FOOD reflects people’s thinking and living. What they eat, who they are. Hangzhou cuisine is a textbook example.
Chen Shanchang, 77, is one of the two most respected chefs in Hangzhou, capital city of Zhejiang Province, a two-hour drive from Shanghai.
He highlights xihu cuyu (West Lake vinegar fish 西湖醋鱼) when talking about Hangzhou cuisine or hang bang cai.
“What makes Hangzhou cuisine distinctive lies in its use of the most normal ingredients to create a flavor out of the ordinary,” he tells Shanghai Daily. “The dish uses grass carp (an inexpensive bony local fish) as the ingredient and is made without any oil and salt.”
Although the fish is simply seasoned with vinegar, sugar and some soybean sauce, the taste is filled with layers, starting from light sweetness alternating with delicate natural fish meat flavor and ending with a long sour aftertaste.
Chen, before his retirement, was the executive chef at Tianxiang Pavilion, one of the most historic and best restaurants in Hangzhou.
Chen is known for his West Lake Feast, using 10 Hangzhou dishes representing 10 scenic spots in West Lake. For example, one of the dishes named “Remnant Snow on the Bridge in Winter” features carving the cake in the shape of a bridge, steaming the egg white to depict snow and thinly slicing the ham to make the lake bank.
“Using normal, easy-to-get ingredients mirrors local people’s down-to-earth life attitude,” says Abel Xie, winner of the Chinese Master Chef Award who has more than 20 years of experience in cooking Hangzhou dishes and is also assistant general manager of Landison Plaza Hotel Hangzhou.
Those ingredients include various freshwater products from the West Lake such as fish, shrimp, lotus root and seed, water caltrop; and bamboo shoots from the Ling’an Mountain area close to the city; as well as tea leaves from Longjing Village in town. Easy sourcing ensures freshness.
But some restaurants featuring traditional Hangzhou food have suffered commercial failure during the last 10 years after being labeled as “too cheap, not suitable for business entertainment.”
The cuisine is sinking into oblivion gradually despite that it once represented some of the highest culinary techniques anywhere and seamlessly integrates northern and southern Chinese food culture.
The forming of the cuisine goes back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). It reached the peak when the central government moved its capital to Hangzhou, one of the largest cities and food capitals in the world at that time.
“There’s no city like Hangzhou that has such a prosperous dining environment,” said Su Shi (1037-1101), the most influential writer, statesman and gastronome during the Song era.
A silk painting, 19 meters long and 1.9 meters high, named “Splendid Delicacy Paradise” at the Hangzhou Cuisine Museum depicts the time: Row upon row of dining venues line the central street and riverbank, from wine house to fine restaurant, from teahouse to peddler selling dim sum and snacks. Foods are diverse, highlighted by sophisticated state banquets, temple feasts featuring vegetarian food and boat feasts (a locally distinctive dining culture, eating on a boat on West Lake).
“The relocation of the capital brought plenty of northern chefs and elites here,” says Xie. “The completion of the Grand Canal (from Beijing to Hangzhou) was a plus, making northern ingredients such as beef and lamb shipped south more conveniently.”
That helps explain some signature Hangzhou dishes that feature southern ingredients cooked in northern way and vice-versa.
“Take stir-fried river eel as an example,” says Chen. “The chef practices sautéing garlic spread — a typical northern cooking way — to create more fragrance.”
Southern expression of northern ingredients such as noodles and various wheat bread can be easily identified through dishes name with “儿,” an expression of rhotacization, the iconic characteristic of northern China mandarin.
For example, pian’er chuan (片儿川) is soup noodle with bamboo shoot and pork slices, together with a south style pickle made from Chinese cabbage. Noodles from the north are locally adapted through replacing lye with egg. Congbao hui’er (deep-fried dough wrapped in wheaten flat bread 葱包烩儿) is also typical.
Hangzhou cuisine can be seen as a hybrid, combining northern food highlighting texture with southern food focusing on freshness and flavor.
The Song royal family living in the city developed a distinctive category of Hangzhou cuisine — court food featuring finely sourced ingredients and complicated cooking techniques relying on exquisite craftsmanship, according to chef Chen.
“Regretfully, most of the court recipes are lost except xie niang cheng (crab fermented with orange 蟹酿橙), which is still available in some fine dining restaurants,” says Chen.
Xie niang cheng is crab meat steamed with orange pulp, combined with white osmanthus flower in sauce made from rice vinegar and rice wine and put in a hollowed out orange.
The Song Dynasty was known for its centralized bureaucracy staffed with civilian scholar officials, which led to the development of art and literature reaching unprecedented levels. Even foods were given more cultural touch.
Each dish had an anecdote behind it catering to a local dining tradition. Storytelling often accompanied eating to add more entertainment and romance.
Here are some of the most popular food stories from Hangzhou in the Song Dynasty.
Congbao hui’er is said to be invented by a couple in 1142, when the public abhorred traitor Qing Hui for executing their national hero, Yue Fei. The couple made the dough in the shape of Qing and his wife and then deep fried it to vent their hatred.
Xihu cuyu was traced back to two brothers surnamed Song who fished for their living along West Lake. One day local tyrant Zhao met elder Song’s wife and was impressed by her beauty. Zhao killed elder Song to try to gain his wife for himself. The younger Song and the elder’s widow sought justice through a magistrate but failed. The widow asked the younger Song to leave Hangzhou to make his fortune and avoid Zhao’s retaliation.
Before Song’s departure, the widow cooked him a fish with vinegar and sugar and said, “The sweet-and-sour fish will remind you of the sweet-and-sour life. When you have achieved the sweetness of life, don’t forget the sour oppression of your brother and me.”
It’s increasingly hard to get an authentic bite of Hangzhou cuisine.
“Its light flavor doesn’t cater to young people’s palate, which is much heavier than before generally,” chef Xie observes.
Although some national restaurant chains such as Grandma’s Kitchen and Green Tea Restaurant highlighting Hangzhou cuisine sprang up during the past two years, local chefs essentially have given up authenticity in favor of commercial success. Moreover, chef Xie believes that Hangzhou cuisine cannot live outside the city since it relies on local produce.
“Use jiaohuaji (literally “beggar’s chicken”) or chicken wrapped in lotus leaf and then covered with a layer of mud before it’s roasted on a fire 叫花鸡) as an example,” he says. “Its authenticity in flavor cannot live without the lotus leaf from the West Lake, bamboo shoots from Ling’an Mountain and locally produced rice wine.”
Those state-owned, time-honored restaurants in Hangzhou scrape through, yet quality has gone into decline since many of their talented chefs turned to 5-star hotels for a better life and guests are dominated by travelers who are easy to satisfy.
A few dishes, both authentic and of high quality, are hidden in some local 5-star hotel’s Chinese restaurants that only local connoisseurs know.
“Dining is not the only source of revenue for a hotel, so we can practice something not that commercial, preserving the tradition,” says Xie.
Some are very hard to identify since they don’t highlight themselves as Hangzhou cuisine providers but as a mix of Cantonese and Zhejiang cuisines. Only one page of their menu lists Hangzhou dishes, usually no more than 10 items.
Some are highlighted as modern Hangzhou cuisine, improving the old dishes by not changing their nature but through innovating the presentation and slightly adjusting the ingredients.
Shanghai Daily takes a bite of those low-profile Hangzhou fine flavors hidden in hotels.
28 HuBin Road
Hyatt Regency Hangzhou
The restaurant, named after its address, is one of the most popular in Hangzhou, also one of a few selling itself as providing authentic Hangzhou cuisine. You need to make a reservation at least one day in advance.
Its interior design makes guests feel like they’re dining in an ancient official’s residence, with the entrance decorated with lines of pottery-made rice wine jars and horse-drawn cabs, and a living room (used as private dining) with a long table made from an antique door.
Chef Alan Shen once worked for Louwailou, a famous state-owned, time-honored Hangzhou restaurant. He is known for his providing traditional Hangzhou flavor in a fine way.
His signature dish is jinpai kourou (braised pork 金牌扣肉, 228 yuan+15%), which is said to be invented by famous writer Sushi. Pork, half fat and half lean, is cut into very thin slices 5.9 meters long and then wrapped around in the shape of 19-layer pyramid.
The chef adds bamboo shoots inside the pyramid to absorb the sweetness and fatness from the meat and serve it with chestnut cake, which cuts through the greasiness of the meat and adds a nutty flavor.
If you think pork is too heavy, order the light and fresh appetizer combination (158 yuan+15%) to open up the palate. It combines five small dishes, highlighted by mandarin fish smoked with Longjing green tea leaves featuring a smoky flavor and long aftertaste, poached 5-spiced pigeon eggs filled with marinated goose liver featuring fine textures with layers, and poached osmanthus lotus root filled with glutinous rice featuring floral sweetness and ruby shining color.
If you are seeking a traditional flavor standing the test of time, try their pian’er chuan (68 yuan+15%), highlighted by the rich soup made from chicken and pig knuckle and handmade noodle.
Address: 1/F, 28 Hubin Rd, Hangzhou
Tel: 0571- 8779 1234 ext 2828
Four Seasons Hotel Hangzhou at West Lake
Food here, although fine and impressive, is second to the dining environment. The restaurant may have the most beautiful private dining room in the entire Yangtze River Delta.
Eleven private dining rooms, built in traditional Jiangnan (region south of the Yangtze River) style featuring white walls, gray tiles and carved wooden windows, are nestled in a garden with a stone bridge, lotus pond and seasonal flowers. Some have a private balcony overlooking the garden.
The best season is autumn, when the osmanthus flower blossoms. Pleasant sweetness scents the air. A snow scene in winter is also impressive. The dining concept is to present a modern view of authentic Hangzhou, Shanghai and Cantonese dishes.
Tea is included in the food menu. “It’s not just because Hangzhou produces tea but to promote a food- and tea-pairing lifestyle,” says chef Wang Yong.
The chef is known for his modern adaptation of traditional Hangzhou dishes.
For his signature dish songsao yugeng (cod fish soup 宋嫂鱼羹, 68 yuan+15%), he replaces traditional herring with cod fish to avoid the earthy taste of fresh water fish.
He uses the fish broth to replace traditional vinegar and black pepper to avoid the seasoning overpowering the original beauty of the fish. Diners, if they know the secret, can ask the chef to serve the dish with a local snack zha xiang ling (deep-fried yellow cracker dumpling 炸响铃), for no additional charge.
Meat lovers can try his baoyu hongshaorou (braised pork and abalone in sweet soy sauce, served with sweet pea 鲍鱼红烧肉, 138 yuan +15% per person). The meat tastes soft, tender, juicy and flavorful. After finishing the meat, ask the waitress for a bowl of rice and cover it with the meat sauce.
Besides the classical flavor, some of the chef’s Western-inspired creative dishes deserve a try, including longjing dunnai (Longjing green tea cream pudding 龙井炖奶, 45 yuan+15%), in which delicate fragrant tea leaf gives pudding length and complexity in flavor; e’ganjiang congyoubing (hazelnut goose liver paste with spring onion pancake 鹅肝酱葱油饼, 98 yuan+15%), featuring a balanced sweet-and-savory taste.
Address: 1/F, 5 Lingyin Rd, Hangzhou
Tel: 0571- 8829 8888
Landison Plaza Hotel Hangzhou
Although the restaurant is marketed as specializing in Cantonese and fusion cuisine, the Hangzhou dishes are some of the most classical and authentic in town without any adaptation. Hangzhou locals often hold wedding banquets here.
Quality flavor comes from the finely sourced local ingredients, such as using only the most tender heart part of Chinese cabbage.
Two of their Hangzhou dishes are must-try. Dongpo rou (braised pork 东坡肉, 16 yuan+15% per piece) features rich and concentrated flavors, coming from the chef’s use of local distinctive soybean sauce and rice wine.
Longjing xiaren (fried shrimp with Longjing tea leaf 龙井虾仁, 118 yuan+15%) has a tender and bouncy texture and natural sweetness. Each shrimp is peeled by hand to preserve all the juice and flavor in the meat.
Some of their fusion dishes are also recommended, especially their laoluobo dun yatang (braised duck soup with old dried turnip 老萝卜炖鸭汤, 48 yuan/person). Turnip, after dried and aged for 30 years, gives the soup intense and concentrated flavor. Seafood lover can try their baoyu shao niangao (fried abalone with rice cake 鲍鱼烧年糕, 298 yuan+15%).
Address: 4/F, 333 Tiyuchang Rd, Hangzhou
Tel: 0571- 8515 8888 ext 66817
JW Marriott Hotel Hangzhou
The restaurant is known for providing both Hangzhou and Cantonese foods. Its Hangzhou dishes get a Cantonese touch due to the chef’s Cantonese culinary foundation.
For example, one of their signature dishes, kuantang jiayu (braised turtle 宽汤紫苏甲鱼, 168 yuan+15%), should taste delicate, umami and sweet if cooked traditionally. But it tastes rich, a little spicy and slightly herbaceous due to the chef adding shiso leaf and spices.
Traditional Hangzhou dish hangbaicai rouzhi baosanxian (Chinese cabbage with fungus and fried bean cud in broth 杭白菜肉汁煲三鲜, 78 yuan+15%) is adapted by the chef through replacing pork broth with lobster soup.
The chef from Guangdong Province is good at making soups, highlighted by chuanbei haidiye dun haixing (double-boiled fish with Chinese herbs 川贝海底椰炖海星, 368 yuan+15%). The soup tastes clean and concentrated after a six-hour slow cooking, and needs to be ordered one day in advance.
Address: 2/F, 28 Hushunan Rd S., Hangzhou
Tel: 0571- 8981 7305
Four Points by Sheraton Hangzhou, Binjiang
It specializes in Hangzhou cuisine — everything from wok-fried shrimp in soy sauce and braised pork in soy sauce to stir-fried baby cabbage with egg and stewed salted pork ribs with tofu.
Address: 868 Dongxin Ave, Binjiang, Hangzhou
Tel: 0571- 2887 8888, 8769 7777
Banyan Tree Hangzhou
Nestled in Xixi National Wetland Park, Banyan Tree Hangzhou features 36 water terraces and 36 villas that are the most spacious in the city. The resort is designed in Jiangnan (region south of Yangtze River) style, giving an authentic sense of place and priceless tranquillity. Starting from 120 square meters, each water terrace or villa reflects both the hallmarks of Oriental design as well as contemporary amenities within a modern living space. The interiors are replete with dark wood floors, delicately carved furnishings and accented by splashes of vivid silk brocades, embroidered fabrics and detailed tapestries.
Yin Hu Xuan is a rooftop restaurant with panoramic views of West Lake. Luxurious Chinese dining rarely gets better. Sample a combination of Cantonese and Hangzhou dishes.
Address: 555 Fengqi Rd, Hangzhou
Tel: 0571- 8761 6888
Grand Dragon restaurant insists upon using authentic local ingredients to fuse with classic Cantonese dishes. West Lake fish with vinegar, Longjing shrimp and fried shrimp all come recommended. Grand Dragon strives to create new Hangzhou classics that people will be eating hundreds of years from now.
Address: 1/F, 120 Shuguang Rd, Hangzhou
Tel: 0571- 8799 8833 ext 6718
Dine like an emperor on food from all regions of China at Sun & Moon Chinese Restaurant. Offering a nice blend of sweet and savory, the restaurant staff here excel in making wonderful recommendations to make you feel like an emperor.