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Yechun Teahouse

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Yechun Teahouse is a haven of Huaiyang cuisine, as Liu Zhihua discovers at the famous chain's new eatery in the capital.

The first thing I noticed when I walked into the new Beijing branch of Yechun Teahouse, a State-owned restaurant chain headquartered in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, was the intricate design.

The first-floor entrance hall features a rock-and-water garden, and dozens of traditional Chinese lanterns swing from the high ceiling.

A winding white-marble staircase leads customers to dining areas on the second and third floors, sweeping past a large open kitchen where staff work busily.

As I walked to a dining room on the third floor, I noticed every wooden window was a carved flower frame; the names of the rooms included chun (spring), which reminded me of the mild climate and beautiful scenery in the Jiangnan area-the southern region of the Yangtze River where the restaurant chain got its start.

With a history of more than 200 years, the restaurant chain's eateries are famous for Huaiyang cuisine, which is one of China's four major cuisines, along with Cantonese, Chuan, and Shandong. Huaiyang cuisine is characteristically light and slightly sweet-almost never spicy.

Pork, freshwater fish and other aquatic creatures serve as the meat base in most dishes, and there is a vast variety of dim sum as well.

Fans of Huaiyang cuisine say its emphasis on the freshness of ingredients, as well as the meticulous way ingredients are cut and heated, sets it apart from other foods.

At a recent lunch at the Beijing branch, I sampled several dishes and gained a new appreciation for the cuisine. The dishes were presented in porcelain in colors that coordinated with the food colors.

Most of the ingredients used in the restaurant are transported from Yangzhou, to preserve the quality and traditional taste, according to Chen Jun, general manager of the Yangzhou Hotel, the eatery chain's parent company.

Tang gansi, or boiled scaly tofu threads, is a widely known Huaiyang-style dish. Yechun Teahouse's version was the most delicious I had ever tried.

It sounds easy to make: Slice tofu into very tiny shreds, pour boiling water on the shreds three times, then soak them in seasoned soup.

However, the flavor of tang gansi differs from one restaurant to another, because even when the ingredients are the same, the thickness of the bean-curd threads, the speed the boiling water is poured, and the amount of seasoning added to the soup all affect the taste and texture.

The quality of tofu makes the biggest difference, and the threads will become too soft, hard, or dry if the tofu is not good enough.

The Beijing branch brings in tofu from its Yangzhou kitchen, because the water in Beijing is too hard to make soft and non-porous tofu, according to Chen Ende, a Huaiyang cuisine master.

The result, I found, is that the tofu is soft and tender at first bite, and then chewy and a little bit sticky. The tofu threads seemed no thicker than a millimeter.

Seasoned with ginger, sesame oil and other condiments, the fresh taste of the tofu lingered on my tongue even after I stopped eating it.

I was also surprised to find a variety of stuffed buns at the restaurant at a relatively cheap price-on average 3 yuan (48 cents) each.

Huaiyang is one of the three main dim sum styles in China (the others are Cantonese and Peking). The dim sum at Yechun Teahouse in Yangzhou is so famous that it has been served at State banquets.

Compared to Cantonese versions, Huaiyang dim sum is a little sweet and there are more than 500 varieties, with different stuffings, shapes and appearances, according to Chen Ende, the master chef.

All kinds of vegetables, fish, crab and red meat, wild herbs, nuts, truffles and mushrooms are used to stuff steamed buns in accordance with the seasons, to make the freshest dim sum, Chen says.

At my lunch, I tried san'ding baozi (steamed buns stuffed with three delicacies), steamed meat dumplings, fried beef dumplings, jade-colored steamed meat dumplings, and steamed buns stuffed with sweet red-bean paste.

The bun skin was soft, and tasted of scented wheat. However, to appeal to Beijing diners who usually don't like their dumplings sweet, the stuffing was unsweetened and a little saltier, according to the chef.

I was also surprised to learn that all of the meatballs are freshly made to order.

Among the dozen dishes I tried, my second favorite was Sanguo Hui Tijin (Three Kingdoms Boiled with Pig-Feet Tendons, made of fish meatballs, crayfish meatballs, pigeon eggs and pig-feet tendons.

The meatballs were pre-boiled before they were cooked with the tendon strips in fresh fish soup. The timing is key, Chen says, to make the soup sticky but not ruin the freshness of the meatballs and eggs.

The meatballs were soft and exquisitely smooth. The eggs were slippery and tasty. But nothing could compare with the taste of the tendons, which were chewy and sticky, with a deliciously strong taste of fish that overrode the pork.

Other dishes I had that day made of fish, pork, vegetables, and mushrooms, for example, didn't seem that special-except for shizitou (pork meatballs) and two cold dishes of shrimp and dried fish, which were all very fresh and tasty.


IF YOU GO

Yechun Teahouse

7:30 am-10 pm, 22 Ping'anli Street, Xicheng district, Beijing.

010-5851-9968

China Daily


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