Qianlong Baicai (Qianlong Cabbage 乾隆白菜)
What is it?
A traditional Beijing dish, Qianlong baicai is a plate of fresh, crispy Chinese cabbage blended with thick sesame paste, a bit of vinegar and some sugar and honey. The recipe has just the right amount of acidity to balance the thickness of the sesame paste, while highlighting the sweetness of the cabbage.
Why is it famous?
Qianlong baicai was reportedly the Emperor Qianlong’s favourite vegetable dish (hence the name). Legend has it that Qianlong (1711-1799) arrived at a restaurant in the capital city after a long day of travelling (he often travelled incognito to observe the conditions of ordinary people). By then, it was late and the emperor was hungry. Without having much to serve, the cook chopped up some cabbage, mixing it with sesame paste and a bit of honey. To his surprise, Qianlong enjoyed the dish tremendously so the chef simply named it Qianlong Baicai (cabbage).
Similarly, another famous cabbage dish in China is called simply kaishui baicai, which translates as “water cabbage”. But don’t be fooled, the cabbage is considered one of the toughest dishes to cook in Chinese cuisine. First, a richly flavoured broth that is made of old rooster (sometimes duck), lean pork and Jinhua ham acts as the base of the dish. The broth is then strained until all the fat is rendered, leaving behind only a beautiful stock full of umami. The cabbage, with the rougher leaves all trimmed away, and using only the most tender part of the core, is gently blanched before being added to the broth. Its sweetness and delicacy add another layer of flavour and texture to the dish.
The dish was considered elaborate enough that during the Cultural Revolution an article published by the Red Guards cited the kaishui cabbage as an example of the excess and corrupt lifestyle of the capitalists: “When the masses haven’t even seen a duck or a chicken for years, capitalists now eat a dish that only uses their juice?”
Where to eat it?
In Beijing, Sishi Tongtang is famous for its Qianlong baicai. Address: 1/F, Huantai Building, No.12, South Street, Zhongguancun, Haidian District, Beijing;Tel: 86-10-6218-9093. Similarly, Juqi, which has 13 locations around the capital city, is another very popular joint for Beijing cuisine. Address: B1 Fuyoujie Hotel, near Taipusi Jie, Xidan District, Beijing; Tel: 86-10-6808-5088.
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