A BITE OF HANGZHOU

The up­com­ing G20 has turned all eyes on Zhe­jiang’s cui­sine, but the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment has been qui­etly cel­e­brat­ing its famous dishes for years in a Bei­jing restau­rant, Mike Pe­ters re­ports.

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE - Con­tact the writer at michaelpeters@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Not ev­ery duck in China’s cap­i­tal is a Pek­ing duck. The one we’ve just or­dered at Zhang­shengji, the Hangzhou rep­re­sen­ta­tive restau­rant in Bei­jing, ar­rives sliced and care­fully stacked in a mound on the plate. The blan­ket of sauce looks made for Texas bar­be­cue, but it’s sur­pris­ingly on the sweet side. The meat it­self is spicy, a nice con­trast to the rich sauce, and easy to han­dle with chop­sticks even though the bones are still in­tact.

Zhang­shengji is a restau­rant group launched in Hangzhou in 1988, with branches to­day in Shang­hai, Nan­jing, Suzhou and Hong Kong as well as Bei­jing.

While Hangzhou spiced duck is a sig­na­ture dish of the re­gion, it can vary some­what in Hangzhou it­self: A more home-style ver­sion in a lo­cal can­teen was spicier and not saucy but equally delicious — we had the plea­sure of de­vour­ing a steel bowl full of it.

On menus, the bird is of­ten re­ferred to as “old duck”, which prob­a­bly sounds au­gust in Chi­nese but lacks magic in English. There’s noth­ing tough about this 1-year-old fe­male green-head duck, which the Zhang­shengji menu de­scribes as “ma­ture and healthy” and salted with soy sauce to give the duck the rich red color ofChi­nese dates (ju­jubes) and a sa­vory fra­grance. “Old duck” is cited in an an­cient Chi­nese med­i­cal texts as a nat­u­ral in­vig­o­rant for hu­mans that can cleanse the body off tox­ins and aid di­ges­tion. The restau­rant says its chefs have in­vented var­i­ous kinds of new dishes ac­cord­ing to the sci­en­tific prin­ci­ple that “food and medicine have the same ori­gin” based on an­cient se­cret recipes.

Tra­di­tion is al­most tan­gi­ble at Zhang­shengji, which serves up the clas­sics in a white-table­clothed din­ing room and 10 pri­vate rooms for par­ties and busi­ness ban­quets. The din­ers tend to beChi­nese and on the ex­pe­ri­enced side of age 40. The chat­ter and the clat­ter of plat­ters is lively in the main din­ing area. There is not go­ing to be a charger plug for your cell­phone near the ta­ble.

Folks eat­ing here have come for the food and to chat with friends and fam­ily in per­son. Zhe­jiang cui­sine — one of China’s eight clas­sic styles of cook­ing— is fa­mously del­i­cate and light. Most dishes are sim­ply and un­pre­ten­tiously pre­sented on white china that’s a lit­tle shop­worn, but the food never dis­ap­points.

The show­stop­per on the menu may be a house spe­cialty: sliced ham with honey sauce and buns. Re­fined from a pri­vate recipe of a big Shang­hai fam­ily in the 1930s, the Jin­hua ham with “su­perfine fat” gleams in the sweet sauce in which it has been sim­mered. The meat’s tex­ture may sur­prise at the first bite: It’s nearly as firm as dried meat, ex­cept it’s cut so thickly that it still has plenty of spring and it’s easy to chew. The plate ar­rives at ta­ble pretty as a pic­ture, the ham slices ringed with chunks of pump­kin and lo­tus seeds.

An­other dish that beau­ti­fully evokes the re­gion is stir-fried shelled shrimp with the famous Longjing (dragon-well) green tea. Like many Chi­nese dishes, there’s a charm­ing story be­hind it: The Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911) em­peror Qian Long was famous for vis­it­ing his peo­ple incog­nito, but when he pre­sented a waiter in Hangzhou city some pre­mium dragon-well tea to pre­pare for him, the waiter guessed his iden­tity — and be­came so ner­vous that he spilled the tea onto the em­peror’s plate of river shrimp. The re­sult was pro­claimed to be delicious, and since then the dish has be­come a famous lo­cal fa­vorite. At Zhang­shengji, the plat­ter is gar­nished with tea leaves, and a gen­er­ous, share­able serv­ing runs 198 yuan.

You can also try an in­di­vid­ual serv­ing of Dong Po Pork, said to be the cre­ation of an an­cient Chi­nese poet, who stewed the meat for a long time in a tiny amount of wa­ter to make the meat ten­der and fat but not oily. Other Hangzhou sta­ples on the menu in­clude duck soup with bam­boo and ham, dried fish in wine sauce, braised pork with abalone in soy sauce, sweet-and-sour Man­darin fish, and a suc­cu­lent pair of crispy pi­geons in life­like poses on the plat­ter.

An in­trigu­ing spe­cialty of this restau­rant is veg­e­tar­ian abalone, which we saved to try on our next visit.

We fin­ish our meal with a tasty tra­di­tional snack, fried spring rolls with flour stick and green onion fill­ing — which have been fried in big iron pans in Zhe­jiang province since the Song Dy­nasty (960-1279). Recipes such as fresh­wa­ter cray­fish and pomelo salad from Thai­land and fragrant pump­kin and tem­peh curry from In­done­sia are among the high­lights of

The Plea­sures of Eat­ingWell: Nour­ish­ing Favourites from the Como Shamb­hala Kitchen.

Fash­ion and hos­pi­tal­ity en­tre­pre­neur Christina Ong, the mov­ing force be­hind the lux­ury bou­tique ho­tel’s holis­tic well­ness brand, has spent 10 years with her ex­ec­u­tive chef in pur­suit of a proper healthy diet that avoids calo­rie count­ing but in­stead of­fers en­joy­able food, in­tel­li­gent por­tions, va­ri­ety and bal­ance. Dishes are built around in­gre­di­ents reflecting the sea­sonal bounty from Como des­ti­na­tions, such as the prized mat­su­take mush­rooms from the Hi­malayan forests around its Bhutanese ho­tels, which lend their aroma and tex­ture to carpac­cio of yak.

Avail­able at ma­jor book­stores and ama­zon.com.

PHO­TOS BY MIKE PE­TERS AND PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Clock­wise from top: Old duck pot, pork braised in brown sauce and Hangzhou spiced duck are among the sig­na­ture dishes of Zhang­shengji.

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