Sunday, January 31, 2016

Hangzhou 2015 - Dinner at Yun Shui Yao

Hangzhou is full of "famous" restaurants - mostly state-run enterprises concentrating on the standard Zhejiang cuisine. If you are looking for something a little bit different, then you have to look a little bit harder. Yun Shui Yao is a very interesting restaurant in a some what obscure location. It is actually quite near the Gongchen Bridge - but even many locals don't know that it exists. 

Yun Shui Yao specializes in cuisine from Yunnan - so the food is a bit more spicy compared to the standard Chinese fare. The restaurant is in a traditional old house next to a canal. It is very scenic and if you want to appreciate the beautiful surroundings it is best to go for lunch. We were there for dinner so unfortunately it was too dark to appreciate the unique location. 

Faced with a long menu and having no idea about the food served in this restaurant - I had to call on the waiter to help. We ended up with quite a number of dishes that were all interesting and delicious. To start off was smoked chicken feet - which was crunchy and flavourful. 

Next was white-cooked chicken in a spicy sauce. The chicken was very tender, and the sauce had just the right balance of salty, sour and spicy.

Next was grilled beef on a bed of spring onion. The beef was well marinated and very flavourful.  It was served over a Hibachi grill, and towards the end the spring onion was slightly burnt and caramelized and tasted really great with the beef. This was one of the best dishes we had. 

Sour fish soup - this is a bit like a fish head beehoon soup in Malaysia. The soup is slightly sweet, sour, spicy and thickened with milk. Goes very well with the fish.

Ma Po Tofu - a common dish done very well here. It is a testament to the skill of the chef that such a simple dish can be made so delicious.

Salt baked prawns - the prawns were wrapped in foil and baked in a pot filled with salt. The prawns were fresh and crunchy and just had a subtle hit of saltiness and smokiness from the cooking process.

Sliced pork with soy sauce ans sesame oil. Another simple yet tasty dish - the accompanying cabbage leaves help to balance out the saltiness of the pork slices.

The food at Yun Shui Yao is interesting and delicious. It was easily one of the top restaurants we tried during our visit to Hangzhou.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Hangzhou 2016 - Jinhua Ham

In Italy you have Parma Ham, in Spain you have Jamon Iberico, and in China you have Jinhua Ham. Like the Parma Ham and Jamon, Jinhua Ham is dry cured.  It is made using the whole hind leg of a special breed of black pig. Some say Jinhua is the best ham in the World, but the Italians and the Spaniards may beg to defer. The earliest record of Jinhua Ham date back to the Tang Dynasty in the 6th Century AD, and some believe that it was Marco Polo who brought this technique of dry curing back to Italy. So when we eat Parma or Jamon we may be eating Chinese ham anyway !

While walking down Chungshan Road, I came across this specialty shop selling the premium Jinhua Ham. The Chinese are pretty deft marketers, and big legs or ham were hanging outside the shop attracting lots of curious passerby.

The Chinese normally use Jinhua Ham as a flavour enhancing ingredient - either in sauce or stock. In fact the Superior Stock owes its special flavour to this important and expensive ingredient. Sliced thinly like Jamon - Jinhua Ham is also delicious on its own.

Instead of cheesy souvenirs, Jinhua Ham would make very nice gifts and probably better appreciated.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Hangzhou 2015 - Hefang Street Food Court

At the Eastern of Hefang Street is a small food court squeezed into a narrow alley. Tinay stalls line both sides of the alley, and in the middle is a covered dining area squeezed between the walkways. As always there is a dizzying array of street food on offer, from the most common to the obscure. The atmosphere is really infectious - everyone seems to be enjoying whatever they are having.

One of the local specialties is spicy deep fried crabs. You eat the whole thing - shells and all. It is very good - sweet juicy meat with the crunchy shells which do require strong teeth to work through.

Stewed duck heads seem to be very popular.

What about stewed whole rabbit heads ?

One of the more normal offerings - chicken thighs cooked over preserved vegetables. It is slightly bitter and smokey - delicious !

Though it is a bit crowded, this is a great place to try lots of varieties of street food in one place. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Hangzhou 2015 - Zhongshan Road and Hefang Street

In most of the major cities in china you will find pedestrianized streets dedicated to shopping and tourism. In Beijing you have Wangfujing Pedestrian Street, in Shanghai Nanjing Road and Xintiandi, and in Hangzhou you have Zhongshan Road and Hefang Street. The 2 streets are conveniently linked together. Zhongzhan Road is more of a pedestrianized shopping street and the shops are more high-end. Hefang Street is more touristy and has a theme-park feel to it. Many of the shops have been either preserved or recreated for tourists - with many noisy touts vying for your attenttion. The more interesting shops are the old Chinese medicinal shops where you can enjoy free herbal tea - but beware as there have been those who have parted with thousands of dollars on the "miracle" cures.

Zhongshan Road is like an upscale shopping street filled with period buildings. There are some interesting modern architectural insertions among the older buildings.

Hefang Street is more touristy. In fact it feels quite similar to the old streets in Beijing or Shanghai.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Hangzhou 2015 - The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal of China is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the longest man-made waterway in the World at over 1,700km long. It links Beijing in the North all the way to Hangzhou - linking the Yellow River and the Yangtze River. The oldest part of the canal date back to 5th Century BC, and the various parts were finally linked together in 5th Century AD during the Sui Dynasty. Today, after over 2,000 years - the Canal is still being used for transportation.

To visit the Grand Canal in Hangzhou, you go to the Gong Chen Bridge - which is the highest and longest stone bridge in Hangzhou. The surrounding area has been preserved as a historic district, and there are several museums here to visit - including the China Fan Museum, China Umbrella Museum and Hangzhou Arts and Craft Museum.

The small preserved historic district is a very interesting area to explore. It is still not too commercialized, and the areas behind the main street are still populated by locals in the original old houses. We met some friendly locals there who lamented the slow encroachment of "outsiders" - those not originally from Hangzhou, into the local population and culture. To them these outsiders are not as cultured as the original populace of Hangzhou.Isn't this the same story everywhere ?

Like most historic districts, this area is slowly being gentrified. So before the commercial forces take over completely, go see it.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Hangzhou 2015 - Lunch at Lou Wai Lou

For the first time in our travel experience, we had to change the tour guard on the first day. The first guard who greeted us was from Shanghai, and surprisingly knew so little about Hangzhou. Due to his lack of local knowledge and experience, we were taken on a wild-goose-chase around West Lake. He was also unfortunately very stubborn and deaf to friendly suggestions. After our frantic chase around the lake, we were quite famished. We had originally planned to dine at Grandma's House (Wai Po Jia) - a popular West Lake restaurant, but due to the late hour it was already closed. After checking around, the guard informed that only Lou Wai Lou was still open. Since it was one of the top-rated restaurants in Hangzhou - we agreed to go there.

Lou Wai Lou is an institution in Hangzhou. It is located on the Western shore of West Lake, near Gushan. It is supposedly over 150 years old and has hosted many local and international dignitaries and celebrities. The restaurant we went to is the more modern branch which is a huge establishment with several floors of dining, though as it was already after 2.00p.m., we were the only customers there.

Lou Wai Lou specializes in Zhejiang cuisine - one of the eight distinct styles of cooking in China. One of the signature dishes is Tung Po Rou - braised pork belly, and another famous dish is West Lake Fish. Of course we ordered those, but to start off we had some lighter dishes. First up was drunken chicken - poached chicken in wine. This was a good version - the meat had a tender yet firm texture, and infused with the subtle fragrance of wine.

The Long Ching Shrimp was another very good dish - the prawns were perfectly cooked and retained their sweetness and springy, crunchy texture. There was a hint of bitterness from the Long Ching tea leaves used in the dish.

A couple of vegetable dishes followed - winter melon with bamboo shoots, eggplants in fish-fragrant sauce. Both were fresh and tasty.

Next came the Tung Po Rou - which was served in individual portions in a terracotta pot. It was melt-in-the mouth and delicious.

The West Lake fish - fresh water fish steamed and served with a sweet and sour vinegar sauce, was actually my least favourite dish. I don't generally like the texture of freshwater fish, and the sauce did not do much to bring out the flavours of the fish.

The food at Lou Wai Lou was good, but not outstanding. I have been to Zhejiang restaurants in Shanghai which are much better. Based on what we had, I think there are far better options in Hangzhou.