Zhejiang Local Snacks

 

Zhejiang is a province abounding in culinary traditions, with dishes that are as diverse as they are delicious. While the city of Ningbo has been famous for its sugary confectionaries since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), Shaoxing’s gastronomic pedigree in fermented foods stretches all the way back to the Warring States Period (c. 476-221 B.C.)! From coastal delicacies to quick-fried street food, the snacks of Zhejiang are packed full of flavours that have been refined over hundreds of years. After all, the greatest teacher of any skill is time!

Beggar’s Chicken (叫化鸡)

Beggar's chiickenBeggar’s Chicken is a gourmet dish that is so delicious you’ll be begging for a taste! Its unusual name is derived from yet another local legend about a beggar living in Hangzhou during the Qing Dynasty. This beggar was so hungry that he eventually stole a chicken from a small farm. The farmer chased him down to the riverbank and, in a desperate effort to hide his loot, the beggar buried the chicken in mud before fleeing the scene. When night fell, he returned to the river and retrieved the chicken from the muddy bank. He had no oven to cook with, so he simply lit a few twigs and set the mud-soaked chicken over the bonfire.

After some time, a light brown crust formed over the chicken and, when it was cracked open, the feathers miraculously dropped off. All that was left was the chicken’s meat, which was so moist and tender that the beggar couldn’t believe his luck. In some versions of the story, the Emperor happened to pass by the beggar and was drawn in by the chicken’s sumptuous aroma. Supposedly the Emperor was so taken by this flavourful dish that he had it added to the imperial court menu! Needless to say, the beggar soon started selling his unique creation to the local villagers and wasn’t a beggar for much longer. Nowadays, the chicken is normally stuffed with aromatic spices, wrapped in lotus leaves or a flour-based dough, and baked over a low heat for upwards of 6 hours, although some restaurants still follow the traditional method of covering the chicken with clay. After all, you shouldn’t muck about with a centuries-old recipe!

Sweet Ningbo Rice Balls (宁波汤圆)

Sweet Ningbo Rice BallsNingbo Rice Balls or Tangyuan are one of the city’s most celebrated confections. Tangyuan are a popular festival food throughout China and are believed to have appeared sometime during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), although they didn’t reach significant popularity until the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties. Like many great innovations, it seemed that these sweet dumplings were a little before their time! They are made using glutinous rice, which has been rolled into the shape of a ball and boiled, steamed, or fried before typically being served in a syrupy soup. Stuffed tangyuan are made by first rolling the filling into a ball before wrapping a flattened piece of glutinous rice dough around it. The best tangyuan must have a chewy skin that does not stick to your teeth and are said to be so soft that you can push the filling out with a small bite.

The Ningbo variety is marked by its distinctive filling, which is made using lard, soft white sugar, and black sesame paste. The lard melts as the tangyuan are boiled, softening the black sesame paste and sugar into a tantalisingly sweet syrup. Although these squishy treats are traditionally eaten during the Lantern Festival, locals in the Ningbo region love them so much that they even eat them for breakfast on the morning of Chinese New Year! Nowadays they are no longer exclusively a festival food, and are served as a dessert or simply as a sugary snack throughout the year.

Shaoxing Stinky Tofu (绍兴臭豆)

Shaoxing Stinky TofuThe name “stinky tofu” hardly inspires one with confidence. Comical though it may seem, this unusual epithet is tragically not a mistranslation. Foreigners and locals alike have described the snack’s odour as resembling “rotting garbage” or “an open latrine”, so it goes without saying that you might want to keep a nose-peg handy if you fancy trying this strange dish! The distinctive aroma originates from the liquid that the tofu is fermented in, known as lu or fermenting brine.

It is made using woody amaranth stalks that have been covered in cold water and left in a clay pot until they start to rot. This process normally takes between 2 to 4 days, and the resulting brine is so pungent that people unused to the smell can’t stand to be near it. The amaranth stalks are then removed and served up as part of their own dish; one of Shaoxing’s well-known chou mei or “stinky and rotten” delicacies!

Batches of tofu are soaked in a mixture made from this brine, along with fermented milk, mustard greens, bamboo shoots, and Chinese herbs. This formula varies from region to region and individual to individual, so each batch of stinky tofu has its own unique stench! Once it has been left to ferment for a number of days or even months, the tofu is removed and is either deep-fried or steamed. The stinky tofu eaten in the average household is normally steamed with green beans, while tofu sold at street food stalls is usually deep-fried and served with a hot chilli sauce. This odorous delight is said to have a strong, mature flavour that somewhat resembles blue cheese. Apparently, the smellier the tofu is, the better it tastes!

Shengzhou Steamed Buns (嵊州小笼)

Shengzhou Steamed BunsOriginating from the small northern county of Shengzhou, these steamed buns or xiaolongbao may not be as famous as their counterpart in Shanghai, but they’re certainly no less delicious! Unlike other regional delicacies, which normally have histories dating back hundreds of years, Shengzhou Steamed Buns are a relatively new culinary treat. They were the brainchild of Tu Fuyuan, a local from Yuxi Village who travelled to Guizhou province during the 1980s in order to make money for his family.

He ended up working as an apprentice under a local steamed bun merchant and, after learning the basics, he returned home to open his own steamed bun shop. His buns were so popular that they even spawned a string of copycats, who each attempted to recreate Tu’s original recipe. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery! Nowadays authentic Shengzhou Steamed Buns must be made with top-quality rice flour, fresh meat, and five different seasonings, including the local rice wine. These scrumptious dumplings are normally steamed on a bed of fresh vegetable leaves, in order to give them an aromatic boost.

 

Zhejiang Cuisine

zhejiang sea food cuisine

The salty-sweet smell of the ocean and the pungent aroma of freshly caught fish waft on the sea-breeze in Zhejiang. With its abundance of rivers, lakes, canals, and beaches, it comes as no surprise that there’s always something aquatic on the menu in this coastal province. Zhejiang cuisine is heralded as one of the Eight Culinary Traditions of Chinese Cuisine, meaning its signature dishes are ranked as some of the most delicious in the country. The Zhejiang-style is characterised by its fresh, mild taste and the emphasis it places on the natural flavour of its key ingredients. To this end, many of the dishes are seasonal and are served raw or almost raw, similar to Japanese cuisine.

Like Jiangsu and Fujian style cuisine, presentation is everything and diners in Zhejiang will be met not only by mouth-watering aromas, but also by an unparalleled visual feast. A myriad of techniques such as quick-frying, stir-frying, deep-frying, simmering, steaming, and brine-soaking are all skilfully employed by expert chefs in order to guarantee that each dish is cooked to perfection. There are three main sub-styles of Zhejiang cuisine: Hangzhou, Shaoxing, and Ningbo. Hangzhou-style is by far the most popular of the three and carries the most prestige, since Hangzhou was once the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279). It is rumoured that bamboo shoots, a favoured ingredient, will feature in nearly half of all dishes on an average Hangzhou menu.

Shaoxing-style is well-known for its sumptuous poultry and freshwater fish specialities, as well as the internationally renowned Shaoxing Rice Wine, which has been brewed in the region for over 2,000 years. This dry, sherry-like liquor is made from fermented rice and an ancient strain of yeast that has been cultivated for centuries. It is normally aged for at least 18 months, but some varieties are up to 100 years old! Ningbo-style is markedly saltier than the other three and is known for its splendid seafood dishes. It is also celebrated for its tantalisingly sweet confections, many of which date back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

Longjing Shrimp (龙井虾仁)

Longjing ShrimpA visit to the coastal city of Hangzhou simply wouldn’t be complete without delicious seafood and a warm cup of aromatic Longjing tea. But why waste time going to a restaurant and a teahouse when you could get both of these signature ingredients on one plate? Longjing or “Dragon Well” tea is considered the finest green tea in the region, while river shrimp is a seasonal delicacy. You’ll have to get your timing just right, because the best Longjing tea is picked in early April and the juiciest river shrimp are caught at the start of summer.

According to local legend, this unusual dish came about when the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty was touring the region surrounding Hangzhou. He decided that, in order to truly learn what life was like in Hangzhou, he would disguise himself as a commoner. As it started to rain, a local woman invited him into her home and brewed him some tea made from freshly-picked Longjing tea leaves. He was so impressed by the taste that he pocketed some of the tea leaves on the sly before continuing his trip.

At sunset, he arrived at an inn and ordered a plate of fried shrimp. He asked the waiter to brew him some tea but, as he reached inside his sleeve to retrieve the tea leaves, the waiter caught sight of the imperial gown hidden beneath his cloak. The waiter rushed to inform the chef and, in his panic, the chef accidentally added the tea leaves to the fried shrimp, thinking that they were spring onions. At this point, it seemed the only thing the kitchen was brewing was trouble! However, the emperor was so impressed by the dish’s colourful appearance and unique flavour that he was instantly won over, and so Longjing Shrimp was born.

This refreshing and vibrantly colourful dish is made by first marinating the freshly caught shrimp in a mixture of salt, egg whites, starch, water, and Shaoxing rice wine. The shrimp is then flash-fried in hot oil while the Longjing tea is brewed separately. After about five minutes of frying and steeping respectively, the shrimp is removed from the hot pan and the tea leaves are separated from the boiling water. The oil is then replaced before the shrimp is re-added along with more salt, Shaoxing rice wine, and the Longjing tea leaves. Finally, a small amount of the liquid tea is added to the pan and left to heat until it boils. The plump sweetness of the shrimp is perfectly complemented by the bitter crunch of the tea leaves. This dish is held in such high regard throughout China that it was even served as part of a government banquet for President Nixon in 1972.

Dongpo Pork (东坡肉)

Dongpo Pork 01During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), Hangzhou was administered by a government official named Su Dongpo. He is well-known throughout China for his three great triumphs: building the Su Causeway over West Lake; writing a magnificent poem in celebration of West Lake’s beauty; and the creation of Dongpo Pork. Talk about a Jack of All Trades! According to local legend, Su Dongpo had a marked preference for pork. Since the citizens of Hangzhou greatly respected him for his benevolence and wisdom, they all presented him with the finest pork they had to offer on New Year’s Day.

Su Dongpo was delighted and, together with his family, he cooked the pork using a sauce made from Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, ginger, and sugar. True to his character, he then shared this delicious meal with the citizens of Hangzhou. Thereafter, the dish was known as Dongpo Pork and remains one of the city’s signature delicacies. Yet this fragrant dish is a real pig to cook! First, you take some scrumptious pork belly, cut it into four pieces, boil it briefly, and then rinse it. Next, you put the pork in a pot with a mixture of sugar, soy sauce, onion, ginger, and Shaoxing rice wine, where it is sealed and cooked in the oven for about two hours. Finally, you remove the pork from the pot, place it in a bowl, strain the juices over it, and steam it for another two hours. The result is a tender, fatty dish that practically melts in your mouth.

West Lake Vinegar Fish or Sister Song’s Treasure (西湖醋鱼)

West Lake Vinegar Fish or Sister Song’s TreasureWest Lake Vinegar Fish is another traditional dish from Hangzhou derived from a slightly less upbeat local legend. The story goes that there were once two brothers from the Song family who were both incredibly intelligent. They could easily have become officials, but decided to eschew the scholarly life in favour of a rustic one spent living and fishing near West Lake. Yet it seemed their simple dream was not to be. One day, a wealthy landowner named Zhao was walking past West Lake when he saw the elder brother’s wife bathing. He was enthralled by her beauty and, determined to make her his, he had the elder brother killed.

The younger brother and his sister-in-law immediately consulted the local magistrate in the hopes of receiving justice, but little did they know that the magistrate was a close friend of Zhao. They were beaten and thrown out of court, leaving the elder brother un-avenged. Feeling weak and defeated, they returned to their home by West Lake and the sister-in-law demanded that the younger brother flee, lest Zhao come after him next. She asked only one thing of him: if he made his fortune, he must promise to eventually come back for her. Before he left, she cooked him a special dish made from sugar, vinegar, and a fish from West Lake.

When the younger brother commented on its unusual taste, she said, “This fish is sweet and sour, just like life. When you have tasted the sweetness of a good life, please do not forget the sour oppression that us commoners face”. The younger brother was deeply moved by this sentiment and, as he left, the words resonated in his heart. Years later, he garnered great fame and fortune as a government official. His high authority allowed him to return to Hangzhou and eventually have Zhao arrested for his crimes. But, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t find his sister-in-law. Then, one day, he was at a banquet when suddenly he found a dish that tasted exactly like the one his sister-in-law had prepared for him all those years ago.

He asked to meet the chef and, lo and behold, there she was. She had been working as a cook for a noble family in order to hide from Zhao. The younger brother was elated and immediately resigned for his high post, choosing instead to live a peaceful life once again by the lakeside with his sister-in-law. So it goes without saying that there’s a lot of heart in this dish! Traditionally it is made using grass carp from West Lake that has been left to cleanse in a tank for two days, ensuring that it does not have a muddy taste. The fish is then braised in a simple marinade of dark vinegar and sugar until it is cooked through, resulting in an aromatic dish with a sweet and sour tang.

Braised River Eel (锅烧河鳗)

Braised River EelThis unusual dish is one of the oldest in the Ningbo-style and is made using river eel. Many of the rivers and lakes surrounding the city of Ningbo have an abundance of eel, so this dish is almost always served up freshly caught. The eel is first steamed until it has softened enough for the bones to be easily removed and then it is braised in a mixture of spices until the flesh has turned an alluring golden-brown. The result is a tender, juicy dish that is full of flavour and packed with nutrients.

 

Hangzhou

“Above there is heaven; below there is Suzhou and Hangzhou”, so goes the popular Chinese saying. And praise doesn’t get much higher than being described as a heaven on earth! Hangzhou is the provincial capital of Zhejiang and rests on the northern banks of the Qiantang River at the head of Hangzhou Bay. The city is connected to a veritable labyrinth of waterways and canals, the most impressive of which is its position at the southern terminus of the Grand Canal[1]. To its east, the magnificent Tianmu Mountains rise up imposingly, while to the west you’ll find the celebrated Xi or “West” Lake. Thus it is a city resplendent with sparkling waters, verdant gardens, misty mountains, colourful blossoms, and a natural freshness that belies its status as an urban metropolis.

Its name derives from the fact that in 589 AD, during the Sui Dynasty (581-618), it was made the seat of Hangzhou or the “County of Hang”. This entitled it to a city wall and allowed it to expand exponentially, transforming it from a rural town to a city of political importance. With the completion of the Grand Canal in 609, it became one of the major trade hubs linking northern and southern China. During the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (907-960), it became the capital of the Wuyue Kingdom (907–978) under the name Xifu and rose to prominence as one of the bastions of southern Chinese culture, alongside Nanjing and Chengdu.

In 1127, when the rulers of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) were forced south by the invading Jurchens[2], they settled in Hangzhou and made it their capital in 1132 under the name Ling’an. It was intended to be a temporary base, but it soon transformed into the commercial and cultural centre of China. By 1276, historians estimate that the city’s population had grown to well over one million, making it the largest city in the world at the time. Evidently the word “temporary” doesn’t mean the same thing to us as it did to the Song emperors! In the late 13th century, during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), the city was visited by Venetian explorer Marco Polo, who described it as “the finest and noblest in the world”. So not quite heaven on earth, but still pretty impressive!

Unfortunately, from then on it seemed that Hangzhou’s glory days were finally behind it. From the 14th century onwards, Hangzhou Bay gradually silted up and trading in the city slowly ground to a halt. Yet it wasn’t all downhill, as during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties it was still regarded as a superior prefecture and enjoyed immense wealth as one of the country’s centres for rice-growing and sericulture. This quality has carried through to the modern-day, as it is now renowned for its beautifully woven silk tapestries and umbrellas.

Hangzhou’s illustrious heritage means it boasts some of the country’s most significant historical attractions and has thus become one of the most popular tourist destinations in China. Its most eminent attraction is arguably West Lake, which was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011. This scenic site covers an area of over 33 square kilometres (13 sq. mi), making it nearly eleven times the size of Central Park in New York! It includes some of the most notable historical buildings in the city, from towering pagodas to ancient causeways. At night, the waters come alive with performances of Impression West Lake, a love story that takes place on the lake itself and was masterminded by acclaimed director Zhang Yimou.

Just to the south of West Lake, the imposing five-storey Leifeng Pagoda rises up at the base of Sunset Hill. Its fascinating history stretches all the way back to the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (907-960), when it was built to celebrate the birth of the reigning King Qian Chu’s son. It was supposedly the site of a celebrated Chinese folktale known as Legend of the White Snake, a story about two ill-fated lovers that has inspired Chinese novels, operas, films, and television series for centuries. Yet it seems the pagoda was doomed to suffer a fate as tragic as that of the lovers. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Japanese pirates set fire to it and destroyed its wooden structure, leaving behind only a brick skeleton. Even the bricks weren’t safe as local people, who believed they had healing properties, would frequently steal them and grind them up into medicine powder. Who needs concrete medical proof when you’ve already got concrete! Tragically this led to the tower collapsing in 1924, but it was reconstructed in 2002 and remains a popular attraction to this day.

About 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) west of West Lake lies Lingyin or “Soul’s Retreat” Temple, which is the oldest Buddhist temple in the city and boasts numerous pagodas, murals, and hand-carved grottoes. Other religious sites, such as the Immaculate Conception Cathedral and the Fenghuang or “Phoenix” Mosque, are not only the oldest of their kind in Hangzhou but also some of the oldest in China.

With such an impressive historical pedigree, it’s no wonder Hangzhou is home to several museums of national importance. The China National Silk Museum, located not far from West Lake, is the largest silk museum in the world, while the China National Tea Museum focuses entirely on different types of tea, tea culture, and the history of Chinese tea. Hangzhou district is particularly famous for its Longjing or “Dragon Well” green tea, which is cultivated in the small village of Longjing and is admired for its subtle flavour. Purchasing any of these fine goods, from packets of high quality tea to finely embroidered silk umbrellas, can be easily done on Hefang Street. This street was designed after traditional Song Dynasty architecture and is a hotspot for locals and tourists alike.

If you want to escape the urban jungle, there are plenty of natural attractions in and around the city. The Qiantang tidal bore, a watery natural phenomenon of epic proportions, can be viewed from the banks of the Qiantang River and, during peak seasons, can reach heights of up to 12 metres (39 ft.)! For a more peaceful aquatic experience, you may want to consider visiting Xixi National Wetland Park, which is a haven for numerous species of birds and fish. That being said, it is a conservation area so don’t try to eat any of them, no matter how plump and juicy they may look!

[1] The Grand Canal: It is the longest canal in the world and starts in Beijing, passing through the provinces of Hebei, Shandong, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang before eventually terminating in the city of Hangzhou. It links the Yellow River to the Yangtze River and the oldest parts of it date back to the 5th century BC, although most of its construction took place during the Sui Dynasty (581-618).

[2] The Jurchens: The Jurchens or Jurcheds were a Tungusic people, an ethnic group that has been acknowledged as distinct from Turkic and Mongolian people. During the 12th century, they took control of northern China and established the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234). By the 17th century, they were known as the Manchu people.

Yue Opera

Yue Opera 01

Yue Opera is the second most popular style of Chinese opera after the world-renowned Peking Opera, which is no small achievement when you consider that there are over 360 opera genres in China. After all, there’s nothing wrong with getting a silver medal! It originated from Sheng County (modern-day Shengzhou City) in the Shaoxing region of Zhejiang province and is thus sometimes referred to simply as Shaoxing Opera. The name “Yue” is derived from the ancient State of Yue, which ruled the region during the Spring and Autumn Period (c. 771-476 BC). It enjoys great prestige in Zhejiang, Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Fujian, although the style attracts audiences from all over China.

Like many styles of Chinese opera, it evolved from the conversations that farmers would have and the folk songs they would sing when working. They became particularly popular with rural communities because they contained vivid and romantic descriptions of normal daily life. Kind of like watching your favourite soap opera! During economic downturns, many farmers would turn to this folk art as a secondary job in order to supplement their income. Over time, performers began to integrate simple acting sequences and musical accompaniments to further enhance the art.

Towards the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), the opera form began to take shape and groups of performers were known as “Didu Troupes”, a name derived from the characteristic “didu, didu” sound made by the accompanying drum and sandalwood clappers. Imagine having someone name your band “Guitar Riff” or “Drum Beat”, and you can see why the performers may have been dissatisfied with the title! In 1906, the first official performance of this operatic style was staged in the city of Shengzhou and by 1917 Didu Troupes had started performing in Shanghai. Finally, in 1922, they formally changed the style’s name to “Shaoxing Wenxi” or “Shaoxing Literal Opera”. It may not exactly roll off the tongue, but at least it was better than being named after a sound effect!

Yue Opera 02Originally this style was performed solely by male actors, but in the late 1920s an all-female troupe named the Women’s Refined Opera emerged. In a true demonstration of girl power, this troupe became so popular that all-male troupes were completely replaced by all-female troupes during the 1930s and 1940s. It was around this time that the name “Yue Opera” was formally adopted. Yet precisely why this opera style switched to exclusively female troupes is still a subject of great debate among opera enthusiasts.

On the one hand, the economic downturn caused by the Wall Street Crash in 1929 had far-reaching effects in China, which caused many women to seek out alternative ways to make money and thus train as opera singers. On the other hand, many people argue that this style of opera lends itself to a more feminine performance and this is why all-female troupes were simply more popular. Regardless of motive, the presence of these female performers and their dominance over the art was an undoubted boost to the women’s rights movement at the time.

During the 1950s, the style went through a huge artistic reform driven by woman named Yuan Xuefen. It adopted several features from other performance arts, including the ancient Kunqu Opera[1] and modern Western music. In this way, Yue Opera was able to drastically distinguish itself from other styles of Chinese opera. Not long thereafter, the traditional Mu Biao system, where performers would only have an outline of the story but were free to improvise, was abandoned in favour of conventional scripts and directors. Modern stage settings and lighting were introduced, as well as some western musical instruments, which further helped to establish Yue Opera as a more progressive style of Chinese opera.

After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the style became popular with several members of the Communist Party and reached the peak of its fame during the late 1950s and early 1960s. However, like many traditional Chinese art forms, it was outlawed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and this proved to be an almost fatal setback. It enjoyed a revival during the 1980s and, although it has never recaptured the success of its glory days, it continues to captivate foreign and domestic audiences to this day.

It is characterised by its fresh, graceful, and lively style of singing, which is sweet-sounding and lends itself to the telling of love stories. Unlike other forms of opera, which incorporate acrobatics, martial arts or dancing, the focus in Yue Opera is almost solely on the singing. Subject matter is usually derived from fairy tales, literary classics, or historical stories, such as Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai (The Butterfly Lovers), Dream of the Red Chamber, Peacocks Flying to the Southeast, and Fang Qing Visits His Aunt. Bear in mind that making a humdrum visit to see a family member seem exciting is no mean feat!

When it comes to costume, silks and satins take centre stage as clothing materials are chosen for their soft texture and appearance. The use of plain, block colours gives these costumes an unparalleled elegance, although a type of embroidered robe known as a mangpao is also sometimes used. To complement this subtle style, natural make-up is often employed to give the actors a softer appearance. So, if you’re searching for that au naturale look, perhaps a trip to the theatre is in order!

 

 

[1] Kunqu Opera: Also known as Kun Opera or simply just Kunqu. It is the oldest surviving form of Chinese opera and dominated Chinese theatre from the 16th right through to the 18th century. Many popular styles of Chinese opera, such as Peking Opera and Yue Opera, were greatly influenced by this style.