WHILE MORE familiar Chinese regional cuisines boast of rich seafood owing to the proximity of places like Guangdong and Shanghai to the sea, Northern China, located inland and in much colder climes, boast of well-bred land-based animals and products derived from wheat such as noodles and dumplings. According to the Executive Chinese chef of the City of Dreams, Bong Jun Choi, the reason for opening Jing Ting, a restaurant devoted to the traditions of Northern China, is because of a larger presence of guests from that region, owing to the ease of travel in a newly upwardly mobile Chinese population these days.
While Northern Chinese cuisine is often characterized by more subtle and simple flavors (as opposed to the flamboyance of say, Imperial cuisine), Northern China has more exposure to various cultures, thus giving way to different flavor profiles. More than a thousand years worth of interaction with people from the Middle East via the ancient Silk Road resulted in a taste for spices like cumin, and the techniques used for preparing meat, such as grilling and roasting, may have come from input from Mongol raiders.
At a food tasting earlier this week, the meal started with appetizers of crispy eggplant with five spices, and pickled cabbage and vegetables. The crispy eggplant proved to be comforting, and benefited from a light dip in black vinegar to remove the attention from a dish that could be potentially heavy. Highly aromatic, it’s a great snack for while you’re watching television. The pickled cabbage is lighter, fresher, but of a less refined texture than the pickled cabbage from the Korean peninsula.
Dumplings came next: all had uniformly delicate skins, so soft and wet as if you were biting through a cloud. There were three varieties that day: pork and vegetable, pork and kimchi, and pork and mushroom. As mentioned earlier, Northern China take pride in raising livestock, and China is one of the world’s biggest consumers of pork. The pork and vegetable dumpling’s filling was lightly flavored, while the pork and kimchi was predictably spicy. The pork and mushroom dumpling was wet with a little broth, had a soft chewy texture, and a delectable earthy flavor.
Next came the Genghis Khan-style prime beef short ribs, served as little coin-sized slices next to the bone from which it was carved. It was delightfully but not aggressively spicy, with a lingering taste of cumin and other spices. Ringed with red, it was suggestive of exotic adventures. A Xinjiang-style lamb, served hanging on a hook above a saucer of powdered spices, was more aggressive than the beef and altogether excellent, with a memorable crispy crust.
The restaurant’s specialty, hand-pulled noodles in soup, was served next. The noodles in the beef broth had a pleasant texture, keeping their firmness while remaining slimy and slippery, while the broth tasted brooding and mysterious. The noodles in the chicken soup were far more comforting, served with a light broth suggesting rainy days in bed.
Chef Yang Chen Fei (also known as chef Allan), who came from the Beijing Hotel, demonstrated his noodle-pulling techniques through a window in the open kitchen. The dough is braided, pulled, then banged against a counter in a continuous process until the dough begins to resemble loops of thread. It’s a skill, and it can take three months to learn, but a more skilled noodle chef can learn how in a week. It also relies on sensitivity, for you must know the dough before you bang it and pull it. By “knowing the dough,” it means feeling in your hands whether or not the dough is too soft or too hard. If it’s too soft, you risk breaking the dough and the noodles, and you should add a dusting of flour to it. If it’s too hard, the dough would be impossible to pull into the desired shape, and the texture would be hard and stringy against the teeth, and you should add a sprinkling of lye and water to it.
Banging the dough on the counter isn’t for show, or to get the diners’ attentions: it’s to tighten the dough for the next pulling. Its practice depends on patience.
The restaurant is open until 4 a.m. (to serve bleary-eyed casino guests), and prices range from P168 to P1,380. — Joseph L. Garcia