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Delicacies for autumn feasts

Pauline D. Loh and Xu Junqian
Updated: Sep 5,2014 5:43 PM     Shanghai Star

Sudden showers, falling leaves and a cooling city again awaken appetites dulled by the heat of summer. It’s autumn, and time to celebrate good food and good company with some delicious seasonal specialties. Pauline D. Loh and Xu Junqian ferret out the best dishes for the occasion.

Sweet treat: Candied lotus root stuffed with glutinous rice and osmanthus jam.[Photo provided to Shanghai Star]

Lotus Root

The Chinese poet Han Yu (768-824) sang its praises and described it as “sweet as honey, icy as frost, a slice in the mouth heals all sickness”. The Qing emperor Qianlong (1711-99) compared it to “the snowy white, slender curved arm of a beautiful woman”.

What they were extolling, of course, is the humble lotus root, often pointed out as a moral example for “rising above the mud it grows in, untainted and white”. It is most abundantly harvested in autumn, and has naturally become part of the feast for the Mid-Autumn Festival.

The most convincing reason for its popularity is the culinary tradition of “eating local, eating seasonal”, born out of the belief that food in season is the best gift from nature. In the case of the lotus root, traditional Chinese medicine claims that the aquatic root vegetable is best for relieving summer heat and autumn dryness.

While the lotus is widely enjoyed in soups, in sweet and sour stir-fries, cooked with pork ribs, and other countless ways, the dish most popular on tables right around the country about this time is an appetizer, or cold dish: Candied lotus root stuffed with slow-cooked glutinous rice, and topped with osmanthus jam.

This was once native to the east China area, where sweet-toothed diners like something sweet at the beginning of their meal. These days, the dish is popular all over the country, attracting loyal followings with the shiny luster of the osmanthus syrup, its appealing fragrance, and above all, the soft and sticky lotus root, cooked to a melt-in-the-mouth mealy texture that contrasts with its usual crispness.

Places offering the dish are many, ranging from streetside stalls to fine dining Chinese restaurants, not to mention home-made recipes available online.

The most delicious we have eaten, however, comes from Chef David Du’s kitchen at Xindalu restaurant, at the Hyatt on the Bund Hotel.

The dish is heated up in the steamer after the order is placed and so the syrup and Osmanthus honey is melting again on the soft, sticky lotus root, making it a heart-warming dish during this unexpectedly early autumn.

Taro and Duck

If mashed potatoes and turkey are the signature pairing in the American Thanksgiving meal, then taro and duck can be said to best represent the Mid-Autumn meal in Shanghai. Duck and taro are common enough ingredients all over China, and in the professional and private kitchens, there have been countless recipes developed with these.

The soup-loving Cantonese stew them together for a slow-cooked broth, which, according to the principles of traditional Chinese medicine, will moisten the dryness of the body in autumn. In east China’s Yangtze River region, it becomes much simpler.

The taro is skinned, cut and stir-fried with scallion and salt, and cooked with duck, which may have been bought from a deli nearby. The most popular is the Nanjing salted duck, whose tender white meat is fatty but not greasy. The salted duck’s fame has gone far beyond the capital city of Jiangsu province and made it to the tables of neighboring cities like Shanghai and Hangzhou.

Although it is available all year around, the autumn birds are considered the best, as connoisseurs believe that the ducks of this season are naturally scented with the sweet aroma of osmanthus flowers. To enhance that belief, some delis simply season their ducks with osmanthus.

In northern China, taro is often boiled, peeled and dipped into sugar, eaten as a staple in place of rice or noodles. And in the north of the country, the famous roasted duck reigns supreme on the dining table.

The most complicated “matchmaking” is crispy duck wrapped in mashed taro, a century-old recipe from Chaoshan cuisine, an off-shoot of Cantonese cooking famous for its deceptively meat-like vegetarian dishes. The Hong Kong-trained chefs from Li Xuan, arguably the best Chaoshan restaurant in Shanghai, tell us that it takes a minimum of three hours for preparing and cooking this duck.

But, the time invested is a guarantee of its delicious quotient. The best taro comes from the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, where the climate and soil nurture an especially firm but smooth textured taro from the district of Lipu. It is often paired with the short-necked rice duck from Guangdong province, a bird that has plenty of meat but relatively less fat. But the most important secret lies in the temperature of the oil for frying the taro. If the cook is skilled, the result is a firm and fluffy fried roll with juicy duck meat inside and a crispy covering of mashed taro outside. The golden roll is a real treat – satisfying the eyes, the lips, the palate and the stomach.