Hangzhou’s food follows a history as long as the city itself. Most people outside of China have never heard of Hangzhou, but the city has a long and prosperous history. Hangzhou is the largest city in Zhejiang Province (where Shanghai is), and is only about 1 hour from Shanghai.
There is historical evidence that people have been living around Hangzhou for nearly 7000 years, and it was made the seat of a prefecture in 589. For the last millennia it has been one of China’s most economically successful cities, and continues to be today.
The histories progress of this city has given it a rich culinary background. Hangzhou food is most known for its careful preparation, and fragrant, aromatic flavors, and of course, it's long history.
1. Beggar’s Chicken
Beggar’s Chicken is a traditional Chinese food that originates in Hangzhou, despite various claims from many other regions. During his visit to China in 1972, Richard Nixon reported that he quite liked the dish.
Although there are a few variations throughout China, the Hangzhou version involves wrapping a whole spiced and stuffed chicken in lotus leaves and clay, then slowly baked in a low heat over an open fire. A single chicken my take up to six hours to prepare. The mud forms a hard shell around the chicken which can easily be cracked open after the baking process.
Preparation is quite flexible, it can be cooked in ovens, fire pits, outdoor grills, and barbecue racks. Dough, ceramic cooking pots, or convection ovens can also take the place of the chicken’s clay shell, as each alternative helps retain moisture.
2. Dongpo Pork
Arguable Hangzhou’s most famous food, Dongpo Pork is named after Su Dongpo, a legendary poet from the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Su Dongpo was banished to Hangzhou after offending city officials with his poetry. In Hangzhou he continued writing poetry and his other love affair- cooking. His style of pork was so popular and unique that it acquired his name.
Dongpo Pork is prepared by cutting thick cubes of pork belly about 5 cm by 5 cm (2 inches). The cubes are half fat and half lean meat, with the skin still attached. It is oily and especially aromatic cooked with wine or tea. The meat is first blanched, then cooked in a pan.
After the pan cooking, the pork is cooked in water again with either tea or wine. It then may be steamed, with spring onion stalks flavoring it from their place at the bottom of the steamer. The result is a fragrant and tender cube of pork.
3. Victory Cake
Dingsheng Gao, or Victory Cake in English, is a popular light snack among Hangzhou locals. It has a sweet and fragrant flavor, with a waxy, soft, and crunchy texture. It’s pink color connotes dinsheng, I.E. victory.
Osmanthus flowers, one of the important ingredients of Victory Cake
Victory Cake is made from a soft a rice gluten outside, which forms a delicate shell around its contents. The inside of the cake is a mix of red bean paste, white sugar, and Osmanthus flowers, which give the cake its sweet, flowery flavor. The low cost of this filling treat has made it a high-value snack that many locals and visitors favor.
4. Wu Shan Crisp Cake
Popular throughout China for the last 300 years, Wu Shan Crisp Cakes originated in Fengwu Hill (Wu Shan), in Hangzhou. The cakes even have a mention in a famous Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) book The Scholars.
Wu Shan Crisp Cake
The legend states that General Zhao Kuangyin was besieged and couldn’t feed his troops. He was given these cakes by locals, and went on to overcome the siege and triumph. Zhao Kuangyin went on to found the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Thus began the 700-plus year history of Crisp Cakes. After the cakes were introduced to Wu Hill, the locals began to use better flavoring and they grew tremendously in popularity.
Wu Hill Cakes are made from flour and white sugar, and then fried in peanut oil until golden brown. The cakes are sweet and crispy, without being greasy. They resemble little golden hills with a cap of sugary snow.
5. Longjing Shrimp
Longjing Shrimp, or Fried Shrimp with Dragon Well Tea, in English, is a Hangzhou specialty. This aromatic, light dish is a very unique treat.
Legend says the dish was created when the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty visited southern China.
It is made from stir-fried river prawns, coated with egg whites and starch, fried in lard for about 15 seconds. When the shrimp reach a white color, they are removed from the oil and fried over boiling Longjing (dragon well) tea infused with tea leaves and wine.
6. West Lake Fish in Vinegar Sauce
West Lake Fish in Sweet and Sour Sauce (xi hu cu yu, in Chinese) is a flexible local dish that is savory, sweet, sour, and uses a variety of spices. West Lake is a large body of water that dominates Hangzhou city. The lake has a long history and has affected much of the city’s culture- West Lake Fish pays tribute to this influential body of water.
West Lake Fish in Vinegar Sauce
Xi Hu Cu Yu dates back to the Song Dynasty. A restaurateur, names Sister Song, ran a restaurant near Tangential Gate near West Lake, Hangzhou, where she cooked fish soup. When the Gaozong Emperor visited, and liked the soup, he spoke highly of Sister Song’s cooking. As she developed renown thanks to the Emperor, she created her own dish- West Lake Fish in Sweet and Sour Sauce.
Another legend claims that a sick man was unable to go to the doctor because of his poverty. His sister-in-law caught a fish from West Lake and cooked it with only vinegar and sugar. After eating this vinegar fish, the man was miraculously better, and the dish stayed a popular Hangzhou signature meal ever since.
Whichever legend is true, the dish is a delicious Hangzhou specialty.
The main ingredient is grass carp, which is not fed for two days before preparation, so that it may rid itself of impurities. The fish served with green onion, ginger, white pepper, soy sauce, cooking wine, vinegar, starch, and white sugar. The fish is first boiled in a walk with water, when the fish is removed, the other ingredients are added, and then cooked to make the sweet and sour flavored sauce.
7. Stewed Bamboo Shoots
Stewed Bamboo Shoots
This vegetarian dish is a popular local dish, made from – you guessed it – bamboo. The bamboo shoots are quite healthy, offering a fibrous mix of dietary minerals such as potassium and calcium, and vitamin B1. Bamboo shoots may be a part of other dishes, or they may be served on their own.
The bamboo shoots are pickled in vinegar and cooked via stewing, frying, or sauteing. The dish has a tender texture and a rich flavor.
8. Sister Song’s Fish Broth
Sister Song’s Fish Broth
Sister Song’s legacy goes on and on. Besides her famous West Lake Fish in Vinegar Sauce, her original dish was the fish stew. This is the stew that she initially served the Gaozong Emperor of the Song Dynasty, attaining her initial restaurateur fame.
This thick soupy broth is made with mushrooms, ham, ginger, pepper, vinegar, wine, and of course fish. The smooth, easy texture is reminiscent to many diners of crab meat, and makes for a mouth-watering local specialty.
9. Fried Tofu Skin Rolls
Deep fried rolls of tofu skin may not sound that appetizing if you've never had them before, but this crispy, savory snack is a great snack to have when you visit Hangzhou.
Fried Tofu Skin Rolls
Tofu Skin is made by boiling soy milk and collecting the thin layer that forms on top. This soft and rubbery tofu skin is a common dish throughout China, prepared in countless different ways.
Hangzhou Fried Tofu Skin Rolls are prepared with thin tofu skin sheets wrapped around minced pork. The rolls are then deep fried until the tofu skin is crispy, and golden-brown. Usually they are served with sweet and sour sauce.
10. Pian’er Chuan Noodles
Pian’er Chuan Noodles
This dish may be a mouthful just to say for non-Chinese, but it's a tasty, savory, sour meal that shouldn't be missed when you visit Hangzhou. With over a century of popularity, Pian'er Chuan Noodles are also a favorite among locals.
The noodles are a bowl of thin noodles, with pork, bamboo shoots, and pickled vegetables. The soupy noodles are prepared in many different ways throughout Hangzhou, you could easily have this meal every day for a month without having the same exact dish twice.
Good Restaurants to Get Hangzhou Food
1) Lo Wai Lu Restaurant
- Address: 30 Gushan Rd, Hangzhou 31007
- Address in Chinese: 杭州鼓山路30号31007
- Phone: +86 571 8796 9023
- Recommends: Beggar’s Chicken, West Lake Fish in Vinegar Sauce, Longjing Shrimp, Stewed Bamboo Shoots, Sister Song's Fish Broth
2) Grandma’s Home (Chain Restaurant)
- Address: HuanCheng North Road 258, HangZhou Mansion d Tower 5 Floor,Hangzhou
- Address in Chinese: 杭州市环城北路258号杭州大厦D座5楼
- Phone: +86 571 8527 8237
- Recommends: Dongpo Pork, Beggar’s Chicken
3) Zhi Wei Guan (Chain Restaurant)
- Address: No.83 Renhe Road, Shangcheng District, Hangzhou
- Address in Chinese: 杭州市上城区仁和路83号
- Phone: +86 571 8701 8638
- Recommends: Dongpo Pork, Sister Song's Fish Broth, Pian’er Chuan Noodles
4) HuiJuan Mianguan
- Address: WangJiang Road 130,Hangzhou
- Address in Chinese: 杭州市望江路130号
- Phone: +86 571 8780 5323
- Recommends: Pian’er Chuan Noodles, any local Hangzhou noodle dish
5) Qing He Fang Street (Food Street)
Recommends: Victory Cakes, Wu Shan Crisp Cakes, Fried Tofu Skin Rolls