Hangzhou Delights

Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang Province, is just an hour away on the speed train from Shanghai but is a world apart.  While many people are familiar with the bustling Shanghainese skyline, when the Chinese think of Hangzhou, a completely different scene comes to mind.   The town is famed for its mystical West Lake which is the inspiration for countless tales, songs, and poems.  The atmosphere is romantic and whimsical, but many tourists also flock to this bustling getaway city is for its local food.  Hangzhou boasts several culinary specialities that make most tourists’ must-try lists.  Make time (and room) for Dongpo Pork, Beggar’s Chicken, and Longjing tea Shrimp when visiting.

Dongpo Pork is named after the Song Dynasty renaissance man Su Dongpo, a noted poet, calligrapher, painter and even accomplished cook.  The dish is traditionally served in a small clay pot revealing a square piece of fatty pork sitting in a red-brown sauce.  Dongpo strayed from the customary methods of ‘red-cooking’ which involve braising meat in rice wine, sugar, soy sauce and spices.  To add his signature, he focused his technique on the caramelization of the sugar to give the dish a sticky sweetness.  The meat itself is cooked to succulent perfection and the sauce is just what you want to mix in with rice.  Keep in mind that you must not fear fat when eating Dongpo Pork, because there is a lot of it; but since the pork is cooked for several hours, the fat is fully rendered and melt in your mouth delicious.

If you’re overly concerned with your saturated fat intake try Beggar’s Chicken, a dish named for its price and method of cooking.  Expect to pay the equivalent of $5 US dollar for an entire bird.  The name comes from a yet-to-be-verified folk-tale.  A beggar of little means found himself with a chicken one day.  He had no conventional way to cook the chicken so he used what was available to him – leaves and dirt.  He wrapped the chicken in lotus leaves, encapsulated it in mud and placed it on a fire to cook.  The smell of the cooking bird was so intoxicating that a passing emperor demanded a sample and then had the dish prepared at his future banquets.  The details of the story and even the city’s claim to origin vary greatly, but cooking methods remains consistent.

Beggars Chicken (1)

The meat on the Beggar’s Chicken is extremely flavorful and the texture is wonderful.  As a courtesy, most establishments provide you with plastic gloves, because this is not a very neat thing to eat. The biggest shock for me came when I unwrapped the bird was that I was faced with the whole thing.  This is the norm in Asia, but it still can take the most seasoned eater by surprise.

Beggars Chicken (4)

Another delicacy locals will tell you you must sample when you come to Hangzhou is Longjing Tea, also known as Dragon Well Tea.  This tea is delicate in flavor and is the key ingredient to make the wispy cooking liquid for Longjing Shrimp.  First, the shrimp are coated in an egg-white and cornstarch mixture before being flash-fried in a wok.  The final touch is a shot of Longjing tea to perfume the shrimp.  The interesting aspect about this dish is not actually the flavor, which is very mild, but more the texture.  The shrimp are very gently cooked and are just on the verge of doneness.  The result is a flesh that is a bit bouncy.

There are countless dining options as you meander around Hangzhou’s West Lake.  Take your time to take in the sights and taste the delights.


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