Hangzhou’s rich gastronomic history
By Fuchsia Dunlop
Published: September 26 2009 01:19 | Last updated: September 26 2009 01:19
|Dragon Well Manor outside Hangzhou|
It was a warm spring evening, and the golden pinnacle of the Leifeng tower was gleaming in the sunlight. We sat by the shore of Hangzhou’s West Lake, watching the boatmen pass in their low wooden vessels, the oars casting silvery ripples across the surface of the water. In our glasses, set on the balustrade, the grey-green, spear-like leaves of Dragon Well tea quivered in a delicate infusion. I had no desire to do anything else, to be anywhere else. After three weeks of work and travel, just being in Hangzhou was a tonic. I could certainly understand why its inhabitants are said to be the happiest in China.
Hangzhou is less than two hours by train from Shanghai, yet it’s a complete change of scene. If Shanghai is the flirtatious sing-song girl who gets all the international attention, Hangzhou is like the beautiful and accomplished daughter of a bookish household: quieter, but more refined. The cityscape itself, like most in China nowadays, is largely new-build and unexciting, but the West Lake has an almost magnetic attraction. Its shores are fringed with peach trees and willows, ringed with paths that lead through landscaped gardens to peaceful teahouses on its brink; and scattered with benches where you can sit and admire the view. On a sunny day, the water glitters; when it’s misty, the scene has the softness of a traditional ink-and-water painting.
|A bowl of Dongpo pork at Wei Zhuang|
Several notable local restaurants specialise in the cooking of Hangzhou and the wider Southern Yangtze region. The Zhiweiguan is what is known in China as a “famous old name” (or laozihao). It grew out of a simple wonton shop that opened in 1913, and was a popular local restaurant by the 1930s. It now has several branches in the city. The most highly regarded is the Wei Zhuang, a complex of restaurant buildings linked by zig-zagging walkways above an inlet of the main West Lake. One of the two public dining rooms on the ground floor offers the local equivalent of Cantonese dim sum, which includes wontons, and “cats’ ears” pasta in soup (a Chinese version of orecchiette), but the finest dining experience comes in the 40 private rooms. If you take one of these with a group of friends, you can try accomplished versions of Hangzhou classics, such as a sumptuous Dongpo pork served with stewed pigeon’s eggs and asparagus spears, Hangzhou spiced duck, and fragile Wushan pastries dusted with icing sugar.
|A pavilion on West Lake|
High-end hotels are not usually the best places for regional food, but the Hyatt chain in China has a policy of recruiting talented local chefs to prepare refined versions of local delicacies. The head chef at 28 Hubin Road restaurant in the Hyatt Regency, Hangzhou, is the young Fu Yueliang, regarded by many of his peers as outstandingly talented and single-minded. His menu includes both Hangzhou delicacies and dishes from other parts of China. Local highlights include Beggar’s Chicken, which is brought whole to the table, so your waiter can smash the mud crust with a hammer and unwrap the fragrant lotus leaves to reveal a tender, juicy bird; and a spectacular version of Dongpo pork, a virtuoso display of knifework served with chestnut flour buns. The advantage for non-Chinese speakers of a place like this is a clear menu with good English translation.
Just outside Hangzhou, on the winding road that leads to the tea-growing village of Longjing, lies Dragon Well Manor, which must be one of the most delightful places to eat in China. It consists of a cluster of private dining pavilions in a beautiful garden surrounded by hills. In an age of food scares, the manor offers what its owner, Dai Jianjun, likes to call fang xin cai – literally “dishes that put your heart to rest”. The fixed daily menu (there is no à la carte) is made from fresh, seasonal ingredients, almost all of which are sourced directly from peasant households practising what westerners would call organic or biodynamic agriculture. Some of the dishes are very simple – omelettes made from free-range eggs and chives, or steamed bamboo shoots. Others are more extravagant, like braised sea cucumber or a milky soup of carp and wolfberries. The surroundings are exquisite, the service attentive, and the food a tonic for body and soul.
Fuchsia Dunlop’s latest book, ‘Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China’ (Ebury Press) recently won the Jane Grigson Award in the US, and the Kate Whiteman Award for work on food and travel in the UK
Wei Zhuang 10, Yanggong Ti, Hangzhou, tel: +86 571 8797 1913
Hangzhou Restaurant (Hangzhou Jiujia) 10 Huancheng Beilu, Hangzhou, tel: +86 571 8519 1717/8509 1717
28 Hubin Road, Hyatt Regency Hangzhou, 28 Hubin Lu, Hangzhou, tel: +86 571 8779 1234
Dragon Well Manor (Longjing Caotang) 399 Longjing Lu, Hangzhou, tel: +86 571 8788 8777
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009.