Speaking fairly, the culinary uniqueness of Zhoushan is second to none in China, like a gift that keeps on giving – it rewards the most hypercritical gourmets amongst us with unrivalled seafood from the East China Sea. Oysters, sea crabs, jellyfish, yello
Delicious Dinghai History
Zhoushan justifiably ranks as an outstanding contributor to the culinary spectrum of China’s Jiangnan region. Ample evidence has emerged from the archaeological findings in Baiquan and Ma’ao (both in Dinghai) to prove that the ancestors of today’s Zhoushan people caught fish and picked clams to meet basic living needs as early as the Neolithic times, and rice growing and fishing had become sophisticated enterprises among people living in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River by the Spring and Autumn Dynasty. There are also good reasons to believe people living in the Hemudu era knew how to catch sharks and whales in the deep sea region of today’s Zhoushan territory. Findings from the Tangjiadun site in Ma’ao, in particular, eloquently suggests that today’s Zhoushan was favored by the Hemudu fishermen as a fishing foothold.
Many historical materials have indicated the practice of making dried yellow croakers was an invention of the people living in today’s Shengsi territory in Zhoushan about 2,100 years ago.
The heyday of the archipelago’s fishing and salt-making industry was recorded in Dinghai Annals, compiled in the Qing Dynasty. When Lu Yun, a Western Jin litterateur looked back on his seafood spree in Zhoushan, he described the Nature’s Bounty from the East China Sea as “incredible” and the dazzling variety of clams and shellfish as “unheard of and incomputable”. By the Tang Dynasty, the seafood from Zhoushan had dominated the market in eastern Zhejiang regions.
The Song and Yuan period saw the fusion of southern and northern culinary traditions, thanks to the exodus of the northerners. Such fusion led Zhejiang food culture into a new realm in which it ripened into a self-contained mechanism. By that time, signature Zhoushan delicacies had found their way into the country’s national culinary inventory. The spectacular scene of more than 100 shops selling a smorgasbord of Zhoushan salted dried fish in today’s Hangzhou during the Southern Song years was vividly mentioned in Liang Meng Lu.
After more than 200 years of stagnancy due to two major emigration waves between the late 14th century and the late 17th century, Zhoushan’s seafood glory made its comeback after Emperor Kangxi ordered the establishment of Dinghai Prefecture in 1688. The returning home of wanderers and immigration tides in the wake of the new jurisdictional deployment by the government was documented in Dinghai Annals, with the revival of the archipelago’s fishing scene especially mentioned. Wined and dined to satiety, Northern Song ministerial advisor Ouyang Xiu wrote a poem to extol the seafood in the coastal southeast of China. The Qing Dynasty scholar, artist, and gastronome and "China’s Brillat-Savarin", devoted a great amount of space in Suiyuan Shidan, his most famous gastronomic manual and cookbook recording recipes and thoughts on cooking, to cooking tips about Ningbo and Zhoushan cuisine.
The Republican years of China saw the trade boom of mud snails from Zhoushan. The supply of mud snails was unable to meet the crying demand in Hong Kong and southeastern Asia.
The ‘Zhoushan flavor’
The unique mixed tides and running water in the Zhoushan territory brings ample nutrients for sea life to thrive, making the archipelago’s hairtails, yellow croakers and swimming crabs the country’s best.
The ‘Zhoushan flavor’ represents a gourmet philosophy that is rooted in the mastery of ‘keep it simple and natural’, as represented by the locals’ weakness for a smorgasbord of steamed seafood and the ‘minimalism’ in using seasonings. However, this does not mean the chefs are lacking in creativity. On the contrary, Zhoushan seafood is a reliable source of epicurean surprises when it comes to innovation. Even for the seafood-phobes, there is bound to be something on offer that will grab your fancy.
The locals excel at making salty, dried fish delicacies that should not be missed by any sane traveler. The waters around Zhoushan also produce the country’s tastiest seaweed.
Essentially speaking, such a dietary policy also shows the locals’ respect for the sea. The way the most natural flavors of the sea life are retained in the process of cooking is the islanders’ way of saying thank you to all the blessings brought by the sea.
Waxberry wine plays an essential role in the islanders’ daily culinary enjoyments, forever inspiring the city’s seafaring minds. This seemingly mild liqueur – with its glistening, rosy colour – can get you tipsy quicker than you think…
Dining Etiquette and Taboos
When dining in Zhoushan, it may be a blessing for foreigners who can only count from one to ten in Chinese. Be careful if you cannot help showing off your mandarin, because what you say may be frowned upon by a fisherman sitting next to you. For example, it is a taboo to say “fan” (meaning “turning over the fish”) or “mei” because both sound unlucky. And it is bad table manners to place the chopsticks across the bowl because it looks like the bad omen of putting an oar on a malfuctioning boat and having to resign oneself to fate on a stormy sea.
An authentic way to end your Dinghai trip would be to enjoy the Zhoushan style beerand-seafood nightlife whilst admiring the charming panorama at one of the many restaurants along the bustling Dinghai Seafood Court. The booths near the entrance of the attractive Dinghai Dock area, just across the street from where a tourist distribution center is located, opens up to a dazzling variety of seefood snacks for tourists to sample and buy. Wining and dining here opens your eyes to what the sea really has to offer – a bizarre array of sea creatures which come in all shapes and sizes.
One can also try the Furongzhou Food Street in downtown Dinghai. Hosting not only food stands but shops, vendors’ stands and teahouses, the street is also a nice place for people watching and shopping.
Before leaning back into your chair, get ready for yet another belt busting meal. Dining in one of the food courts in Liping and Mu’ao, both in Jintang, one can take in the aweinspiring view of two of the five gorgeous sea-spanning bridges. Beware, the period from April to late June is the fishing off-season in Zhoushan, and these two places are open only in July and August.