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Imperial Fish Heads

Here’s Tuesday’s post, only five days late, coming at you loud and clear from inside the PRC!

Today is another great Hangzhou local specialty dish with another great story behind it. Hangzhou’s night market, on Hefang Gu Jie, is a long pedestrian street lined on both sides with tea shops, food stalls, a famous Chinese medicine house lined to the rafters with drawers full of dried exotics, and craftspeople blowing glass, making instruments and carving horn. It has a great buzz and on previous visits to Hangzhou we’ve always eaten at the adjoining open-air food market where you can choose from Beggar’s Chicken, sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves, duck heads, frogs with chili, spiced crabs on a stick, or other local specialties. But when we visited on Saturday night it was pouring with rain, muddy and cold, and sitting outside trying to eat while cold rain water trickled down the back of your neck seemed like miserable way to spend a Saturday night.

Instead, we stepped through into the welcoming warmth and good smells of the ancient restaurant of Wangrunxing.

Their house specialty is fish head braised with tofu – ‘Fish Head for Emperor Qianlong’ (Qianlong Yu Tou). Now for the rest of my family, the combination of ‘fish head’ and ‘tofu’ together in the description of any dish would be enough to send them straight for the fried rice, so I just didn’t tell them I ordered it, and waited for the grumbles of agony and eye-rolling to begin when the bowl full of steaming fish heads arrived.

In Chinese restaurants you usually receive only a single menu, whether there are two or ten of you, it being generally agreed that only one person in the party should order so that the correct combination and balance of dishes is achieved without the influence of dissenting palates. It’s a type of culinary dictatorship. It’s usually left to me, because I’m the bossiest, I’m also the most interested in what we eat, and my restaurant Chinese is getting pretty passable. The days of strange plates of gelatinous unmentionables arriving to our table – tripe, tendon, jellyfish, and pig skin, are long gone. Now I can ask what’s in a dish, and how it’s cooked, it saves on a lot of surprises. 

Back to the fish-head soup. The tale of its fame is set against the backdrop of the Qing Dynasty, about three hundred years ago, with Emperor Qianlong wandering the craggy Wu Hill alone during a visit to Hangzhou. Caught alone in a heavy rainstorm, and without provisions, he knocked on the door of a simple cottage nearby to ask for shelter and a meal. The house belonged to Axing, a poor clerk working at a local restaurant in Hangzhou, and having little else to offer, cooked the Emperor a dish of braised fish head with tofu. The Emperor was so delighted with the taste he returned on his next visit to Hangzhou, giving Axing enough money to open a restaurant, and returned several years later to eat the dish again and reminisce about his previous visit. This time, he gave Axing no money, but bestowed the name ‘Wangrunxing’ to the restaurant, meaning ‘The Emperor’s meal’.

Predictably, there were groans and a lot of eye-rolling when the huge celadon-green bowl of fish heads arrived, garnished with bright green scallion-tops. The aroma of the soup was rich and inviting – five-spice, dark soy sauce, fermented soy beans and garlic with a touch of ginger. The taste was deep and complex, with the rich ingredients of the broth complementing the soft pillows of braised tofu and the small pieces of tender fresh fish. The bottom of the bowl revealed star-anise and tiny salty slices of the local cured ham.  Although the younger family members weren’t immediately won over, everyone else managed to get past their fish-head squeamishness and were all surprised to find it as delicious as it smelled. That Emperor obviously had good taste.

The other signature dish of Wangrunxing we tried was ‘Eight Treasure Bean Curd for Satrap Wang’. Another long story involving a different Emperor and a stolen recipe, but also delicious – I could only identify five of the soup’s eight treasures: pine nuts, pork, dried scallops, scallions and ginger, flecked through a thick gelatinous broth made from pureed silken tofu and stock.

We had an incredible meal, rounded out with fresh soy beans with local ham, and celery stir-fried with lily bulbs; made all the richer by the wonderful stories behind the food. I can’t wait to get back to Hangzhou to try them again. 
Wangrunxing Restaurant
101-103 Hefang Jie, near Zhongshan Zhong Lu, Hangzhou
 河坊街101-103号 (近中山中路)

Open 7 days for lunch and dinner

Hangzhou Beggar’s Chicken

I really needed no excuse to visit Hangzhou again,with its exquisite lake and its tranquil temples. Now only forty minutes from Shanghai by high-speed rail, we spent the weekend there with my mum, enjoying as much of the lake and the great local food as the wet weather would allow. 

Hangzhou was one of Marco Polo’s favourite places in China, way back in the fourteenth century, and you can still see why. The city’s fabled lake, Xi Hu, is surrounded by tea plantations, emerald green hills, temples and pagodas, and crossed by a pair of wide causeways covered in trees and beautiful gardens. The lake, often shrouded in mist, is fringed by weeping willows gently touching the water, and in summer by fields of bright green lotus with their impossibly pink blossoms. Small open wooden boats ply back and forth between the shore and the islands, much as they would have done in Marco Polo’s day. The spreading spawl of Hangzhou city has done well to stay as far away as possible from the lake edge, maintaining the illusion of a lake of tranquility and peacefulness.  

On the western side of the lake is Hangzhou’s oldest restaurant, Lou Wai Lou, an imposing building sitting right on the water’s edge, with a huge outdoor terrace looking directly onto the lake. Their specialty is one of Hangzhou’s most famous dishes, Beggar’s Chicken (jiào huā jī 叫化鸡), and at Lou Wai Lou, they have been serving it up since 1848. Like all great dishes in China, Beggar’s Chickn has a story behind it worthy of its own novel. The story (or stories, for there are many versions) goes something like this:

One day, a lowly beggar found a chicken roaming free. Starving and desperate, he killed and plucked the chicken and wrapped it tightly in lotus leaves to take home. Not long afterwards he realised his theft would be discovered by guards who were walking nearby, so he hurriedly buried the chicken in the clay mud near the shore. The beggar waited for the guards to pass, then dug up his chicken which to his surprise had baked hard under the day’s hot sun. When the hardened clay was cracked open the chicken inside was tender, succulent, and flavoured with the delicious scent of lotus leaves.

At Lou Wai Lou the chickens are marinated, stuffed with mushrooms, ham, and preserved vegetables, then wrapped tightly in lotus leaves and layers of closely sealed oven wrap before baking for three to four hours. Cutting open the oven-wrap with scissors is not quite as dramatic or romantic as cracking open a clay-covered chicken with a hammer, but a lot less messy.

The aromas that escape as the parcel is opened are of herbs, smoky ham, shaoxing wine, soy,and the particular herbaceous smell of lotus leaves, and the chicken falls away tenderly from the bone and into the delicious concentrated juices inside the parcel.

At Hangzhou’s night market on Qing He Fang Gu Jie you can buy Beggar’s Chicken in its clay casing for only 30 yuan ($5), complete with a pair of plastic gloves so you don’t get your hands dirty.

Beggar’s Chicken 
Adapted from‘s recipe
If you would prefer not to make the clay dough, simply wrap the chicken in a further two layers of aluminium foil before baking.

  • 1.6kg free-range chicken
  • 4 dried lotus leaves, soaked in water for twenty minutes to soften
  • Aluminium foil

  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon Chinese five spice powder

  • 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
  • 100g Chinese ham or bacon, sliced into 1cm strips
  • 2 scallions, sliced into 3cm lengths
  • 6 shitake mushrooms, fresh or dried
  • 100g Chinese preserved vegetables, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
  • 1 teaspoon sugar

Clay Dough
  • 4 cups plain flour
  • 1 cup salt
  • water

  • Mix the marinade ingredients together and rub over the chicken, both inside and out
  • Leave refrigerated for one hour
  • Preheat oven to 180C/350F
  • Prepare stuffing
  • If using dried shitake mushrooms, soak for 20 minutes in hot water
  • Slice mushrooms finely
  • Heat oil in wok
  • Stir-fry ham until browned, then add mushrooms
  • Stir-fry for one minute, then add Chinese preserved vegetables, stir-fry for further minute
  • Add soy sauce, Shaoxing wine and sugar and stir fry further two minutes
  • Set stuffing aside to cool
  • Prepare the clay dough
  • Combine flour and salt in a mixing bowl
  • Add enough water to make a stiff dough, knead well
  • Roll out clay dough to 1cm thickness
  • Remove chicken fromarinade
  • Stuff with stuffing mixture
  • Wrap chicken tightly in successive layers of lotus leaves, tucking each layer in well
  • Wrap in a final layer of aluminium foil to hold lotus leaves together, and seal tightly
  • Wrap chicken in clay dough and seal well (or if not using clay dough, wrap in a further 2 layers of foil)
  • Place on baking tray
  • Bake for 2 hours, or until the clay dough is rock hard
  • To serve, crack open clay with a hammer
  • Peel back foil and lotus leaves and serve with stuffing and cooking liquid spooned over

Nicole Mones, who wrote The Last Chinese Chef, includes a recipe for Beggar’s Chicken on her website, after the dish featured heavily in a chapter of the novel. It is not a precise recipe, with no amounts or measures, but makes for interesting reading and was given to Mones by the chef at Lou Wai Lou.

Lou Wai Lou


30 Gushan Rd. Hangzhou

Open daily for lunch and dinner