Zhejiang cuisine has a great variety of delicate and exquisite dishes, all noted for being xian, which means ‘fresh and delicious’. With mainly fish, shrimp, other freshwater produce and seasonal vegetables as its ingredients, they need to be very fresh and tender before they are cooked in order to retain their natural flavours.
Keyword No. 1: Xian ‘fresh and delicious’
For deliciously spicy food, you look to Sichuan cuisine; for deliciously salty food, you look to Shandong cuisine; for deliciously sweet food, you look to Huaiyang cuisine in Jiangsu; for deliciously aromatic food, you look to Guangdong cuisine; for deliciously fresh food, that of Zhejiang cuisine is certainly the national number one, featuring a light use of oil and starchy sauces and known for its natural and light taste. With mainly fish, shrimp, other freshwater produce and seasonal vegetables as its ingredients, they need to be very fresh and tender before they are cooked in order to retain their natural flavours. Among the three sub-regional cuisines of Zhejiang cuisine, Hangzhou cuisine features flame frying, stir-frying, braising and deep frying techniques and strives for precise knife work and presentation skills; Ningbo cuisine is characterised by its steamed or stewed savoury seafood with emphasis on the infusion of flavour; distinct from the other two, Shaoxing cuisine features dishes that are either crisp and crumbly or soft and silky, and soups that are thick with strong flavours, with its own style and taste typical of a southern village. Although each of the subregional Zhejiang cuisines has a great variety of delicate and exquisite dishes, they are all noted for being xian, which means ‘fresh and delicious’.
The Chinese character xian ( 鲜) consists of two parts, with yu ( 鱼) ‘fish’ on the left and yang( 羊) ‘sheep’ on the right. The use of fish, a major ingredient in Zhejiang cuisine, is one of the reasons why its dishes are so delicious. If you look through a list of famous Zhejiang dishes you will find fish in almost every dish: West Lake Fish in Sweet and Sour Sauce, Yellow-fin Croaker Stewed with Xuecai (pickled xuelihong), Fried Yellow-fin Croaker Slices Coated with Nori Batter, Steamed Mandarin Fish, Fish Skin Braised with Garlic, etc. Various kinds of fish are used in Zhejiang cuisine and this is evident if you have the chance to visit Hangzhou or Ningbo’s open markets, where you will find many kinds of fish that you cannot even name: Golden Snapper, Brown Croaker, Mackerel, Angelfish, Four-finger Threadfin, etc. Perhaps only the local people will know how to bring out the best flavour of all of these fish.
A taste of West Lake Fish in Sweet and Sour Sauce is a must if you visit Hangzhou. Its main ingredient is the grass carp raised in the West Lake. Before cooking, it is customary to keep the fish in a fish corf without food for a couple of days to allow it to empty its bowels and rid itself of its earthy smell. Timing is very important when frying the fish, as it takes as little as three to four minutes to be cooked to perfection. And right after frying, with its pectoral fin erect, a layer of smooth and shiny vinegar-sugar sauce is poured on top. The meat is deliciously delicate with a combination of tender texture with a sweet and sour flavour. The culinary skills necessary to cook this dish makes it unique among all the Chinese cuisines.
For natives of Ningbo, a sub-provincial city in northeast Zhejiang, Yellow-fin Croaker Stewed with Xuecai is their favourite dish. To cook this dish, you need to use the freshest yellow-fin croaker you can find at the market. Fry it until it’s golden on both sides, stew it in ginger and wine, then add in xuecai and bamboo shoots. Please note that you need to use the right type of bamboo shoots according to the different seasons. If it’s spring, use spring bamboo shoots; summer, “whip” bamboo shoots; autumn, “thunder” bamboo shoot; and winter, winter bamboo shoots. The dish is special in that the xuecai will taste of the fish and the fish will be infused with the salty taste of the pickled vegetable and the exquisite taste of bamboo shoots. It is a perfect example of Ningbo cuisine, slightly salty but fresh.
With the longest coastline in China, Zhejiang is a province rich in water resources. To the east is the East China Sea and within the province, there are nearly 30 lakes, including the West Lake and Lake Dongqian, and eight waterways, such as the Grand Beijing-Hangzhou Canal and the Qiantang River. With such abundant water resources, it’s no wonder that dishes in Zhejiang cuisine tend to feature fish as their main ingredient and that the cuisine is famous for being fresh and delicious.
Keyword No. 2: Culture
Every dish in Zhejiang cuisine is an embodiment of its rich cultural heritage. In the chapter “Basic Questions” of The Inner Canon of Huangdi (Huangdi Neijing), it is said that “the town in the east, which has been in existence since the day the sky and the earth were born, is next to the sea that is rich in fish and salt, where its people love the taste of the sea, feel content in their lives and are concentrate on improving their cuisine.” The town referred to is today’s Zhejiang area. What makes the people of Zhejiang proud of their cuisine, apart from its fresh and delicious taste, the rich variety of ingredients and the necessary superior culinary skills, is the rich cultural heritage and the amusing folklore behind the dishes.
Evidence shows that Zhejiang cuisine originated from Hemudu Culture during the Neolithic Age. The ancient people of Yue, a state situated in what is now northern Zhejiang during the Spring and Autumn Period (771 – 476 BC), started this style of cooking which was then passed down from generation to generation. The cuisine matured in the Han and Tang Dynasties and thrived in the Song and Yuan Dynasties. The recipe for the well-known Sister Song’s Fish Soup, with a history of over 800 years, was handed down from the Southern Song period. The dish, is prepared as follows: Mandarin fish or bass, its main ingredient, is first steamed, then the meat is separated and braised with seasonings. The soup, golden in appearance, is smooth, delicate and delicious, with its flavours resembling that of fresh crab. So it’s also nicknamed saixiegeng ‘an imitation crab soup’. Famous as it is now, it actually originated from a snack cooked and sold on the roadside.
According to Old Stories of the World of Wushu by Zhou Mi in the Song Dynasty, on March 15, 1179, in the sixth year of the reign of Chunxi, Zhao Gou, the 10th emperor of the Song Dynasty who had abdicated in favour of the crown prince, was cruising the West Lake in his royal boat when he ordered his servants to buy fish and turtles caught from the lake so that they could be set free as a sign of his benevolence–a common practice in Buddhism. During his cruise, he met a woman on the shore of the lake, who called herself Sister Song and claimed to have come from the East Capital (present-day Kaifeng).She was selling fish soup for a living and when Zhao tasted her soup, he found it delicious and gave her some gold and silk as a present in view of her old age. Because of this, Sister Song’s fish soup became famous overnight and everyone wanted to have a taste. Five hundred years later, when Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty was on his southern tour, he specifically asked to taste the famous Sister Song’s Fish Soup when he arrived at the West Lake. There’s even a poem about the dish which just serves to attract people from all over the country to visit the West Lake and taste the soup:
Skirts and clogs file in one after another
To get a binge upstairs in the green saloon.
Of the countless pleasure boats that bring them here,
Half are from the Isle of the Three-Pond Moon.
There’s no need to look for the Songjiang bass,
When the West Lake carp gives such a nice taste.
Luckily we have a good chef like you,
Who must have known Sister Song long ago.
In the Ming and Qing dynasties the style of Zhejiang cuisine became established. Yuan Mei, a Qing Dynasty poet from Qiantang wrote in his Recipe Book of Suiyuan about how to cook the yellow-fin croaker:
Dice the yellow-fin croaker, soak it in soya sauce for two hours and then drain it. After that, stir-fry in high heat until golden brown, then add a teacup of Jinhua fermented soya beans, a small bowl of sweet rice wine and a small cup of virgin soya sauce and leave it to boil. When its colour turns dark brown, add sugar and soy-sauce-pickled cucumber and ginger pieces before dishing it out. Another recipe is this: debone the yellow-fin croaker and mince it, put the mince into chicken broth to make a thick soup, add a small amount of sweet flour sauce mixed with starch before dishing it out.
It is apparent that soya sauce, fermented soya beans, sweet rice wine and starch were all important seasonings used in Zhejiang cuisine.
During the period of the Republic of China (1912-1949), Zhejiang cuisine was almost identical to what it is like today. This is evident in Home Recipes in Four Books compiled by Xi Sheng, in which there are clear and detailed information about how to cook Peeled Shrimps Fried with April Tea:
- Ingredients: a bowl of peeled shrimps, a pinch of fresh April tea, one egg and a little salt.
- Utensils: a wok, a stove, a spatula and a basin.
- Preparation: crack the egg, get rid of the yolk, whisk the egg white until it is of consistent texture, add tea leaves and peeled shrimps and mix them thoroughly. Add the salt to the mixture and stir-fry it in hot oil for a little while. Then dish it up. It tastes tender, sweet and delicious.
This recipe is identical to the modern recipe for the famous Longjing Shrimps or Shrimps Stir-fried with Longjing Tea Leaves.
Keyword No. 3: Affection
In his movie The God of Cookery, Stephen Chow played a brilliant chef who wanted to cook the best food to win back the title “God of Cookery”. One day he asked his mentor: “Master, What’s the best food you have ever tasted in your life?” The master answered: “This question, dear benefactor, you should really ask yourself.” Then Chow’s character remembered the bowl of rice with roast pork that was given to him when he was a desperate beggar. It was cooked in a most simple way, but with love and affection. When asked: “What’s the most delicious food you have ever tasted?”, most of the natives of Zhejiang who are away from home will say “home-cooked Zhejiang food.” All things people do are associated with emotions; foods are no exception. To the natives of Zhejiang, food gives them a keen sense of affection and belonging. One of my friends is from Jinhua, Zhejiang, a place famous for its signature ham. In her view the major northern cuisines and Sichuan cuisine are all cooked in haste and their flavours are too strong, leading to people eating in haste with the purpose of sating one’s hunger instead of savouring the food. But Zhejiang cuisine is different. It requires remarkable culinary skills to make the meticulously crafted dishes. The love and care of the chef towards the diners can be seen in each piece of tender fish meat and each spoon of tasty soup.
As for Jinhua ham, there’s a well-known story associated with Hu Xueyan, a businessman famous for being the only merchant during the Qing Dynasty to be awarded a red-topped hat—an emblem that signified the rank of an officer of second grade at the Qing imperial court. In the late Qing Dynasty, the largest Jinhua ham producer Jiang Xuefang became acquainted with Hu when doing business in Hangzhou. Jiang came from a family business with an unrivalled reputation for quality ham. That year Hu planned a huge birthday party for his mother and Jiang attended the party at Hu’s invitation. As a present, he brought with him 270 jin (135 kilograms) of the best ham he had spent many days preparing. At the banquet, the dish made with Jiang’s ham was the most popular and everyone talked about its quality. As the host of the party, Hu was very pleased. Yuan Min, a writer from Hangzhou, once gave an account of her mother cooking in the kitchen for the whole family. One dish called Chicken in Shrimp Brine is said to take 20 days to prepare:
First, buy some shrimp brine and pour it into a big earthen pot. Add half a kilogram of Jiafan rice wine from Shaoxing, the same amount of Shanniang rice wine also from Shaoxing, and 250 grams of salt. Boil the mixture and then put it aside to cool. Second, boil large pieces of chicken and pork belly, put them into the pot, and make sure the chicken and pork are covered by the brine, and cover the pot with a clean and sun-dried bamboo lid, with a big stone on top. Finally, seal the pot with reed leaves and strings. The dish is usually prepared 15 to 20 days in advance and in our eyes the sealed pot has come to symbolise the Chinese New Year.
It’s out of the deepest affection and greatest regard that someone can spend 20 days preparing a dish or making a piece of ham. These feelings are fully expressed by the high standards expected of ingredients, seasonings, culinary skills, and processes in Zhejiang cuisine. When waiting for the food to be prepared and served, we will appreciate the great love and affection of the chef.
Published in Confucius Institute Magazine
Magazine 43. Volume 2. March 2016.
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