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Wenzhou

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Food in China, Hong Kong, and/or Taiwan

Spring Volume: 2012 Issue: 19(1) page(s): 28, 29, and 32


This harbor city in the Zhejiang Province has roots most ancient; it once was a Neolithic settlement; and it was named Wenzhou in the 4th century CE. Before that, it was known as Yung Jia. No matter how old or what name, everyone agrees no one really knows how old it really is

Wenzhou is the small red area on the map on this page, the entire Zhejiang Province is in orange. Called 'the land of fish and rice,' today Wenzhou is a thriving city of eight million plus, their fish and rice heavily consumed. The people here not only eat lots of both, they use rice to make outstanding paper sought after by famous and ordinary painters, calligraphers, too. Besides eating lots of fish, they make some into noodles.

Known for some two hundred and fifty special dishes, most dating from the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 CE) or earlier, local foods are popular not only in this prefecture city, but in many other cities, provinces, and places in China. What amazes is that even with their popularity, not a single restaurant in the United States used to focus entirely on this cuisine. A small basement booth did open a few years ago. No longer in the same location, it has moved to its own real estate recently. Also amazingly, we never found a single English-language cookbook dedicated to this cuisine among the four thousand donated to Stony Brook University's special collections, did not even find one chapter highlighting their dishes. We also never found one cookbook featuring foods from Wenzhou translated into French or Italian, though many Wenzhou ex-pats now reside in both of these countries.

A couple of thousand Wenzhou citizens emigrated less than a hundred years ago to both England and France. Fewer live in New York or anywhere else in the United States. There are some five Wenzhou restaurants in or near Paris, not quite that number in or near Rome, and just that one mentioned above in Flushing, Queens. This one in New York's Flushing is called Gourmet Noodles & Delicacies. It features many popular Wenzhou foods, and was reviewed in Volume 18(3) of Flavor and Fortune. Supervised and owned by a talented female chef educated in her craft at a culinary school in Wenzhou, it is a small take-out doing a big business and seating but a few more than a handful of folk at any one time.

The city of Wenzhou is some three hundred miles south of Shanghai. Recently, you may have heard, a high-speed train fell off its elevated tracks here. More than just one city, Wenzhou has two satellites and six neighboring counties where a million and a half of its eight million residents live in either Wenzhou proper or in the greater Wenzhou region. On the southeast coast of the Zhejiang province, Wenzhou was a prosperous foreign treaty port, still an important port and still serving foreign ships.

In a flat area below many mountains, Wenzhou is known as the birthplace of a quarter of a million private businesses. From them, thousands of enterprising natives left home for countries in Asia and elsewhere. Many began food-related businesses abroad, many more have similar ones at home.

Along the Nanxi River, this private business birthplace boasts a quarter of a million individually owned enterprises, many restaurants and wholesale and retail businesses that prepare, package, and sell local specialities.

In Wenzhou, people speak an eccentric Wu dialect or one of many tongues from places they came from. They make and eat foods that use fish and sea foods from the Nanxi and other rivers and from the sea, and they make and eat foods grown here and elsewhere using herbs and other foods from the nearby mountains.

In Wenzhou, people go to relax at Jiangxin Park on an island in the Ou River. They love that place because while there are several roads and foot bridges, there is absolutely no automobile traffic allowed. Getting there means using frequent ferry service, being there means strolling through its gardens, visiting its pagodas, even napping in its pavilions.

The foods in Wenzhou are as varied as the people, some of whom come from neighboring areas, others from distant places. All take advantage of the more than two hundred miles of coastline and the city's mild climate. They like that it was and still is open to foreign traders, as it has been since 1876. They delight in the fact that no foreign settlements were ever established here, and that the port of Wenzhou has always remained under Chinese control. They also like that their government often ignores them.

Natives from Wenzhou and visitors alike love that one quarter of this city includes nature or marine preserves, some recognized by UNESCO. They love the two hi-speed rail links, one north to Hangzhou and Ningbo, the other south to Fujian and beyond. They also delight that this city has one of the fastest growing and most profitable airports in China.

By rail, sea, or air, Wenzhou exports much tea and other foods, other beverages too, including wines. They also produce paper and jute, export lots of timber, make and sell lots of leather and plastic clothing here and abroad. Here, they make and export, many electric appliances, a large number of them used in food preparation.

The best known dishes in and around Wenzhou are from the larger urban areas of Ruian and Yueqing. These include dried crab, dried fish, and wine-soaked fish and crab. Known in and outside the larger Wenzhou area are dishes called: Fish with Three Shreds, Pigs Ear with Celery, Double-taste Crab and Pork Cake, Jellyfish with Cucumbers, Meatballs with Preserved Vegetables, Chicken Pot-- plain or with chicken feet, Stewed Tripe, Fish or Pork Skin, Wenzhou Fish Ball Noodle Soup with wheat or rice noodles, Pork Sandwich in Sesame Bread, and many kinds of local wonton, dumplings, and cake variations.

This area promotes not only its food, but also things touristic. However, before leaving the food facts, should you go there, do try their Tall Man Wonton, Short Man Sponge Cake, Lamp Cakes, Tang Yuan Dumplings, Seasoned Shark Skin, and many more local dishes.

Touristic treats include the Yandang Mountain area and its two great nature and marine preserves. The on-land one is Wuyanling Nature Preserve, the largest wet-land preserve is the Nanji Island Marine Preserve. Locals living here enjoy both of these, and they love eating the many local dishes that originated here during the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 CE). They also love the newer dishes, particularly those that include fish, crab, shrimp, and other things that swim.

To taste Wenzhou foods in the United States means eating items at or getting chow from Gourmet Delicacies and noodles; 42-15 College Point Boulevard; Flushing NY 11355; phone (718) 886-5762. As already indicated, it was reviewed in Volume 18(3) on page 28; this review can be seen in the Restaurant reviews listing on this web site. When there, speak to Sharon an owner; her English is very good, her Wenzhou cooking even better. As a top graduate from the Wenzhou culinary school, she really does know her stuff.

Warning: Do not believe all you read about this eatery on the web which says they are closed; they just moved to College Point Boulevard from their small basement stall in the Golden Shopping Mall. Now they are at street level. When there, try their short Rib Noodle soup, or take some home in a container that does not leak and does heat well in a microwave or when poured into a pot and heated on a stove. Try their many other delicious delicacies. Do not be fooled by the noodle soup that looks like squid. It is fish noodles simply cut creatively. Ask for and peruse their colorful take-out menu, many of their dishes are illustrated there, a few are on this page to whet your appetite now.

Of course, there are Wenzhou eateries in China, also in Paris, London, and Rome. One in Paris was reviewed in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 18(4) on page 23. For those from Wenzhou, if you have a local recipe and want to share it, we would appreciate compiling and printing them, giving you credit, of course, in a future issue. In the meantime, here are a few of ours, skimpy on detail but simply terrfic in taste.
Wenzhou Steamed Dough
Ingredients:
2 and 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 Tablespoon honey
1 cup soy milk
3 and 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vegetable oil
2 Tablespoons cake flour
1/2 Tablespoon cornstarch
16 three-inch squares of parchment paper
sweetened bean paste, pork paste, or sesame paste
Preparation:
1. Mix yeast and honey, then stir in half cup warm water and let rest until foamy, about fifteen minutes before adding the soy milk
2. Mix flour and salt, then mix into the yeast mixture. Knead until no longer sticky.
3. Coat the bowl with the oil, then put the kneaded dough in it, and cover with a cloth. Allow to rise about an hour or until double in size, then punch it down and roll half the dough into eight balls and set them aside, do likewise with the other half of the dough.
4. Spread flour and cornstarch of a pastry board, coating each ball with this mixture. Stuff each ball with two to three tablespoons of filling, pleating them, if desired, and put them on squares of parchment paper, and steam over rapidly boiling water for ten minutes, then serve.
Note: These can be steamed in advance, then steamed another three to four minutes if not refrigerated. Do so for five to six minutes if they are cold.
Fish Skin with Garlic
Ingredients:
1 to 2 pounds shark skin
1 Tablespoon animal fat or vegetable oil
2 cups fish stock
1 cup beef stock
1/2 cup garlic cloves, peeled
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
2 small dry shrimp, their shells and veins discarded, their flesh minced
1 scallion, minced
Preparation:
1. Cut the shark skin into strips two inches wide by four inches long.
2. Heat the fat or oil and stir-fry the pieces of skin in a medium-size pot for two minutes.
3. Add both fish and beef stock, the garlic cloves, soy sauce, and the minced shrimp bring to just below the boil, before reducing the heat and simmering for forty-five minutes.
4. Ladle the braised solids into individual soup bowls, add about three tablespoons of the remaining liquid, and sprinkle some minced scallion into each of them, then serve.
Fish Shreds Stew
Ingredients:
1 pound boneless and skinless firm fish, cut into thin strips
1 chicken skinless and boneless chicken thigh, cut into thin strips
1 Tablespoon light soy sauce
1/2 Tablespoon oyster sauce
1 square or teaspoon of fuyi which is fermented bean curd, mashed
2 Tablespoons water chestnut flour
3 cups chicken broth
2 Tablespoons minced Yunnan ham
1/4 cup wood ear fungi, soaked in warm water for twenty minutes, then shredded
1 small red pepper, seeded and cut into thin strips
1 small piece pickled mustard green, cut into thin strips
Preparation:
1. In a small bowl, put the strips of fish and chicken meat, soy sauce, oyster sauce, fuyi, and the water chestnut flour. Stir gently and allow to sit for half an hour.
2. Into a medium-size pot, put the broth, ham, and strips of wood ear fungi. Bring to the boil reduce the heat, then add the fish-chicken mixture and simmer for twenty minutes. Add the slivered red pepper and the mustard green, simmer another ten minutes, then serve.
Xianqian Tang Yuan Dumplings
Ingredients:
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
4 Tablespoons hand-chopped pork
1 pre-prepared Wenzhou steamed dumpling recipe made into sixteen balls of dough
2 Tablespoons ground white sesame seeds
1 Tablespoon ground black sesame seeds
3 Tablespoons brown bean paste
4 cups chicken broth, optional
Preparation:
1. Heat oil in a wok or fry pan, and stir-fry the minced pork until no longer pink. Remove from wok or fry pan and allow to cool.
2. Mix cooled stir-fried pork with the ground white and black sesame seeds and brown bean paste. Then put two tablespoons of this mixture into each piece of dumpling dough, wet the edges, and pleat to seal.
3. Steam over boiling water for ten minutes, then serve plain, with Poh Piah or another dipping sauce.
Note: The dough can be rolled into forty smaller balls, each one filled with one to two teaspoons of the filling, then boiled for eight minutes in four cups of chicken broth. Then serve it as a soup with dumplings.

                                                                                                                                                       
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