17 February 2016

Taste-bud nostalgia

Taste-bud nostalgia
Duck and Matsutake soup [Photo by Fan Zhen/chinadaily.com.cn]
Taste-bud nostalgia
Yu Restaurant at Ritz-Carlton Bejing [Photo by Fan Zhen/chinadaily.com.cn]

There are some dishes that capture the heart with a first taste, when titillated taste buds trigger off a sentimentality for that instantly warm fuzzy feeling.
That's what happened with a very special dish at the Yu restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Beijing. With one taste, I felt at home.

It was not the d├ęcor that won our hearts, although the restaurant is set in an airy, bright space filled with the warmth of wood. It is calming and refreshing, but when you start eating, it all fades into the wallpaper.

In the presence of a surprisingly well-made duck and Matsutake soup, tunnel vision sets in.

Everything else in the room might as well be invisible as the world narrows down to a gleam of clear duck broth topped with thinly sliced Matsutake. It may look rustic, but the sophistication is all in the details.

Even before the first sip, the sweet and woody fragrance of Matsutake tantalizes, signaling comfort and indulgence. The first spoonful confirms the glorious interplay of the fresh mushrooms, wolfberries and duck — all expertly seasoned and with their original flavors intact.

It is a Cantonese classic that I have been admiring for years not only for its thrift and skill, but also for the delicious outcome.

This boullion is the perfect, if delicate, answer to beating the last hot spells in early autumn, which the Chinese appropriately name qiu laohu, or autumn tigers.

Its rich flavors make you stop to savor every mouthful, look up, and out the window, where yellows and green sparkle outside the restaurant's French windows.

It is autumn again, the harvest season, and also the time when wild geese migrate from north to south—and I cannot help thinking of my hometown in the southern China.

In my younger days, my mother always cooked soups when the autumn came.

Taste-bud nostalgia
"You need to take in more nourishing fluid to clean the heat toxins out of your body and save nutrition for the winter," she used to nag. Like any impatient child, I would turn a deaf ear and quickly slurped up the broth. They tasted just as good as the one in front of me now, many years and many kilometers away from home.

It had never occurred to me that a little bowl of soup would have taken my mother so much effort to make until I talked to Ku Chi Fai, the executive Chinese chef of Yu Restaurant.

"It took six hours to double-boil the duck," the chef says. "Otherwise the aroma and the nutrition would not completely seep into the broth. Add the Matsutake in the last hour and the wolfberries in the last 15 minutes."

"To keep the soup clear, you have to let it trickle down down the rim of the bowl instead of pouring it over the duck. Otherwise, it gets greasy because of the heat of the liquid," Ku continues, generously sharing his kitchen secrets.

"If you want to test somebody’s love for you, let them cook you a bowl of soup. A really good soup requires not only patience but also attention to both the ingredients and the one for whom you are cooking. If somebody loves you, he or she will try to cater to your every need."

The same attention to detail is there in the tantalizing pan-fried spotted grouper with truffle sauce and the stir-fried Wagyu beef with fresh boletes.

Although the restaurant is a bit pricey for a casual meeting, it is worthwhile sharing a meal here with loved ones, or a family reunion on a mid-autumn day. It definitely has the feel and taste of home.

Taste-bud nostalgia
Pan-fried Spotted Grouper with Truffle sauce [Photo by Fan Zhen/chinadaily.com.cn]
Taste-bud nostalgia
Stir-fried Wagyu beef with fresh Boletes[Photo by Fan Zhen/chinadaily.com.cn]