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Preserved, stinky, utterly delicious fare
By Liu Xiaolin

People who read Lu Xun may be familiar with his descriptions of life in the scenic water town of Shaoxing, famous for its huang jiu (黄酒) or literally yellow wine, as well as stinky tofu and delicate yet savory cooking.

Lu (1881-1936), one of China's greatest modern writers whose hometown was Shaoxing in Zhejiang Province, depicts Shaoxing culture and customs, as well as its tasty food.

When speaking of Shaoxing cooking, many Chinese immediately think Lu's character, the poor but proud scholar Kong Yiji who never passed the imperial examination to become an official. However, he insists on wearing an official's tattered gown and is ridiculed and abused. He spends his time drinking in Xianheng Tavern, Lu Town (today's Shaoxing). The story "Kong Yiji" (1922) criticizes both feudal society and the examination system.

"Two bowls of hot rice wine and a dish of fennel" are Kong's usual order.

Shaoxing rice wine, in its many varieties, is famous worldwide as both a beverage and a cooking ingredient, a bit like sherry - mellow, sweet, sour, bitter and spicy; it can be smooth or rough.

Unlike common yellow wine, it's brewed with glutinous rice and high-quality wheat. Only local water is used. It's frequently served warm and in bowls. The best is aged for more than a decade.

Shaoxing cuisine is part of Zhejiang cuisine, which is one of China's eight major cooking schools. It's known for simple, rustic dishes, often using freshwater fish, shrimp, crabs, various beans, bamboo shoots and wild vegetables.

Food is typically steamed, simmered and stewed, often with preserved food, to enhance the original taste of the ingredients and add variety. The artistic use of Shaoxing wine increases complexity and textures, making it a signature of Shaoxing culinary art.

Shaoxing on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River was the capital city of the Yue Kingdom during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC).

In the late 1880s, Shaoxing cuisine was introduced to Shanghai and other coastal regions by Shaoxing intellectuals, such as writer Lu.

Shaoxing cooking has three major features: preserved food, stinky food and Shaoxing wine.

Preserved food

Preserving methods kept food edible without the use of refrigerators and when fresh food was not available. Two common types of preserved food are mei cai (literally "mildewed food" 梅菜) and jiang cai (literally "food in soy bean sauce" 酱菜).

So-called mildewed food is not moldy at all, but a variety of pickled food. Typical mei cai is preserved vegetables or mei gan cai (梅干菜), vegetables steamed with "streaky" pork (meat streaked with fat). The dish is famous in China.

Preserved vegetables are made of the tubers of leaf mustard, the seeds of which are used to make Japanese wasabi.

After months of marinating and drying, the preserved vegetables have a powerful aroma. They are then cooked in soup or simmered with fish or pork. Dishes made with preserved vegetables can last a long time and many people say they taste better every time they are heated, since the vegetables slowly absorb the meat or fish flavor.

In old days, Shaoxing people typically kept three vats or big jars at home for soy sauce (jiang gang 酱缸), dye (ran gang 染缸) and rice wine (jiu gang 酒缸). Shaoxing has a tradition of making soy sauce food by marinating meat, chicken or duck in soy sauce and then drying in the shade for a few days.

A dish of steamed sliced soy sauce meat (jiangyou rou 酱油肉) is tender and chewy, with a dark, oily gleam and appealing aroma. It's a must for banquets and Spring Festival dinners.

Stinky food

People in Zhejiang Province have passion for stinky food (chou cai), and Shaoxing is no exception. Stinky tofu (chou doufu 臭豆腐) is probably the most renowned stinky food, raved about by those who appreciate it and loathed by those who won't touch it and compare the smell to vomit and rotting garbage and meat.

There are many ways of making stinky food, but all such food in Shaoxing is made with stinky amaranth stalks. Cooked amaranth is dried and then fermented in a big jar. The fermented veggie is crunchy outside and jelly-like inside. Good stinky amaranth tastes salty and refreshing.

Many Shaoxing families store a jar of thick, milky white amaranth brine to make other kinds of stinky food. Just toss in other ingredients and let them ferment into stinky wax gourd, stinky towel gourd and stinky tofu.

Shaoxing wine

China has many kinds of rice wine and Shaoxing is probably most famous, dating back to the Spring and Autumn and Warring States (476-221 BC) periods.

Shaoxing wine, golden or dark-colored and fragrant, has a mellow and sweet after taste. It has been praised since ancient times. Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) writer and gourmand Yuan Mei (1716-1797) once wrote: "Shaoxing wine is like an honest and upright official, without any falseness; its taste suggests those celebrated literati, whose nature grows profound after many experiences."

The wine, with less than 20 percent alcohol by volume, became famous at the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.

There are numerous varieties based on styles of brewing, blending, length of fermentation and sugar content.

Shaoxing wine is not only a drink, but also a seasoning, especially in meat dishes. With a few spoons of rice wine, meat is more easily cooked and becomes very tender and more flavorful.

"Drunken" food is another Shaoxing specialty, in which fresh ingredients are marinated in rice wine with other seasonings. Drunken chicken, shrimp and crab are among the most popular dishes in Shaoxing restaurants.

By-products such as brine made from distillers' grains are used to make zao cai (糟菜), another kind of pickled food.

A popular Shaoxing dessert is sweet, fermented rice.

Kong Yiji Restaurant 孔乙己酒家

Cuisine: Shaoxing

Ambience: Nestled in a small lane near the bustling Shanghai Confucian Temple, the restaurant stands out with its traditional-style architecture and strings of glowing red lanterns at night. It is named after the renowned character in Lu Xun's novel "Kong Yiji." It's filled with the aroma of warm Shaoxing wine, and the decor suggests an old southern Chinese inn. The name is written on a wooden board at the entrance, the tables and benches are black lacquer, the wooden window frames are carved, bowls of rice wine are placed as offerings on an alter. Simple pottery and porcelain ware are used. Calligraphy about the pleasures of wine decorates the walls.

Who to invite: Friends, boyfriend/girlfriend, family, anyone who wants authentic Shaoxing cuisine.

Pros: Tasty food and pleasant environment. Most specialties and a variety of Shaoxing wine are offered. On the second floor, there's an open kitchen where diners can see how cold dishes are prepared.

Cons: Waiters don't speak English and the menu is in Chinese. The neighborhood is packed with vendors, so it's hard to find parking.

Recommended: Steamed pork with preserved vegetables (mei cai kou rou 梅菜扣肉) is well cooked and the meat melts in the mouth. But it's not oily because the fat is absorbed by the preserved vegetables underneath the pork. Steamed chicken with Taidiao rice wine (Taidiao ji 太雕鸡) is juicy, tender and has a strong rice wine aroma. Taidiao is a half-dry rice wine preserved for more than a decade. Another dish, fennel beans (huixiang dou 茴香豆) flavored with cinnamon, is soft but not mushy; it has a slightly sweet aftertaste.

Don't order: If you don't like stinky tofu, do not order it. The fried stinky tofu is unexceptional.

Drinks: Shaoxing wine and soft drinks

Cost: 150 yuan (US$24) for three, including drinks

Address: 36 Xuegong St, Huangpu District (Inside Shanghai Confucian Temple)

Tel: 6376-7979

Shaoxing Restaurant (Longhua Road W. branch) 绍兴饭店

Cuisine: Shaoxing, Ningbo, Shanghai, Cantonese

Ambience: Lavishly decorated with a big dining hall on the second floor, marble stairway; dozens of private rooms. The renowned restaurant has five branches. This one used to be the old terminal of Longhua Airport and it can be spotted from blocks away. Suitable for wedding banquets.

Who to invite: Guests for business or banquets.

Pros: Nice for formal banquets or meals. Instead of using menus, diners order from samples labeled in both Chinese and English. Diners can choose their fresh seafood from fish tanks on the first floor and tell the chef how they want it prepared.

Cons: Since it serves various cuisines, it's not neccessarily the place to go for Shaoxing fare.

Recommended: Drunken shrimp (zui xia 醉蟹) made with black tiger shrimp are chewy and a bit glutinous. Fried shrimp balls stuffed with preserved vegetables (mei gan cai xia qiu 梅干菜虾球) is a specialty; the vegetables enrich the savory taste and aroma of the shrimp balls.

Don't order: Those who do not like stinky food should definitely not order steamed stinky dishes. The odor is unbearable for many people.

Drinks: Wine, distilled liquor, rice wine, soft drinks

Cost: 100 yuan per person, not including drinks.

Address: 1 Longhua Rd W., Xuhui District

Tel: 6457-7677

Xian Heng Xiao Cai (Xianheng Restaurant) 咸亨小菜

Cuisine: Shaoxing and Ningbo

Ambience: There's not much atmosphere but the food is hearty. Following the aroma of Shaoxing wine, diners can easily find the eatery. It takes its name from the Xian Heng Jiu Jia (Xianheng Restaurant) from Lu Xun's novel "Kong Yiji." A big dining hall on the second floor seats 100 diners, who smoke and drink quite a bit and speak loudly.

Who to invite: Friends and family, those who want authentic taste and don't mind the casual, crowded, noisy environment.

Pros: The owner is a Shaoxing native so most of the popular dishes are available, as is savory Ningbo seafood. Portions are large and can be shared with friends. A range of Shaoxing wine is for sale.

Cons: Waiters don't speak English and the menu is in Chinese.

Recommended: If you like stinky tofu, this is the place for excellent fried stinky tofu (zha chou doufu 炸臭豆腐). Deep fried in hot oil, it's crisp outside but tender and juicy inside; it's much better than the street versions. It's served with homemade chili. Drunken black dates (zui hei zao 醉黑枣) is a typical Shaoxing desert. Marinated in wine for days, the dates have a complex taste, mellow and a bit smoky. In traditional Chinese medicine, black dates help enrich the blood and qi (energy flow) and are recommended for premenstrual, postpartum and menopausal women. Shaoxing lao san xian (绍兴老三鲜) is a hearty, savory stew with mushrooms, pork skin, fish and shrimp balls. Handmade balls are tender, the pork skin is succulent.

Don't order: Steamed pork with preserved vegetables is nothing special. The fennel was too hard, at least when we visited.

Drinks: Shaoxing rice wine and soft drinks

Cost: 180 yuan for three, including drinks

Address: 431 Liuzhou Rd, Xuhui District

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