Explore the history, culture and cuisine of one of the most influential countries of the 21st century. It's easy with a little help from books, film and local Asian flavours, writes Brett Atkinson.
Where to go in China
Once we can travel internationally again, venture along the Tea Horse Road – the ancient trade route that once linked China to India – in the sprawling and diverse southwestern province of Yunnan. Start by discovering the lakeside tea houses, street food, and hip cafes of cosmopolitan Kunming, before catching the train to the historic town of Dali. In the nearby village of Xizhou, longtime China residents Brian and Jeanee Linden run the Linden Centre (
), a surprising enterprise combining a boutique hotel and cultural exchange centre in an historic courtyard mansion. Continue north to Shaxi for the town's famous Sideng Friday market – the weekly market is regarded as one of China's best – before completing a Yunnan adventure in Lijiang, in the shadow of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, and the ideal base to hike the spectacular Tiger Leaping Gorge. An excellent day trip is to meet with the Naxi people in the nearby village of Baisha. From Lijiang there are regular flights back to Kunming, and onward connections to Singapore or Hong Kong.
What to watch
Prepare for future exploration of the Chinese restaurants along Auckland's Dominion Rd by watching Flavourful Origins on Netflix. Three different series detail the diverse culinary traditions of China's Yunnan, Gansu and Chaoshan provinces. Staying with the foodie theme, Bite of China on Prime Video blends the country's cuisine, culture and history, and was once lauded as "The finest food TV ever". Feature films showcasing China's rich history include Mao's Last Dancer (2009, on Netflix) and The Last Emperor (1987, Prime Video). Up the Yangtze (2007, available on Vimeo) is an award-winning documentary about the impact of the massive Three Gorges project on one of the planet's great rivers.
What to read about China
Paul Theroux's, Riding the Iron Rooster (1988) covers his journeys by rail through China in the 1980s, with his experiences in the now-modern megacities of Beijing and Shanghai showcasing how much the country has changed over recent decades. Poignant autobiographies essential for understanding the momentous years of China's Cultural Revolution in the latter half of the 20th century include Wild Swans (1991) by Jung Chang, and Red China Blues (1996) by Chinese-Canadian journalist Jan Wong. Excellent China-themed travel books include The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China (2014) by journalist and Lonely Planet author David Eimer, while River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (2001) and Oracle Bones (2009) - both by Peter Hessler - bear witness to China's dynamic re-emergence from the turn of the century.
What to eat to experience China
We're spoilt for choice for good Chinese food in New Zealand, especially along Auckland's Dominion Rd, and most of the neighbourhood's eateries dishing up regional Chinese cuisine have been open for click-and-collect takeaways during lockdown. For the flavours of China's Sichuan province – with dishes often spiked by mouth-numbing mala pepper – head to Eden Noodles for delicious dumplings and hearty bowls of Dan Dan noodles. They also have branches in the CBD and in Albany. The bigger xiao long bao of Shanghai – also called "soup dumplings" – are served at Jolin Shanghai restaurant further west around Eden Quarter, whereas Balmoral is the best destination for Muslim-influenced flatbreads and cumin- and chilli-laced lamb skewers at Xi'an Food Bar. See
for their six other locations around Auckland and in Hamilton.
Auckland's only specialist Yunnanese restaurant is Yunnan Kitchen in Panmure, while the hand-pulled noodles of China's northwestern Gansu provinces are made fresh throughout the day at King Made Noodles in Fort St. For fans of the slightly sweeter flavours of China's Guangzhou region, head to Canton Cafe in Kingsland. Highlights of one of Auckland's longest established Chinese restaurants include comfort food like sweet and sour chicken and seafood with black bean sauce.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
What to drink
Best enjoyed from a frosty 640ml bottle, Tsingtao is China's most popular beer, and the easy-drinking rice lager has been brewed in the northeastern Chinese port city of Qingdao since 1903. As a tribute to one of the world's biggest-selling beers, Auckland's Behemoth Brewing Company brew Half Way Down, a quaffable 4.5 per cent beer that's ideal with the spicy flavours served up along Dominion Rd. Extra points for the reference to one of The Muttonbirds' best songs. Stronger alcoholic brews often enjoyed with Chinese food include bai ju and fen jiu, both distilled from grains including sorghum or millet. Coming in with a stonking alcohol content from 30 to 60 per cent sipping is definitely the best strategy.
For a wide range of Chinese teas, check out Tekkoon Tea's two Auckland locations in Balmoral and Pakuranga, or sign up for a traditional tea-tasting ceremony at Teasme in Christchurch. Tea ceremonies are also offered at the Zealong Tea Estate on the northern outskirts of Hamilton.