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Symphony for the senses
DAY-TRIPPERS to Hangzhou don't know what they're missing by not staying longer. If they did, they would be able to bask in a twilight that lasts for hours, thanks to some weird meteorological quirk that casts the city in a soft crepuscular glow, lending a seductive intimacy to this home of some six million people.
Despite its large-city bustle, Hangzhou is human in scale and a delight to explore on foot or bicycle. Located in prosperous Zhejiang Province in China's south-west, it regularly ranks at or near the top of China's most "liveable" cities. Visiting Hangzhou in the 13th century, the Italian traveller Marco Polo famously raved, "It is without doubt the finest and most splendid city in the world."
Even today, life in Hangzhou gravitates around its fabled West Lake. Better known as Xihu, this man-made lake originated sometime in the 8th or 9th century during the Tang Dynasty and was expanded over the centuries to its current size of 6.3 sq km. Ringed by parks and green mountains, straddled by stone bridges, dotted with pavilions, pagodas, temples and romantic villas, the sight of West Lake, especially on a misty morning, would be a cliche were it not so drop-dead beautiful. There are other sights to behold such as the Xixi Wetland and the tea-growing Longjing hills, but they are overshadowed by the magnetism of Xihu.
Historically, Hangzhou was a city of commerce and culture, associated with artisans, poets, scholars, and the intelligentsia. It was the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), a centre of silk production then and now. Its most famous culinary creation, Dongpo Pork, is named after an 11th-century poet and governor who told his cook to "Do the pork over a medium flame, use no water but wine, and it will naturally be done."
So it is the food that determines the rhythm of life here. Residents wake early to a simple breakfast (oddly, breakfast fare is indifferent and almost an afterthought), eat lunch at 11am, and by four or five in the afternoon, sit down to dinner. The day ends with supper at 8pm. Tea-drinking has evolved into a rich subculture in Hangzhou, spurred by the fame of the local green tea called Longjing or Dragon Well. Most afternoons, locals head to the plantations in the hills to a lunch of carp bred in mountain spring water and fruit plucked from overhanging branches tableside. They sip tea on the terraces as women, baskets on their backs, harvest the leaves metres away, after which they play mahjong and smoke under shady arbours with drying tea leaves scenting the wind. Little wonder that when Hangzhou denizens chance upon harried or boorish behaviour in others, the first thing they say is, "This person is obviously from out of town".
Hangzhou is the capital of Zhejiang province and its cuisine displays the core virtues of the Zhejiang style: the blending of sweet and salty flavours; boiling, stewing, braising, and simmering. Meat is cooked in its own juices, the dishes fresh, tender, fragrant and rich - either crispy or soft, but far from greasy. Seasoning is never over or underdone, and the meat falls easily off the bones.
To this provincial style, Hangzhou cuisine has its own inflections, going further in lightness - especially in using even less oil - and sweetness. Cooks make use of the best available freshwater carp, eels, shrimps and crabs, and abundant local vegetables and fruits. Bamboo shoots are a particular favourite; stewed, for example, in peanut oil immediately upon being unearthed and enjoyed for their freshness, tenderness and deliciousness, which are best in spring.
Here is a tour of the best places in Hangzhou to experience its cuisine.
Lao Tou Er You Bao Xia
493, Wen San Xi Lu, Xihu Qu
In the field of mid-priced local fare, two worthwhile chains exist in Hangzhou: Waipo Jia and Lao Tou Er You Bao Xia. Tourists and visitors flock to the former, which is better known, while "those-in-the-know" discreetly make a beeline for the latter.
Even during its humble beginnings as a roadside stall, it was common to see posh cars parked beside Lao Tou Er You Bao Xia. Today, the chain has 12 outlets throughout the city, with its largest located outside Xixi National Wetland Park, a popular tourist attraction.
Known for its signature Quick-fried River Prawns and Deep-fried Ribbonfish, waiting times at peak hours are at least 30 minutes for a table. But once seated, dishes arrive with machine-like efficiency. A comprehensive menu offers many popular home-cooked dishes, making it a great, reasonably priced entry to the cuisine of a typical Hangzhou household. Check out the Braised Stinky Tofu with Shrimps, Stir-fried Cabbage and Wine-infused Red Dates. The average spend is about RMB50 (S$10.70) per person.
Zhiwei Guan (main restaurant)
83, Renhe Lu, Shang Cheng Qu
Like a living guardian of posterity, Zhiwei Guan has witnessed the milestones of Chinese political and culinary history over the last 100 years. Founded in 1913 and located next to West Lake, its cuisine remains authentic and seemingly unadulterated by the avalanche of new and trendy styles, especially from the west.
One gripe, however, is that recent renovations have diluted the charm of the old-world interiors, which used to be in concordance with the elderly folks living in the area who make the restaurant their haunt for dining and mingling. It is still a great destination for a breakfast of old-fashioned Hang Bang (or Hangzhou-style) noodles and dim sum. Jostling with the crowd of morning diners - if you are up to it - is a charming study of local dining habits.
The ordering process goes like this: Study the menu on the wall and memorise your order, which you relay to the cashier, and then collect your food at a nearby counter. The locals eat simple breakfasts, typically a bowl of noodles, a basket of buns, or simply savoury bean curd. So the sight of the haul on your tray, especially for us Singaporeans, is a sure give-away of "foreigner" status..
If you prefer an ala carte meal at a lakeside setting, they operate another branch at 10, Yang Gong Di, Hong Li Shanzhuang Nei. Tel 0571-8797-0568
61 Yu Gu Lu, Qingzhi Wu rukou
Although they are relative newbies on the scene in Hangzhou, getting a seat at this scenic restaurant is a challenge. Make a reservation and be prepared to wait at least an hour for a seat. As the only other restaurant in the West Lake district (the other being Zhiwei Guan), Pu Shu attracts a younger audience. While the interior is young and hip, the dishes are mostly traditional provincial food found around Hangzhou. If you are not familiar with the menu, the service staff can help; but the Hangzhou-style appetisers are highly recommended.
When booking, ask for a private room at the highest floor where the scenic West Lake forest awaits you.
Xiang Zhang Ya Yuan
25 Zhong Shan Bei Lu, Pingfeng Jie
Previously known as Long Ding Lou and lodged high in the tea-growing mountains, their land was acquired by the government, forcing the move to the city centre and the change of name. The owners belong to a famous lineage of tea-growers in the mountains who served simple, down-to-earth, but tasty "peasant" food with ingredients mostly harvested and sourced from nearby farms.
The current restaurant looks more polished and the food presentation more refined, but the core cooking style remains. The ingredients are also fresher than most restaurants in the city and the same high quality has been maintained. One of the most pleasant surprises was the roti prata counter at the entrance manned by an Indian staff who also makes it. Not only did the prata taste great, it made a good side dish that complemented the local dishes.
As Hangzhou is surrounded by rivers, the seafood is not to be missed. The freshwater fish found here is usually fatter and their meat tender. River prawns, with sweet flesh and bursting with roe, are eaten blanched simply in boiling water.
77 Shuang Ling Lu
This is another food institution in Hangzhou famous for its soup of double-boiled duck and bamboo shoot. Like other venerable names, it began as a humble restaurant with a signature recipe: a soup drawn from traditional Hangzhou cuisine in which dried bamboo shoots and a 60-day-old duck is double-boiled in an earthen pot. The restaurant today occupies a five-storey building and operates a couple of branches in the city.
Despite the size of its operations, its food quality has not diminished, and a pleasant surprise was finding a Hangzhou signature dish such as Sweet & Sour Fish scoring high in a city filled with competing efforts. Try to go to the restaurant before 5pm, otherwise, make sure you book a seat.
Jiangnan Yu Ge
49-53 Guolou 15 Kui Xiang, Shang Cheng Qu
This two-year-old private kitchen maintains a low profile and is known only to Zhejiang food connoisseurs. Located on the outskirts of the busy shopping area, it contains five private rooms with a facade that blends into the cityscape. But don't be fooled by the young staff and chipped crockery, the quality is superb.
The restaurant is headed by chef Cai from the neighbouring city of Ningbo, and customers have absolutely no say in what they eat - only in what they do not eat. Give them a price range when you book and the menu is presented to you on arrival. The interior resembles an unpretentious family living room, and, given the restaurant's autocratic streak, the ambience is surprisingly warm. Chef Cai has loved to cook since childhood, influenced by the tastes and techniques that he grew up with. Seafood remains his forte although he regular picks up ideas from customers and browsing through magazines.
While modern "nouvelle" cuisine seems to be running out of steam in gastronomic circles, it is heartening that a chef still seeks to innovate his repertoire one step at a time.
Hui Juan Mian Guan
130 Wang Jiang Lu
This noodle restaurant receives scant mention in the travel media but it is packed with locals as early at 10 am. The menu is short and functional; simply pick your noodle and select the condiments to go with it. The noodles are freshly kneaded in the kitchen and if you are a first-timer, you won't go wrong opting for their signature dish - yellow croaker with preserved green noodle soup. It might look like a fast-food chain, but every ingredient in the bowl is perfectly cooked and seasoned.
For the side dish, order the Hangzhou-famous must-try, braised soy sauce duck. The duck is marinated in a special-concocted soy sauce, pressed with a heavy stone overnight, then dried and cooked to produce meat permeated with the sweetness of the soy.
Li Cheng Chashi
114 Longjing Lu Jiu Xi
A trip to Hangzhou wouldn't be complete without a visit to the Longjing tea plantation at Mount Shi Feng. Madam Wang owns the plantation that was passed down through generations. In fact, they were among the handful of growers appointed as Longjing tea suppliers to the Qing royal family and to the top government officials of present day Beijing. The tea plantation was bestowed the title of Xie Yuan during Qing period.
Ming Qian Longjing are tea leaves picked during the first spring when the green shoots are tender and few. The quantity being extremely small, these leaves are much prized and highly collectible. Madam Wang's collection is so highly sought after by Chinese and Hong Kong clients that often no leaves are left for public retail.
Try spending an afternoon in her garden sipping the best Longjing she has to offer. If she is in a good mood, she might even cook an excellent traditional Hangzhou meal using fresh produce, including chicken and fish, and vegetables from her garden.