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Hangzhou: A Culinary Memoir

by Helen Chen

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

Spring Volume: 1996 Issue: 3(1) page(s): 11, 13, and 21

As Chair and CEO of Joyce Chen, Inc. and author of Helen Chen's Chinese Home Cooking, Hearst Books, 1994, I am delighted to write about Hangzhou, a city that has always held special significance for me. The reasons are many, but perhaps the two most important are that it is my father's birthplace, and a city known for its wonderful cuisine. In China they say:

The people of Shanghai appreciate good clothes;
The people of Hangzhou appreciate good food.

As a child growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I remember hearing my parents talk about a beautiful and almost magical city by the lake. This was my father's birthplace. In the Chinese tradition of stating your father's birthplace as your own, I proudly tell people that I am a Hangzhou ren, that is a native of Hangzhou. It seemed no small coincidence to me that Hangzhou's sister city in the United States is Boston, my American hometown. Boston is across the river from Cambridge.

Hangzhou, located ninety kilometers or about one hundred fifteen miles southwest of Shanghai, is an ancient city with a venerable past. In 1135 CE, Hangzhou was known as Lin'an, and the Southern Song Dynasty's capital city. Today, my father's birthplace is the capital of the Zhejiang, one of the smallest provinces in China.

Every province and major city in China has products for which it is famous. Hangzhou is known for, among other things, its silk industry, high quality tea, cuisine, and its scenic beauty. The center of the latter is the lovely West Lake, ringed with parks, pavilions, bridges, and tree-lined causeways. A popular couplet in Chinese goes:

In heaven there is paradise;
On earth there is Suzhou and Hangzhou

Besides its famous historic and scenic sights, the gastronomic traveler will find Hangzhou a perfect place to tempt even the most jaded palate. In the fall of 1995, I made my third trip there and found that the city had changed dramatically since my initial visit in 1972. What had been a rural community was now a bustling and thriving city entering the 21st century.

I still have relatives living in Hangzhou and my husband Keith and so I spent most of our days with my cousin, Ma Zhao-wen, also a native of Hangzhou. He is my father's fifth sister’s son.

After arriving on a comfortable and efficient flight from Hong Kong, we were met at the airport by our friend Wang Ye-hong and the hotel van...called a mianbao che or bread car, because of its resemblance to a loaf of bread. We were whisked off to the Wanghu Hotel over dusty, bumpy roads, the stores becoming more numerous, larger, and more modern as we approached the downtown area.

When we had finished checking in, he suggested lunch, but not at the hotel. It was deemed too expensive and of poor quality. A later breakfast at the hotel proved this to be quite true. We followed Ye-hong through the streets to a small, literally a hole-in-the-wall, noodle restaurant. The dark narrow space seated about sixteen people tightly.

We ordered bowls of salted vegetable soup noodles topped with a piece of soy sauce-braised pork for four ren men bi (RMB) each. The RMB is the Chinese currency and equivalent to about fifty cents in American money. We had to buy our meal by first paying a cashier at the entrance. She handed us a piece of paper to take to the small self-serve window at the far end of the room. From this serving aperture, I could see large pots of noodles being boiled. They would then place the noodles into individual bowls and garnish them with hot broth, vegetables, and meat. All were ladled from large washbin-type containers. The noodles were piping hot and delicious. Chinese street food at its best!

I was anxious to try many Hangzhou specialties. Some were prepared and eaten at restaurants, but our favorite meals were cooked at home. Ye-hong, knowing my interest in cooking, had his mother prepare an elaborate eight-course lunch for us instructing her to ready everything, but not cook until I was there to watch. It was amazing what could be created in a simple concrete room with one butane burner.

Other meals were had at my cousin's two-bedroom apartment. The tiny kitchen there, with its single faucet sink, was a closet-sized five foot by six foot place. Yet amazingly, two people (my cousin and his wife Xiao Wu) moved about quite easily as they prepared dish after dish.

Of the many wonderful items we dined upon, perhaps the most famous and well-known signature dish of Hangzhou was West Lake Fish. That dish, called Xi Hu Cu Yu, is named after the famed West Lake that lies on the edge of the city. This fresh-water fish, usually a grass carp presumably from the West Lake, is poached then covered with a delicate sweet and pungent sauce made with sugar and black Chinkiang vinegar. It is totally unlike the often cloyingly sweet red sauces served at many Chinese restaurants in the United States.

Another speciality, which we had in the Hangzhou Restaurant, was called Dong Po Pork or Dong Po Rou. This well-known dish was named after the famous eleventh century poet, Dong Po. He was sent to the provinces by the Emperor; and became Hangzhou's governor. This pork delicacy featured the smooth skin and underlying fat and meat of pork belly. The skin was braised until soft, tender, and almost gelatinous, then cut and steamed in its own earthenware crock, I would guess each piece was about two inches in diameter. This delicious banquet dish is obviously high in cholesterol and fat; rarely does one see it served frequently or eaten in excess.

Beggar's Chicken or Jiao Hua Tong Ii, is a tourist specialty. It features a whole chicken wrapped in lotus leaves, then paper, and finally clay or mud; then roasted until tender. The story goes that this was the only way pot-less beggars could cook their meals. Our Beggar's Chicken was incredibly tender, but was cracked open in the kitchen. We missed the theater that Hong Kong restaurants offer when they allow the guest of honor to use a mallet to break-open the hard-baked clay.

Ubiquitous all around the lake, are stands that serve Sweet Lotus Root Soup. This fast food snack is made quickly by pouring boiling water into a bowl or pot of lotus root starch. The thick soup is then sweetened and flavored with osmanthus sugar. Osmanthus or sweet olive trees (gui hua, in Chinese) dot the whole area and in the early fall, their tiny, yellowish-white blossoms are gathered and candied, made into jam, or used to flavor wines.

Of course, to cleanse the palate and relax the spirit, we enjoyed the famous Dragon Well (Lung Jing) green tea brewed with spring water from the fabled Tiger Run (Hu pao) Spring. Our relatives warned us against buying any tea that we saw being sold at the roadside. "It isn’t the real thing," they cautioned, because "all the true Dragon Well Tea is spoken for long before it is even gathered!"

We were invited to come back earlier in the year next time to see the pan frying of the Dragon Well Tea and the harvesting of the osmanthus flowers. I had witnessed a sweet olive tree harvest in 1972 and will never forget the sweet, heady fragrance that lingered in the air and longer in the mind after the last blossoms were swept up.

On our last day in Hangzhou, we took a long leisurely walk around the lake bidding farewell to the city I proudly call my father's home. My cousin was already planning our next visit and listing the sights still to see, mountains to climb, and dishes to taste. I knew it would not be long before we would be back.

So that you can share the gastronomic beauty that is Hangzhou, try making West Lake Fish; the recipe for it adapted and reprinted with my permission, from Helen Chen's Chinese Home Cooking © 1994, Hearst Books. Also try Dung Po Pork and West Lake Soup, both written and tested by your editor, who savored both dishes in this beautiful West Lake city called Hangzhou.
West Lake Fish
1 two-pound sea or striped bas (or red snapper or other white fish)
1 Tablespoon dry sherry
5 slices ginger root (one-eighth-inch thick)
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup Chinkiang or cider vinegar
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
1 garlic clove (smashed with side of a cleaver)
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1. Rinse the fish and pat it dry, then make three slashes crosswise near the center on both sides of the fish.
2. Bring water to the boil in a larege steamer or roasting pan. Slide in the fish, add the sherry and three of the ginger slices. Cover the pan and remove it from the heat leaving the fish cook in the hot (not boiling) water for twenty minutes.
3. Chop the remaining ginger and put it in a garlic press and squeeze out the ginger juice reserving it; you should get about one-quarter teaspoon of juice.
4. Put the ginger juice in a small saucepan with the sugar, vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, and cornstarch and heat and stir continuously until it thickens. Then discard the garlic.
5. Carefully remove the fish. Use a large spatula and slide it on to a platter. Do not lift the fish. Slide it or it will fall or break apart.
6. Pour the sauce over it, and serve.
Dung Po Pork, Helen Chen Style
3 to 4 pounds pork (use leg and leave fat and skin on)
1 teaspoon salt
3 Tablespoons soy sauce
2 Tablespoons Shaoxing wine
2 Tablespoons sugar
3 shallots, peeled and minced
6 slices fresh ginger
2 whole star anise
dash cinnamon
6 cardomon seeds, pressed with the side of a cleaver
1/2 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns, lightly ground
1. Roast meat in a 350 degree F oven for two hours. Remove, cool slightly, and cut the meat into large cubes, about three- to five-inch cubes, as you remove it from the bone.
2. Toss the meat with the salt, soy sauce, wine, and sugar, and put it and the rest of the ingredients in a heavy pot. I recommend putting the meat in a single layer, skin side down. Bring this to the boil, then cover and simmer for two hours over low heat.
3. Take a bowl and place it over the the pot and invert all into that large bowl. Then steam it for an hour; peer in once or twice and if need be, add one or two tablespoons of water.
4. Remove the star anise and serve the meat with the sauce. Garnish it with two or three minced garlic or celery leaves, if you feel it needs color.
West Lake Soup II
6 cups concentrated low-sodium broth
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with one tablespoon cold water
3 to 4 Tablespoons ground beef
2 Tablespoons water chestnut flour
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
2 Tablespoons dry sherry
1 teaspoon sesame oil
3 egg whites, beaten until almost thick
1 scallion, minced
1 Tablespoon minced Smithfied ham
1 hard-cooked egg yolk, chopped fine
1. Prepare a large steamer that will hold a heat-proof soup tureen.
2. Heat broth and mix in the cornstarch mixture, bring to the boil, then turn off the heat.
3. Mix the beef with the waterchestnut flour, soy sauce, sherry, and sesame oil. Add to the soup mixture. Stir well making sure that there are n lumps in the meat. 4. Bring soup back to serving temperature and put it in the serving tureen. 5. Add the egg whites and stir, then decorate with scallion, ham, and egg yolk. Put this tureen in a steamer for five minutes. Then serve.

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