Shandong food in Hong Kong.
“Dishes are served in hearty portions, lightly seasoned, without garnishes. Very humble ingredients can be rendered into a fulfilling meal,” Wang says. Take mu xu rou for example, which is a stir-fry of sliced cucumber, egg, wood fungus, day lily and sliced pork. “It can’t be simpler to cook, but it’s just delicious,” he says.
Wang opened the restaurant, Ah Chun Shandong Dumpling, eight years ago in Prince Edward, Kowloon. For the past five years it has been on the Michelin Guide’s Bib Gourmand list of restaurants offering “exceptionally good food at moderate prices”.
Shandong cuisine, also called Lu or Lu cai, is one of China’s eight classic cuisines. Dating from the Qin dynasty 2,200 years ago and refined ever since, it has had a big influence on the food eaten in northern China – in places such as Beijing and Tianjin. Lu cuisine was regarded as the foundation of Chinese culinary culture and was popular until the 1980s, but in recent years has been eclipsed by Sichuan food.
Food in Shandong varies between coastal areas and the countryside. In the coastal cities, such as Yantai and Weihai, seafood abounds, whereas in southwestern cities like Jinan and Qufu, land animals and seasonal vegetables are common ingredients.
There are a number of cooking techniques commonly used in Lu cuisine, as any proper Shandong chef will tell you. (It can take a Shandong chef 10 years to hone his or her skills, and Wang is one of the most experienced Shandong chefs in Hong Kong.)
He says that the techniques include men, or stewing, which is used for meat and soft-bodied sea products, such as sea cucumbers. The process lets the seasonings permeate through the ingredients. Pá is similar to simmering, and is used on tougher ingredients such as abalone and chicken. Here a slurry of cornflour and water is used to thicken the sauce, coating the ingredients and locking in the flavour.
Bào is a versatile technique where the vegetables and meat are first blanched, then tossed in a wok, seasoned, and finally stir-fried over a high flame. The process takes about 30 seconds, requiring the chef to move quickly and precisely so the flavour is sealed inside the ingredients.
Often, more than one technique is used for a dish.
Noodles and dumplings are staples for Shandong people, as is wotou, or steamed cornbread. Older generations are nostalgic for this yellow, cone-shaped, stomach-filling classic. It was what sustained many during difficult times, such as a mass migration from Shandong to northeast China in the 19th century.
“Wotou used to be made of coarse maize flour. It was stone-hard and so coarse that it can scratch your oesophagus,” says Wang, 50, when reminiscing about his childhood.
Today cornbread is different. It has become a real delicacy and has health values. “Finely processed millet is mixed with refined maize flour, with the finished product a soft, flaky and fragrant bun,” Wang explains. In his restaurant, steamed cornbread is served with sautéed pickled mustard greens and a sprinkle of crushed peanuts.
Shandong folk are known for being generous, talkative and easy-going – traits personified in Lydia Hui, owner and chef of Shan Dong Little restaurant in Tai Kok Tsui, in West Kowloon. Despite having lived in Hong Kong for 30 years, the chef dislikes many of the Cantonese dishes beloved by city natives, such as the sticky rice dumplings known as zongzi (or zong).
The savoury ones, stuffed with glutinous rice, meat and dried seafood, are not Hui’s cup of tea at all, so instead she crafted a sweet version (available off-menu) with peanuts and home-made candied red bean paste.
“Although sweet zongzi is available in Hong Kong, it has a strong alkaline note that I’m not used to,” she says.
She also dislikes most of the sesame paste available in Hong Kong. This is used in many Shandong cold dishes, such as tossed mung bean noodles with slivered cucumber, spring onion and beauty heart radish, and in another dish, hand-pulled noodles with sesame paste.
From their appearance alone, you can’t distinguish between the sesame paste produced in Hong Kong and the type Hui imports from Qingdao, as both are dirt-coloured. “Once you compare the smell and taste, the difference is obvious,” she says, opening a plastic barrel. The sesame paste in it is thick, with a layer of clear oil floating on top.
She stirs it, lifts some of it with a chopstick and the smooth paste drips off slowly. “See the viscosity. It’s not as fluid as liquid. White sesame seeds are ground by hand to achieve this consistency. And smell it – it’s pure sesame paste, not spiked with peanut butter.” One sniff and a heady aroma hits the nostrils.
“Crunching on cold Shandong-style salads and downing bottles of chilled beer is the best antidote to the sweltering summer for Shandong people,” Hui says.
The flavourings for Shandong cold dishes are tangy and refreshing – vinegar, crushed garlic and soy sauce. Tossed layered pig ear is a favourite dish too, as is vinegar-dressed jellyfish head. “Our jellyfish is a product from northern China, which is distinctively crunchy and springy,” says Hui.
One reason for the continuing popularity of the 20-year-old restaurant is its dumplings, and Hui says the ones from the north are a far cry from dumplings made in the south.
“Our Shandong dumplings are plump with generous fillings. They are lightly seasoned to keep the ingredients’ natural flavour intact. Shandong dumplings are humbly satiating. They are no-frills – like Shandong folk,” she says, laughing.
The two bestsellers are mutton with spring onions, and squid with water chestnuts. For the latter, Hui processes the squid herself, collecting the ink, which is mixed with flour to make the pitch-black wrapper. The filling is made with chopped squid and finely diced water chestnuts.
Hui’s Shan Dong Little restaurant has been in four locations in its 20 years, all within the Mong Kok area, although Hui has closed it occasionally when she wants a break.
“Running such a small business is tiresome. My patrons persuaded me to reopen it as they said they missed my dumplings,” she says.
In Shandong and elsewhere in northern China, a dumpling banquet isn’t complete without fennel- and pork-stuffed dumplings. The “fennel” used here refers to the Chinese fennel leaves as opposed to the dried fennel seeds used in Western cuisine. With a taste similar to aniseed, although not as pungent, the aroma and crunchy texture is delectable when mixed with pork, beef or mutton.
While plentiful in northern China, fennel dumplings can be hard to find in Hong Kong, but Northern Dumpling Yuan, a chain with six restaurants, serves them.
“The fennel is a special order we request from our supplier,” says Cecilia Lee, the chain’s promotional director. “We noticed that Westerners and customers from northern China like to order the fennel beef dumpling, but it’s not Hong Kong diners’ favourite. The first-timers give it a shot, but are unlikely to order them a second time.”
Northern Dumpling Yuan was opened in Wan Chai by a Shandong couple 20 years ago, but they retired in 2002. Eight years later, acquaintances of the couple decided to reopen the establishment. “We tried to keep their original offerings and recipes untouched,” says Lee. They new owners also wanted to keep the Shandong culinary tradition alive.
Hong Kong diners would rather have dainty dim sum and delicate presentation, but Lee made it clear this was not the case at Northern Dumpling Yuan. “We insist on making big fat dumplings with thick skin,” she says.
The menu has expanded, though, and along with the original owner’s eight dumplings, there are four newer ones tailored to the taste of locals. Among them are beef with water chestnuts, and winter mushroom with coriander and minced pork. There’s also the luxurious abalone and asparagus dumpling.
Lee says that Hong Kong foodies look at dumplings differently than Shandong natives. “In Shandong, or in the north, dumplings alone can constitute a satisfying lunch or dinner. They see it as a staple, while Hong Kong people tend to treat them as a snack to round out the meal, ordering rice or noodles, with dumplings on the side.”
Their dumplings are available boiled or steamed, and also pan-fried, which gives the golden crescents a crisp and slightly burnt crust.
One thing all the chefs agree on is that Shandong cuisine needs to innovate before it loses its appeal to diners in search of new twists on old recipes.
“Shandong chefs observe traditions, but are too committed to traditions,” says Wang from Ah Chun Shandong Dumpling. “They are bit stubborn, lack creativity and are not good at adapting and innovating.”
His view was echoed by Hui, who says: “Lu cuisine hasn’t been upgraded for long, so it appears a bit mundane. There’s little variation and diversity.”
Perhaps this is the reason why Shandong food today is now rated behind Sichuan and Jiangzhe cuisines.
Ah Chun Shandong Dumpling
60 Lai Chi Kok Road, Prince Edward, tel: 2789 9611
Northern Dumpling Yuan
401-403 Lockhart Road, Causeway Bay, tel: 3488 6110 (branches also in Wan Chai, Sai Ying Pun, Shau Kei Wan, Mong Kok and North Point)
Shan Dong Little
Tai Wai Building, 101 Ivy Street, Tai Kok Tsui, tel: 6431 9188