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Chinese Food in China, Hong Kong, and/or Taiwan
Spring Volume: 2009 Issue: 16(1) page(s): 31, 34, and 35
Once a sleepy place south of Shanghai, Shaoxing county now has a population of more than a million people. The city and five neighboring counties boast some five million folk who now make their home here. This city was the capital of the Yue Kingdom from 770 to 211 BCE. It still honors these historically important food and wine traditions.
Shaoxing city is one of the oldest cities in the Zhejiang Province. It is at its northern end, south of Hangzhou, and west of Ningbo. Chinese know this city is famous for making China's very best yellow rice wine. They also know its specialties include dishes with great glutinous rice, many other fine grains, lots of good tea, very good cotton, and magnificent silk.
Shaoxing wine is brewed here from glutinous rice with yeast and other ingredients added. Usually sixteen to eighteen percent alcohol, it has been prized for more than two thousand years. It is a famous beverage and valuable when making fantastic marinades. The first bottle of Shaoxing wine was made in 492 BCE; and it has been popular ever since. Wines now made here are classified in four categories. Dry is called yuan hong, semi-dry called jia fen, sweet known as xiang xue, and semi-sweet called shan niang. Yuan long is the oldest of the four, with a kilo of rice needed to produce two kilos of wine. This process needs a fifty to sixty-day fermentation period. More than twenty thousand tons of yellow rice wine are made yearly, China exporting some ninety percent from Xiaoxing, the current correct transliterated spelling.
Fresh wine needs time to mellow, so most wines from here remain three to five years in the pottery jars seen on this page. If bottled in glass, folks at the wine museum say it can only last eighteen or so months. We learn that and more at one of the industry's museums. The one we visited had a phenomenal wall painting, seen just above, showing the manufacturing process.
Local cooking uses lots of this wine made with glutinous rice, some brands mixing theirs with herbs. Alone or with these additions, both are used as beverage and as medicine. Knowledgeable folk know this wine improves with age, yet few keep it for long. We wonder why not?
There is one popular exception among those that do not keep any. When my daughter was about to be married, a restauranteur friend made her rehearsal dinner and as is the custom, actually dug up a cask of this wine. It is traditional for folks from this region to bury some at the birth of a girl. He had set several aside when his daughter came into the world, wanting it aged and available for her wedding. He shared one of them with me and my daughter wishing her good luck. That buried wine is called nuer hong or daughter's red wine.
I recall my amazement at how mellow it was. Chinese friends in attendance were impressed and thrilled to drink it. As they consumed this fine aged wine, they said the marriage would be a good one with such an auspicious liquid beginning. Now, almost thirty years later, a belated special thanks to Mr. Lee and an apology as I did not know then what a special gift it was. No longer with us, surely he is looking down from Chinese heaven. To him, I do send a very special thank you saying how special my appreciation now is.
Locals do not need a marrying daughter to drink and enjoy this wine. They like it served with golden fried cubes of what is known as stinky or smelly tofu. The aroma of the tofu, popular as a street food here is a strong treat. Nonetheless, even with its intense aroma, they love it. Think Liederkranz cheese, to which it is sometimes compared. Both smell strong, are milder than their aroma, and they both taste terrific. Both require getting used to. For those that have trouble doing so, try a clothespin or fingers on the nose. That helps one enjoy the taste.
On my most recent visit to Shaoxing, I never did see any of this strong tofu on sale street-side. However, I did find it used in main dishes and saw it served in local bars and discos. Fish made with it tasted fantastic as do other dishes. The grilled chicken we had that was first rubbed with this fermented aromatic food is remembered with fondness.
The city of Shaoxing is also known for its bridges, stone houses, and canals; all spoken about in the previous issue of this magazine. On the way to visit the museum discussed in that issue, we saw the eight hundred year old Bazi Qiao bridge, considered one of the city’s finest. We walked there later that evening to see the sloping sides and flat crest looking like the Chinese character for the number eight. Once draped with vines, many recently removed as it is under repair, seeing it look like an eight was auspicious. Walking over the bridge, we were told would bring us luck.
Near the bridge is the Catholic Church of Saint Joseph. It is some one hundred years old. This religious edifice, built in many styles, has many biblical passages inside written in artful Chinese calligraphy. Unfortunately, we could not see any as the church, too, was under repair. Now that is another reason to return.
We did taste some local foods after visiting the city and the new National Sauce Culture Museum. One afternoon we went to SANWEI JIULOU at 2 Lu Xun Lu in Shaoxing; phone: 0575 8935578. They served warm Shaoxing wine, and store and pour it from those ancient-looking urns. Another eatery we looked in to, the XIANHENG JIUDIAN at 179 Lu Xun Zhong, is in the hotel of the same name. The second part of its name, Jiudian, means winehouse, and Shaoxing wine and fried fermented tofu are available here. The same is true in most eateries in this city, we are told. We have some and drunken bamboo shoots and other imbibed foods here. We eat other drunken foods prepared in the dishes we are served at the meeting we attend. They are terrific!
This city's fermented aromatic tofu is discussed in the Irving Beilin Cheng article called 'Fuyu: China's Fermented Bean Cheese' in this magazine's Volume 9(2) on pages 9 and 10. It is about some military folk who stop by his home and learn to like it. That article should be read by all who do not know this food.
Local food in this city and throughout the Zhejiang province is simple, honest, and honestly great! It includes lots of river fish, many shrimp dishes, and many others made with poultry. Some of the foods are a bit salty, many 'drunk' with wine, and many a mite sweet, as well. Chicken Stewed in Brown Sauce is all three. Spareribs with Turnip, Stuffed Lotus Root, and Drunken Chicken are typical dishes from this region. Many are loaded with wine and lots of flavor.
Other Shaoxing dishes include something called 'Four Corners Chestnut.' This may be more saying than content as the water chestnuts are dug from the ground four different times during the year. They are then dried, reconstituted, and mixed together; they are popular in many dishes. Also popular are other dried vegetables including mustard greens. We enjoy ours boiled with meat and Shaoxing wine.
The new five-star place at which we stay, the SHAOXING HOTEL at 8 Huashan Road, Shaoxing; phone: 575 8516-6788, makes a huge banquet for us and the other four hundred or so conference guests. It starts with eight cold dishes including a super cold crispy lotus root dish, vinegary and salad-like. At an earlier lunch at the same hotel we loved their glutinous rice-stuffed lotus root. It comes soft, warm, light brown, a bit sweet, and a lot delicious.
Clearly, people in this region use many similar foods and prepare them many different ways. One dish at the same meal, Beef with Chili, was lightly stewed, then stir-fried with strips of yam. Assorted dumplings stuffed with mashed yams and sea food, each one's exterior made with a different flour, tasted so good and so different we could have eaten them all day. The Spare Rib and Turnip in Casserole with yam cut into squares was a wonderful combination.
For those unfamiliar with the foods of Zhejiang and its cities, ask your local restauranteur which dishes on his/her menu are from this province. Good chance is that many are; then do try them. Zhejiang cuisine is one of China's eight top regional cuisines; so do get to know it. Not doing so will be your loss!
So that you can try and taste some foods from this region, several recipes are provided below. I do hope you enjoy them.
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