As one of the consultants for the Hangzhou Cuisine Museum, in the capital of eastern China’s Zhejiang province, I was thrilled to learn that our museum, along with several other food establishments, would be entrusted with the task of designing and preparing the 2016 summit state banquet.
To accommodate this high-level reception, we began outlining the dinner more than a year in advance. First, we held a Hangzhou cuisine competition to help select the best local dishes for the summit. Then we divided ourselves into teams that would focus on different aspects of the banquet, like garnishing, cooking, and serving. We wanted to create something that gave a nod to international eating habits and diets, while simultaneously fusing in aspects of traditional Hangzhou cuisine.
Introducing Hangzhou cuisine to the world has actually been the mission of the museum since day one. From 2009, I was involved in the content creation and design planning of the museum, and since its official opening in March 2012, I have been involved in collecting and documenting local food history, and promoting Hangzhou culinary culture.
It is a fact that food and its associated traditions can provide a lens through which to observe a culture. In the past, the standard way for people to learn about Hangzhou’s culinary lifestyles was to visit restaurants or speak with locals. However, the cuisine museum seeks to collect all this information in one place and present it in a clear, organized fashion.
And truly, dating back more than 2,000 years, the Hangzhou culinary tradition deserves recognition. Owing to its history as a rich capital city, the ingredients used in Hangzhou are typically of a higher-quality than other provinces. The dishes are often less greasy than other Chinese food, and are noted for their abundant use of bamboo shoots. The Hangzhou tradition forms one part of Zhejiang cuisine, which is recognized as one of the Eight Great Cuisines of China, and is famous for the freshness of its ingredients, owing to the province’s abundant natural wildlife and greenery.
Our museum is located on the side of Yuhuang Mountain just south of Hangzhou’s world-renowned West Lake, and is surrounded by a bamboo forest. The building was designed by Cui Kai, the vice president of China Architecture Design & Research Group.
In the museum showroom, visitors are introduced to the historical evolution of the cuisine. Perhaps one of the most critical moments of development occurred during the Southern Song dynasty, when the Song government declared Hangzhou the new capital of the dynasty in 1132 A.D. after the city of Kaifeng was lost to Jurchen insurgents from the north. China’s financial resources were transferred to Hangzhou, the city flourished, and the aristocracy and royal family helped develop local cuisine through extravagant feasts.
Some of these feasts have been recreated using silica gel models. One of particular renown is the “Qinghe Banquet” that was hosted by nobleman Zhang Jun in 1151 A.D. for Chancellor Qin Hui and Emperor Gaozong. Above some of these recreations are big screens showing modern-day chefs preparing the dishes. Another important figure featuring in the museum is Su Shi, one of China’s most famous Renaissance men, who is credited with inventing one of Hangzhou’s most famous dishes — the red-braised Dongpo pork.
Next, the museum makes mention of the foreign travelers who have helped Hangzhou’s culinary traditions gain exposure abroad. Marco Polo visited the city in the 13th century and praised the local cuisine and culture in his travel logs. Numerous missionaries, especially the Jesuits, recorded their dining experiences in Hangzhou, including Michael Boym and Martino Martini in the 17th century.
Finally, after emerging from this historical expedition, visitors can sit down and have an authentic bite of Hangzhou. There are three dining rooms that offer up different styles of cuisine. Visitors can order up “a taste from the past” — the cuisine displayed in the showroom — or try the dishes served up at the G-20 summit, like Longjing Shrimp, another local dish that has become famous overseas.
The fact that Hangzhou and our museum in particular was selected to feed the hungry mouths of the world’s statesmen gives me hope for the future of our local cuisine. Our food has been around for more than 2,000 years, and will hopefully be around for 2,000 more.
(Header image: The Qinghe Banquet is pictured at the Hangzhou Cuisine Museum, Zhejiang province. Courtesy of Zhou Hongcheng)