Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Taste of Hangzhou

The flowers of the field have dabbled their powdered cheeks;
The mountain grasses are bent level at the waist.
By the bamboo stream the last fragment of cloud
Blown by the wind slowly scatters away.
                                                                       Li Po

I've been travelling around for a number of weeks - from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, Macau, back to Guangzhou, before Dali, Lijiang, Shangri-La, Kunming, Xishuangbanna, then Shanghai, Wuxi, Suzhou, Nanjing, Hangzhou and finally Longquan. I've taken a little time to recuperate and now I'm back in the blogging saddle! Well if you want to get technical, I left the saddle in Lijiang after riding through an escarpment in rainy weather, getting muddied up to my knees and singeing my clothes dry over a mound of flickering coals; but that's another story.

This wasn't my first trip to China. I've been twice before although the cultural progression and cosmopolitan development that have bridged the last twelve years left me a little bewildered at times. On my return to 'Paradise on Earth', better known as the city of Hangzhou where I'd spent a Summer of my childhood, I found it completely unrecognisable aside from the invariable view of West Lake. The apartment where my grandparents lived has been torn down and is overrun with thorny weeds, a supermarket franchise has replaced the local market where we once bought a chook that I tried to walk home on a leash, and the waterfront is now dotted with Starbucks, Häagen-Dazs, American car dealerships and French patisseries. Although I partly lust after the liveliness and romantic charm of the old city streets, it's incredible to realise just how much change has occurred in a country that everyone was once so fearful of being static.

At 6AM by the monumental red gates, women once stood beside carts selling steaming hot mantou (wheat buns filled with a mixture of pork or vegetables) - breakfast for the morning crowd. Nowadays, only the deep, rolling mist hangs over the lake at this hour. A couple jogs by on the narrow, zig-zagging path that juts out over the gently undulating water. At 7AM a marching band meets for morning practice in the square while park officials tend to flowering plants in the central display and an elderly man rollerblades around them in sweeping arcs. By 8AM the sun has risen high into the sky and peeks out from behind the perpetual clouds with a strangely orange glow. Everyone is out now it seems. Men stretching against pagoda railings, women dancing with folding fans against the backdrop of a silent wharf, and retirees practicing Tai Chi in large groups with music crooning from portable loudspeakers set down on the pavement.

Tiny wooden stalls mark the major tourist spots, stocked with ice blocks, ridiculous hats and boiled corn cobs (a popular street snack food). I'm told that up to a hundred people come to West Lake every day to have their wedding photographs taken and as I cycle past, I count five couples on one bridge dressed in Western-style wedding attire, waiting patiently for the photographer's attention. Not far ahead an expanse of lotus is growing along the banks, the huge green leaves like flat parasols basking in the sun's rays. If you're lucky you might discover a lone man pedalling fresh lotus seeds, prized for their cooling property, along the outskirts of the lake. Encased in their olive green exocarp, they're piled high into woven baskets and hefted onto shoulders in a bamboo balancing act.

Six interconnecting bridges form the Su Causeway, the arched stonework dating back to almost a millennium. Along the causeway ballast, elderly men with folding stools and fishing rods relax in the shade of osmanthus trees, enveloped by the entrancing perfume of fragrant silver laurels. When Spring comes it is said that the entire causeway is blanketed by peach blossoms. What a vision of romance I would imagine that to be - pink flowers scattered over cobbled paths; tourists dismounting their brightly coloured bicycles to ascend arched bridges, pausing briefly on the other side for a photo under weeping willow branches that dance lazily in the warm afternoon breeze.
The Su Causeway is not the only lasting legacy that Su Dongpo left Hangzhou before his death. He is attributed with the design of Dongpo rou - pork belly simmered over a low fire for hours in Zhejiang wine and many seasonings to produce a sweet, red meat that is both soft and mellow. Hangzhou's famous Longjing (Dragon Well) tea is used to cook an aromatic dish of silky shrimp, while dried osmanthus flowers are combined with lotus root starch and wild chestnuts to create a thick, sweetened soup. Grass carp thrive along the entire Eastern coast from Vietnam all the way to the Siberian-Chinese border. The species has been introduced to the Netherlands, New Zealand and the United States but not only is it handy as a biological control, it gets bonus points for being tasty too. West Lake Sour Fish is perhaps not the most palatable dish I've eaten but its origin lies entwined in a dramatic tale of love and vengeance, and is a characteristic example of classic Chinese cuisine.
The city's newest night market spans 1.4km on Zhongshan Nan Lu, a leisurely stroll away from Wushan Square which is situated at the base of the mountains. There are over 120 stalls featuring both Chinese and international foods, and many more selling silk purses and creepy, hooting chicken toys. Walking up and down the street I attach my sticky fingers to as much as I can possibly manage - flaky peanut pastry, black sesame rubber candy, freshly juiced sugar cane, steamed chicken wrapped in fragrant lotus leaf, chilli-salted BBQ yak, grilled Indian flatbread filled with banana, and a Portuguese egg tart. ­
One thing I learned in China is that nourishment is integral to daily life. We are constantly surrounded by food. Good cooking can be elusive sometimes, as I found to be the case in particular regions. There will often be tasteless grit masquerading as something better, but the existence of bad food is no reason to give up hope. Under the watch of a rigorous eye, often the ostensibly simple results in the most pleasing meal.
From 'The Art of Chinese Cuisine' by Hsiang Ju Lin and Tsuifeng Lin is a recipe for Dongpo pork. A simple recipe but one that requires the cook to have a clear understanding of the ingredients at hand to obtain the best result.
Dongpo Pork is customarily served at the end of a meal with
bowls of rice. People sigh, shout and groan with happiness when
they see it. This is one of the pinnacles of gastronomy, and sums
up the appreciation of fat in Chinese cuisine.

Dongpo Pork 

575 g belly pork in one piece
2 level tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon wine
2 spring onions
2 slices ginger

Trim pork into a precise square. Wash it and wipe it dry with a towel.
Rub it with salt and let it stand for about 2 hours. Discard the blood-
tinged liquid.
Bring 12 cups water to the boil and blanch the meat in it. Rinse it free
of scum and repeat the blanching with a fresh portion of boiling water.
Place the pork skin side up in a pot with a tight-fitting lid, adding soy
sauce, wine, spring onions, ginger and 2 tablespoons water. Bring to the
boil, then reduce the heat to very low and simmer for 2 hours, adding
a little more water if necessary. Keep the amount of liquid as small as
possible, and do not keep uncovering the pot to see how the pork is
progressing. Let it stew in its own juices.
Discard the spring onions and ginger. Place the square skin side down on
a dish of soup plate dimensions; add the juices and cover it very closely
with foil, cellophane or an overlapping plate. Steam it for 4 hours, until
the fat is tender and can be cut with a spoon. Invert the square so that
the fat is uppermost, and pour the juices around it carefully.

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