Zhejiang (Chekiang) Cuisine (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
Zhejiang Province includes the core of the vast Yangzi delta region, China's richest, most highly educated, and most progressive region throughout much of history. Its great cities of Shanghai (now a separate metropolitan area), Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Ningbo form an arc around the Yangzi mouth. Each of these cities has its own culinary specialties.
Shanghai has grown very recently to prominence as a city; it is basically a product of imperialism, having been developed as a port by the English in the nineteenth century. It has its own variant of Eastern foodways, based on local traditions but adding influences from all up and down the Yangzi valley.
Zhejiang is also the core of the ancient state of Wu, which may have been largely non-Chinese-speaking, and which certainly maintained a sophisticated and elaborate culture rather different from that of the Central Plain to the northwest. The name "Wu" is still used for the region, and for the language spoken there language usually miscalled a "dialect," but as separate from Putonghua as French is from Spanish.
Zhejiang cuisine is the most elaborate form of a culinary style more broadly called "eastern," and found throughout the old state of Wu and its bordering areas. Besides Zhejiang, the provinces involved are Jiangsu, Anhuei, and at least part of Jiangxi. Fujian province (ancient Min) is linguistically and culturally a very different entity, but its cuisines fall into a broadly eastern pattern, blending southward into more Cantonese-oriented foodways.
Agriculture in the region is as intensive as any in the world. Multiple cropping, heavy fertilizer use, systematic intercropping, and special production systems allow farms as small as an American suburban lot to produce a (bare) living. One common system, described by writers such as F. H. King, Fei Hsiao-Tung, and Philip Huang, involved producing rice and silk; mulberries grew along the dikes between the ricefields, holding the soil while producing leaves for silkworms. The mountains that ring the delta country are usually too steep for grain farming, but they are ideal for tea. This tea region, which includes much of Fujian and leaps the narrow strait to include northern Taiwan, produces what is generally regarded as the best in the world. Green (unfermented) and oolong (slightly fermented) teas dominate, as opposed to black (fermented) teas, which are notably less important. An extreme connoisseurship of tea exists in the area. Gourmets once not only discriminated teas from particular mountains and estates, but saved snow water for tea, or went to great lengths to obtain water from special wells and springs.
The markets of Zhejiang have always been famous for their size and the variety of offerings.
The staple foods in Zhejiang, and in most of the Yangzi region, are rice and wheat. The former can be grown in the summer, the latter in winter. Both were, and are, about equally important in the daily diet. Foxtail millet was once common, but has been recently replaced by maize. Soybeans can be produced, but flourish better in more northern climes. A vast range of vegetables and fruits is produced. Specialty fruits include giant pears, mentioned by many authors, including Marco Polo. These can weigh several pounds apiece. Among the vegetables are specialized gourmet varieties of Chinese cabbage and snowpeas. The tender tips of the peavines are preferred to the pods and seeds, and are, in fact, often the most expensive items in a market. They are considered the ultimate in refinement because of their delicate taste and their cuei texture. This quintessentially Chinese term is the highest praise for vegetables; it refers to foods that offer initial resistance to a bite, then suddenly give way and are succulent and moist. (Usually translated "crisp," it refers to the crispness of a ripe apple, not that of a potato crisp.) Peavines are now appearing in the United States, and one can obtain seeds of the varieties in question.
Pigs, chickens, and ducks abound; sheep and cattle are uncommon and rarely eaten. The most important source of animal protein, however, is the water. Zhejiang is as amphibious as the Netherlands, with fresh and salt water interpenetrating and interdigitating in complex patterns. No one is far from water.
When the state of Wu flourished, the river carried incredible quantities of nutrients. Currents and tides brought still more nutrient from the seaward side. The result was a high-energy, high-nutrient environment, one of the most biotically productive on earth. Vast schools of fishes migrated up the river or along the coast. Alligators, river dolphins, and turtles of many species abounded. Huge beds of shellfish existed. The land was rich in game of all sorts. Today, this bounty is virtually gone. The Yangzi flow is reduced and terribly polluted. Overhunting, overfishing, pollution, and land reclamation have destroyed almost all the game and large water animals, and most of the fish stocks.
Even now, however, the delta region is relatively rich in seafood. Fish, crabs, shrimps, and shellfish remain common. Overfishing of wild stocks has been compensated by a huge expansion of aquaculture. Practiced since ancient times, fish farming now supplies most of the fish in China, and is concentrated in the Yangzi basin.
Wu's dependence on water foods was a source of merriment in earlier times. Northern and especially northwestern Chinese, from drier and more grazingoriented lands, laughed at the "southern" taste for frogs and snails much as English used to laugh at French for eating the same. The citizens of Wu replied in kind, ridiculing the rank mutton and "barbaric" yogurt of the northwest. Françoise Sabban notes that, as early as the third century, Zhang Hua could write: "The people of the South and the East eat seafoods while the people of the North and West delight in hares, rats and other game and are not aware of their gamey smell" (p. 2). Such comments were barbed because the north usually had the political power while the southeast usually had the wealth; mutual envy sharpened tongues.
The other distinctive qualities of Zhejiang food are a proclivity for sweet and unctious flavors; a rich quality, with much oil and thick sauces; and a devotion to extreme freshness. The sweet taste seems to be ancient; in the classic fivefold division of the cosmos, typical of Chinese thought since the early Han dynasty, the flavor associated with the east is sweetness. This obviously is not mere cosmological speculation, but a recognition of reality. (The west is associated with pungency, as is true of its cuisine to this day. The north is salt, south bitter, east sour, and center sweet.)The freshness is also a result of landscape; preserving food is not easy in the hot, wet climate, and is unnecessary because of the twelve-month growing and fishing season. However, some interesting ferments are prepared, and China's best vinegar, the aged vinegar of
Those affluent enough ate three meals a day and snacks as well. The basic main-meal pattern is rice with one to three dishes for topping. Wheat appears as the basis of minor meals and snacks: filled dumplings, noodle soups, and various cakes. Sticky rice is made into cakes and noodles as well. The hot and amphibious landscape makes soup an attractive option. (China'sf not the world'senter of soup-eating is just southward, in Fujian, where it is perfectly routine to serve three or four different soups among the main courses in a twelve-course banquet, and Simoons reports a banquet at which "seven out of ten dishes were soups" [p. 50]). Ginger, green onions, garlic, local "wine," sugar, and vinegar are common flavorings. Less use is made of spices and bean pastes than in the west and south of China.
Among the major uses for the aquatic bounty are fish in sweet-sour or rich brown sauces, West Lake fish (from the West Lake at Hangzhou), braised eels, softshell crabs, crabs with roe in breeding season, countless shrimp dishes, stir-fried frogs' legs, and many snail and clam dishes. Even the tiniest shellfish are eaten. Among dishes drawing on the land, beggar's chicken is perhaps the most interesting; it is associated with the Shanghai area. A whole chicken is stuffed with fragrant leaves, buds, and spices, wrapped in still more leaves, encased in clay, and baked in a fire. The clay is broken (today, often, with an unromantic soft drink bottle) and the chicken served.
Zhejiang was once a center of Buddhism, including Zen, and thus a great vegetarian cuisine developed. Based largely on soybean and wheat gluten preparations, it sometimes extends to include oysters and similarly sedentary shellfish, which do not seem alive. Imitation meats are prepared from bean curd skin and wheat gluten; they are convincing to the degree that their flavors are disguised by thick sauces.
At the other end of the puritanism scale is a dish centered on northern Fujian, "Buddha Jumped over the Wall"; it consists of long-simmered innards and tough cuts of meat. It smells so wonderful as it cooks that it would make a meditating Buddha leap the wall of his temple compound to get to it.
Besides tea, major drinks include superb grain "wines" related to Japanese sake. Most famous is that of Shaoxing. Ningbo and other cities produce interesting and complex brews. These "wines" are technically beers or ales, being brewed from grain, but they are not carbonated, and they occupy the place in Chinese culture that wine does in Europe. They are brewed, however, in a very different way: with a complex mix of ferments, involving species of yeasts and of fungi in the genera Rhizopus, Aspergillus, and others, as well as bacteria such as Lactobacillus (see Huang). Each brewery has its own strains and preparations. The resulting brews differ greatly from place to place, and have rich, complex, subtle flavors. They have inspired a gourmetship equal to that of tea, or of French wine. Of course, such "wines" exist throughout China, but those of the Yangzi delta are generally considered the finest.
See also Japan, Korea, Noodle in Asia; Rice; Southeast Asia.
Anderson, E. N. The Food of China. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.
Fei Hsiao-tung. Peasant Life in China: A Field Study of Country Life in the Yangtze Valley.. New York: Oxford University Press, 1946.
Huang, H. T. Science and Civilization in China. Vol. 6, Biology and Biological Technology. Part 5: Fermentations and Food Science. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Huang, Philip. The Peasant Family and Rural Development in the Yangzi Delta, 1350988. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.
King, F. H. Farmers of Forty Centuries. New York: Mrs. F. H. King, 1911.
Sabban, Françoise. "Chinese Regional Cuisine: The Genesis of a Concept." Paper, Sixth Symposium on Chinese Dietary Culture, Fuzhou, 1999.
Simoons, Frederick. Food in China: A Cultural and Historical Inquiry. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 1990.
E. N. Anderson