The fresh and subtle tastes of Hangzhou cuisine


The students are particularly fond of the free play at the end of a "forest school day." Here, they are playing home base.  Sara Lilja Steensig   gbtimes

Hangzhou cuisine is already well-known and loved in China, but in recent years the local government has set out to promote its cuisine outside the Middle Kingdom. Not only by serving Hangzhou dishes to world leaders at the G20 that was held in the city in last September, but also by sending their most outstanding cooks abroad on promotion tours.

As part of this ongoing effort, eight top chefs from Hangzhou, capital of the east Chinese Zhejiang Province, recently visited Norway and Finland. At the Hangzhou Food Gala in Helsinki on May 24, gbtimes had a chance to hear more about Hangzhou cuisine, or Hangbangcai, as the kitchen is called in Chinese.

“Hangzhou is a well-known cultural city with thousands of years of history. People started to inhabit Hangzhou 8,000 years ago, and therefore it has a rich food culture,” explains Hu Zhongying, one of China’s most acclaimed chefs and a leading figure of the Hangzhou culinary world. Hu also served as head of the food and beverage section at the G20 summit in Hangzhou.

Getting the most out of the finest ingredients

In a traditional Hangzhou meal you can find fish and lotus root from the city’s beautiful West Lake, seafood from the East China Sea, and chicken and duck from the northern plain. From the mountains in the west come wild plants and bamboo shoots galore, not to mention Hangzhou's renowned green tea, Xihu Longjing (West Lake Dragon Well).

Getting the most out of local ingredients is top of the list for any Hangzhou chef, explains Hu Zhongying. It’s all about accentuating the main ingredients’ own flavour instead of overpowering it.

“Hangzhou cuisine is unique in its characteristic,” he says. “It’s light in salt, sugar, cooking oil and starch. The taste is mild, light and delicate, meeting modern people’s needs.”

“Many of the 36 most famous Hangzhou dishes are related to Hangzhou’s history and culture, and the ingredients are local produce, so it’s hard to choose one dish to represent Hangzhou cuisine,” ponders Hu before agreeing to list some of the most iconic Hangzhou courses.

First of all, there is the West Lake fish in vinegar, which “reminds people immediately of the beautiful West Lake and represents Hangzhou flavour.”

And then there is Dongpo pork, named after the celebrated poet and Hangzhou politician Su Dongpo.

He lived 1,000 years ago and invented – or at least inspired – these tender squares of pork meat. “This dish is very popular. Everyone in China knows it.”

Also the subtly fragrant Longjing shrimp is a worthy representative of Hangzhou’s kitchen, notes Hu.

“The ingredients are not complicated, but the dish is famous for its rich cultural heritage. Every spring, when Longjing tea is gathered, you mix the dark green tea leaves with snow white shelled river prawns and fry them. This dish is the favourite of many refined scholars.”

A southern hint of sweetness

Hangzhou cuisine is part of Zhejiang cuisine, which again is one of China’s eight famous kitchens. The seven others are Lu cuisine from Shandong, Chuan cuisine from Sichuan, Yue cuisine from Guangdong, Huaiyang cuisine from Jiangsu and the cuisines of Hunan, Fujian and Anhui.

“If we summarise the eight Chinese cuisines, we simply say that it’s spicy in the east, sour in the west, sweet in the south and salty in the north,” explains Hu.

“Hangzhou is in the east and south of China, and our cuisine is light and mild and slightly sweet. In the south we like to add a bit of sugar when we cook - this helps to bring the fresh flavours out.”

Another important aspect of cooking the Hangzhou way is to be very particular about how the food is cut. “If you want to cook a Hangzhou dish, you have to practice and develop great cutting skill, and make a shred a shred, a slice a slice and a cube a cube,” says Hu.

“If you want to learn how to cook Hangzhou cuisine, you should start from learning the concepts and basics. Then you’re halfway towards success.”

Shrimps in green tea on European menus

As part of the promotion of Hangzhou cuisine abroad, the acclaimed chefs from Zhejiang’s capital teach Chinese cooks overseas about the techniques and tastes that are particular for Hangzhou.

One of their apprentices is Chef Wu Jinying, who for the last 25 years has run restaurants in the Finnish capital Helsinki and currently has a restaurant in Turku in the southwest of the Nordic country. “It was an honour to meet the state-level Hangzhou chefs and witness their cooking skills. I am very inspired,” admitted Wu, who mainly serves Shanghai style dishes in her restaurant.

Soon, her customers will be able to order a real Hangzhou speciality, namely Longjing shrimp. “In the past I didn’t know how to cook this dish. Now I’ve learned that you should boil the river prawn in the tea,” Wu explains.

She is in no doubt that European restaurant guests will appreciate the fresh and subtle tastes of Hangzhou cuisine.

“The dishes taste better than what we offer in our restaurant now, so I think the Finns will definitely love them,” she laughs.