Sophie Brissaud - September 2014
In Eastern China, both in urban Hangzhou and in rural Suichang, food activist Dai Jianjun celebrates the polyphony of Zhejiang cuisine, a duet of agrarian simplicity and urban sophistication. Sophie Brissaud visits the restaurateur preserving and promulgating a tradition of understated cooking.
Lunchtime in the Suichang mountains, in the province of Zhejiang. Dai Jianjun—known as A Dai, his more usual, familiar name—gives a light push to the lazy Susan, reaches for a morsel of air-dried duck with his chopsticks, drops it into his bowl, then picks a stem of steamed baby celtuce from another dish. Just a couple of hours before, a few steps away from the kitchen and adjoining dining room, the celtuce was dug out from the vegetable patch and the duck was still twirling to dry in the wind, hanging dark brown and mummy-like, before being cut up, steamed, and served on a blue-and-white china dish. The duck is chewy, spicy, intensely savory—a true duck concentrate; the translucent emerald-green celtuce, young and tender, is like a jewel version of the larger version so often found in Chinese markets. Every single ingredient placed on this lunch table seems to contain the energy of the earth that nourished it. The famous quote by Curnonsky, “Good cooking is when things taste of what they are,” never seemed so accurate. The Chinese have a term for that: ben wei, the essential taste of things.
“Why do you think so many so-called Sichuan restaurants—not all of them run by Sichuanese cooks—are blossoming all over China these days?” asks A Dai. “Well,” he explains, “not because Sichuan cuisine is better than the others, but mostly because people equate Sichuan with spicy, and it’s easier for mediocre cooks to please customers with spicy food than to cook dishes that require skill, subtlety, and sensitivity, as Zhejiang cuisine does.”
A Dai has a point. In China, authentic Zhejiang cooking—the very cooking that is being shared at this table as he talks—isn’t widely known or represented outside of its place of origin. People who associate Chinese food with assertive, spiced, MSG-reinforced flavors tend to find it understated. Of all the culinary styles of China, it’s the one that most reminds them of Japanese food, and its mild, sensible taste harmony is more reminiscent of classic French dishes than of the fiery, pungent Sichuan hot pots or garlicky Cantonese stir-fries that are more readily associated with Chinese cooking in Western minds.
While A Dai runs one of the most highly praised restaurants in Hangzhou, his quest to preserve traditional agriculture and local, sustainable farming in China is what drives him. For A Dai, it’s all one: environment, tradition, farmers, flavor. Flavor is a consequence that sums up and justifies the whole. Thus, describing flavor would be describing it all.
One might as well begin with a geography lesson: the region of Eastern China called Jiangnan (“South of the River”), in other terms the southern part of the Yangtze River Delta, includes South Anhui, South Jiangsu, North Jiangxi, the enclave of Shanghai, and Zhejiang. Graced with a fertile soil, a mild climate, and plenty of lakes and rivers, it’s also known as a “land of fish and rice.” There is arguable archeological evidence that this is where rice was first cultivated. Zhejiang, Jiangsu, and Anhui claim three of the eight great culinary traditions of China. And finally, Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang, where A Dai was born, was the imperial capital of the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279), which helped to create a courtly style of cuisine. This is a part of the world where food and the culture of taste are no small affair.
A lively, friendly man in his mid-40s, A Dai has spent the last decade building his twofold culinary project: Long Jing Cao Tang (“Long Jing Manor”), his restaurant devoted to genuine, organic Hangzhou cooking, and Gong Geng Shu Yuan (“School of Traditional Farming”) in the mountains of Suichang, not a restaurant but a vast farm, functioning both as a school of traditional farming and as a culinary research center, complete with vegetable gardens, rice paddies, busy kitchen, and able chef. “Epicurian activist” best describes A Dai. While not a chef, he creates sanctuaries for first-rate product sourcing. When asked about his motivation, he has a simple answer: “I love to eat.” His focus on traditional organic farming was set very early in his life, when his grandmother taught him the importance of ben wei as the base of great cooking. He found the same principle in the writings of Yuan Mei, an 18th century scholar who wrote the classic cookbook Food Lists of the Garden of Contentment and posited that 40 percent of the success of a meal should be credited to the person who sourced the ingredients, while the remaining 60 percent could be credited to the chef.
As growing urbanization and industrial development began eating up the rich farmland around Hangzhou, A Dai couldn’t stand to see the raw materials of the delicious cooking he had enjoyed since his childhood disappear. He decided to start a restaurant where only organic, local products would be prepared and served according to ancient recipes as a way of preserving authentic Hangzhou cooking and of keeping at least a few of the farmers on the land. Currently, Long Jing Cao Tang relies on a network of about 5,000 small farms. Trusting relationships between A Dai’s buyers and the farmers are essential, and photographs of every harvest are collected in large leather-bound volumes that customers of the restaurant may view at leisure.
A few years after launching Long Jing Cao Tang, A Dai went searching for the best tea seed oil (a favorite cooking oil in Southern and Eastern China, obtained from the seeds of tea oil camellias, a variety of tea plant). He was directed to a tiny village named Huanniling, overlooking a lake in the hilly heart of rural Zhejiang. Indeed, he did find tea oil camellias growing profusely in Huanniling, but he found more: This was the perfect place to build his dream project, an experimental farm/school/kitchen where ancient agrarian skills would be preserved. In 2011, with the help of the governor of the Suichang district, Gong Geng Shu Yuan came to pass.
Although both of his places are built in the traditional Zhejiang style—large whitewashed pavilions, imposing wooden framework, and graceful latticework doors and windows, all set around ponds and landscaped gardens—Long Jing Cao Tang cultivates the classic style of Hangzhou cooking, re-creating the gongfu cai (“art dishes”) that would have pleased Yuan Mei, while Gong Geng Shu Yuan’s no-fuss, farm-to-table food that brims with rustic, earthy grace, with raw products of outstanding quality obtained from farming or mountain foraging, jumping into the wok and then into the bowl—the gymnastics of cooking vivid flavors. Most of the time, the vegetable, fish, or fowl held between your chopsticks was seen sprouting, swimming, cackling, or quacking only minutes beforehand. However, the urban style and the rural style are not contradictory; they’re the two faces of Zhejiang cooking, informed by ancient books and treatises.
“Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are the three main traditional doctrines of China,” says A Dai, “and they all focus on agriculture as an essential human activity. For Confucius, it’s a way of achieving the harmony of Heaven, Earth, and Man through an activity based on the right timing, the right climate, and the right place. This, by the way, is very much like the French notion of terroir. For Taoism, agriculture is bound to always follow the right schedule, in accordance with nature. Thus, through agriculture, one follows the Way (Tao), and all things can go to their original nature (ziran). Buddha said: ‘If I do not work for a day, I do not eat for a day.’ All my employees—chefs, gardeners, buyers—are actually apprentices, learning from masters. The masters are the old farmers, people who still know the ancient techniques. My chefs learn vegetable gardening and foraging; I insist that all my employees learn as much as they can, so they can teach back.”
Thus, a seamless union of ancient ways and new discoveries is achieved. Mixing old and new creates harmony. Exploring tradition is not a backwards movement but a secret of eternal youth. In late summer, Chen Xiaoming, Long Jing Cao Tang’s executive chef, likes to serve a dish consisting of two soft, lacy, tube-shaped bamboo mushrooms stuffed with dried peach gum crystals (a skin tonic and a beauty enhancer, according to Chinese medicine) and tied at both ends with spring onion leaves. The odd little parcels are then patiently simmered in chicken broth. They do look a bit shabby when they arrive in your bowl. But when the skin of the bamboo mushroom breaks under the porcelain spoon, releasing a clear, iridescent flow of peach resin nuggets, the visual effect is stunning. The gustatory effect is even more so: the soft crunch of the mushroom, the pleasant gooeyness and refreshing taste of the gum, and the concentrated, deep flavor of the broth. Surely this must be a very ancient recipe? No, it isn’t: Chen created it. But it could have been created centuries ago! Chen agrees.
Dishes served at Long Jing Cao Tang reveal unexpected fillings and flavor surprises concealed by modest appearances. Some display a stark, stunning beauty, like the flower-shaped dish called ji sui sun—chicken bone marrow and winter bamboo in chicken broth—re-created by Chen from a description found in the classic 18th century novel Dream of the Red Chamber, or another—a dome of tofu, bamboo, and cabbage—reminiscent of a 19th century formal French timbale. Such an intensely product-driven cuisine doesn’t hesitate to serve dishes based on one single ingredient: baby bok choy, delicately trimmed and lightly sautéed, on its own with just a pinch of salt. Or a flat, gelatinous, curly-edged slab on a dish—the local jellyfish—which, anywhere else, would be shredded and dressed with vinegar, chiles, and spices. Confidence breeds audacity, and Zhejiang cuisine trusts its products to the point of serving them in absolute nakedness.
In fact, more than any other region of China, and not unlike Japan, Zhejiang has developed a culture of blandness, a concept often mistaken in the West for insipidity. It’s actually a form of enhanced gustatory sensitivity: the perception of flavor as well as texture, mouthfeel, and temperature. Cooking times are either extremely short or very lengthy, and no MSG or any other substances are added. Spicing and flavorings, when used at all, are employed with discretion, carefully measured by hand (never weighed), and based on five basic seasonings: salt, sugar, rice vinegar, rice wine, and soy sauce, and the three aromatics of ginger, spring onion, and garlic. Sauces and broths are tasted several times before reaching the right balance. Such a fine-tuned harmony requires attention and receptiveness, and is best appreciated through a state of calm meditation. A plain bowl of freshly made soy milk is enjoyed as a dinner opening; a bowl of steamed half-bleached rice of the new harvest takes one’s mind to fragrant rice paddies in summer; the faintly bitter nuttiness of fresh lotus seeds summons an image of calm ponds covered with huge pink blossoms; and the silky flesh of a lake fish can elevate the taste experience to unexpected heights. Of course, this is only possible when ingredients of the highest quality are used. As Yuan Mei wrote, “Just as a stupid person would remain stupid even if taught by Confucius and Mencius, a poor-quality ingredient would remain tasteless even if cooked by Yi Ya, the legendary Chinese chef of the Zhou dynasty.” This is why A Dai never gave up an inch of his dedication to products. And it’s also why he created Gong Geng Shu Yuan to elevate his initial effort to a higher stage, closer to the earth and to nature.
Gong Geng Shu Yuan borrows the layout and architectural style of a 16th century mountain mansion: large white pavilions set around gardens and ponds, with the kitchen and communal dining room built at a distance from the main buildings, closer to the farm. The compound is linked to the village by a small bamboo grove and leans on the other side onto a vast, steep terraced land of rice paddies, farm buildings, vegetable patches, and lotus ponds, the origin of about 90 percent of the food that goes through the kitchen.
Zhu Yinfeng, 31, is the chef of Gong Geng Shu Yuan. Here, unlike at Long Jing Cao Tang, which is abundantly staffed with senior chefs, assistant chefs, and various helpers—the kitchen team is small. Zhu, however, proves to be more than a chef. Before working at Long Jing Cao Tang, he was the apprentice of Dong Jinmu, then the head chef of Lou Wai Lou, a famous Hangzhou restaurant. Later, when A Dai hired him, he took his apprentice along with him. When A Dai informed the staff of his new experiment in the mountains, Zhu was happy to pack up and take part in the adventure. As a child, he used to follow his mother on her long foraging walks through the countryside. He loves plants, botany books, folk recipes and remedies, tending farm animals, and growing vegetables. He sometimes takes part in farm work and constantly learns from the area’s farmers. Like them, he knows where to find “pig grass,” a wild leafy plant that pigs love to eat. It also prevents them from contracting various illnesses, improves the taste of their meat, and makes them smell nicer while still afoot. The fresh leaves are brought down from the mountain in canvas bags; they have to be chopped before being thrown to the happy animals. Zhu grabs the cleaver and does the job, adding in some freshly grated sweet potato as a treat, before he goes to the kitchen to do more chopping.
On a chilly December morning, a “rice cakes day” begins. Ancestors of Japanese mochi, these cakes, made of pounded glutinous rice, are an important foodstuff in Zhejiang. Zhu is standing in the farm courtyard, watching farmers burn a high heap of huang jing chai (“gold wood”), branches of a small deciduous tree they just brought in from the forest. After a couple of hours, the small mound of ashes left from the fire is carefully collected. In the farm kitchen nearby, a large quantity of white glutinous rice has just been steamed; on another burner, water has been boiled with wild gardenia berries. The farmers mix the ashes into the hot water, strain the mixture through rice straw pads, then decant it briefly before collecting the result of four hours of work: four pints of a yellow liquid that will moisten and flavor the rice. The preparation has only begun.
The steaming mass of rice is thrown into an enormous stone mortar set in the middle of the farm courtyard. A few cups of the yellow liquid are sprinkled over it, and the pounding begins. Zhu and another farmer repeatedly hit the rice with heavy wooden mallets, while a man swiftly turns it over in the mortar, taking care not to have his hands crushed. When the men are tired, other farmers take over. For hours, the rice will be pounded, sprinkled, and pounded again. When it eventually turns into a smooth, springy, bright yellow ball, the rice dough is ready. Meanwhile, the sky has darkened. The whole process has taken all day. But it isn’t over yet: the dough has to be shaped and cut while still warm. Otherwise, in a few minutes, it will be too stiff to be worked by hand. So the workers grab the large yellow ball, run like madmen to the kitchen, and bang it onto the work surface. Quickly, Zhu cuts it into several pieces, and all the men immediately begin rolling them with their hands into long cylindrical shapes. Then everyone takes a deep breath—a good day’s work done.
One day devoted to communal work for a single food preparation! Likewise, there are air-dried duck days, pickled cabbage days, tofu days, tea oil pressing days, pig-killing days—every day a preparation. Some of the rice cakes will be sliced and browned in a wok with sweetened soy sauce and served at Gong Geng Shu Yuan’s table. The rest will be shared between the families of Huanniling.
Having secured the supply of rice cakes, Zhu takes care of dinner. On this night, he cooks for eight guests, including A Dai and a few friends visiting from Hangzhou. Aside from the rice cakes, he prepares red-cooked carp from the lake, stir-fried pig’s liver with Chinese chives, fu yong dan (savory egg flan), various stir-fried vegetables, tender winter bamboo shoots sautéed with thin slices of Jinhua ham, and Zhejiang’s well-known duck soup—a broth derived from a bird simmered in clear water with Shaoxing wine, spring onions, a knob of Jinhua ham, some ginger, and two or three dried cicadas. “Follow the traditional steps, take your time, respect lengthy cookings,” says A Dai. “If a duck soup has to simmer for four hours, four hours it is.” The broth is both refreshing and warming, and tastes wonderful.
The feast, an everyday dinner at Gong Geng Shu Yuan, is accompanied by San Jing tea, lovely, fresh-tasting green leaves grown on nearby Baimashan mountain. But there’s also an amber-colored Sherry-like rice wine made at the farm. After all the dishes have been brought to the table, Zhu joins the party and enjoys his own cooking. Tomorrow, he will have more help in the kitchen. Chen Xiaoming is coming for a few days’ visit.
When Chen arrives, he pays his respects to the place by steaming a turtle with thin slivers of Jinhua ham and ginger inserted under its skin. A closer look at the ginger slices reveals that Chen has painstakingly carved them into tiny elephants, complete with tusks and trunks. Is there a symbolism at work there? A Dai simply answers: “If you walk uphill from Gong Geng Shu Yuan, and look from a certain point of the promontory, you will distinctly see the earthly feng shui of this place. The mountain to the left is shaped like a turtle, and the one to the right looks like an elephant. The lake in between has the curvaceous profile of a double drinking gourd. The elephant means happiness, the turtle means wealth, and the gourd means longevity. These are the three most auspicious symbols in Chinese culture. See? I haven’t picked this place at random.”