These are the flavours of Chinese food. Fragrant cumin, puffy discs of flatbread and an abundance of lamb – charcoal grilled or baked in bite-size dough parcels. Or perhaps it's a pot of steaming yak butter tea. Maybe it's chicken scented with lemongrass and fresh herbs. Or a spicy hotpot cooked at your table, followed by a bowl of stewed fruits or a piping hot doughnut flavoured with dried persimmon fruit.
It's a far cry from the set menu at the Golden Dragon or wherever most of us cut our teeth on Chinese food, fumbling with chopsticks and perhaps, in defeat, asking for a knife and fork. The truth is, there is no such thing as Chinese food. Rather, there is food you eat in China, a vast country with a western border that brushes Afghanistan and where the east meets Japan. To the south is Vietnam, to the north Russia. The result is a country of people – and recipes – that seem almost infinite in variety.
This is a story of two weeks in China. The objectives were noble. Exploring Beijing's Forbidden City, a trek along the Great Wall, marvelling at the 2,000-year-old terracotta warriors of Xi'an, and watching giant pandas frolicking at the world's only breeding programme in Chengdu. Mission accomplished, with memories and photographs to prove it. But what also endures is the food – 14 days, 42 meals, quite a lot of snacks along the way and at least a dozen distinct cuisines in three cities. On the way home, it would not have been surprising if the airline attached one of those "heavy" labels round our necks.
First stop Beijing. First pit-stop, lunch at a noodle house just around the corner from our hotel, a charming and unconventional guesthouse off the old pedestrian alleyways known as hutongs. Even the short walk to the restaurant was encouraging. At the corner of the hutong, the greengrocer was selling from a stack of cabbages the height of a man. Aside from those shopping for food, everyone else seemed to be eating it.
Slightly nervous, we sat down at a formica table and pointed at photographs on the laminated menu. The result? Two large bowls of chewy wheat noodles, Beijing-style, thick with a sauce of beef and bean curd. So then we ordered dumplings. Fried and steamed.
That evening we were joined by Sam, our youngest son, who now lives and works in Beijing. Sam is a young man who likes to eat well, especially if his parents are paying. Unlike his parents, Sam is tall, and as skinny as rake. As our guide, he had several advantages, including a remarkable ability to locate the best local restaurants, and order in fluent Mandarin. That evening, we made plans at one of his discoveries, a restaurant specialising in the food of Yunnan, a province whose neighbours included Laos and Vietnam, and whose food is redolent of both.
The next day was the Forbidden City, weary legs eventually refreshed over pu erh tea and delicate cakes at Kodo Cafe in the hip Gulou area, full of quirky shops and fashionable young Chinese, and just a step from the historic Drum and Bell Towers. In the evening it was Peking duck at Duck de Chine, often voted the city's best for the dish. The pancakes finished, the remains were taken away and returned in bowls of noodle soup. I recall we also had dessert.
A day later it was the Crescent Moon, distinguished by its mosque-like dome, arched doorways and a predominance of green in the decor. This was the food of the Uighurs, an ethnic group from Central Asia, near China's far western border, with a troubled history that has seen a recent crackdown and controversial re-education programme imposed by Beijing in response to repeated clashes linked to nationalism and religious fundamentalism. More than 3,000 kilometres away, the owners of the Crescent Moon have thrived in the capital, serving dishes that demonstrate harmony is at least possible in the kitchen: baked lamb in dough, triangles of flatbread, kebabs – of course kebabs – but also cubes of chicken stir-fried with peppers and then scattered with sesame seeds.
On the last day in Beijing we took a trip to the 17th-century Lama temple near our hotel, heavy with incense and with vibrant carvings that included an 18-metre statue of the Buddha carved from a single piece of white sandalwood. Equally impressive was lunchtime dim sum at Jing Yaa Tang, a restaurant at the chic Opposite House Hotel, where the duck dumplings are in the shape of actual tiny ducks. Jing Yaa Tang offers an all-you-can-eat lunch at a very reasonable price, with one condition. You will pay extra for any dishes ordered but not eaten. We did not pay extra.That was the second highlight of the day, the first being a six-kilometre trek along one of the most unspoilt sections of the Great Wall at Jin Shan Ling, a test of legs and stamina, and a great way to build up an appetite.
Then it was on to Xi’an on the evening bullet train. Thanks to China’s high-speed rail network, the 1,000 kilometre journey to the old Imperial capital takes just four hours. As we sped along at 305kph, Sam had thoughtfully packed a box of exquisite patisserie from TiensTiens (“Beijing’s most Instagramable cafe”).
A day later, we were gazing in awe the terracotta warriors, estimated to be 8,000-strong and discovered in the 1970s still guarding the tomb of China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, after 2,000 years. No words of mine can do them justice and in any case you can read about them elsewhere. Instead let me tell you about Xi'an's Muslim Quarter and, inevitably, if you're up for it, more food.
Much of Xi'an, a city of 12 million in Shaanxi province, is a bit ho-hum in sort of 1990s office block way, but the Muslim Quarter is an exception. It exists because the city was a terminus of the old Silk Road, and it was down this ancient trade route that the Middle East entered the Far East. An estimated 50,000 Hui Muslim Chinese still live in the city, the men in prayer caps, the women wrapped in colourful hijabs. At the heart of the quarter is the 1,300-year-old Great Mosque, where the minaret is a pagoda and the old stones are carved in both Arabic lettering and Chinese characters. Around it stretches a warren of winding streets and alleyways, ablaze with colour from open storefronts and cafes, packed with locals and tourists, almost exclusively Chinese.
Armed with a list of local dishes and a vague idea of where to find them, we set off through the crowds. First was a kebab stall where the cook joked with our son in Mandarin. "What did he say?" we asked. "If you eat much more of this, you will turn Chinese." All the meat is halal, butchers carving up freshly delivered lamb carcasses. Other stalls sell wheels of golden flatbread, some studded with sesame, or crimson chillies, hanging in strings or powder heaped in bowls.
We stopped to buy both chilli and sesame paste – the proprietor was filling the jars from large steel vats before sealing them with plastic lids we hoped would not leak over the entire contents of our suitcases (thankfully, they didn't). Perhaps the signature dish of Xi'an is thick biangbiang noodles, hand-pulled and cooked to order for every serving, doused in fiery chilli oil and covered in a spice-scented broth of vegetables and beef. Fascinating fact, the biangbiang character is the most complex in Chinese, with 58 strokes.
Close rival in the deliciousness league must be paomo, which begins with an empty bowl and two thick pucks of flatbread. The objective here is to crumble them, then head to the counter where a cook will top them up with either lamb or beef stew. The finer the crumbs, the better they absorb the broth. To single out one restaurant, try the soup dumplings at Zhiliang Guantang on Miaohou Street, always packed with locals. Add a serving of cold liangpi rice noodles, buried under a sauce of sesame and more chilli.
Back on the street, finish with a slice of steamed rice cake topped with date paste, or a fresh persimmon doughnut. Look out also for a hot dish thick with dates, dried fruits and nuts. Imagine a soup made from a British Christmas pudding. After two days here, our eyes had finally proved bigger than our stomachs. In any case, it was time to head south and west, to Chengdu and the final city on the trip.
A journey that last year took 11 hours is now barely three with the introduction of a new bullet train, achieved by drilling a series of tunnels through an entire mountain range. For much of the ride, the view is pitch black, with the occasional split second view of green peaks and steep gorges.
Chengdu is another Chinese megacity, with a metropolitan population of 10 million, but it retains a more people friendly feel than anywhere else we visited. It’s also near the site of several panda breeding centres, which makes it a must stop on most tour routes. As a result, the city is panda crazy. There’s even a giant version of a giant panda climbing up the side of the equally massive International Finance Mall, one paw poised above the Prada sign.
For the real deal, we headed to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding on the outskirts of the city. There are dozens of the furry bundles on public view, including several babies. One word: Adorable. One word of advice: set an alarm clock and arrive for the opening time at 7.30am. Pandas have one goal in life, to enthusiastically gorge on bamboo shoots and then fall asleep for the rest of the day. Arrive by mid-morning, and the show’s over, folks.
So the pandas had eaten. But what about the humans? Well, Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan, famous for spicy dishes and mouth-puckering peppercorns – actually not a pepper but the black sheep of the citrus family. It’s also widely regarded as the foodie capital of China. It may be impossible to eat badly in Chengdu. A hot pot should be top of any list, the boiling lava of peppercorn-flavoured oil set in the centre of your table with a variety of meats and vegetables to cook. At Bashu Dazhaimen, the waiter suggested nine side orders, which turned out to be just right. You can also choose different levels of spiciness for the cooking oil.
Opposite one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, the 17th century Wenshu Buddhist monastery, we found Dongzi Wei Zhang Lao Er Liangfen, a rough and ready noodle shop that is one of Chenghu’s best. Not sure what to try? Just point at the assembly line in the window. For snacks, have the unbelievably moreish Sichuan pitta bread, split and stuffed with grilled lamb and vegetables, with chilli sauce, of course. Take the Wenshu monastery exit at Wenshuyuan subway station and look for the queue on the right.Also seek out guokui, strips of dough slathered with ground meat and spices, then rolled into a spiral to be fried then finished in a tandoor-style oven.
At the Are restaurant in the city’s Tibetan quarter (Tibet borders the west of Sichuan), a pot of butter tea was accompanied by stir-fried yak. It was time to return to Beijing, a three-hour flight this time, for a final weekend that included exploring the wild and wacky 798 Art District and people-watching at Beihai Park, a former Imperial garden that at weekends fills with outdoor dance classes and poetry recitals.
There was an evening at Southern Fish, sampling dishes from southern Hunan province, famous as the birthplace of Chairman Mao and for dishes that exceed Sichuan for spiciness. And a final Peking duck at Siji Minfu where the 45-minute wait for a table is more than justified by what arrives at your table, all bronzed skin and succulent meat.
If you are what you eat, maybe we too, had become a little bit Chinese.