Familiar flavours of Hutong cuisine

The foods we love most are often the authentic home flavors remembered from childhood. That's exactly why the chefs at Vic Bistro - an international team - have reached back into their own pasts to offer dishes not only from French-style bistros and Indian kitchens but also old Beijing's hutong (alley) cuisine.

These dishes have their roots in the Chinese capital's hutong lifestyle. The plates are quite downscale in contrast to upper-class imperial cuisine, served to the royal families, and guanfu cai, literally "cuisine in officials' houses", which used to be served at official banquets.

The nine cold dishes and 12 hot dishes on Vic Bistro's menu are chosen from hundreds of hutong cuisine dishes, including duck feet with mustard sauce, Peking roasted duck, deep-fried pork meat balls, and roasted Mongolian lamb with garlic and chili. As a group, they beautifully represent the essence of their tradition, says Su Xianmei, Vic Bistro's chief chef of hutong cuisine.

The restaurant at Sofitel Wanda Beijing once served a buffet all day.

The acronym VIC stands for Voyage of International Cuisine.

However, sensing a demand for simple and authentic flavors at good value for money, the management decisively transformed the evening dinner buffet that once cost more than 400 yuan ($63) per person to a menu that averages less than half that features international casual dining and makes a special place for hutong cuisine

While official cuisines are often characterized by exquisiteness and extravagance, hutong cuisine is what ordinary people usually eat at home, and is humbly presented.

All the three cuisines are mainly based on Lu (Shandong) cuisine, because Lu cuisine chefs were among the first to serve emperors who ruled from Beijing. That made Lu cuisine prevalent in North China, Su notes.

Over the time, the Lu-cuisine-based hutong, imperial and guanfu repertoires absorbed dishes and culinary methods from other places in China. The evolution continues today, says Su, who started cooking hutong cuisine in 1998.

In his eyes, hutong cuisine is not only a legacy of rich traditions from the history of Beijing, but also open to innovation, and is healthy. Authentic hutong cuisine, he says, does not use chemical additives such as monosodium glutamate and "chicken-flavored powder".

Su's favourite dish, which is also my favourite, is the spicy Sichuan diced chicken. Its distinctive aroma, with the signature Sichuan pepper and slightly burnt chicken, tickles the appetite the moment it arrives on the table.

It features cream-coloured sesame seeds and bits of dried red chilies clinging to the caramelized chunks of chicken. The diner is rewarded with a dance of flavors from spiciness, saltiness, and tingly numbness.

Originally a local dish from Sichuan and Chongqing, the dish is now a must-try in many restaurants featuring hutong cuisine, he says.

I also liked the Beijing-style pork-skin jelly.

Popular in many places in China, pork jelly is said to originate from the Manchu kitchen. Diligent housewives carefully remove all the hairs, then stew it in boiling water to get rid of oil, and then simmer chopped pork skin with a small bag of spices, including ginger, peppers and shallots, for hours until the skin jellies.

The jelly contains collagen, fiber and fat, and is believed to be good for people's skin, bones and hair. The tender, meaty dish is often served as a cold appetizer with sauce. In the childhood memory of many Chinese, it is a treat for celebrations or special guests - a delicacy associated with happiness.

Vic Bistro's version is simmered with beans and dried bean curd. The innovation enriches the texture and flavor.

I regretted there was no traditional Chinese rice wine to pair with the jelly, although the bistro has an extensive beverage menu.

The restaurant's international culinary masters also include French chef Mikolajczak Yann and Indian chef Vinod Kumar, who provide signature dishes from their hometowns.

Yann, who's from Lyon, creates the "frog legs from my childhood", which - unlike Chinese frog-leg dishes that are heavily seasoned - has a light taste.

Kumar, who's from New Dehli, brings a range of flavors from his home country, such as fragrant curries, and exotic condiments, including bay leaf, cinnamon and green cardamom. His signature dish is butter chicken - "the dish of his country", as he puts it.

Vic Bistro 93 Jianguo Road, Wanda Plaza Tower C, Chaoyang District, Beijing +86 010 8599 6666

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