The world on a plate
Red-braised beef, a highly recommended offerings by Dan Cha Fan restaurant. [Photo by Gao Erqiang/China Daily]
An eatery in 'China's Venice' is enthralling visitors from different parts of the world. Xu Junqian reports in Wuzhen, Zhejiang.
Wu Xinhua cooks at a restaurant with no more than 50 seats in a town of 50,000 residents. He compares it to serving guests at a United Nations' dining room.
"Basically, I'm feeding and pleasing people from every corner of the world," says the 38-year-old, who has worked in the kitchen for over two decades.
The helmsman of Dan Cha Fan restaurant - the name literally translates as "bland tea and meals" - in Zhejiang province's water town, Wuzhen, means what he says.
He's running one of the most popular restaurants in one of the country's most popular tourist destinations. Wuzhen receives about 8 million annual visits.
The 1,300-year-old settlement is celebrated for its canal network and ancient architecture.
It underwent a major face-lift at the start of the century and became a hot spot on the tourism map about a decade ago. It has since drawn visitors with its waterways, rice paddy fields and traditional white buildings with black-tile roofs.
Wu Xinhua works on the final touch of a dish at Dan Cha Fan restaurant in Wuzhen. The helmsman of the popular eatery creates dishes with inspiration from different styles of cuisine. [Photo by Gao Erqiang/China Daily]
Wuzhen has gained international acclaim as the host of an annual theater festival and the World Internet Conference since 2014.
President Xi Jinping invited Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev for dinner at Dan Cha Fan during the 2015 conference.
Wu believes food quality is more important than location.
"I don't want to just run a restaurant that's celebrated as Wuzhen's best," Wu says.
"I also want my food to linger on the palates and in the memories of the sophisticated Shanghai or Beijing guests, who've been to some of the most famous fine-dining restaurants in their own cities, if not the world."
The Hangzhou native moved to the idyllic town to enjoy a slower pace of life five years ago. He'd previously apprenticed and worked at a constellation of high-end restaurants and five-star hotels, serving spicy Sichuan, delicate Cantonese and refined Huaiyang cuisines in Zhejiang's capital.
These experiences not only explain Wu's ambition to compete with the best restaurants in Shanghai and Beijing from a small town but also make it possible for him to do so.
Chinese northwest-style cold noodles made of spaghetti by Dan Cha Fan restaurant.[Photo by Gao Erqiang/China Daily]
Wuzhen is a melting pot of fare from the surrounding areas. The town is a trade and commerce hub that borders two provinces, three cities and seven counties. It was once an important stopover for boats traveling along the Yangtze River before automobiles became widely accessible in China.
"There's no such thing as Wuzhen cuisine," Wu says.
"Authentic Wuzhen food is a pinch of this and a dash of that from every Chinese cuisine."
That said, the town does have distinctive dishes, such as dried soy-sauce duck, which Wu serves atop his restaurant's sandalwood tables.
It's common to see young girls nibbling on drumsticks or wings while walking along the cobblestone streets next to bridges reflected in the canals.
Wu borrows from Cantonese cuisine for his version of soy-sauce duck. He uses male ducks younger than a year old, so they're flavorful yet tender. And he marinates the meat in soy sauce, garlic, chili peppers and anise.
Dried soy-sauce duck by Dan Cha Fan restaurant.[Photo by Gao Erqiang/China Daily]
Dan Cha Fan's red-braised beef main course takes inspiration from the Western brisket that's traditionally slow cooked in red wine, but it instead uses locally produced brown-rice liquor.
The meat is fork tender and savory, with a subtle aftertaste of the alcohol. The fat content is perfect to prevent the meat from drying out during six hours of stewing.
Wu takes pride in the eatery's pig offal. We devoured the dish of the leftovers from the liquor-making process and a pig's worth of entrails soaked in yellow broth.
The first spoonful was like the key to Pandora's box. The pot was empty before dessert arrived.
We were a group of five from Singapore and places throughout China - not quite a "United Nations".
But we all enjoyed the meal tremendously, irrespective of our gastronomic backgrounds.