Shaoxing wine and fennel beans

Updated: 2011-07-10 07:48

By Pauline D Loh (China Daily)

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Shaoxing wine and fennel beans

Stinky toufu - pungent but tender deep-fried bean curd chunks. Pauline D Loh / China Daily

Shaoxing wine and fennel beans


Pauline D Loh visits a restaurant named after a character from revolutionary writer Lu Xun's novels.

It is a lifestyle long past, when diners in long robes lingered over tea and nuts and exchanged convoluted discourses on current affairs and the latest winning essays by the top scholars of imperial examinations.

Underneath that veneer of civility ran the undercurrents of revolution, fueled by discontent against the hypocrisy of a feudal system outdated by Western threats and modern science.

China was on the brink of change.

In 1912, Lu Xun, a young man from Shaoxing in the Jiangnan region, had arrived in Beijing full of hope and idealism to join the new government. He would be one of New China's most revolutionary authors, hitting out at the old social order in his essays.

In one novel, he parodied the poverty-stricken scholar who pinned all his hopes on winning an official title at the imperial examinations, yet failed to even score well each time. This was Kong Yiji, the title character of Lu Xun's book, and one of his most memorable, more because of the pathos rather than his heroics.

Lu Xun described him as adopting the scholar's long robes, with none of the scholar's good breeding, a thief who stole from his employers and preferred to scrounge around for handouts rather than earn his keep with honest labor. When he had a little cash, he would swagger into a restaurant and order wine and a platter of fennel-flavored fava beans.

That is probably the reason why you'll find a similar platter of beans on almost every table at the Kong Yiji Restaurant. It is a taste of the past, and perhaps a reminder that better times are here.

Kong Yiji serves food from the Jiangnan region, an area south of the Yangtze River that broadly sweeps across Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. Lu Xun's hometown was in Shao-xing, a place where the famous yellow wine is brewed.

The restaurant is very atmospheric. Treading across the distressed wood floors past the calligraphy on the wall is almost like going a step back in time, at least until the sudden clamor of a cell phone followed by a strident "wei?" jolt you out of the daydream.

Even the menu is styled like an old textbook, with vertical calligraphy listing out appetizers, cold plates, hot dishes and of course, the Jiangnan specialties.

My mother-in-law comes from Shaoxing, and every dish reminded her of home, especially the fennel-flavored beans, the yellow croaker in saffron chicken broth, the deep-fried stinky tofu and most of all, a pair of drunken crabs.

"It's not smelly enough," she says of the stinky bean-curd, but the rest of us were quite happy with the pungent tofu, which is a little like eating fried blue cheese but much lighter in texture.

The stir-fried youtiao with beef was an unexpected delight. Deep-fried chunks of dough fritters are lightly tossed with slices of beef and coated with a sweet and sour sauce. The contrast in texture - a little crunch, a little stickiness and then the chewiness of the beef - made it a very tactile experience.

The most expensive item on our bill was the steamed yellow croaker in saffron chicken broth. The fish is lightly cured in salt, and then steamed in a clear, golden broth - very typical of Jiangnan cuisine, which emphasizes the pure natural flavors of the ingredients.

The curing process gives the fish a tighter texture, and just a little bite from the saltiness. But the main attraction is the broth, which is savory, full-flavored and ideal with a bowl of steamed rice.

My mother-in-law enjoyed her drunken crabs. These are little river crabs cleaned and then pickled raw in wine dregs, chopped ginger and garlic, salt, sugar and white liquor. The marinade both flavors and preserves the crabs, and the crabmeat becomes a little gelatinous. It is, however, an acquired taste, and only the two of us merrily demolished the pair that was sent to the table.

Another spectacular dish was the soy sauce-braised pork hock, which was presented whole in a deep platter. The serving staff then cut it with a knife, and it fell apart at a touch. The best part, as any seasoned gourmet will tell you, is the skin and tendons, reduced to a quivering, delicious tenderness.

Jiangnan flavors have none of the in-your-face spiciness of other imported Beijing cuisines. There is no cumin, very little star anise, no Sichuan peppercorns, no unbearably hot chilies. Instead, you get delicate dishes, with natural goodness coaxed out with a little salt, sugar and soy sauce.

Our bill for a table of eight came up to just over 600 yuan, but the fish took up a third of the total, so it can still be very affordable if you skip the piscine pleasure.

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