I had to go to China to learn how to cook. I was a Virginia girl with global tastes, studying abroad there while in college. In China, I learned the power of hot oil, minced scallions or garlic and ginger in the wok. With that base, I could transform any vegetables or meats into a satisfying stir-fry.
In China, I also developed an abiding devotion to farmers markets, where I shopped regularly for fresh-picked produce, homemade tofu and still-swimming seafood. And I loved the country's communal style of eating, where everyone stuffs dumplings together and dips their chopsticks into shared dishes in the middle of the table.
My semester studying in Hangzhou, just southwest of Shanghai, revolved around food. Yet, although I learned the basics during my stay there, I never attempted the elaborate classics of this region's cuisine, which is celebrated in China but practically unheard of in the West.
We're familiar with fiery Sichuan dishes and Cantonese dim sum, with sweet Peking duck and succulent Shanghai soup dumplings. However, Zhejiang province (Hangzhou is its capital) boasts one of China's eight distinct culinary traditions. It's home to famous Chinese products: Longjing (or Dragon Well) green tea, Shaoxing rice wine and dry-cured Jinhua ham. The cuisine emphasizes fresh seafood and produce (think bamboo shoots), cooked in subtle sauces with mellow flavors. The goal is to accentuate, not overpower, a dish's leading ingredient.
hide captionIngredients for making Xi Shi Tofu Soup (see recipe below) can include mushrooms (clockwise from left), beans, carrots, scallions, shrimp, bamboo shoots, corn, pork and tofu.
Laura McCandlish for NPR
Ingredients for making Xi Shi Tofu Soup (see recipe below) can include mushrooms (clockwise from left), beans, carrots, scallions, shrimp, bamboo shoots, corn, pork and tofu.
Laura McCandlish for NPR
I set out to master Hangzhou cookery, as I returned to China in August — my first trip back in almost 10 years. Well, "master" might be an overstatement. I still didn't tackle the city's signature dishes, painstakingly prepared for banquets and at restaurants. As a tourist, you regularly encounter these dishes: the gelatinous dongpo rou (braised pork belly), jiaohua ji (beggar's chicken, wrapped in lotus leaf and baked in clay) and xi hu cu yu (sweet and sour West Lake carp).
Instead, I went in search of the everyday meals Hangzhou people make at home. So I asked spunky Hangzhou TV chef Chen Leilei (whose show name is Cheng Cheng Ma) to be my guide. Her poised 13-year-old daughter and sous chef Shao Yulan (known on TV as Cheng Cheng), joined us. The duo co-authored a children's cookbook, and they regularly film programs together. Chen also collaborated with celebrity chef Martin Yan on a television series he aired in China.
Chen and I met one afternoon at her local wet market, the open-air venues where the Chinese buy their fresh produce and cleaved-to-order meat. After shopping, she welcomed me into her surprisingly spacious, sealed-off kitchen, where Chen and Yulan whipped up an army of dishes. The air conditioning was intentionally turned off, though August in Hangzhou is sweltering. Chen likes to sweat when she cooks.
About The Author
Laura McCandlish is an Oregon-based freelance writer and radio producer. She contributes to The Oregonian's FOODday section, hosts a monthly food show on Portland radio station KBOO, and is the Corvallis/Newport correspondent for NPR member station KLCC in Eugene. She blogs at baltimoregon.com.
Soon enough, a group of us gathered around the table for one of those communal feasts. There were Chinese five-spice boiled peanuts, fried bean curd skin rolls dipped in ketchup, tangy sweet-and-sour pieces of a silvery fish, jellyfish marinated with fresh bamboo shoots, organic since they came from a friend's farm. The rice was organic, too, grown on Chen's father-in-law's farm in nearby Ningbo. In a country still tainted by food scandals, that's the only kind of organic certification she trusts.
Most memorable was a dish of whole crab fried with sticky rice cakes, or nian gao. (But cutting up live crab, I've since learned, makes me squeamish. If you insist on trying the recipe, see my blog.)
A traditional veggie-laden tofu soup Chen made was even more delicious and, thankfully, easy to prepare. So is her accessible, vegetarian version of dongpo rou, using winter melon instead of fatty pork belly.
Chen, like most Chinese chefs, tends to eschew precise measurements. I saw no measuring spoons or cups in her kitchen. She and her daughter were adamant that recipes be adjusted to suit personal taste. I’ve tried to approximate quantities of ingredients. But feel free to experiment, to make things more salty, sour or sweet.
Speaking of sweet, I'm not that enamored with Chinese desserts. Don't even get me started on their spongy, buttercream-less cakes. I'm thankful most meals there end with a plate of juicy watermelon instead. However, I am still craving an ice cream-like peanut smoothie like the one we savored at the laid-back but excellent Green Tea Restaurant, nestled next to verdant hills where Hangzhou's famous Longjing tea is grown. We ate spoonfuls of the addictive smoothie throughout our surprisingly spicy (for Hangzhou) meal, and had some left to drink up for dessert.
My globetrotting professor Liu Wei, who taught me that semester abroad, thinks French is the world's best cuisine. But Hangzhou is by far his favorite Chinese cooking style. As we dined together on this recent trip, he waxed poetic about Hangzhou's variety of light, not deep-fried and filling, main dishes. Now I'm adding these mild recipes to my repertoire back home. What's especially nice is that they don't require a pantry full of exotic spices and condiments to prepare.
The author thanks Amy Saurer, resident director of the CET/C.V. Starr-Middlebury College program in Hangzhou and Zheng Cao of Oregon State University for translation and other assistance with this piece.
Xi Shi Tofu Soup
Xi Shi is one of the four beauties of ancient China who lived near Hangzhou in Zhuji. Legend has it that Hangzhou's spectacular West Lake is the incarnation of this belle. Like many seemingly "vegetarian" dishes in China, this soup is flavored with a bit of meat — shrimp and pork — used as a condiment. To make Chinese stock, boil chicken with ginger, green onion, white pepper and even country ham, for extra flavor. Feel free to improvise with the vegetables, but don't substitute firm for velvety soft tofu. This recipe is adapted from Hangzhou TV chef Chen Leilei.
1 teaspoon cornstarch, diluted with two teaspoons water, separated
1/2 cup chopped green beans or peas
1 cup fresh corn kernels (sliced off the cob)
1 cup slivered shiitake mushrooms
1 cup diced carrots
One 14-ounce package soft tofu, drained and cubed
4 scallions chopped, white ends and green stalks separated
2 tablespoons canola oil, divided
2 teaspoons minced ginger, divided
4 cups chicken stock (or up to 6 cups if you want a more brothy soup)
4 ounces bamboo shoots, drained (half a can)
*Available at Asian markets. Buy the cheap kind for cooking. Substitute dry sherry if it's not available.
Chop the pork and shrimp into half-inch pieces and put in separate bowls. Add 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon sugar, 1/4 teaspoon powdered ginger and half the cornstarch solution to each bowl and stir to combine. Let marinate for at least 15 minutes.
Dice all of the vegetables and tofu into 1/2-inch pieces. Set aside.
Fire up a wok over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon canola oil, and when glistening, add a teaspoon of minced ginger and the chopped white ends of the scallions (about 1 tablespoon) and stir-fry until fragrant, about a minute. Add chopped pork and saute until mostly cooked, about 2 minutes. Add shrimp and saute until just pink, about 1 minute. Remove meat mixture from wok and set aside.
Heat the remaining tablespoon of canola oil in the wok. Add the second teaspoon of minced ginger. Add the beans and carrots and saute 1 minute, then add the corn, mushrooms and 1 tablespoon of chopped green onion, stir-frying 2 to 3 minutes, until coated with oil and starting to get tender. Splash on remaining 2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine to deglaze the pan.
Add chicken stock and bamboo shoots; cover and bring soup to a boil. Boil about a minute and then turn heat down, simmering a few minutes until the vegetables are done. Return cooked pork and shrimp to the pan. Add the cubed soft tofu and the remaining chopped green parts of the scallions (measuring about 1/3 cup), gently stirring once or twice to combine. Taste broth and add salt, if necessary.
Ladle into bowls. Garnish with a drizzle of sesame oil, a pinch of white pepper and more chopped scallions, if desired.
Longjing Xiaren (Green Tea Shrimp)
Among Hangzhou's most famous dishes, only this one, delicately flavored with the region's vegetal Dragon Well tea, lends itself to the home kitchen. Unfortunately, you'll have to do without the sweet, small, live river shrimp they use there. I used wild North Carolina shrimp instead. Replacing the shrimp with chunks of boneless chicken thighs makes for a delicious variation. Dining at Hangzhou's landmark Hyatt Regency, we were told to dip these mild shrimp in a tangy brown vinegar.
1 pound raw shrimp, peeled and deveined (or substitute boneless chicken thighs)
2 heaping tablespoons Longjing tea* (or any other loose green tea)
1/2 cup hot water
2 tablespoons canola oil, divided
1 tablespoon scallion, chopped (white part only)
Chopped scallions (green part) or chives for garnish
1/4 teaspoon salt
Sherry vinegar for dipping
*Available at Asian markets. Buy the cheap kind for cooking.
In a medium bowl, dissolve the cornstarch in the rice wine and then stir in the egg white and mix until velvety. Marinate the shrimp (or chicken) in this mixture for at least 15 minutes.
Brew the green tea leaves in the hot water for 5 minutes. Strain and reserve both the liquid and the rehydrated leaves.
In a wok, heat a tablespoon of the oil. Add the shrimp and stir-fry until just pink but not done, about 1 minute. Remove the shrimp and set aside.
Heat second tablespoon of oil in wok. Add scallion (white parts) and saute about 30 seconds. Return to shrimp to pan, pour in strained green tea liquid and add salt. Stir-fry on high until shrimp are cooked and liquid is reduced, about 3 minutes.
Plate and garnish with chopped green onions and reserved tea leaves. Serve with dipping bowls of sherry vinegar.
Dongpo 'Pork' (Braised Winter Melon)
I love Hangzhou's iconic dongpo pork, but it's difficult to swallow more than a morsel or two of the fatty belly. Winter melon, despite its name (white fuzz coats the mature gourd), is refreshing to eat when it's hot outside. Buy melon with thick and firm (not hollowed-out) flesh at most Asian markets. There you'll also find Zhejiang's famous Shaoxing wine (get the cheap kind for cooking) and salty light soy sauces for flavor and dark soy sauces for color. These braising liquids render the otherwise bland squash well-seasoned and succulent. This recipe also is adapted from Hangzhou TV chef Chen Leilei.
1 pound winter melon* (at least 6 inches in diameter), rind and seeds removed
2 tablespoons canola oil
2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and cut into thin slivers
1 bunch scallions, chopped, white and green parts separated
3/4 cup Shaoxing wine*
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 cup water
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon cornstarch, dissolved with 2 teaspoons water
*Available at Asian markets
Cut the winter melon flesh into 2-inch chunks.
Heat the oil in a hot wok. Add ginger, all white parts of scallions and about 1 tablespoon of the chopped green stalks. Stir-fry over high heat 1 minute, until fragrant but not burned.
Add the winter melon chunks and stir-fry for 3 minutes on medium-high heat.
Pour Shaoxing wine, light soy sauce and water over melon, stirring well to combine. Mix in sugar and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil.
When liquid reaches boil, reduce heat to medium-low, cover wok, and simmer about 15 minutes, until winter melon is just fork-tender.
Uncover wok, add dark soy sauce and cornstarch solution, and raise heat to high again, stir-frying about a minute, to set the sauce. Season, to taste, with salt and white pepper.
Spoon winter melon and sauce into a serving bowl, garnish with remaining chopped green onion and serve.
Hangzhou's Green Tea Restaurant wouldn't give out the recipe for their delicious smoothie. So I tried my best to re-create it. It's a rich and creamy, salty-sweet concoction. The taste invokes peanut-flavored Taiwanese snow ice and peanut milk bubble tea.
1 cup natural-style creamy peanut butter (unsweetened if possible)
1 cup whole milk
1/3 cup honey
3 1/2 cups ice cubes
Chopped salted, roasted peanuts (I used redskins)
Mix the peanut butter, milk and honey together in a blender on high speed until smooth, about 1 minute. For a thicker smoothie, freeze mixture for at least 30 minutes before adding the ice (this step is optional). Then add ice cubes and blend until slushy. Spoon into glasses and garnish with chopped peanuts.