Back to blog index

Wanna Buy a Rabbit? Then You’ll Need a Horse To Go With It.

It all started with the rabbit. Taking a bike ride through the old city on the weekend, we screeched to a halt next to an old guy in a cloth cap, wrinkled and surrounded by a cloud of cigarette smoke, selling a bunch of old stuff from the footpath, laid out on sheets of newspaper. Usually there are a few jade pieces, a couple of bits of old porcelein, and some Mao-era tin badges. But what we’d both spotted simultaneously, Matt and I, was a lovely little bronze rabbit’s head, a perfect fit in Matt’s large hands. He knows his bronze, does Matt, having run a bronze foundry for twenty years, and this little rabbit looked well-made and nicely finished.
It was likely a copy of an original antique, but that didn’t matter so much as the fact that it looked lovely and was well crafted. How much? we asked. By now, a small crowd of onlookers was getting in on the action too. 1200 yuan. 1200 yuan??!! What?? 
We were having a lost in translation moment, because the next thing that happened was another eleven animals came out of a non-desript box filled with newspaper. First a horse, then a monkey, a snake, a dog and so on. Aha. It’s a set of Chinese zodiac animals – the rabbit was on display only because it’s the Year of the Rabbit. You can’t buy just one, because a set of eleven is worthless. What he had been trying to tell me was that we could buy one, or all twelve, but the price would be the same – 1200 yuan.   
So we did what any good bargain hunter would do. After intending to buy a single, small bronze rabbit, we came home with twelve bronze animal heads. They’re really quite lovely, but they weigh a ton! See if you can name all twelve.

Top to bottom, left to right: monkey, rooster, horse, snake, pig, goat, dragon, dog, ox, tiger, rat, rabbit

Shanghai Street Food #18 Puffed Corn Sticks: Yùmǐ Bàng 玉米棒

Now this is real street food. Coming home from the wet market this afternoon there was a small crowd gathering around this blue truck. This entrepreneurial husband and wife team had it all sorted – the back of their truck had become a temporary factory for making corn sticks (yùmǐ bàng 玉米棒), a very light and crunchy tubular snack made from ground corn. I’ve seen these motorised snack set-ups before in Shanghai – on roadsides, beside bridges, next to fly-overs. They are the most extraordinary mini snack food factories you’ve ever seen. 

The wife, sitting on the back tray of the truck, is kept incredibly busy snapping off lengths of the bright yellow sticks into even pieces. Her husband, meanwhile, is taking care of sales and marketing, spruiking loudly and pulling a crowd with yells of ‘Yumi Bang! 3 yuan a bag! 3 yuan a bag!’ Further down the street I can spy big bags of yellow in nearly every hand – they’re obviously very popular.

This is the basic set-up. A funnel made from a cut-off plastic water bottle is taped upside down to a banging motor driven by a generator. The fan belt spins noisily at a great rate of knots, out in the open, centimetres from your nose. The corn, coarsely ground (there’s a spare bottle of it in the foreground), is funnelled through a heated nozzle where the corn puffs up, sticks together, and is extruded in the shape of a long, narrow tube. With the machine going full throttle it spits out about a metre a second, just the most incredible thing to watch happening in front of your eyes.

This corn hose-pipe, by the time it gets to be about three metres long, is cool enough to handle and the lady sitting back there snaps it off into regular lengths, which go into plastic bags ready to be sold. I guess they stick around until they run out of corn or the police move them on.

So what do they taste like? I think it’s more about the texture than the taste – they’re super-crunchy and very light, shattering into pieces as you bite into them, and tasting of toasted corn. Like a chinese prawn cracker, they stick to your tongue as they dissolve, creating another interesting texture. I quite like them, but not as much as I enjoy watching them being made! No doubt in the future, as the authorities crack down further on unlicensed food producers like these, you will only be able to buy yumi bang in the supermarket, which won’t be the same at all.

The Shanghai Street Food Series

Number 1   Roast Sweet Potatoes
Number 2   Snack-on-a-stick 
Number 3   Liangpi – a spicy cold noodle dish
Number 4   Langzhou Lamian – hand-pulled noodles
Number 5   Cong You Bing – fried shallot pancakes
Number 6   Baozi – steamed buns, Shanghai style
Number 7   Jian Bing – the famous egg pancake
Number 8   Dan Gao – street cakes
Number 9   Shao mai – sticky rice treats
Number 10  Summer on a Stick – fresh fruits

Number 11  You Tiao – deep-fried breadsticks
Number 12  Dan Juan – egg rolls
Number 13  Shao Kao – street barbecue
Number 14  Bao Mi Hua – exploding rice flowers
Number 15  Chou Doufu – stinky tofu
Number 16  Bing Tang Shan Zha – crystal sugar hawthorns
Number 17  Mutton Polo
Number 18  Yumi Bang – puffed corn sticks
Number 19  Mian Hua Tang – cotton candy
Number 20  You Dunzi – fried radish cakes

Number 21  Suzhou Shi Yue Bing – homestyle mooncakes 
Number 22  Gui Hua Lian’ou – honeyed lotus root stuffed with sticky rice
Number 23  Cong You Ban Mian – scallion oil noodles
Number 24  Guotie – potsticker dumplings
Number 25  Nuomi Cai Tou – fried clover pancakes
Number 26  Da Bing, Shao Bing – sesame breakfast pastries
Number 27  Ci Fan – sticky rice breakfast balls
Number 28  Gui Hua Gao – steamed osmanthus cake
Number 29  Zongzi – bamboo leaf wrapped sticky rice
Number 30  Shengjianbao – pan-fried dumplings

Number 31  Mala Tang – DIY spicy soup

Mum’s Boiled Fruit Cake

Years ago, working night shifts in the Intensive Care Unit, I looked after an elderly lady who had suffered a massive stroke. Unconscious, paralyzed, and on a ventilator, her outlook appeared very grim. But one night, at about 2 am, she seemed to wake from the coma she had been in for many days, and over the next hour, eyes wide open, she became very agitated. It was clear that she wanted to speak, but was unable to do so while the ventilator tube was in her mouth (the stroke had damaged the breathing part of her brain, and removing it would kill her). She made weak writing motions with her one good hand, but when I held a pen gently in it she was unable to grip and it fell loosely on to the bed. I asked if there was something I could help her write down. She blinked and nodded her head vigorously. I told her I would go through the alphabet, and she could nod when I came to the right letter. A look of relief flooded over her face.

I wondered what this incredibly important message would be – a message of love for her family? A long-held secret? An addendum to her will? The letters came painfully slowly, even once the nurses saw what we were up to and we switched to the Speech Tharapy alphabet, with all the commonly used letters first.


It seemed to be a message for her children.We had a short rest, but she was keen to go on. 


Her head rested back on the pillow. I tried to make it easy for her by finishing the word. Frightened? Frustrated?  She shook her head and we went on.


Her fruit cake recipe. Before she died, she wanted to hand on her secret fruit cake recipe to her children. Over the next two hours we laboriously transcribed, ingredient by ingredient, the entire recipe, and she finaly fell exhausted into a deep sleep. When her family arrived at 7am to see her, I handed them the piece of paper. There were tears of joy all round. Her daughter told me that her mother had promised to pass on the recipe when the time was right. I guess it was the right time at last.

One of the things this experience taught me was how important food is in the history and culture of families, and how mothers are the guardians of family recipes. Mothers! Be sure to write your recipes down! Your children will thank you.

When my own mother visited this month, one of the first things out of her luggage was an entire freshly baked boiled fruit cake. As she unwrapped it, it smelled like it had just come out of the oven. Her boiled fruit cake has sustained me through most of life’s more stressful moments – high school exams, getting into medical school, living in a share house with uni students, graduating from medicine, having children, shift work and sitting my specialist exams. Every new phase of my adult life has been punctuated by the unexpected and extremely welcome arrival of an entire boiled fruit cake.

If you’re looking for the only fruit cake recipe you’ll ever need, here it is. Lightly spiced and abolutely delicious.

Mum‘s Boiled Fruit Cake
from New Idea magazine, 3/10/81

  • 125g butter
  • 1 cup milk
  • 500g mixed dried fruit
  • 1 teaspoon mixed spice
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup sweet sherry
  • 1 flat teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 cup SR flour
  • 1 cup plain flour

  • Grease and line a 20cm cake tin with baking paper
  • Preheat oven to 170C
  • Place butter, milk, sugar, fruit and spices in a saucepan, bring to the boil and simmer with lid on for five minutes
  • Cool a little, then stir in sherry and bicarbonae of soda and allow to cool completely
  • Add beaten eggs and mix well
  • Sift flours together and fold into mixture
  • Spoon into prepared tin
  • Bake for 45 minutes, then test with skewer
  • Cool on a wire rack

(I know you want to know what happened to my patient. Incredibly, and despite her age and the extent of her stroke, she survived, and after weeks in hospital and many more in rehab she went back to live at home. I like to think she spent her last years supervising her daughters making that fruitcake.)

The Shanghai Seafood Market

How would you feel about choosing your dinner while it’s still alive? For me, it sort of goes against some deeply held moral food principle to point out exactly which creature I’d like to have killed for my supper. But when I seriously, seriously ask myself whether I feel less guilt about eating a critter that someone else has chosen before killing it on my behalf, the whole moral house of cards comes tumbling down. I mean, really, it’s ridiculous logic.

In China, I’m rapidly learning that interest in food and eating extends to the diner’s ability to choose, with some degree of expertise, the protein component of their main course. At Shanghai’s Tongchuan Lu Seafood Market this is exactly what happens every single day. The market is primarily a wholesale fish and seafood market for restaurants and hotels, but
they run an excellent sideline in personal shopping too – walk the stalls, choose some seafood, then take it to one of the local restaurants where they can cook it to order for you – freshness guaranteed.

Tongchuan Lu is way out in Putuo District, north Shanghai, in the midst of non-descript streets and mid-level apartment blocks. Stepping out of the taxi you immediately know exactly where you’ve alighted as a strong briny smell with an overlay of fishiness reaches your nose. The open air section of the market stretches out on both sides of the road, and as far as you can see there are rows, and rows, and more rows of tanks bubbling with oxygen and holding every imaginable edible sea creature. Behind the street-front stalls is a larger indoor market, with air-conditioning and freezers where most of the jellyfish and frozen fish can be found.

There is nothing that lives in the seas around the world that can’t be found here – crabs from Canada, lobsters from Australia, razor clams from the Philipines, salmon from Norway, abalone from South Australia, shrimp from Taiwan, and so on. There are sea urchins, sea cucumbers, sea snakes, oysters, clams, cockles, periwinkles, tiger prawns, pipi prawns, hairy crabs, white crabs, mud crabs, jellyfish, sharks fins and octopus. Plus lots of things I can’t identify and I’m relying on my knowledgeable marine biologist brother and sister-in-law to name for me.

They’re moving and squirming, and I’m assured they’re good to eat. But what are they? And am I the only one who thinks they look like double-ended penises?

What are these on the left for example? They look like giant mollusc tongues.

An entire shop full of nothing but dried shark fins. I have tasted sharks fin, but I don’t understand the attraction (to be honest) of the gelatinous fibres it dissolves into once cooked. The plaice on the right can be seen below with soy sauce.

The fishmongers at Tongchuan Lu are a very friendly bunch, helping us identify what might be nice to eat, and suggesting ways to cook it.

Once we decided on a stall with reasonable prices and healthy looking seafood we made our selection. Two whole plaice went flapping straight into a large red plastic bag, followed by 2 jin (1kg) of pipi prawns (scampi) and 1 jin of clams. A further jin of tiny fingernail clams was thrown in for free by our cheerful fishmonger, happy to have the first sale of the day.
He then took us three doors down to the restaurant to have the whole lot cooked, at the ridiculous price of 13 yuan ($2) per 500g. The plastic bags were handed over and some rapid-fire discussions between our fishmonger and the wait staff followed, after the pictureless Chinese menu proved to be a barrier for all of us. 
It became clear that the staff had decided themselves how our seafood should be cooked, and a fruitless discussion about whether we could have the clams with chili and blackbean was vetoed by the kitchen staff on the grounds that we didn’t know what we were talking about. They were right – the clams arrived sweet and creamy and perfectly cooked – gently steamed open and flavoured with ginger and chili, which didn’t overpower the delicate flavour of the clams as black bean might have done.  The tiny clams followed, cooked with soy, shaoxing wine and a touch of sugar, chili and ginger. Divine. So small they were almost impossible to eat with chopsticks, they were an exercise in patience and perseverance.

The pipi prawns were flash-fried with salt and pepper coating – crunchy, papery shells giving way to firm white flesh. Delicious. The entire kilo was gone in about five minutes flat. And lastly the plaice were steamed and dressed with a soy and ginger glaze, a perfect way to preserve the delicate fresh flavour of the fish. The four seafood dishes, plus noodles and two vegetable dishes, rice and tea, came to an unbelievable 170 yuan ($25) for six people.
While hunting for our lunch I had spotted a very atractive looking piece of salmon in one of the stalls, and at 70 yuan a kilo ($12) it was too good to pass up. On top of an old styrofoam box, positioned next to a dirty old bucket, the fishmonger used the sharpest cleaver I’ve ever seen to cut and trim the salmon into four manageable pieces. I ate it for dinner tonight, pan fried skin side down with oven roasted herbed cherry tomatoes, potatoes with capers, and asparagus.  Fantastic. I look forward to going back to get some more next time.
(Just an aside – if you do go, wear old shoes)

Shanghai Seafood Market (Shànghǎi Hǎixiān Shìchǎng 上海 海鲜 市场)

Tongchuan Lu, near Caoyang Lu 
Putuo, Shanghai


Open 24 hours

Shanghai Street Food #17 Mutton Polo

Every Friday morning after morning prayers at the Huxi Mosque on Changde Lu, Shanghai’s weekly Muslim Market starts up, a meeting place for the city’s predominately Islamic Uyghur population. The Uyghurs hail from Xinjiang, in far north-western China, and their cuisine is more closely associated with Central Asia – mutton, flatbreads, kebabs, samsa (samosas) and rice, flavoured with chili, cumin and pepper. The market is only small but has a great selection of foods on offer, and I’ll write more about these in a coming post. 

One of the popular dishes at the market is mutton polo پولۇ (pilaf). This man is cooking an enormous pan full of delicious savoury rice, flavoured with shreds of sweet carrot and studded with plump Xinjiang sultanas, and topped with chunks of flavoursome lamb as soft as butter. The lamb (or mutton) has to be quite fatty so that the polo can be flavoured by the melted fat.

You can sit alongside the stall on tiny plastic stools and eat your bowl of polo (10 yuan/bowl) with a steaming glass of Xinjiang tea. The markets have become a magnet for Shanghai’s expat population who like the food of far north-west China, much to the interest and amusement of the Uyhgur customers, like this family below who spent some time intently watching us eat then photographed us all with their own children. They distracted me so much I forgot to take a close-up photo of my delicious pilaf before I’d eaten the whole lot! 
Shanghai Friday Muslim Market, from 11am
Changde Lu in between Aomen Lu and Yichang Lu


Enjoy some more street food here!

The Shanghai Street Food Series

Number 1   Roast Sweet Potatoes
Number 2   Snack-on-a-stick 
Number 3   Liangpi – a spicy cold noodle dish
Number 4   Langzhou Lamian – hand-pulled noodles
Number 5   Cong You Bing – fried shallot pancakes
Number 6   Baozi – steamed buns, Shanghai style
Number 7   Jian Bing – the famous egg pancake
Number 8   Dan Gao – street cakes
Number 9   Shao mai – sticky rice treats
Number 10  Summer on a Stick – fresh fruits

Number 11  You Tiao – deep-fried breadsticks
Number 12  Dan Juan – egg rolls
Number 13  Shao Kao – street barbecue
Number 14  Bao Mi Hua – exploding rice flowers
Number 15  Chou Doufu – stinky tofu
Number 16  Bing Tang Shan Zha – crystal sugar hawthorns
Number 17  Mutton Polo
Number 18  Yumi Bang – puffed corn sticks
Number 19  Mian Hua Tang – cotton candy
Number 20  You Dunzi – fried radish cakes

Number 21  Suzhou Shi Yue Bing – homestyle mooncakes 
Number 22  Gui Hua Lian’ou – honeyed lotus root stuffed with sticky rice
Number 23  Cong You Ban Mian – scallion oil noodles
Number 24  Guotie – potsticker dumplings
Number 25  Nuomi Cai Tou – fried clover pancakes
Number 26  Da Bing, Shao Bing – sesame breakfast pastries
Number 27  Ci Fan – sticky rice breakfast balls
Number 28  Gui Hua Gao – steamed osmanthus cake
Number 29  Zongzi – bamboo leaf wrapped sticky rice
Number 30  Shengjianbao – pan-fried dumplings

Number 31  Mala Tang – DIY spicy soup

Shanghai’s One Dog Policy

Thanks to Shanghai’s Municipal Government we won’t be seeing scenes like this for much longer in Shanghai – a pair of fluffy pooches in matching pink hoodies out for a walk. From Shanghai has decided to introduce a ‘One Dog Policy’, announced this week and due to be implemented on May 15. Echoes of 1979’s One Child Policy are now making their way into pet ownership. Will a One Cat Policy follow? How about a One Turtle Policy?
According to The China Daily Shanghai has a real dog problem – 600,000 unlicensed dogs, 100,000 dog attack incidents each year, and in 2009, almost 140,000 cases of dog-inflicted wounds were reported, and ‘a number of deaths’ due to rabies.
Rabies is a real threat in China, and currently registered dogs have compulsory rabies vaccination and micro-chipping. Although many unlicensed dogs do have vaccinations, there is no way to enforce this. The current cost of registration (1000 yuan, $160) renders it prohibitive for most people, so the new legislation will reduce the cost of regisration to 300 yuan, but increase the fine for non-compliance.
In addition to formalising vaccination for dogs, the city also hopes the legislation will clean up the sidewalks, because if you don’t clean up after your dog you now risk a 200 yuan ($32) fine. From the scenes I see every morning on my street, that shouldn’t be an issue. Dog-lovers take their pooches outside, get them to squat over a folded piece of newspaper and then wipe their bottoms for them. The whole little package is then neatly deposited in the bin. 
According to Municipal Government the legislation on dog management makes it explicit that each household can have only one dog, given Shanghai’s high population density and limited living space.
If their dogs have puppies, dog owners should give them away to other eligible adopters or send them to government-approved adoption agencies by the time they are 3 months old, so as to abide by the one-dog policy.
The alternative‘, it said, ‘is for owners to perform sterilization surgery on their dogs‘. 
I am assuming here that they don’t actually mean for the owners to perform the surgery themselves, but to outsource that task to someone with slightly more veterinary skill. Here’s hoping.

Shanghai Aprons

As a cook, all things cooking related excite me. Pots. Pans. Knives, big sharp ones. Baking paper. Cupcake papers. Spoons. It’s a slightly narrow focus, I know, as all passions worth being passionate about are. I probably bore people silly with food talk when they say something off-hand like:
 ‘We went to that new restauarant on Xiangyang Lu last night’, expecting me to reply ‘That’s nice, who with?’ instead of twenty questions along these lines:
‘How did the interior look?’
‘What did you order first?’
‘How was the fish cooked?’ 
‘Do you think they were black beans or fermented soy beans?’
‘What did you eat after that?’
‘Did they flash-fry it first, then braise it?’
‘Do you remember the Chinese name for that dish?’
‘Was that the soup with the pieces of spongy stuff in it? You know that’s pig’s skin, right?’
Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera…..It’s a wonder I have any friends at all, but luckily they’re mostly as interested in food as I am. Luckily.
To each their own, I say – some people are motorcycle buffs, some are modern art fiends, others, like all of us, are into cooking – which brings me to the aprons. 
Excitingly, Chinese aprons come in two seasonal varieties: a long-sleeved smock variety, for winter cooking, and a sleeveless style with either a halter-neck strap, or two over the shoulder straps, pinafore style, for warm weather. I can get as excited about a chirpy spotty red apron as I can about a springform pan or a really nice set of steamer baskets. Tragic, isn’t it?
Now that spring is on its way the apron shops are full of colourful spring aprons, all around 10 yuan ($1.60) each. Just like the ones hanging in the picture, you can buy them at any of the ubiquitous bucket and mop shops in Shanghai, along with the 2 yuan (30 cent) elasticised sleeve covers I love, plus all your blocked plumbing needs (plungers, pipe thingies, draino – unblocking blocked plumbing is a major DIY business here in Shanghai, where the pipes seem to be about the width of a pipe cleaner). 
The aprons come in every imaginable cheerful colour, and almost all are decorated with a cute picture of Xi Yang Yang, the small woolly star of the mega-watt kids’ cartoon, ‘Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf’. You’ll have never heard of it but it’s very big in China, and it gives me a kick to think of all the millions of small woolly faces smiling out from all the millions of aprons hanging on kitchen hooks all over China. Happy cooking!

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

Bricked In Then Busting Through The Great Firewall

Well, its been an interesting week here in the PRC. Just before I was to publish the following post, I lost my internet ‘lifeline’ – my VPN, or Virtual Private Network, a little downloaded device that allows my laptop to pretend that it lives in any one of 80 exciting locations outside China (Washington! New York! London!), and therefore can access all the sites the rest of the world enjoys freely, including blogger. But suddenly the lifeline went dead, as I frantically tried all of their far-flung ports (Rio! Helsinki! Phoenix Arizona!) in the hope that the internet hacks at Communist Party HQ would be less interested in blocking them. No luck. All 80 ports blocked, and to add insult to injury Gmail went down too. For days five days I’ve lived in a bubble of frustration, unable to access this blog, my emails, the English language news, or anything much else. 
Periodically we experience internet crackdowns like this one, usually before any major event or public holiday – the October National Holiday is a predictable annual nightmare as the internet slows to a crawl and various sites pop on and off, and prior to the Olympics and Expo many more sites were blocked. There is usually some way around it if you know where to look, but this time I couldn’t find a way out. The Great Firewall had me trapped. And the reason why? Everyone is assuming the heightening conflict in Libya is the cause, but really, we don’t know. There could be another Uighur uprising in Western China, for example, but no whisper of it has reached Shanghai. If you hear anything, would you let me know??

Walking the streets of Shanghai you could rightly assume, as you stroll past The Apple Store, GAP, Lacoste, Adidas, Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Tiffany, that you are living in the largest free market in the world. It’s only when certain freedoms are curtailed that you remember you are at the beck and call of the CCP, and if it suits them they can be really, really annoying.
I finally found an alternate VPN,  and it’s now up and running thanks to their clever tech support staff working remotely from who knows where to load it onto my computer. I just can’t give you the name of the company, because those hacks will get wind of where to stir up trouble next. Wonder how long this one will last?

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