Stinky, Moldy, Rot­ten, De­li­cious Cui­sine of Zhe­jiang

China Scenic - - Front Page - By Gu Qing­shen Pho­to­graphs by Wang Zheng Trans­la­tion by Paul Stephen (USA)

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.

Shaox­ing Cui­sine

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 Cui­sine

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 Cui­sine

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.

Hangzhou Cui­sine

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.

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