Photographs are my preferred travel souvenirs, and there are times when my most vivid memories of a city are of its food. One such trip was my stay in Wuhan, central China, where the variety of regional cuisines made a mark on my palate as much as the city’s own specialties did on my camera.
Words & Images: Abby Yao
Wuhan is a city of culture and history in the heart of China, and a melting pot of the country’s culinary offerings. Being half-way between Chongqing to the west and Shanghai to the east, Beijing to the north and Hong Kong to the south, Wuhan’s cuisine has influences from all over. It’s an advantage for visitors who want to sample something new with every meal.
Or at least much of it looked new to me. During sit-down lunches at the extravagant dining halls and on crowded snack streets, my camera clicked away before the first bite was taken to taste everything on the table. A filling task at the very least, with the usual dozen (at least) dishes to try.
There are two rivers and over a hundred lakes in the area, so every Wuhan trip must include at least a cruise. On the serene East Lake, the largest city lake in China, a strange calm overcame me as the pleasure boat entered what seemed like a vast pond fringed by tiny trees.
The abundance of waterways give rise to the much-loved dish called Wuchang fish. Steamed bream from the Yangtze River was praised by Chairman Mao and has been widely enjoyed since. I found the fish very fresh, without that fishy aftertaste. Just watch out for the tiny bones!
Crustaceans aren’t that common but if you’re lucky, you might find shellfish or crispy crablets on the menu.
I missed the city’s most famous dish – hot dry noodles with sesame paste — because the chef lost me in translation. I ended up with noodle soup instead. Fortunately Wuhan had more breakfast staples, so there was no room in my tummy for disappointment. It did, however, have space for delicate soups such as lotus root in broth. It’s warming and filling, just right for the chilly autumn weather.
If you’re an urbanite and love shopping, Han Street would be right up your alley. At over a kilometre long, it is one of the longest shopping streets in China. I came away empty-handed because I was awed by the architecture. Aside from the international brands, there are cafes and snack chains along the way where you can rest your tired feet.
Yellow Crane Tower is the icon of Wuhan and a must for every visitor. The uphill climb and the StairMaster challenge up the tower will reward you with good views of the city even on a foggy rainy day like this.
I came across this lamb ‘satay’ stall just outside Yellow Crane Tower. The meat is mildly spicy, quite a tasty appetizer before heading off to a sit-down lunch.
Rice crispies with sweet and sour sauce? Why not? I was surprised at how good the combination was.
There’s no lack of sesame seeds on the snacks, especially those made of root crops such as yam and sweet potato. This one arrived in between dishes and was a hit at the table. Crispy on the outside, soft and warm on the inside, these medallions are wonderfully yummy.
Not your usual chicken poppers—chewy bite-sized pieces with what seemed like cartilage.
A colourful restaurant set on a lotus pond. The maze-like complex of dining pavilions had the most number of red lanterns I have ever seen. The changing lights kept the atmosphere bright and happy for the musicians who table-hopped to serenade the diners.
Fish and meat in Mianyang three steamed dishes — a favourite local combination.
The spicy fish hotpot came last. Safe to say, it was a less spicier counterpart of the infamous insides-burning Szechuan Grilled Fish. No inner flames need to be extinguished with this one.
Hubu Xiang is traditionally a breakfast alley but the lane is still packed after dark.
Take away what you wish. Grilled meats on skewers and fried delights in a cup at Hubu Xiang.
Sesame and green bean cakes are great presents… if you can resist finishing them yourself.
Frogs do taste like chicken. But in this state, they look headed for the dissection table, not the grill.
Many might cringe at the thought of eating congealed pig’s blood, but having grown up with the Filipino dish dinuguan (pig blood stew), I really enjoyed this one. The blocks have a silken tofu texture and mild seasoning that brought out subtle flavours.
The best snack I had in Wuhan is duck tongue (centre). Seasoned well and sealed in vacuum packs, these make very interesting food gifts for friends.
Aehan Monastic Dining Hall beside Guiyuan Temple has vegetarian food ranging from jasmine flowers to mock meat dishes. This mock fish skin with chilis is even more convincing when tasted.
Running low on desserts. Where is a Chinese-speaking guide when you need a translation?
Fruits are widely available in Wuhan. Meals often end with mixed fruits such as dragonfruit and longan. Carts loaded with watermelons are not uncommon on sidewalks.
It’s already late, but there’s still mianwo for midnight snack. The thin doughnuts are a Wuhan specialty. No glazed and frosted ones here, only black sesame.
What else shouldn’t you miss? Consider soup dumplings, stuffed bean skin and the renowned spicy duck neck. Expect a wide range of flavours, a few surprises and some comfortably familiar tastes in Wuhan. (Chili, stir-fried green beans, corn and wood ear mushrooms are common ingredients.)
After wandering the shopping streets and food streets, walk into the museums. Or should it be the other way around? However you wish to explore the city, there will always be room for a little sidetrip, a snack and an adventure for the senses. Just make sure you’ve got space in your memory card to document it!
GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Wuhan from Bangkok. For additional destinations, lowest airfares and flight information, go to www.airasia.com.
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