Earlier this week, I had the good fortune to attend the finals of the 2009 International Chinese Culinary Competition at the Lighthouse at Chelsea Piers. Forty-two chefs from around the world competed in the categories of Sichuan, Shandong, Cantonese, Huaiyang, and Northeastern cuisines. As someone who has competed in such prestigious cooking contests as the Jack Daniel’s World Championship International Barbeque I was particularly keen to see these men and women vie for $70,000 in prize money. (Of course my passion for Chinese food also helped to whet my appetite.)
Among the numerous tofu preparations, including the classic Sichuan dish ma po tofu,, the one that impressed me the most was this Wensi tofu prepared by Tiger Xue of Colorado. Those strands look like noodles, but they’re actually tofu, specifically silken tofu. (Kudos to anyone who can slice silken tofu that thinly.)
Surely those knife skills also played a role in Chef Xue’s lovely chrysanthemum herring. Both of these dishes fall into the category of Huaiyang cuisine, which comes from the region surrounding the lower reaches of the Huai and Yangtze Rivers. Until the competition, I had no idea it existed as a distinct cuisine.
One of the more striking Huaiyang dishes is song shu yu, or squirrel fish. Hua Zhang from Shanghai garnished his with pine nuts, perhaps in a tip of the hat to the squirrel in the dish’s name.
With its bushy tail and bright eyes, New York City Chef Ming Zhang’s song shu yu looked decidedly more squirrelly.
Zhang's song shu yu tasted just as good as it looked. I had a bit of the head. Crunchy, salty-sweet skin surrounding tender fish.
Fu qi fei pian, or "husband and wife" offal slices, is one of my favorite Sichuan dishes. I was disappointed to learn it would not be included in the Sichuan portion of the competition, because it requires barely any cooking. Nevertheless, there was an excellent tripe-laden version provided as part of a wonderful buffet.
Several of the Sichuan chefs prepared double-cooked pork, savory slices of belly shot through with chili peppers and leeks.
Only one Sichuan chef cooked a whole fish. Yi Jiang, who hails from New Jersey, turned out this stellar-looking dry-sautéed specimen.
Steamed grouper was a required dish in the preliminary round for Cantonese chefs. Xiaofan Huang, from New York City, made her fish look like a display from the American Museum of Natural History.
Many of the dishes were beautiful, clearly requiring labor-intensive preparation. Hua Zhang turned his crystal baby shrimp into a work of art.
And some of the dishes were far simpler, like this cabbage soup that’s one of Susur Lee’s favorites. Chef Lee had just returned from China, where he’d judged a similar competition. I didn’t get to taste the soup, but Lee is clearly a fan. “You see, the subtlety of the cabbage, the flavor, is completely captured,” Lee said. We talk about tomato umami; cabbage, when you taste it, has vegetarian umami. It’s so clean and so beautiful.
“After two days of watching, we hope we’ve changed your image of what Chinese food is,” a commentator said at the end of the competition. “It’s not the greasy fast food or fried chicken or even the buffet you enjoy so much.”
In that regard they were preaching to the choir. Here’s my takeaway on one of the best Chinese food experiences I’ve ever had: There’s a lot more for me to learn about regional Chinese cuisines. That, and I plan to order a lot more whole fish.