China: A taste of Hangzhou

Posted on May 24, 2011


Oh what a glorious city Hangzhou is. Renowned for its history, natural beauty, Dragon Well tea and delicious cuisine, this was a must visit city for me. The food did not disappoint, no doubt the best city (at least amongst the ones I managed to visit on this voyage) for eating. My food highlights from China definitely had many contenders from Hangzhou. In fact, I don’t even recall having a bad food experience there.

Surrounded with lush greenery and fertile land aplenty, food here is a dream. It’s fresh and full of flavour. In fact Hangzhou cuisine is amongst the most well regarded in China, with many famous dishes including: dong po pork, ‘beggar’s chicken’ and long jing shrimp. These would top the list of must tries for any food tourist.

The hunt for the first two specialties brought us to Zhi Wei Guan, a local favourite with over 100 years of experience behind it. Pricing would be on the higher end of the scale, approaching ‘normal’ pricing of a Chinese restaurant in western countries. The dong po pork (a pan fried then braised pork belly) is charged by weight which, if my memory serves me correctly, was priced at about $80RMB per 100g. It comes in a small clay bowl in a generous pool of cooking juices and sauce. The meat is so tender and succulent and the sauce is just yum. It’s almost hard to describe the sauce; it’s so very delicate, yet with nuances of sweet and savory notes.

The little slab of very fatty meat can look at bit intimidating, especially if you’re used to eating lean cuts of meat, however it really is a must try. Conscious of our health, we only ate the meat hiding underneath all the fat, although we just couldn’t help ourselves with the sauce and a thickish layer of oil on top, it just went so brilliantly with hot steaming bowls of rice!

I’ve tried making dong po pork before using Poh’s recipe (although she calls it dong do pork for some reason, perhaps that’s the pronunciation of a different dialect?) and while it’s a great dish in its own, it’s just not the same as the original from Hangzhou. Now the search for a more authentic recipe begins!

Now onto the beggar’s chicken, a dish of marinaded and stuffed chicken cooked in lotus leaf. Such a homely dish and a great winter warmer as well. As soon as you open up the lotus leaf you’re greeted with loads of steam and a lovely fragrance. The cooking method ensures the meat is still juicy and absorbs all the flavours of the marinade. It was just delectable. Not hard to see why this is such a much loved dish, so much so that its origin has been disputed, with some claiming it actually came from Beijing.

But let me assure you that it’s not just in its well known dishes where Hangzhou excels, we also found great fried rice and vegetable stir fry dish in an establishment we quite literally stumbled upon (it had a high step!). The menu read black pepper steak fried rice, now how can that not sound appealing? The smell was intoxicating, heavy with ‘wok breath’, peppery and meaty with a hint of sweetness from the sauteed onions. If possible, it tasted even better than it smelt. And unlike many other experiences in China, the meat component in this dish was both generous and from a decent cut (ie. lean and without bits of tendon cutting through it).

We accompanied this with a lighter mixed veggie fry up. Again this is a fairly simple dish that was perfected with fresh quality ingredients. It was probably the most green I saw on a plate in China and it really hit the spot after all the cabbage we’d consumed in Shanghai! If that isn’t enough, the sauce was just divine and so full of flavour I’m convinced it had a stock base instead of the usual soy flavoured corn flour slurry. This was an addictive dish and really demonstrated how healthy definitely does not equal bland. A well balanced and lip smackingly good meal.

Then it’s just a matter of washing all this food down with a hot steaming cup of Hangzhou’s own Dragon Well (long jing) tea. This is a green tea that has a light and clean taste on the palate. Most of the Dragon Well tea comes from the West Lake area of Hangzhou and is often considered the national tea. By China’s last dynasty it was granted imperial status. In fact some of the imperial tea plants are still producing tea leaves today with the tea produced from these plants being valued more highly than gold!

Although I drink tea, I am by no means a connoisseur, nor do I understand the finer details on what constitutes good quality tea. From what I’ve learnt of Dragon Well tea though, the better quality varieties tend to produce a drink that is pale yellow/green in colour and is best drunk fresh. That is, the leaves will degrade with time and it’s best to drink the newest harvest possible. To extract the most pure taste of this tea, the water temperature should be no more than 80°C as to preserve the structure of the leaves and it should be served in glass (apparently the porous nature of clay tea pots/cups more traditionally used in China can impart minerals into the Dragon Well tea).

So not only is the food great, there is also a fabulous tea culture in Hangzhou. This area is well worth a visit if you are truly interested in Chinese food.