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January 19, 2012

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Dragon dishes test the skill of chefs

EVERY year on the Chinese New Year's Eve, chefs and amateur cooks at home prepare some food symbolizing the animal representing the Chinese zodiac for the coming year. This is believed to bring good fortune.

The Year of the Dragon is no exception. But compared with the other 11 animals of the Chinese zodiac, the dragon is more difficult to present through food since they don't actually exist.

As a symbol of power, strength and dignity, dragons are auspicious creatures. This forces chefs to be creative when creating special menus for Lunar New Year's Eve.

Morris Liu, executive chef at Grand Mercure Hongqiao Shanghai, says: "Some special ingredients, usually represented by various seafood and birds, are chosen to interpret the role of dragon played in Chinese legends and folk stories."

He says since Chinese dragons have the ability to both live in the sea and fly, thus they are closely linked to fish, shrimp, clam and pigeon.

Wong Cheung Kan, Chinese executive chef at Renaissance Shanghai Yangtze Hotel, agrees, saying since dragons are often described as being scaly with shrimp-like eyes, fish and shrimp are the most common foods to represent the creatures.

Chef Tom Meng, Chinese head chef at Courtyard by Marriott Shanghai Pudong says slicing and carving techniques are used to make dishes look like a dragon. The result is a visually appealing dish.

One option is when a chef cuts all ingredients into thin slices of different shapes like circles, rectangles and even flowers and butterflies to arrange them into the shape of a dragon.

Meng, who is from Shandong Province, says this is usually done for appetizers in north China.

"When making a dragon appetizer, I often use the body of the shrimp, which has a semi-circle shape, to resemble the dragons scales; sliced white mushroom to resemble the feet; soft and floppy jidangao (a steamed cake made of egg white) for the tail; and sliced carrots to give the dragon more color," Meng says.

Food carving is complex and time consuming, but creates a "3D" effect. Chinese chefs are skilled at carving various fruits and vegetables into flowers, animals and mythical dragons.

"Food carvings are best for presenting the fine details of the dragon, including its motion and emotional expression," Meng says.

Radishes, carrots and watermelons are ideal for carving although most chefs choose pumpkin for dragons due to its vivid color.

Chef Liu is using pumpkins to carve dragon heads.

"Each sculpture takes me at least 2.5 hours and is a test of both my carving skills and artistic expression," Liu says.

He says food carving, the top craft in the Chinese culinary world, requires at least five years of practice in the kitchen to get the blade angles and cutting depth right since the amount of force put behind the knife should be applied concisely.

"To make the dish more attractive, symmetry, sleek lines and color pairing are all considered," he adds.

Aside from the selection of ingredients and dish presentation, a dragon theme can also be presented through the name of the dish. This is more popular in South China, especially Guangdong and Fujian provinces.

Chef Wong, who is from Hong Kong, says: "We often use dragon-related expressions to name our dishes."

The three chefs recommend five dragon dishes to celebrate the Spring Festival.

Pan Long Xi Zhu 盘龙戏珠

The name of this stir-fried dish of scallops with XO sauce literally means a dragon playing with pearls.

XO sauce is made of dried seafood including shrimp and scallop that is cooked with oil, garlic, onion and other seasonings.

Chef Liu makes a dragon sculpture out of pumpkin. The head of the dragon stares at the pearls (scallops) on the plate.

The scallops are firm, savory and slightly spicy.

You Long Guo Hai 游龙过海

The dish, literally meaning a dragon swimming across the sea, is braised sea cucumber with scallion.

This Shandong cuisine dish features a silky and glutinous texture and rich fragrance.

It is said that during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) a Shandong chef cooked the popular dish in his hometown for Emperor Kangxi. It soon became the emperor's favorite. Since the dragon is also a symbol of the emperor, the dish later became a classic dragon dish.

Where to order:


Grand Mercure Hotel Hongqiao Shanghai

Tel: 5153-3300 ext 3708

Address: 369 Xianxia Rd

Long Teng Si Hai 龙腾四海

The name means dragon soaring over the sea and the dish features a baked lobster with butter and cheese served with pasta. Chef Meng says he wanted to integrate Western culinary ways into Chinese cuisine.

The pasta is cooked in a shrimp, clam and crab soup and the noodles are used to represent waves. The lobster is presented like a dragon with its head propped up like it is emerging from water.

The lobster adds a nice fragrance along with a rich and sweet taste. The pasta absorbs all the flavors from the soup and has a nice contrast to the lobster meat.

Where to order:

Hua Mei Garden Chinese Restaurant

Courtyard by Marriott Shanghai Pudong

Tel: 3887-4500

Address: 838 Dongfang Rd

Sheng Long Huo Hu éúáú???¢

This classic Cantonese dish features pan-fried prawns with tomato sauce.

"I've used tomatoes to give the dish a shiny red color, a symbol of luck in Chinese culture, to express my New Year's wish to our customers," says Chef Wong.

The juicy shrimp is sweet yet sour with a tender and bouncy texture

Long Ma Jing Shen 龙马精神

The dish, sautéed scallop and geoduck (the world's biggest clam) in XO sauce, means being filled with energy and vigor like a dragon or a horse.

The soft scallop has a hint of sweetness and a bit of spice and contrasts with the crunchy geoduck.

Where to order:

Dynasty Restaurant

Renaissance Shanghai Yangtze Hotel

Tel: 6275-0000

Address: 2099 Yan'an Rd W.


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