Friday, 4 January 2013


The days following Christmas are almost a hangover from the holiday.

Late, lazy mornings quietly bleed into long afternoons, spent snuggled up against the cold with occasional bracing strolls around an eerily empty city to get the blood flowing. But after a few cozy days of hibernation, we wanted to polish off the lingering patina of Christmas, and getting out of town seemed the best way to do so.

Hangzhou, although only an hour away by high-speed train, feels worlds away from Shanghai. Even as a city itself, and a large one even by China's standards, Hangzhou's perch on majestic West Lake overlooking rolling mountains provided a view of nature unlike any available to our urban-accustomed eyes. Waking up to the sound of birdsong was first unsettling but then refreshing - it was nice to breathe (relatively) fresh air again.

Over the next two days, from our base at the fantastic lake-side Hangzhou International Youth Hostel, we wandered around the lake visiting laughably scenic spots - picturesque pagodas, Buddhist temples, and striking bridges. Our first day the air was thick with moisture, providing an atmospheric haze from which the curling tips of pagoda roofs emerged and mountains receded in undulating rows of paling grays.

After an evening of flurries, the day dawned blue and bright and we hiked up into the snowy hills and down through the frosted fields of Longjing village's famous tea plantations. The terraced steppes, striping the mountains in the piercing winter sunlight, made for an incredible sight.

But beyond the scenery, the Hangbang (yep) food would be reason enough to make the journey. Hangbang cai is known for specialties like beggar's chicken, wrapped in lotus leaves and baked in clay, and fresh fish, presumably from in/around the lake. The area's famous long jing tea is also employed in all manner of cooking and baking.

Our first night, while wandering the town's central pedestrianized street, we stumbled across the Guangfu Lu food street. The short street was covered and lined with uniform stalls serving local street snacks - stacks of leaf-wrapped chicken bundles, cauldrons of soups and stews, and sticks of meat and seafood ready for the coals burst from the while uniformed stallholders called out on the merits of their respective snacks. We grabbed a few small things - some boneless fried chicken, glutenous rice over pork, delicious rice dumplings - and sat at one of the low tables lining the center of the street.

Not one of our choices, strangely enough.

It was a great introduction to some local favorites for almost nothing, and the atmosphere was high despite the low temperature.

The next days brought two of the best (and least expensive) meals I have had in China, let alone Hangzhou.

Although Green Tea has many locations, the one on the road to Longjing village from the west side of the lake can be described as no less than magical. Set on stilts over a pond, surrounded by tea fields, and looking down the valley, the rambling restaurant - it is always packed (and doesn't accept reservations) which we took as a good sign.

After a much shorter wait than anticipated, we settled into a table to dry off and checked out the check-box choose-your-own-adventure-type menu, which almost always ends in over-ordering. In this case, it definitely did. We got some classics from the helpful 'signature' section (note the avoided "Iced Sand" section above) along with anything else that looked interesting.

My favorites were undoubtedly the homemade green tea bread - a still-warm spongey mantou with a slick of spiced sweet paste down the middle - cabbage stir-fry with garlic and black beans, roast pork with a smoky porkiness that would put bacon to shame, and "fish head temptation" - a whole fish whose flakey flesh was smothered in green chilis. We also tried "Green Tea beer" but left unclear as to whether that referenced an attempt at flavor or the 'house' nature of the beer in question.

Whether we had over-ordered or not, we demolished dish after dish. It was either the setting, something about the freshness of the produce and fish, or the conspicuous absence of oil, but the place was near-perfect. Probably all of the above.

Our other surprise success goes by many names - referred to as "Grandma's Kitchen" in English, just "Grandma" in translated Chinese, or "The Grandma's" in Chinglish, Grandma's (to compromise) is very similar in format to Green Tea, and similarly fantastic. Both serve homestyle but innovative Hangbang food, have multiple branches, and do not take reservations - our wait for dinner was a well-organized free-for-all. Luckily they were playing Tom + Jerry cartoons (?) and served snacks of popcorn, mints (??), and cherry tomatoes (???) to placate the crowd. Luckily.

Once we were finally called to the desk and sent upstairs, the doors opened to a packed but peaceful loft with another check-box menu to pillage. Dangerous.

We got another superfluous spread, including a (tiny!) fish soup, green pea "paste", vegetable-stuffed tofu, garlicky roasted eggplant, fried cauliflower, "green vegetable bowl", and their "clay pot chicken", the house version of beggar's chicken baked with long jing tea.

Although the only redeeming feature of the strangely-sweet pea paste was it's gorgeous green color, everything else was amazing, especially the unbelievably tender and flavorful chicken. And so we rolled ourselves out of yet another restaurant, impressed with the humble city of Hangzhou.

Admittedly, the winter was probably not the best time to visit (the "atmospheric" conditions on Day 1 quickly plummeted to "hypothermic"), but at least it was as quiet as the touristy town probably gets.

I'm looking forward to heading back in summer next time my head needs to be cleared and my belly filled.

Guangfu Lu Food Street
near 88 Hefang Lu, off of

Green Tea
83 Longjing Lu, on the way to Longjing Village

multiple locations
6-1 Macheng Lu

[NB - although you might not be lakeside, get a taste of Hangzhou in Shanghai - both Green Tea and Grandma's have local branches.]

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