Hangzhou is a city where every dish comes with a story. From Dongpo pork named after famous local governor Su Dongpo, to Beggar’s Chicken first made by the eponymous beggar, the dishes fill both the mind and stomach. Hangzhou cuisine is often identified as ‘southern ingredients cooked in a northern manner’, such as braised bamboo shoots. While bamboo shoots are traditionally eaten in the south, braising is a typical northern way of cooking; in Shanghai, “red braising” is an iconic method. As a branch of Zhejiang cuisine, Hangzhou cuisine is one of the eight regional Chinese cuisines. With a reputation for using fresh ingredients and being mellow in flavour and texture but not greasy or heavy, Hangzhou is the most famous of Zhejiang style cooking. An abundance of fresh seasonal products are used and the cooking methods respect the subtle, detailed layers of flavours.
Hangzhou’s methods of cooking is very different to the Shanghainese style of the liberal use of soya sauce and sugar. Stir-frying and boiling are common cooking methods, along with the use of fresh, local ingredients. While scallion, garlic, ginger, sugar and pepper are common seasonings in most Zhejiang style dishes, cucumber is used in Hangzhou to remove the grease. Famous local products such as Longjing green tea, Shaoxing rice wine and Jinhua ham are also incorporated into the cooking, such as stir-frying fresh shrimps with Longjing green tea (龙井虾仁), simmering pork belly with Shaoxing rice wine for the iconic Dongpo pork and adding Jinhua ham to flavour rice and noodle dishes.
Hangzhou’s cuisine offers many dishes with imperial origins. One of its classic dishes, Dongpo pork belly, is named after the 11th century poet and governor of the city, Su Dongpo. When he received the year end gifts of Shaoxing rice wine and pork, he wished to “return” them. He sent back the pork cooked in his supposedly favourite method: a slow-cooked stew in which wine replaced water, giving the meat an exquisite, perfumed aroma of wine and a meltingly soft texture. This rich flavour and texture, although close to the Shanghainese “red braising” style- simmering meat in a rich blend of soya sauce and seasonings- is characterised by the sharp aroma of wine, cutting through the heavy grease.
The sharper flavours of Hangzhou cooking can be seen in the use of vinegar. A local delicacy exemplifying this is West Lake Fish in Vinegar Gravy, or Mrs Song’s fish chowder. The fish is first starved for two to three days in order to clean any waste and dirt, then boiled over a carefully tended fire. The subtle blend of fish and finely slivered ingredients in a piquant vinegar broth in the dish accentuate and balance the flavours of the fresh fish.
However, as one of the major waterways into Beijing and 100km from Shanghai, Hangzhou has had an influx of different cultures and civilisations since its golden age during the Song dynasty in the 11th century. This can be seen in the strong Muslim community in both religion and dining; the Hangzhou Phoenix Mosque is one of the four main Masaajid along the coast of Southeast China. Halal restaurants can be found along Gaoyin Street, offering the staple doner, lamb skewers and fresh naan bread. Many Muslims married into the local Han population over the centuries, which can be seen in the other offerings: spring rolls stuffed with cheese and parsley and Arabic shrimp rice.
Hangzhou is a city steeped in tradition and culinary culture, where local and foreign flavours can be found in an adaptation over hundreds of centuries. Private dining restaurants, with pavilions resting in hills or on the edge of the West Lake, provide the right ambience in which to enjoy the local cuisine.
Dragon Well Manor (Longjing Caotang): 399 Longjing Lu, Hangzhou; tel: +8657187888777
28 Hubin Road, Hyatt Regency Hangzhou: 28 Hubin Lu, Hangzhou; tel: +8657187791234
Wei Zhuang: 10, Yanggong Ti, Hangzhou; tel: +8657187971913
Hangzhou Restaurant (Hangzhou Jiujia): 10 Huancheng Beilu, Hangzhou; tel: +8657185191717/85091717
Dong Yi Shun: 99 Gaoyin Street, Hangzhou; tel: +8657187805163