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A Culinary Tour of China

After dinner there, we went to a jazz club that felt like a speakeasy, and met up with artist friends; later, we headed off to the perennially fashionable Face Bar, where we met a Chinese doctor friend of Han Feng's who took my pulse and prescribed a health regimen even as we lounged on opium beds drinking hot brandy toddies; the next day, I found myself being whisked off to the acupuncturist.

Ordering in Chinese restaurants is an art. In New York, Han Feng will spend half an hour talking to a Chinatown waiter about what she wants. If saints are usually represented with their primary attributes, then Han Feng should be painted with a menu. She reads the pages as if they were poems—poems in need of editing—and seems to inspire the kitchen with her particularity and her fervor. She inquires about the freshness of ingredients and tries to balance the meal so that it has hot, cold, and tepid dishes; spicy and mild tastes; fish, meat, and vegetables; heavy flavors and lighter ones. Each meal needs to be conceived as a whole. The Chinese spend a larger proportion of their income on food than almost any other nationality. In his great book, Food in Chinese Culture, K.C. Chang talks about "food as social language" and "food linguistics"; in dynastic China, you respected a visitor by cooking a dish yourself even if you had servants; you honored ancestors with food sacrifices. The food is the society.

The best food in China is not necessarily in the splashiest places. Crystal Jade is in a Shanghai mall and looks like it, but the Cantonese dim sum there is divine—fried potato dumplings that melt in your mouth; roasted skin of baby pig, duck, and chicken; shredded daikon with dried shrimp layered in a kind of phyllo pastry. Across town at Jade Garden, the throbbing bass beat from the nightclub downstairs obtrudes, but not enough to diminish the lotus root stuffed with sticky rice or the tea-smoked duck, which is to waterfowl what Lapsang souchong is to Lipton.

On New Year's day, we drove to Hangzhou, where Han Feng grew up. There is a saying in China that when you die there is heaven, but when you live there is Hangzhou. The city lies beside the West Lake, where pleasure boats travel from island to island, and the sun glints off the urban skyline on one shore and elegant, tall pagodas on another. A typical local dinner includes chou doufu, or "stinky tofu," which tastes like elderly athletic socks left through a muggy summer in a dank locker and then boiled in sour milk; a street hawker of chou doufu was recently arrested for violating air-pollution laws. It is an acquired taste I have yet to acquire. We headed to the gala opening of the new Hangzhou Opera House, and afterward, unready to call it a day, indulged in a late-night foot massage: our feet were soaked in Chinese herbs, pounded with rubber mallets, rubbed with heated salt, and kneaded in every conceivable direction. We drove back to the hotel at 2 A.M. in a state of absurd bliss.

The following day, we went to lunch at Longjing, a tiny establishment with just eight tables arranged in private pavilions around a beautiful garden in the middle of a tea plantation. This was Chinese cooking so refined that some of its particular triumphs were lost on our inexperienced palates. We had 22 dishes: rare delicacies such as steamed turtle wrapped in lotus leaves; a broth of locusts and old duck (old ducks are supposed to warm you up in winter), which sounds rather bizarre but was in fact glorious; a rich, delicate soup called Heroes' Soup in honor of the fish in it, which are boiled alive; fatty pork slow-cooked for four days and served with eggs; and braised venison. We had quenelle-like fish balls, made by nailing a fish to a plank, scraping the flesh off one layer at a time so that it becomes completely soft, beating the resulting mush with cold water into a foam, then poaching it. "Making that is hard like hell," Han Feng said, "and no one has ever done it better for an emperor."

We drank the fresh local Longjing tea, for which the restaurant is named, while a violin prodigy, winner of the Paganini competition and part of Han Feng's extended circle, gave a sweeping virtuoso performance, at once precise and passionate and thrilling. Han Feng took us to the Ming-era Guo Family Garden at the west end of the lake, less touristed than some other Hangzhou parks and magnificently restful, and later we visited the Zhiweiguan restaurant. Where Longjing served up food that was very exotic to a Western palate, rare and understated tastes impossible to conceive outside of China, Zhiweiguan was so glitteringly splendid and yet so wholly accessible that it could sustain a hopping trade on New York's Upper East Side. For one dish, the chef cut a single narrow 11-foot-long strip of pork (like a continuous ribbon of apple peel), spiraled it into the shape of a stepped monument at Chichén Itzá, and roasted it. At the table, the server unwound it, cut off short pieces, and wrapped them in spinach pancakes. A whole chicken stuffed with garlic had been wrapped in thin paper and then encased in salt before baking—the meat was almost implausibly juicy.

Few foreigners go to Shaoxing, and it is hard to understand why. The canals are romantic and dreamy, and the Ch'ing dynasty houses are built right down to the water; the windows are adorned with carved wooden screens, and women kneel beside the water to scrub laundry; the canal boats are as intimate as gondolas, and the boatmen use their feet to push the big oars. You can always see the grand pagoda on the hillside just beyond the city, and on the day we were there, someone was listening to Beijing opera quite loudly, and the music echoed down the byways. To get to and from the canal boats, you travel by bicycle rickshaw through winding, enigmatic streets too narrow for cars. We ate at Xianheng, and had several variations on chou doufu, some palatably mild. I took more eagerly to another local fermented specialty: Shao­xing rice wine. We also had eggplant with a peppery okra-like vegetable, and caramelized-pork buns, sweet and rich. For dessert there were sticky rice cakes with black sesame seeds, an almost bitter flavor, and honey. Han Feng led the toasting, and we felt ready to burst with food, alcohol, and pleasure. We realized that we were having an average of 12 dishes at each meal, and that we were having two meals a day, and that we were going to be in China for 21 days, which meant that by the time we left we would have tried more than 500 dishes. We took some deep breaths.


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