FOOD lovers have different ideas when it comes to travel. They often will cancel visits to historical sites and scenic spots in order to explore food streets and spend more time around markets to taste local food.
This is not an issue in Ningbo, a seaport city in Zhejiang Province, where most of the best local cuisine is close to the main tourist attractions.
Ningbo cuisine, also known as Yong style (Yong refers to Ningbo) is a culinary branch of Zhejiang. The preferred cooking methods are braising, baking and steaming. Dishes are renowned for delicate aromas and flavors. The basic cooking approach is to retain the original flavor of the ingredients.
The custom of storing food in a salty sauce, yellow wine or other alcohol ensures food stays fresh for longer periods.
As a coastal city, Ningbo has a rich supply of fresh seafood on its doorstep. Unsurprisingly, it’s an integral part of local cuisine.
The city’s best local cuisine restaurants are downtown. And some restaurants insist on using recipes dating back hundreds of years.
Ningbo is also famous for its tasty snacks including rice cakes, puff pastries and tangyuan, or sticky rice balls that are usually stuffed with sesame or red bean paste.
The best snacks can be found around the Drum Tower and Nantang Old Street. Both are historical area lined with traditional Chinese buildings featuring tiled roofs and white walls. An old stone gate built during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) and a stall selling youzanzi, deep-fried dough, highlights the Drum Tower area. The stall is famous for its long lines of customers.
Nantang Old Street is highlighted by a long paved road and venders selling qiancengbing, a local puff pastry coated with seaweed. It is said Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek’s favorite food was qiancengbing.
Quality beer and cocktails can be found in city’s famous old bund area, where Art Deco buildings built in the late 19th century show how the city has been influenced by the West.
Local foodies eat one more meal than normal, the late night supper. They flood to Zhou Su Ye Jiang, an area filled with water front seafood stalls for fresh seafood and night river views.
Shanghai Daily offers this guide to satisfying your palate and curiosity for culture while checking out Ningbo’s attractions.
A bullet train takes about two hours between Shanghai and Ningbo.
Eating alone is normal for food writers, but my solo appearance at a table in the Chinese restaurant of the Shang Palace Hotel produced an unusual and pleasant surprise.
A waitress, who obviously took pity on me and assumed I was feeling a bit embarrassed sitting there all by myself, came to my table with a bowl of tangtuan.
She must have thought that one of Ningbo’s most famous dishes would cheer me up, and indeed it did.
Tangtuan is a glutinous rice ball filled with black sesame paste. The version served at the Palace was the best I have ever tasted. The glutinous skin was the perfect thinness, and a filling that included osmanthus flavoring was aromatic and silky.
The following day, buoyed by this taste discovery, I arranged to interview Fred Zhou, executive chef of the Chinese restaurant at the Palace. Unlike chefs who zealously guard their secrets, Zhou was perfectly happy to discuss his culinary specialties.
The tangtuan, he said, is handmade, using fresh ingredients from start to finish.
“0nly by hand can you grind the glutinous rice into just the right texture of flour to make the skin,” he said. “All our fillings are also freshly handmade, from concentrating the lard to stir-frying the black sesame seeds.”
The restaurant even has a chef’s table where diners can watch tangtuan being made.
Zhou said his restaurant is considered one of Ningbo’s finest dining spots because of its attention to detail in creating and executing the cuisine.
His signature dish is tofu stewed with dried bamboo shoots, preserved pork and cabbage. The tofu is made at the restaurant and has an intense soybean aroma and firm texture. The recipe is said to have originated in ancient China in a town close to Ningbo.
Zhou’s glutinous rice-cake stir fried with crab is also a popular menu choice. He said he uses a special dressing handmade from fermented beans to create the distinctive flavor. Taking a traditional recipe, Zhou has added his own special twists. For example, the crabmeat is kept in the shell to better preserve the juices. The crab and rice cake are finely diced to create more surface area to absorb the sauce.
In colder weather, Zhou’s oxtail clay pot is a not-to-be-missed comfort food. Traditionally, red wine is added to remove the heavy beefy flavor of the oxtail, but Zhou has replaced that with his own homemade waxberry liquor to give the sauce a deeper taste and more fruity tang.
Vegetable lovers will be delighted by the restaurant’s kaocai, which translates literally as “grilled vegetables.” In fact, the vegetables are not really grilled but rather subjected to a slow braising. The Chinese cabbage in sweetened soybean sauce comes to the table with a succulent, juicy flavor.
Even before the main course comes, diners can enjoy deep-fried peanuts coated with seaweed, which are part of a starters platter.
Average meal cost: 200 yuan (US$32.6)
Address: 1/F, 88 Yuyuan Street
Local family restaurants often offer the best food at the most reasonable prices. They are authentic, cozy and full of local atmosphere.
This restaurant is a perfect example. Its name literally means “rushing over the bridge to grandma’s.” Well, grandmas in China are famous for their home cooking!
The restaurant has a forest-like ambience, with its wooden interior decor and green furnishings. The food is traditional if adapted a bit to get away from the saltiness and oiliness that often marks the most authentic Ningbo cuisine. Here, dishes are much lighter.
The signature dishes are included in a special column on the menu. My recommendation is old Ningbo-style congkao jiyu, or braised carp with stir-fried scallions in soybean sauce. The fish, after long braising, absorbs the aroma of the scallions and flavor of the sauce. A dash of vinegar and sugar give the sauce a delightful sweet-and-sour tang.
The restaurant’s youzha yunai, or lard-braised taro, is also worth a try. The lard gives the dish a crispy texture, and the taro is locally grown. It’s a starchy, somewhat fatty dish but the flavor is memorable.
Many dishes on the menu hark back to grandma’s cooking. There’s grandma’s deep-fried river shrimp, featuring crispy shells, juicy meat and a sweet-and-savory sauce. There’s grandma’s brown sugar rice cake, which is soft and slightly sweet.
The restaurant has also experimented a bit with “fusion” dishes, mixing various cuisines. For example, the Japanese teppanyaki griddle technique is used to cook local clams; pumpkin is baked with honey and cheese, using milk and cream to flavor the green bean paste; and there’s a version of the rich French patisserie mille feuille.
Friendly tip: If you want to avoid a long queue, either reserve a seat in advance or have an early lunch or late dinner.
Average meal cost: 55 yuan
Address: 93 Zhen’an Street
This famous snack shop has a name to twist the tongue and a menu to tempt the palate.
The name of the shop comes from its signature dish called Cangqiao mianjiemen. Mianjiemian translates to something like “knotted noodle.” The dish is a soup made with baiyejie, or pork wrapped in steamed tofu skin, which looks like a knot-shaped dumpling. Other ingredients include youdoufu or fried puffed bean curd, coagulated pig’s blood and Chinese cabbage. Cangqiao is a street name, said to be the birthplace of this snack.
Many dim sum shops in Ningbo are named after their signature foods, combined with their original locations, to underscore authenticity.
I choose a dim sum shop closed to the city’s central business district to sample this famous dish. The shop was recommended to me by a middle-aged woman who vouched for its authenticity, explaining that some shops selling Cangqiao mianjiemen in tourist areas aren’t always so loyal to the original recipe.
There was no menu inside the shop, only a whiteboard behind the cashier’s desk listing dishes in four categories: noodles, toppings, appetizers and soups. Besides mianjiemian, the cabbage noodle soup, wonton soup and pork rib soup are popular favorites among local customers. Pickles and goose intestines are the most prized toppings. And be sure to try the seaweed-flavored deep fried peanuts.
I ordered the signature mianjiemian, topped with pickled vegetables and mushrooms. The serving was bigger than expected. The broth has a clean, flavorful taste. Textures are provided by the chewy skin of the bean curd puff, the fresh, crispy cabbage and the springy noodles in the pudding-like pig blood.
“Next time, try replacing the noodles with niangao (glutinous rice cake),” the cashier advised me. “That will really be a new experience.”
For those who prefer richer or even spicier food, the shop provides an array of condiments, including soybean sauce, vinegar, chili paste and fermented bean paste.
Average meal cost: 20 yuan
Address: 1/F, 29 Dongdu Rd
Tiegebi, in Ningbo dialect, means “next door to home.”
It’s an apt name for a restaurant that specializes in authentic Ningbo home cooking, which is distinguished by heavier flavors and abundant seafood.
The restaurant is popular with local foodies and has won numerous culinary awards, which are proudly displayed on the walls.
A blackboard at the entrance announces the daily menu, including three plats du jour based on the freshest ingredients of the day.
The restaurant helps diners make choices by using symbols. A heart marks the most popular dishes. Gold or silver medals mark dishes that have won awards. The character Xin, which means “new,” next to a dish signifies the chef’s latest creation.
Many of the restaurant’s signature cold dishes reflect the truest flavors because cooking crab, shrimp or clams does destroy their original taste.
Still, the various seasonings used to give cold seafood a bit of zest might not be considered all that healthy.
“In olden times, there was no refrigeration to preserve fresh seafood, so locals used salt and other seasonings to ‘marinate’ the seafood and extend its shelf life,” explained Christina Wu, who was born and grew up in Ningbo.
“Such marinated seafood is best paired with plain rice,” according to a local resident sitting next to me.
One of the restaurant’s most popular cold dishes is yujia xiehu, or fisherman’s crab paste. Sea crab is chopped into pieces first and then coated with layers of salt and ginger before being finely ground into a paste that ensures all the crab roe and meat are flavored evenly.
The restaurant’s drunken shrimp also deserves a try. Live shrimp are immersed in baijiu, a strong distilled spirit made from rice, and left to absorb the heady flavor.
Marinated huangniluo, a kind of bubble snail, has a distinctive texture and rich, complex flavor.
For hot dishes, I recommend the deep-fried beltfish, with its bright golden color and crispy texture. There’s also yellow croaker, wrapped in a sheet of bean curd and deep-fried. It is chewy on the outside and tender inside.
The restaurant serves these dishes with a bowl of vinegar for dipping, although I thought the croaker in bean curd was flavorful enough without it.
Rounding off the perfect meal is the restaurant’s award-winning dim sum. The shengjian, or pan-fried dumpling with pork filling, is coated with aromatic white sesame and chopped scallions. The popular dessert jiuniangyuanzi (glutinous rice ball soup with fermented rice) features a harmony of sweet and sour, with a distinctive rice aroma.
A friendly tip: While the food at this restaurant is worth the visit, the service leaves something to be desired. My order of appetizer, main course and dessert all arrived at my table at the same time.
Average meal cost: 55 yuan
Address: 2/F, Guoyi Street (closed to the Marriott Hotel)
For gourmets visiting Ningbo, one of the first stops is Gang Ya Gou restaurant, the 100-year-old culinary icon famous for serving traditional local dishes.
The restaurant’s name tells its origins. Gang Ya Gou, literally means “jar, duck and dog.” In the early 20th century, so the story goes, the restaurant’s founder, an illiterate nicknamed Puppy Dog, was skilled in making tangtuan, or glutinous rice balls filled with black sesame paste. He made his living selling the rice balls at a food stall outside Chenhuang Temple, where he would sit with a jar of water and his pet duck and yellow dog. His snacks quickly became a local taste sensation.
The food stall evolved into a restaurant chain so venerated that it has been listed by the local government as part of the city’s intangible cultural heritage.
To avoid long queues, I chose to sample the fare of this famous restaurant at an outlet opened in a premium department store in Ningbo. The entrance features three paintings depicting the restaurant’s history. The interior decor and ambience hark back to China of the 1920s.
Although the restaurant offers an array of delicious dim sum and hot dishes, desserts are its signature fare and tangtuan ranks right at the top. Besides the classic black-sesame filling, the restaurant has added new flavors, including durian and red fermented rice. I was a bit disappointed with the classic version. The skin was a bit too thick and the filling lacked a certain silkiness. A local chef told me later that the restaurant has resorted to serving tangtuan that has been pre-frozen to meet huge demand. That certainly takes the edge off the once so famous taste.
The restaurant’s mimantou, a distinctive steamed bun made from fermented rice, is worth ordering. The buns come in three flavors: the original recipe, brown sugar and seaweed. I would recommend the latter, a bun slightly pan-fried and then coated with seaweed powder. The layers of taste and texture are impressive, from slightly savory, crispy and toasty outside to soft, sweet and subtly sour inside.
Some of the restaurant’s desserts are labor intensive and require custom orders. “Those desserts generally have an auspicious meaning attached to them, such as the New Year, a wedding or a birthday celebration,” explained a waiter.
A glutinous rice cake, for example, comes in the shape of peach filled with red bean paste. It represents longevity. A golden glutinous rice ball coated with soybean powder and white sesame represents wealth.
Most popular among the custom-made desserts are the crystal dumplings and the eight-treasure glutinous rice cakes. The “crystal” refers to the dumpling filling, which is transparent and shiny. The eight-treasure cake features complex flavors and an intense aroma, mixing jujube, raisins, red bean paste and vintage rice wine.