Imagine a restaurant seating nearly 3000 people. Imagine a city where the average restaurant seats between 600 and 800 people. Imagine a city where the restaurant scene was so highly developed in the 13th century that it would still be recognisable.
The city is Hangzhou, in the province of Zhejiang (south of Shanghai). It’s been a city for about 2000 years, and was visited by Marco Polo, who was amazed by it. It was the capital of the southern Sung Dynasty (1126-1279 AD), and was said to be one of the richest and most populous cities in the world, which was one reason for the strength of its gastronomy. Food writer Ken Hom believes that Chinese cooking took its distinctive and enduring form during that period.
Hangzhou and other cities in the province – most notably Huzhou – are justifiably proud of their past. What is striking is that they are using that illustrious and venerable gastronomic history to re-create a gastronomic present.
In a country so large and with such a turbulent political history, the gastronomy of regional China can be overlooked, particularly when Cantonese cooking is the most recognised outside China. Zhejiang is renowned within China for its food. It draws on lake and sea-food, on an excellence of soy products, and on a range of vegetables that make European markets look almost sparse. Zhejiang province is the only one to have fresh bamboo all year round, and those seasonal bamboo shoots all have their own names.
How is it possible to recontruct the past? In China, it’s not difficult. Firstly, records are astonishingly good. According to Professor Zhao, a gastronomy scholar at the Hangzhou University of Commerce, old diaries and other records provide such detailed accounts that it would be possible to rebuild the old (like 600 year old) places exactly – right down to their management structures and the type of chopsticks used. The range of styles of eating places is also similar to modern times – there were five styles noted, all of which correspond to current eating, from simple teahouses to grand private rooms in large restaurants.
Hangzhou is the home of the Louwailou restaurant, overlooking the famed West Lake. Its age is doubtful – in its present form it is a little over a century old, but some sources say there has been a restaurant on the site for 700 years. It was the first restaurant to specialise in Hangzhou dishes, said Chef Wu, who is in charge of a brigade of 90 people. Those dishes include beggar’s chicken, vinegared fish, Dragon Well shrimp (cooked with Dragon Well tea). Here, beggar’s chicken is wrapped in a lotus leaf, baking paper, and clay and cooked for hours. Its flavours are so complex that it tastes as if it has been cooked with any number of fresh and preserved vegetables.
It has been a restaurant for celebrities and politicians. Chang Kai-Shek had his last mainland meal here; Premier Zhou En Lai used to bring foreign dignitaries here. Richard Nixon ate here, so did Henry Kissinger. And – most notably – millions of ordinary Chinese with more modest budgets eat here, which is why a restaurant seating 2500 people often has queues at lunch time.
At the Zheibei Hotel in nearby Huzhou, which is on the great Tahu lake, banquets feature not only the richness of the ingredients, but also of the culinary heritage.
Regional culinary societies and local restaurants have played a large part in reviving dishes. They have been able to rely on all the written records as well as the skills of chefs and home cooks.
Chinese cooking is transmitted in another way. Gastronomy in China has its own folklore. Dishes associated with the best of cooking and eating have stories. Once upon a time there was a scholar, once upon a time there was a beautiful girl, in this dynasty there was a poor woman, in that dynasty there was a scholar … time and again banquet dishes that recall the people of the past.
This is one example of many from Zheijiang province. Du Mu, a character from the T’ang Dynasty, was a playboy who one day saw a girl with her mother. He knew she would grow up to be a beauty, asked to marry her in 10 years’ time, and was accepted. He planned to become a magistrate in the city, but it took him 14 years to achieve the post. When he returned, he found that the girl had married someone else, and had two children. He was extremely grieved, but powerless. Everyone in the area knew the story, so when he went to a local restaurant, the owner created a dish for him which reflected his sorrow and bitterness. It was fish with sour plum and vinegar. The story ends happily – he was greatly cheered by the food.
Another striking thing about these dishes – whose stories are sometimes reflected in their presentation – is that they present a powerful message: good cooking is not the province of the rich and powerful. A poor girl may please an emperor with her cooking, a scholar may create an enduringly fine dish, and an ugly grandmother may give generations of delight (Ma Po tofu). Food in China often seems to have the same importance as religious art did in Italy – a means of transmitting values.
The presentation of dishes is vital. To European eyes, presentation involving elaborate vegetable carvings showing mythical creatures or landscapes looks strange. The word often used by Europeans is kitsch. But those carvings and the elaborate and detailed presentation are part of the transmission of culture.
That does not mean that the cuisine is backward looking. On the contrary, the relatively young (15 years) culinary society is working with others in Huzhou to present the richness of the cuisine as a tourist attraction. The city has taken a touring banquet to Taiwan and Hong Kong to show what it does best. The banquet consists of 100 fish dishes. “That’s a selection of the best,” I was told. The sour plum and vinegar fish is sure to be one of them.
Rita Erlich is an Australian food and wine writer based in Melbourne, Australia