As we departed for our trip at the threshold of King Street's 19th anniversary this April, it seemed apropos that history and culture is what resonated most with me on our journey to China.
This was my second Connoisseur's Cruise with Chef, and while it was a working trip, Seawind Tours & Travel never fails to enrich us, introducing us to the fantastic wonders of the world and an adventure of a lifetime that would otherwise only be a dream on our bucket list.
While each of us have a slew of photos for every memory created, from the early off shore glimpses of Hong Kong and the freshest seafood dinners at the night markets, to the Las Vegas equivalent of the exciting light show on the Bund in Shanghai, some of my favorite highlights on the trip take me back to China's roots. From touring the Forbidden City in Beijing and scaling the steps of the Great Wall, or navigating the rural back streets of the narrow hutong alleys of Xian by rick-shaw and paying respect to the tombs of the Terra Cotta Warriors, I had no idea of the sense of 'identity' so well defined in China, until I heard Vivian, our Pastry Chef, born in Hong Kong, be able to recognize the intricacies of a mural at our hotel, in which she could recognize the intricacies of the Tan dynasty she learned about in her childhood. Prior to our trip, I had no appreciation of how a history lesson in school could be so engrained in a person's culture, until she made it come alive for me on this trip. Having left China as a youngster, I couldn't believe that she remembered the subtle differences in the Tan, Qing, Ming dynasties, that would have only been a page from a history book in school.
And it was unbelievable, the numbers of Chinese nationals we had to battle with, also touring these great monuments on a weekday! Understanding their culture, having a sense of who they are, and praying to their ancestors was a conscious pilgrimage. There is so much we take for granted, and so much beauty and heritage to be thankful for.
Our tour guide mentioned that there is no such cuisine as Chinese. That Chinese was an ethnicity; rather, China was made up of provinces, each labeled by its distinct identity, as the financial, political or cultural center of China, and every corner of China had its own flavor and unique tongue (Cantonese, Mandarin, Hainanese...). It was the same for us on our Mediterranean cruise, Italian cuisine would never be just that for Chef; now it's Naples, Tuscany, Emilio Romagna...
We tasted some of the most unusual ingredients in China, from donkey tendon and fish maw to cooked grubs and scorpion, a la Andrew Zimmern... what a palate memory! As each day progressed, our taste buds were treated to morsels of street food by day, to the flavorful hot pot broths and ribbons of handmade noodles artfully pulled tableside at Hai Dee Lau. We experienced both provincial dining and the refined service of some of the four Imperial delicacies featured at Da Dong, famous for the original Peking Duck, and the elegant private dining on the Bund at the newly opened Hakkasan in Shanghai (also in the states in NYC)... not to mention cocktails by one of the up and coming mixologists at Ozone, at the highest bar in Hong Kong at the Ritz Carlton.
One of my favorite highlights was our luncheon at the Schoolhouse in Beijing(?) It was an artists' haven and sustainable culinary retreat, complete with classrooms for learning and a converted gallery featuring modern works of featured artists. It was dear to our hearts, as everything served on the menu was also grown locally from neighboring farmhouses, with only select proteins and dairy products not available in the village, being brought in. We were treated to a dumpling and ramen (pulled noodle) interactive demonstration and a delicious menu of fresh local products. Yummm...
While every destination on our itinerary had something wonderful to offer, we grew more familiar with the flavors as we progressed North on our journey, and resonated more with the provincial flavors of the hutong and older rural cities. And Kathy threw out the 'aha moment' question... Were we more familiar with these dishes because these were the flavors brought to Hawaii by the Chinese immigrants from these regions? This is what made the 'connection' for me, and why we do these trips, as we continue to explore our roots, discover our heritage, and reinterpret who we are today in our own multi-cultural home in Hawaii.
~ Leigh Ito, Vice President of Development