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A culinary legacy from the Song Dynasty
2014-09-11
By Ruby Gao

FOOD reflects people’s thinking and living. What they eat, who they are. Hangzhou cuisine is a textbook example.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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