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Three hot Chinese food and drink products that might surprise you

Fish, dumplings, spring rolls and niangao cake may be classic dishes to eat over Chinese New Year but if you really want to be on trend this season you may be in for a surprise; the country’s foodie eyes are currently focused on Western-style dishes and products says olive contributor Sophie Pither

Unlikely as it sounds, there’s a growing desire for luxury Western foods in fast-changing China, according to Terrence Crandall, executive chef at the lavish art-deco Peninsula Hotel in Shanghai. ‘Whether it’s wine, truffles or caviar, many newly wealthy Chinese guests want a slice of high-end Western food culture. It’s not just a status symbol, though that’s part of it,’ explained the US born chef. ‘It’s also about trying something new, like we in the West did back in the Seventies and Eighties with Asian cuisine.’ Alongside the growing plethora of Starbucks in Shanghai, smart restaurants are fusing Chinese cuisine with high-end European ingredients he told me, during a recent visit to the city. Here are three of the most highly-sought.

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Caviar

In typically Chinese style, people aren’t content to import new foods, they’re making their own, and exporting them. In Zhejiang Province the thriving Kaluga Queen produces 45 tons of caviar a year, making it the largest producer of farmed caviar in the world. They breed 50,000 shark-like sturgeon in pristine conditions in the beautiful man-made Thousand Island Lake. And with global restrictions on wild caviar, farmed is where it’s at. It’s good, too. I’m told it’s what super chef Alain Ducasse uses in his 3-Michelin star restaurant in Monaco, and Lufthansa serves it in First Class cabins. Kaluga Queen’s four varieties of the sought after salty eggs are Siberian, Oscietra, Beluga, plus a hybrid version, all competing strongly on taste and quality with the best Iranian and Siberian versions.

Wine

Head to Ningxia Province in China’s cool north, and you’ll find a clutch of decent wine labels emerging. The new Napa Valley as marketing types are trying to say, may be pushing it but Edouard Duval, son of French Champagne makers Duval Leroy, is convinced that Chinese wine is on the up. He’s invested time and money in the 17-hectare Legacy Peak vineyard through his distribution company East Meets West Fine Wines. He admits, ‘It’s a challenge to change people’s mind about Chinese wine, but that’s what we’re doing slowly and surely. Legacy Peak sells well and for a high price in smart hotels and restaurants, and we’ll be exporting to Europe, too.’ This remote winery, within walking distance of the giant bee-hive like Xixia King Tombs in the foothills of the Helan Mountains, once produced grapes for indeterminate Chinese plonk. But with guidance from Duval and the ambition of owner Liu Hai, it now specialises in its own label using Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay grapes. Their 2011 pure Cabernet Sauvignon Family Heritage bottle is a surprisingly fine wine, and their inaugural 2011 Merlot-Cab blend won a Gold Medal Decanter Award.

Truffles

Down south in laid-back Yunnan Province, bordering Burma, Laos, Vietnam and Tibet, there are vegetable farmers who now spend time truffle-hunting. I met Mao Xing Ping in the woods above his farm near Kunming city. ‘We used to feed truffles to the pigs, now they’re treasure,’ he tells me through a translator. If he seems nonplussed by the change in status of this little black gem, he’s not showing it. He gets around £100 a kilo for them, a hefty bonus on top of his farm income. The tuber indicum variety unearthed here are not the standard of Europe’s finest black truffles – Perigord, for example. But if left to ripen for long enough, they’re pretty good, and cheaper. I can testify to that myself; returning to cosmopolitan Shanghai, I’m rewarded with a bowl of Terrence Crandall’s delicious hazelnut and Yunnan truffle ice cream.


First published January 2016

Written by Sophie Pither

Photographs by Edmond Ho


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