Symphony for the senses

Symphony for the senses
One of Hangzhou's most famous culinary creation, Dongpo Pork.

Day-trippers to Hangzhou don't know what they're missing by not staying longer. If they did, they would be able to bask in a twilight that lasts for hours, thanks to some weird meteorological quirk that casts the city in a soft crepuscular glow, lending a seductive intimacy to this home of some six million people.

Despite its large-city bustle, Hangzhou is human in scale and a delight to explore on foot or bicycle. Located in prosperous Zhejiang Province in China's south-west, it regularly ranks at or near the top of China's most "liveable" cities. Visiting Hangzhou in the 13th century, the Italian traveller Marco Polo famously raved, "It is without doubt the finest and most splendid city in the world."

Even today, life in Hangzhou gravitates around its fabled West Lake. Better known as Xihu, this man-made lake originated sometime in the 8th or 9th century during the Tang Dynasty and was expanded over the centuries to its current size of 6.3 sq km.

Ringed by parks and green mountains, straddled by stone bridges, dotted with pavilions, pagodas, temples and romantic villas, the sight of West Lake, especially on a misty morning, would be a cliche were it not so drop-dead beautiful. There are other sights to behold such as the Xixi Wetland and the tea-growing Longjing hills, but they are overshadowed by the magnetism of Xihu.

Historically, Hangzhou was a city of commerce and culture, associated with artisans, poets, scholars, and the intelligentsia. It was the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), a centre of silk production then and now.

Its most famous culinary creation, Dongpo Pork, is named after an 11th-century poet and governor who told his cook to "Do the pork over a medium flame, use no water but wine, and it will naturally be done."

So it is the food that determines the rhythm of life here. Residents wake early to a simple breakfast (oddly, breakfast fare is indifferent and almost an afterthought), eat lunch at 11am, and by four or five in the afternoon, sit down to dinner. The day ends with supper at 8pm.

Tea-drinking has evolved into a rich subculture in Hangzhou, spurred by the fame of the local green tea called Longjing or Dragon Well. Most afternoons, locals head to the plantations in the hills to a lunch of carp bred in mountain spring water and fruit plucked from overhanging branches tableside.

They sip tea on the terraces as women, baskets on their backs, harvest the leaves metres away, after which they play mahjong and smoke under shady arbours with drying tea leaves scenting the wind. Little wonder that when Hangzhou denizens chance upon harried or boorish behaviour in others, the first thing they say is, "This person is obviously from out of town".

Hangzhou is the capital of Zhejiang province and its cuisine displays the core virtues of the Zhejiang style: the blending of sweet and salty flavours; boiling, stewing, braising, and simmering.

Meat is cooked in its own juices, the dishes fresh, tender, fragrant and rich - either crispy or soft, but far from greasy. Seasoning is never over or underdone, and the meat falls easily off the bones.

To this provincial style, Hangzhou cuisine has its own inflections, going further in lightness - especially in using even less oil - and sweetness. Cooks make use of the best available freshwater carp, eels, shrimps and crabs, and abundant local vegetables and fruits.

Bamboo shoots are a particular favourite; stewed, for example, in peanut oil immediately upon being unearthed and enjoyed for their freshness, tenderness and deliciousness, which are best in spring. Here is a tour of the best places in Hangzhou to experience its cuisine.

Lao Tou Er You Bao Xia

493, Wen San Xi Lu, Xihu Qu

0571-8897-9700

In the field of mid-priced local fare, two worthwhile chains exist in Hangzhou: Waipo Jia and Lao Tou Er You Bao Xia. Tourists and visitors flock to the former, which is better known, while "those-in-the-know" discreetly make a beeline for the latter.

Even during its humble beginnings as a roadside stall, it was common to see posh cars parked beside Lao Tou Er You Bao Xia. Today, the chain has 12 outlets throughout the city, with its largest located outside Xixi National Wetland Park, a popular tourist attraction.

Known for its signature Quick-fried River Prawns and Deep-fried Ribbonfish, waiting times at peak hours are at least 30 minutes for a table. But once seated, dishes arrive with machine-like efficiency.

A comprehensive menu offers many popular home-cooked dishes, making it a great, reasonably priced entry to the cuisine of a typical Hangzhou household. Check out the Braised Stinky Tofu with Shrimps, Stir-fried Cabbage and Wine-infused Red Dates. The average spend is about RMB50 (S$10.70) per person.

Zhiwei Guan (main restaurant)

83, Renhe Lu, Shang Cheng Qu

0571-8701-8638

Like a living guardian of posterity, Zhiwei Guan has witnessed the milestones of Chinese political and culinary history over the last 100 years. Founded in 1913 and located next to West Lake, its cuisine remains authentic and seemingly unadulterated by the avalanche of new and trendy styles, especially from the west.

One gripe, however, is that recent renovations have diluted the charm of the old-world interiors, which used to be in concordance with the elderly folks living in the area who make the restaurant their haunt for dining and mingling.

It is still a great destination for a breakfast of old-fashioned Hang Bang (or Hangzhou-style) noodles and dim sum. Jostling with the crowd of morning diners - if you are up to it - is a charming study of local dining habits.

The ordering process goes like this: Study the menu on the wall and memorise your order, which you relay to the cashier, and then collect your food at a nearby counter. The locals eat simple breakfasts, typically a bowl of noodles, a basket of buns, or simply savoury bean curd.

So the sight of the haul on your tray, especially for us Singaporeans, is a sure give-away of "foreigner" status.

If you prefer an ala carte meal at a lakeside setting, they operate another branch at 10, Yang Gong Di, Hong Li Shanzhuang Nei. 0571-8797-056

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