34 Province Project: Zhejiang 浙江

Zhejiang is another one of those Chinese provinces most people may have vaguely heard of, but likely know little about. On the coast just south of Shanghai, its capital Hangzhou lies at the mouth of the Zhe River, or Zhèjiāng in Chinese, hence the name. During its Song dynasty heyday in the 1200s, it was likely the world’s largest city and, if you trust Marco Polo, “the finest and noblest city in the world”, making it, if you trust Wikipedia, “synonymous with luxury and opulence in Chinese culture” ever since. Today it’s best known for its scenic spot the West Lake and the HQ of tech conglomerate Alibaba.

Befitting Hangzhou’s reputation for luxurious living, Zhejiang cuisine (浙菜 Zhè cài) is one of the Eight Great Traditions, but at first glance it’s hard to differentiate from the fare eaten in nearby Shanghai and Jiangsu. (Bonus confusion point: the famed Zhenjiang vinegar, with an extra “n”, comes from the town of that name in Jiangsu, not Zhejiang.)

In Singapore, as far as I can tell, there are no dedicated Zhejiang restaurants, although there’s a place called West Lake that serves mighty fine Fujian food. Instead, the whole broad area tends to get lumped together as Jiangnan, meaning “South of the Yangtze”, and even that is a bit rare on the ground, with flag bearer Jiang-Nan Chun at the swanky Four Seasons hotel upholding the aforementioned reputation by charging a cool $248++ a whack for their apparently less than traditional haute cuisine interpretation.

Possibly the most iconic Hangzhou dish is Dongpo pork (东坡肉 dōngpōròu), which I sampled at local chain Dian Xiao Er (店小二), the modestly self-proclaimed “Best Chinese Restaurant in Singapore”. This is basically a thick slice of pork belly, first pan-fried and then slowly stewed in soy sauce, a technique called hóngshāo (紅燒) or “red braising” in Chinese, and according to legend invented by or at least named after Song-era poet Su Dongpo. Versions of this are eaten across Asia, including the Japanese kakuni (角煮), and Dian Xiao Er’s version delivered in spades, being meltingly soft and even the layer of fat infused with flavor.

Dian Xiao Er makes no pretension to being a Zhejiang or even Jiangnan restaurant, but we ordered a few other things that seemed to point in the right general direction. The Fish Maw Thick Soup with Seafood (海鲜鱼鳔羹) was a nice example of the thickened soups called geng (羹), which are particularly prominent to the south in Fujian, served here with springy if essentially tasteless fish maw (swim bladder), slices of abalone and shreds of crab meat. This, I’m afraid, was one of those Chinese dishes that dispense with taste in favor of texture, which has always been a concept my barbarian palate struggles with.

Last but not least, Dian Xiao Er’s signature dish is the Duck Roasted with Ten Wonder Herbs (十全药材烤鸭), not to be confused with KFC’s Chicken Fried with 11 Secret Herbs and Spices. The roast duck were was competent if unspectacular, but the dark, runny sauce on the side was something else, with a bouquet that the Western nose can only describe as mulled wine: ginger, star anise, cinnamon? Delish, if not particularly Zhejiang; Hangzhou has a mildly famous soy sauce duck as well, but I doubt it has much if anything in common with this one.

Next stop was Crystal Jade Jiang Nan (翡翠江南) in Vivocity, a themed outlet of the ubiquitous Singaporean chain. The restaurant is pretty dapper for a shopping mall, with the latticed wood booths topped by hundreds of fluttering flower cutouts particularly appealing. The menu is “inspired by” (always a dangerous phrase) “the Jiangnan and Sichuan regions”, but we steered clear of the Mala Crispy Chicken and the Mochi Cheese Balls (shudder). The Three Delicacies Platter (巧手三拼) had the Nanjing Salted Duck we already met in Jiangsu, a rather tasty take on Jiangsu Smoked Fish (江苏熏鱼) that we sample later in the Shanghai episode, and Spinach with Sesame Sauce (麻酱波菜鲜百合) that tasted an awful lot like the classic Japanese cold dish of hōrensō no goma-ae. A quick Google was inconclusive, but given that spinach is a reasonably recent import to Japan (1800s?), the two dishes may well be related.

The one indubitably Zhejiang dish on the menu was Sister Song’s Thick Fish Soup (宋嫂鱼羮). Per legend, in 1197 Emperor Gaozong was out for a spin on Hangzhou’s West Lake when he felt a bit peckish and ordered some fish soup from a lady called Song Wusao, and the rest is history. It’s a deceptively simple-looking starchy soup that hides a light but complex flavour: shreds of white fish and egg white, julienned bamboo shoot, ginger and ham, a touch of vinegar, quite a bit of white pepper and a touch of Shaoxing wine (绍兴酒), commonly used as cooking wine in countless Chinese dishes but originating from Shaoxing, Zhejiang. Very moreish. Less Zhejiang but an unexpected hit with the kids was the Scallion Oil Noodles (葱油面), an even simpler Shanghai dish: hand-pull lamian noodles, fry slivered scallion in oil, combine and enjoy. And we rounded things out with Crystal Jade’s signature xiao long bao dumplings, another tasty Shanghai dish, and pan-fried shengjianbao, which unfortunately were soupless and sad. (More about both in the Shanghai episode.)

The one unforgivable crime of the restaurant, though, was that the tea menu did not feature what is probably China’s and certainly Zhejiang’s most famous tea, namely Dragon Well (龙井 lóngjǐng) from Hangzhou. Instead I had to drown my sorrows in a pot of Precious Eyebrows (珍眉 zhēnméi), variously credited to Anhui and Jiangxi but quite possibly grown in Zhejiang, and the kids were bribed with complimentary pig-shaped red bean buns courtesy of the Vivo Kids Club. Total damage for 3 came to $88, which is actually kinda ex given that we were still a little hungry afterwards.

And that brings us to the end of the Zhe River. The final Zhejiang-in-Singapore dish I wanted to tick off my list is West Lake Beef Soup (西湖牛肉羹), but this is conceptually pretty similar to Sister Song’s fish version, usually served as an appetizer or side dish, and mostly served at barbecue places that don’t even pretend to have anything to do with Zhejiang. So with two gengs down, it’s time to hit the closing gong and move onto our next province.

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