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Grocer and Ham Expert, Shao Xing

This kindly camo-wearing grocer operates a stall in the big wet-market in Shao Xing. While stumbling around in the rain yesterday we practically fell into the wet-market entrance, and the first stall we came across was his. A neater, tidier little shop I have never seen (one of these days I’ll post some behind-the-scenes photos of the barely managed chaos that is my local grocery store in Shanghai).
These grocery shops can be found in the corner position of every wet market, and they sell dry goods of all kinds, from bottled sauces (soy, oyster, chili) to dried pulses (millet, soybeans, mungbeans), dried fruits (red dates, Xinjiang sultanas) and lastly dried meats, jellyfish, shrimp and fish. 
This fellow’s specialty was clearly ham, and I have never seen so many good looking pig’s legs in one place. Jinghua ham, Yunnan ham, cured pork belly, it was all here. He passed me various cuts to smell – all the different hams have different curing processes, so the aroma of each is quite different. An entire leg of cured Jinghua ham cost 150 yuan ($25) and came in its own tennis-racquet shaped plastic holder with a handle. If I hadn’t already bought two heavy porcelain bottles of Shao Xing wine I would have been sorely tempted to take one back to Shangai to hang in the kitchen for the winter.  I could take it down and saw bits off as needed, all medieval-like. 
I think you can tell a lot about a town by the state of its wet markets and grocers. Shao Xing looks to be in pretty good shape – a vibrant food and wine culture, a well-maintained and very clean wet market, and little gems like this shop here there and everywhere. Just planning my next trip there now…..

Just Spit the Bones on the Table: Shao Xing Lunch

Shao Xing has, in one fell swoop, managed to turn my pre-conception of tourist restaurants as being overpriced, underflavoured traps on its head. Trying to escape the relentless rain near Lu Xun street, we followed a small conga line of umbrellas into the Xianheng Restaurant (open since 1894). Ahead of us, a huge hall opened out, filled with black laquered square tables and low square stools. There were two hundred people inside, all with the excited buzz and anticipation that comes with a great meal.

The main tourist street of Shao Xing is right outside the restaurant, the site of the birthplace and childhood home of China’s most celebrated modern writer, Lu Xun (1881-1936). I guess that, seeing as the restaurant opened when Lu Xun was only thirteen, it can’t really be accused of capitalising on his fame, but it now feeds around eight hundred tourists every day. Very well, as it turns out.

There is no menu, just a long open kitchen and glass shelves stacked with bowls and dishes of fabulous food. You buy a card at the cashier, pre-loaded with a cash value you decide, then line up at the kitchen and point to what you’d like. Traditionally, the ‘Ten Dishes Feast’ was a way to celebrate a meal when family come together. It wasn’t hard to find ten dishes I liked the look of: Xian Beng chicken pickled in fermented rice wine sauce, dried beancurd with Kalimeris Indica, red dates in Tandiao rice wine, dried bream seasoned with soy sauce, or pork belly with fermented green vegetables.

We settled on the crispy skinned chicken – crunchy, salty and with tender and succulent meat; green peppers with eggplant and fermented beans; the pork belly – sweet, melting cubes of pork belly resting on a pile of shredded, salted, preserved green vegetables; and smoky red dates cooked in tiajiao wine. The smoky flavour of the dates was a real surprise, and married well with their sweetness. Not surprisingly the food goes really well with Shao Xing wine, although we stuck with fresh green tea poured from a simple white porcelain teapot with blue trim into small white cups stamped with the restaurant’s trademark. 
Around us the chatter of families enjoying lunch was rising to a crescendo. There were piles of spat out bones, seeds, prawn shells, and snail shells in piles next to each and every person. All that was left of our meal was the chicken’s head. That crispy chicken was good. Really good. But I still can’t bring myself to eat the head.

Xian Heng Restaurant (Xian Heng Jiu Dian) 
179 Luxun Zhong Lu, Yuecheng District, Shao Xing



Open 7 days for lunch and dinner

Ph: +86 (0)575 8511 6666

Happy Under the Umbrellas in Shao Xing

The woman in the seat behind me on the train has taken off her mock-patent leather high heels and slipped into a much more comfortable pair of gigantic plush Minnie Mouse slippers for the two hour journey from Shanghai to Shao Xing, home to famous rice wine. She’s looking forward to having two days off to relax and enjoy herself, starting now with her slippers. I love leaving Shanghai for the weekend too, to see somewhere new. I love pulling up at Shanghai South Railway Station on a Friday afternoon, jostling through the weekend crowds to get to the waiting room, and then the mad pushing, shoving rush on to the train, despite all of us having pre-assigned seats.
When we arrive in Shao Xing, it’s raining. Hard. Typhoon Megi is off the coast far, far away and so we’re in for a wet, wet weekend. Shao Xing is an ancient trading town with a network of water canals and flagstone streets, and with the atmosphere of a big village despite its population being similar to Sydney. 
Today, as we wander the narrow canal-side lanes in the wet, I see a rainbow procession of dripping umbrellas everywhere I look, and below each umbrella is a happy red face. When Chinese people visit a new place they always try the local specialties, be it hairy crabs or ginger candies or mountain tea. In Shao Xing the local specialty is the rice wine, mellow, smooth and warming; so even tee-totallers may decide to have a glass at one of the many wineshops as they enjoy the local ambience. The wine shops are filled with enormous stone pitchers of aged wine, and shelf after shelf of small decorative bottles in fancy boxes, for gifts. When Chinese people drink wine it tends to turn their faces red, and so the town is filled with cheery, flushed tourists all having a great time. Even though it’s pouring and we’re all drenched, we’re happy. I like a town dedicated to enjoying yourself.