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Picking the right dishes from a lengthy menu at an unfamiliar restaurant in a foreign country is not easy. It’s almost like hopping across a metaphorical minefield. While the comparison might seem overly dramatic, gulping down a mouthful of disappointment is downright tragic in comparison, especially when you are travelling and every meal counts.
If you find yourself in this situation when touring Hangzhou, we have a list of must-try foods that will do right by you. Additionally, it is very important to find the right restaurants for the specific dishes, so we have also included these recommendations for you.
It is no surprise that the top dish in Hangzhou is related to its most iconic attraction, West Lake (西湖). West Lake vinegar fish (西湖醋鱼) originated from the Song dynasty. First, the cook would starve a grass carp for two or three days before cooking it, making sure that there’s no excrement left in its stomach. It also helps to eradicate any fishy odour. Chefs must be particular about the cooking procedures for the meat to taste fresh and tender, paying attention to details like the fish size and heat control. After making the vinegar gravy, the dish is served with a layer of glimmering sauce poured on top of the fish.
Its appetising aroma is as alluring as the West Lake view, and the mix of sweet and sour on top of the succulent meat guarantees you a taste of heaven. Since the making of West Lake vinegar fish is quite complex, not all restaurants cook it in the traditional way. Some restaurants even use fish breeds other than grass carp. For the most authentic dish, go to Ziwei Ting (西湖国宾馆紫薇) located right next to West Lake.
Ziwei Ting, 8 Building JiaLeYuan, 18 XiHuGuo Hotel, Xihu District, Hangzhou, China | (+86) 571 8797 9889
If melt-in-your-mouth experiences are what you’re after, then you would love the flavour and texture of Dongpo pork. During the Song dynasty, when the notable scholar Su Shi (苏轼)—also named Dongpo (东坡)—was making stewed pork, he got distracted by a chess game until the strong fragrance of overcooked meat drew him back to the kitchen. Basically, the famous Hangzhou dish Dongpo pork (东坡肉) was invented by accident.
It is not an exaggeration when we say that the satisfaction your tongue experiences when revelling in this dish is ethereal. It is, however, surprisingly simple to make. Be sure to choose a good cut of pork belly with layers of fat and meat to get a distinctive texture and robust taste. It is then cut into thick slices, cooked with wine, and braised in ginger, soy sauce, and scallions. Some may find this dish too greasy to eat alone, so there is usually bread or rice on the side to go with it. Many restaurants serve good Dongpo pork, but you can visit Longjing Restaurant (龙井菜馆) if you are touring near West Lake.
Longjing Restaurant, 1 Longjing Road, Xihu District, Hangzhou, China | (+86) 571 8796 4286
Here, we have another seafood dish, stir-fried with Longjing tea (龙井茶; Dragon Well tea), which originated from Hangzhou. By taking fresh river prawns, usually ones that are smaller in size, and cooking them with green tea, the chef adds a kick of smokiness to the dish. Another vital procedure when making Longjing prawns (龙井虾仁) is velveting, which is to rub the prawns with egg white, cornflour, and salt for a smoother meat texture.
Longjing prawns date back to the Qing dynasty when the Qianlong Emperor (乾隆帝) was roaming around West Lake and received Longjing tea as a gift from the locals. His chef then added the tea while stir-frying some prawns, thus creating this well-known Hangzhou dish. 1921 Hujing Restaurant (1921湖景餐厅) does the best Longjing shrimp.
1921 Hujing Restaurant, 82 Youdian Road, Shangcheng District, Hangzhou, China｜(+86) 571 8888 1921
When talking about Chinese cuisine, we most frequently think of Peking duck (北京烤鸭), chow mein (炒面), or xiaolongbao (小笼包). In Hangzhou, the xiaolongbao from Zhiweiguan (知味观) is the go-to snack for locals, hence a must-try dish for tourists as well.
But what is so special about them? Zhiwei steamed dumplings (知味小笼) are made with refined white flour, giving them a smoother texture and milder flavour. As for the stuffing inside, it is usually a mixture of pork with shrimp or chicken with ham. Be careful when taking your first bite, as Zhiweiguan also adds a generous amount of meat galantines to make the dumplings extra juicy. Its filling of soup and savoury meat is endlessly tempting.
Zhiweiguan, 83 Renhe Road, Shangcheng District, Hangzhou, China | (+86) 571 8701 0200
If you love seafood, Hangzhou will be a paradise for you. While it is always nice to taste the pure freshness of steamed seafood, drinking a bowl of fish broth can also be a delightful experience. Song’s fish soup (宋嫂鱼羹; sòng sǎo yú gēng)—also known as sài xiè gēng (赛蟹羹)—comprises Chinese perch (鳜鱼) and potato starch for a glutinous texture. Egg yolk, bamboo shoots, and mushrooms are added to the soup to enhance flavours.
Song’s fish soup has been an iconic food of Hangzhou since 800 years ago when Emperor Gaozong encountered Lady Song who sold fish soup for a living at West Lake. After tasting the broth, the emperor praised and rewarded her with gold, silver, and silk. Her dish soon gained recognition amongst the local residents and was eventually popularised across Hangzhou. Shan Wai Shan (山外山菜館) near West Lake serves amazing fish broths, so go to this restaurant if you want to try an authentic version of Song’s fish soup.
Shan Wai Shan, 1 Gushan Road, Xihu District, Hangzhou, China | (+86) 571 8709 7777
Another signature product of Hangzhou, tourists usually purchase West Lake lotus root powder as a souvenir. To make this soup, you must first stir the powder with a bit of cold water, then simply mix it with boiling water to make the relatively glutinous paste.
Lotus root has great nutrients and health benefits, such as strengthening blood circulation and helping with digestion. You can easily find stores selling West Lake lotus root powder, especially in touristy locations. Bring some home for your friends and family.
Hangzhou offers many more unique dishes that you should not miss, including the shallot stuffed pancake (葱包桧儿), a traditional breakfast choice made with fried breadstick and scallion. Also sample the yóu dōng er (油冬兒), fried flour with carrot strips stuffings, and the piān er chuān (片兒川), a type of soup noodle topped with pickled vegetables, bamboo shoots, and lean meat. Enjoy your journey in Hangzhou with a happy stomach!