Too haute to handle? French cuisine hard to swallow in China

Too haute to handle? French cuisine hard to swallow in China

BEIJING - With its unusual cutlery, bizarre names and complex etiquette, French haute cuisine is as daunting as it is appealing to Chinese diners, despite the Asian country's own proud culinary tradition.

French cuisine has an unrivalled reputation but some critics see standards as slipping and last year a British magazine only included five Gallic establishments in its World's 50 Best Restaurants - none in the top 10.

On Thursday more than 40 restaurants in China will offer six-course menus highlighting French ingredients as part of a worldwide gastronomic and diplomatic fightback in the face of ever-increasing competition.

The French ambassador in Beijing will receive 160 high-society guests and Paris's consulates in Hong Kong and Shanghai will put on dinners.

But French chefs have to educate their audiences in China more than elsewhere.

The biggest challenge is linguistic: how to translate into Mandarin terms like "gougères" (cheese puffs), "mouillettes" (soldiers for boiled eggs) or "mignardises" (miniature pastries served with coffee or canapes).

In many countries restaurants will use French terminology, but with no equivalent in Chinese characters they have to resort to descriptions, preferably matching the contents of the plate.

At the embassy in Beijing, the task falls to Wang Wei, the ambassador's social secretary, who has to find equivalents for expressions such as "Noisette d'agneau en damier" (literally "lamb medallions in chessboard"), "Homard bleu Bellevue" (blue lobster Bellevue) or even "Poularde en demi-deuil, sauce suprême" (half-mourning capon with supreme sauce).

She calls in both the embassy's team of translators and head chef Thomas Ciret.

He describes his "oeuf toque au poivre du Sichuan" (scalped egg with Sichuan pepper) as: "You slice off the top of the egg, withdraw the white, make a whipped cream with sherry vinegar, cardamom, Sichuan pepper, salt, and chives. Then you cook the yolk in a water bath." A literal translation is impossible, as with "foie gras poêle à la granny-smith et celeri-rave" (seared foie gras with Granny Smith and celeriac).

"If I translated Granny Smith it would be incomprehensible and, more than that, ridiculous. So first I need to understand what it is, and then interpret it as 'green Australian apple'," she explained.

In the same way, she translates "Gaspacho, granite de concombre" (gazpacho with cucumber granita) as "cold Spanish soup" and will add the word "cheese" to "Ravioles de tomate cerise et mozzarella" (cherry tomato and mozzarella ravioli), since many Chinese are unfamiliar with mozzarella.

Many of the restaurants taking part in Thursday's event have not provided Chinese-language menus for its website - while some have even turned to English for the "local language".

Grilled oysters 

But that is just the first course of the cultural divide. "Most Chinese are used to eating oysters cooked, usually grilled," said Zhu Yunqian, a lifestyle expert for magazine Conde Nast Traveler magazine.

Others may be confounded by macaroons or blue cheese, radically different from their own ingredients.

In Chinese cooking - one of the most varied in the world - chefs must harmonise "cold" and "hot" food types, a uniquely Chinese concept that has nothing to do with temperature and is itself difficult to translate into Western language or ideas: lamb and chicken are "hot", black tea and lychees are "warm", while duck, strawberries and green tea are "cold". Depending on the species, fish can be cold, neutral or warm.

Mixtures are more common, and a balance needs to be found between colours and the five basic flavours: sour, sweet, spicy, salty, bitter.

"At a buffet, some Chinese tend to put everything together on their plates. You'll see them help themselves to salad, then add fish, meat, vegetables, rice, a creme brulee and a chocolate pancake," said Jean-Philippe Couturier, head chef at Beijing restaurant Cabernet.

Chinese diners also like to feast around a lazy susan loaded with multiple dishes, served with chopsticks.

The contrast with plates served in ritual sequence can be disconcerting, particularly when specialised cutlery such as snail tongs are deployed.

"The first time I experienced French cuisine I held my fork in my right hand, until a friend told me to switch," confided Fan Yuejiao, who works for Yueshichina, a gourmet Internet site. "I felt a bit awkward." 

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