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Feel-Good Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Silken Tofu at Great Wall Restaurant.

THE Great Wall of China, built in ancient days to keep out invading nomadic tribes, now attracts thousands of visitors every day, and is considered one of the greatest wonders of the world. Named in honour of this world heritage site, The Great Wall Restaurant in Belgravia, Harare has a dedicated clientele and is a popular destination for tourists in search of authentic Chinese cuisine.

Cool verandah at The Great Wall Restaurant

Three Chinese restaurants existed in Harare before Zimbabwe and China established diplomatic relations in 1980 – The Bamboo Inn, The Golden Dragon and The Mandarin. Little was known about Chinese culture or cuisine at the time, and we were more than happy with Cantonese dishes like chow mein and sweet and sour pork. But as the small Chinese community grew, so did the number of Chinese restaurants, and Zimbos became aware of the unique flavours relating to different regions of China – salt in the north, sweet in the south, spicy in the east, and acidic in the west. They also became interested in the Chinese belief in food therapy and the practice of healing using natural foods instead of medication.

One of my favourite dishes, Kung Pao chicken, originates in Chengdu, capital of the land-locked province of Sichuan. Diced chicken cooked with whole, dried chilli peppers, peanuts and Sichuan peppercorns, creates a fragrant, hot and mouth-numbing dish. Mapo tofu, another favourite, is a fiery pork or beef and tofu stir fry flavoured with doubanjiang (spicy fermented bean paste), chilli oil and Sichuan peppercorns. Both these well-known dishes, besides being delicious, have health benefits. Eating tofu can reduce the risk of cancer and diabetes and strengthen the immune system; the red hot chilli pepper releases feel good endorphins (chemicals) that relieve stress and pain.

We ordered both these dishes from the wide menu at Great Wall, on arriving for lunch last Saturday. Mapo tofu, described on the special and vegetarian menu as bean curd with minced beef (hot) ZW$120, was made with silken tofu (undrained and unpressed tofu). Delicate cubes of silken tofu contrasted with the fiery yet perfectly balanced sauce, creating a delicious dish. The Great Wall’s version of Kung Pao, however, lacked the necessary hit of scorched chilli and the numbing zing of Sichuan peppercorns associated with this dish, and failed to hit the mark.

It hasn’t always been easy to find enough food to satisfy China’s huge population, giving rise to the saying ‘waste not, want not’. Therefore, if a pig is slaughtered, all its parts should be either eaten or put to use medicinally. Given the Chinese love of good food, I was particularly looking forward to trying Great Wall’s version of ‘pig ears with Chinese parsley (spicy)’. Unfortunately it was sold out, there having been a rush on pig ears during the week. The waiter said that it is popular with local as well as Chinese diners.

Ambrosial bow tie and ice cream at The Great Wall.

So I opted for a plate of green beans with black bean sauce (ZW$120). Fresh, bright green, crisp and al dente, the green beans combined delicately with the umami flavour of the fermented beans, creating a delicious dish, both stimulating and satisfying the appetite. This would have been the stand out dish of our meal, if it hadn’t been for dessert.

From the dessert menu featuring bananas in various guises, fruit salad, litichis and ice cream, we chose bow ties with ice cream (ZW$90). The crisp pastry bow tie with vanilla ice cream drizzled with honey was simplicity in itself, but ambrosial.

Green beans and black bean sauce at Great Wall.

We left the cool verandah after lunch and walked through a pretty walled garden to a large well-stocked grocery shop standing behind the restaurant. A helpful assistant helped us decipher the Chinese labels on the many products, and indicated the bottle of doubanjiang (fermented bean paste) we would need to try and replicate the green bean dish.

Half an hour later we departed, toting a large bag filled with glass noodles, spring roll wrappers, dried shrimps, and bottles of chilli and black bean paste. If things didn’t work out just right in the kitchen at home, we could always come back for a meal to The Great Wall Restaurant.  A Matter of Taste Charlotte Malakoff

The Great Wall Restaurant
94 Upper East Road
Tel: 024 2334149
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