China's Haunting Soups


Photo by Jarrett Wrisley

"The taste was like gazing into a deep, ancient pool."

That sentence, written by Fuchsia Dunlop in this excellent New Yorker article, rattled around in my head for a long time, for several reasons. First, it is a strange and beautiful way to describe the way a liquid tastes. Second, I understand what she means: I too have tasted the dense, dark stocks of a well-trained Chinese chef. And they taste like time gone by.

Many Chinese chefs--and especially those cooking in the homestyle (jia chang cai) realm of restaurant food--have turned their back on the essential technique of making stock. Instead, flavored powders dissolved in water finish off stir-fries, strengthen soups or simmer vegetables. Dust to dust.

The cold dishes were hushed and wonderful--while much Chinese food shouts, these dishes whispered.

So when I was in China last week I went to see what Dunlop (and a few food-obsessed friends in Shanghai) have been talking about. We boarded a van on a clear October morning, and watched the industrialized countryside slide by on one of China's bland, new superhighways. For nearly three hours we drove--from Shanghai to the neighboring city of Hangzhou--before getting stuck in the barking traffic that wound around Hangzhou's West Lake. Once a beautiful muse for artists and poets, the lake is one of China's most storied tourist destinations. Which means that on Chinese holidays, it's intolerably crowded.

But as we turned off the growling loop and headed up the terraced hills towards Long Jing (Dragon Well), where some of China's most precious tea bushes grow, the traffic disappeared. Pulling into the restaurant, all you could see were mountains, gardens and neatly trimmed rows of tea. The tea bushes covered the hills like green corduroy.

Dragon Well is an exceptional restaurant for its mission alone: The owner serves locally foraged or organically grown produce, in an area of the China that has largely lost touch with the land. As we approached our private dining room, which sits in a series of Ming Dynasty-style pavilions, the only sounds were birds chirping, and the oiled snap of a lone gardener's shears. We all felt very far from Shanghai.

Our meal began brilliantly. My best experiences--or should I say my most pleasant surprises in Chinese cuisine--are cold dishes executed well. Here, the cold dishes were hushed and wonderful--while much Chinese food shouts, these dishes whispered--eloquently making their case with pure flavors highlighted with sugar, vinegar, or stock.

We ate kaofu, wheat gluten that is steamed and spongy; there were baby cucumbers with a skin that snapped and tasted of spring earth; a fish braised in soy and Shaoxing wine; tiny soybeans cooked with salty jinhua ham and chicken stock. It was a highly unusual meal in modern China--we ate far more vegetables than meat, and a single stir-fry did not pass our lips. And then I ate something that was hauntingly good.

It was a stock, "made with a three-year-old duck that walks free and forages for these bugs," said our waitress. She held up a cicada, its shiny shell looking a little bit like a piece of caramel popcorn. "The soup is cooked for four and a half hours, with the insect that the bird eats, and some herbs," she said.

Both the duck meat and a large bug floated in my bowl. I ate them both, but no matter. They had already surrendered all of themselves to the stock. And it was so rich and restorative, so pure and so profoundly delicious that that is now what I can't get out of my head.

And so, in a few slurps, a sentence was replaced by an unshakable taste.

For reservations and directions to Dragon Well Manor, call +86-0571-87888777.