Stinky, Moldy, Rotten, Delicious Cuisine of Zhejiang
Geographically diverse Zhejiang Province is one of the birthplaces of Southern Chinese Cuisine: Hangzhou, Wenzhou, Ningbo, and Shaoxing dishes form a regional cuisine with distinctive local characteristics; most prominent are those dishes lovingly described as “stinky”, “moldy”, “salty”, and “rotten” which, amazingly, have become a part of mainstream Chinese cuisine.
In Anchang Ancient Town of Shaoxing, one of the most common sights is strings of pickled sausages hanging in front of the stores and workshops lining the riverbanks. If lucky enough, tourists may come across a scene of how these sausages are produced. Photo/ Ma Hongjie
Located on the coast of eastern China, Zhejiang’s diverse geography of mountains and plains is crisscrossed by a highly-developed network of waterways, carrying abundant goods throughout the province. Simultaneously, as one of the birthplaces of Chinese ancient civilization, Zhejiang possesses a profound sense of history and culture. It is natural, then, that one of China the most distinctive and diverse of China’s Eight Regional Cuisines (Sichuan, Shandong, Cantonese, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian, Hunan, Anhui cuisines) was born before this regional backdrop. What’s more, this cuisine--with its visual and gustatory delights--is embedded the hallmarks of each of the province’s various regional cultures.
Located on the bank of Cao’e River, the Ningbo– Shaoxing Plains are a rich part of China’s “the land of fish and rice”. The Ningshao Plains are also home to a unique customary cuisine: the “moldy, stinky” food. What at first blush seems to be a vulgar folk diet is actually the product of a long history represents the rare wisdom of these local inhabitants, who applied their knowledge to transform ugliness into joy.
Perhaps mold tofu (commonly referred to as fermented bean curd) is the most famous among the “moldy umami” foods; this includes such regional varieties as Guilin fermented bean curd as well as Canton Zhimeizhai and Beijing Wangzhihe fermented bean curd. It is claimed that these zhimeizhao and wangzhihe seasonings have a “stench of ten thousand years”— that is to say, the stinker, the better.
A famous snack in Shaoxing is the broad bean. However, the way to cook the simple broad bean is complicated: first, stew the beans over high heat, and then boil the beans in soup seasoned with cinnamon, fennel and soy sauce. In this way, the broad bean tastes chewy and flavored. Photo/ Dong Jiancheng
In fact, “rotten” (fermented) foods have a scientific basis— a physical and chemical mechanism—for their appeal; after moderate fermentation of food, its proteins begin to break down, and its amino acid levels increase sharply; it is these amino acids that produce the beloved umami flavor. When conventional production methods do not produce such exponentially increased levels of amino acids, fermentation provides a possibility. Eating “moldy umami” flavored food is akin to cracking open a history book filled with legends of fermentation. The decaying proteins produce a stinky flavor, which blends with the umami flavor released by the amino acids. The famous “stinky mandarin fish” of Anhui cuisine follows the same concept.
Should one take a leisurely sojourn through Shaoxing, disembark along any river bank, and stroll into any restaurant, one may choose from any one of a varieties of stinky foods—including stinky tofu sheets, stinky steamed meat, stinky steamed fish, and fennel seasoned beans— and sample a glass of Shaoxing’s yellow wine (mulled rice wine), one should do so in the knowledge that one is immersed in the physical embodiments of Shaoxing’s history, following in the footsteps of such luminaries of modern Chinese cultural history as Cai Yuanpei (1868–1940, modern Chinese revolutionist, educationist and politician), Zhou Zuoren (1885–1967, modern Chinese prosaist, poet, and thinker), and Lu Xun (1881–1936, modern Chinese writer and revolutionist). The aged flavor is like a book, always getting better with time.
Fried stinky tofu can be seen in many cities throughout China. People can smell the unpleasant odor of stinky tofu from meters away but the taste is palatable and the texture is chewy. The best stinky tofu is marinated in a seasoning sauce made of black fermented soybeans, shiitake, winter bamboo shoots and white spirits. Ningbo Cuisine
As one of China’s modern industrial port cities, Ningbo is a nexus between land and sea, and its expansive, all-encompassing palate enjoys elements of both stinky (fermented) umami and fresh seafood flavors. Stinky umami remains an important flavor in Ningbo’s regional dishes. Compared with Shaoxing’s understated aged flavors, Ningbo cuisine requires a certain tolerance for sharp, pungent, but ultimately delicious flavors.
Ningbo’s most famous stinky dishes have a characteristic shuangchou (“double stench”), which may knock the non- local eater off their feet. The double stench is actually a combination of stinkyamaranth stalks and stinky tofu—thus the “double”—and is at once extremely stinky and extremely delicious. But Ningbo’s stinky tofu is different from that of Shaoxing: rather than use fermented bean curd, Ningo takes fresh tofu and marinates it in vats containing stinky amaranth stalks or stinky wax gourd; this gives it its characteristic stinky, delicious odor.
The people of Ningbo and Shaoxing have a greater fondness for stinky food, more than people in other regions of Zhejiang. There are all manners of smelly pickled dishes, such as stinky tofu, pumpkin and wax gourd. People are accustomed to enjoying their stinky food while holding their noses. Photo/ Huang Youping
Perhaps the dish bearing the most characteristics of Chinese philosophy is xianduxian of Ningbo cuisine. Cured meat, fresh meat, black fungus, and bamboo shoots are xianduxian’s primary ingredients, which are stewed together in a small earthenware pot. The soft bamboo shoots contribute sweet, bold, crisp flavors; while the black fungus contribute the nutrition and unique flavors inherent in all fungi.
It is truly a perfect, harmonious balance of flavors and ingredients with a lingering aftertaste. This stewed dish combines aged and fresh flavors together to produce a third, new flavor— this is representative of Chinese philosophy’s “golden mean” (from Doctrine of the Mean, one of the Four Books). Neither here nor there, old and new, aged and fresh. And a traditional Chinese dish from traditional Chinese culture, xianduxian underscores the gentle, cultured and flexible characters of Zhejiang people.
Wenzhou’s cuisine is known as Ou cuisine among food experts, named for the ancient name of Wenzhou— Dong’ou. Known for its year- round temperate climate, Wenzhou—like Shaoxing and Suzhou—has historically been a water-oriented city. The differences between Wenzhou cuisine and other branches of Zhejiang regional cuisine arise from the city’s unique geography, wedged between the mountains and the sea, drawing cooking influences from both.
If one does not witness it personally, one can hardly imagine that fish meat can be made into noodle sheets of such thinness. This fish noodle is made of Spanish mackerel, which is smashed into muddy flesh, mixed with starch, and slapped into thin meat sheets only several mm thick.
In Wenzhou cuisine, river fish are lighter than general sea food, and are stewed or steamed together with dried mountain vegetables; nothing in Wenzhou cuisine is as beloved as its mountain vegetables, which are produced with care and experience, and are as bright and refreshing as are atop the Yandang Mountains. The flavorful dried mountain vegetables are stewed together with either mudskipper (a type of river fish) or sautéed squid, providing a poetic symmetry between land and sea produce on one’s plate.
My own first memory of Wenzhou cuisine is the taste of fresh river crab pickled in yellow wine, ginger, garlic, and various other seasonings. This river crabs are arthropods that dwell in the Oujiang River, breeding in the sea and making their way up river to forage. In ancient times, fishermen would catch these crabs by building traps along the sandy Oujiang riverbed. Any tourist that comes to Wenzhou must try the river crab. The delicious flavor of these crabs is a sincere representation of Wenzhou cuisine’s general simplicity: crude but elegant.
The raw material of fish balls is also Spanish mackerel. Add egg whites and flour into the smashed meat, and knead the mixture into puffy balls. Boil the fish balls and you will get a bowl of delicious fish ball soup.
The bamboo of Wenzhou’s southern Yandang Mountains comes in myriad varieties and, moreover, grows at different times throughout the year—ensuring a constant supply of fresh produce. Around September, one finds giant timber bamboos shoots; these are mainly grown in Wenzhou’s Pingyang County. In their purest form, as eaten in any of the countless small courtyards of the area’s small farmsteads, these giant timber bamboos shoots are stewed in pure water. These bamboo shoots must be cooked within four hours of harvest, or else they begin to lose their flavor. Giant timber bamboos shoots, cooked in freshwater, are at once pure, sweet, brittle, honest and may gradually reveal hints of bitterness—just like the life of common people.
Jinhua’s famous Jinhua ham is a household name among Han Chinese. Legend has it that Jinhua ham originated during the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127 AD), when appreciative locals presented famous Northern Song general Zong Ze with legs of ham, in victory, for his officers and soldiers to bring along on their journey back to Kaifeng. Over the course of the arduous and lengthy journey, however, the meat would begin to rot, and thus had to be cured with salt—thus was the production process for cured ham discovered.
Jinhua ham comes from a local pig called the “Jinhua Pig.” On account of the moderate weather and environment, the texture of the pork is tender and tasty, a favorable choice for ham. Photo/ Zhang Pei
During Southern China’s agrarian age, both sheep and pigs were raised as livestock, but pigs were prized most of all. Among the vast regions where cured meats are consumed, two main methods of production are used to produce cured ham: sun drying and smoking; both are considered dried meats. Other dried meats include chicken, duck, goose, and fish—almost anywhere there were farmers, there were dried meats. Yet, somehow, none of other hams are as well-known as Jinhua ham.
Thus one can infer that Jinhua ham is at the peak of China’s agrarian food creations— one summation of China’s agrarian culture.
Jinhua ham is famous for its color, smell, taste and shape. The whole process of production is about 80 steps: from purchasing the pigs, butchering, marinating and sun-drying to fermenting and collecting the meat.
Shangjiang Village, in Jinhua’s Dongyang City, is known to produce top quality ham. As a center of culinary delicacies, however, one should not neglect Dongyang’s many other diverse dishes. Dongyang’s maijiao bun, combined with shredded radish in a round rice-flour dumpling and seared on both sides, has a rich radish flavor and, as a snack, can be considered a health food. Dongyang’s cooked pot free- range chicken is perhaps the best chicken I’ve ever had. The dish, eaten for dinner, combines nuggets of chicken and pork with slices of fresh ginger, placed in a bowl of water, then placed
in a clay pot and cooked over a brick oven and cooked for eight hours. When I first tried Dongyang chicken in the village of Xianshanjiao, I thought of the tireless pursuit of gourmet food of China’s agrarian culture— the dish truly pushes the envelope for all gourmet food.
From the first time I set foot in Hangzhou, through the many times thereafter, I have retained fond memories of my experiences across each part of the city: boating in West Lake, drinking Longjing tea, trying fresh bamboo shoots in Longjing Village, eating Dongpo pork in the famous Louwailou restaurant, eating seafood at thatched cottages, hurriedly gobbling down steamed dumplings as I walked along riverside streets (and eating guoqiao eel noodles), and supping on a plate of eel in Xixi District. And yet, I still have no way to summarize Hangzhou’s regional cuisine.
Mao doufu (hairy tofu) is a traditional Han Chinese dish, which is fermented by artificial methods, has a layer of white hair covering its surface.
Dongpo pork can be said to be Hangzhou cuisine’s main dish, together with West Lake water-shields. The extra carefully cooked Dongpo pork thoroughly sweeps all other pork dished into corners. Its elegant, meticulous, rich, smooth, and moist textures seem heaven-forged.
Ever since the Southern Song Dynasty, Hangzhou’s delicious food became an open-minded cookbook for greater Zhejiang province and, eventually, the whole of China. These dishes, such as West Lake water-shield, are as silky as they are crisp and bright. With its paradisiacal wetlands and waterways, Hangzhou can provide sour flavored gourmet to people. The city is truly defined by a series of delicacies and the land has already imbued itself into a cultural image is both a place of scenic beauty and gourmet delicacies.
In the warm house, photographers need to be extremely cautious shooting the process of preparing hairy tofu, minimizing the impact of interrupting the fermentation. Photo/ Wang Weifang
Perhaps Hangzhou cuisine is the combined creation of the Shaoxing and Ningbo branches of Zhejiang regional cuisine; perhaps one can say goodbye, but one can never escape its influence. Perhaps Zhejiang—the Zhejiang in my mind—is also like this. Like the aftertaste of a freshly made batch of pickled vegetables and shoots, or a bowl of bighead carp from Qiandao Lake, or even a small bowl of thin pressed noodles from Shengzhou, the memories of Zhejiang’s cuisine linger for quite a while.