Monday, July 11, 2016

A light summer chowder from Zhejiang's West Lake

If you have ever looked at an old Chinese blue-and-white porcelain dish covered with willow trees and fanciful rocks and elegant pagodas and moon bridges, you are probably looking at a picture of West Lake, or somewhere thereabouts. This ancient vacation spot has been beloved by poets and literati for ages, for it is one of those ideal landscapes that manage to insert mankind into nature in some indefinably perfect way.

West Lake probably got its name because it is located to the west of Zhejiang Province’s capital city of Hangzhou. Like the idyllic gardens surrounding this body of water, the lake itself is a mixture of the artificial and the natural, since it actually is a Tang dynasty reservoir – meaning it is over 1,200 years old – an engineering feat of no small accomplishment. One of the possible byproducts of this new and vast supply of freshwater to the good folks of Hangzhou was that city turned into the country’s new imperial  for a couple of succeeding dynasties, and in the process transforming West Lake into a cultural, as well as an aquatic, conduit.
Chinese blue-and-white landscape

This is one of the many reasons why Zhejiang possesses one of my favorites of all of China’s cuisines. I probably can count on one hand the few places where I would happily dine for the rest of my life, and Zhejiang always makes the cut. One of the reasons for this is that tastes from all over China manage to work their way into the local pantries, so excellent dried and cured things add depth to the dishes.

But perhaps even more importantly, fresh ingredients are practically a way of life there. Classic Zhejiang dishes rely on stellar vegetables and the flesh of animals that were living and breathing just moments ago. Life therefore vibrates in these foods, like the scent of bamboo shoots still warm from the sun or the spectrum that flashes off a fish when it is so fresh that rainbows dance up and down its skin. In most of these dishes, great soy sauce, mellow rice wines, rock sugar, and ginger – either in concert or just one or two at a time – cavort in the background and turn each dish into a celebration.

One of my all-time favorites is this, a summertime soup that is just as easy to make as it is to polish off with a happy sigh. As always, get your hands on the best ingredients you can find, since there are no heavy sauces or strong flavors to mask apathetic offerings from the supermarket. Good stock is a must, and if you don’t have homemade, locate some fine quality commercial brand, preferably organic and as lightly salted as possible, since many are so saline that they can easily tip the balance of the seasonings in here. That’s how delicate West Lake Beef Chowder is.
Soft, soft ivory cubes

Most traditional recipes for this call for cilantro as the main green, but my husband once suggested watercress, and it turned out to be an inspired idea. Cilantro, while beautiful and tasty here, can tend to overwhelm, especially if you are not a huge fan. But watercress plays nice with others. There’s a gentle peppery bite in there that keeps the mouth awake while it is being otherwise soothed by the creamy broth, wisps of egg white and beef, and tiny cubes of custardy bean curd and black mushrooms. Perfect balance is what you always aim for in any classic Chinese dish, but in Zhejiang it is even more important, as you will find in this amazing summer chowder.

West Lake beef chowder
Xīhú níuròu gēng  西湖牛肉羹
Serves 4 to 6

1 quart / 1l unsalted or lightly salted beef stock
1 quart / 1l boiling water
2 tablespoons / 15g finely chopped fresh ginger (about 5 thin slices)
1 teaspoon sugar
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Aromatic mushroomy cubes

The rest:
7 ounces / 200g soft bean curd (half a block)
2 ounces / 110g fresh black mushrooms (around 3 large), or dried and plumped up (see Tips)
¼ to ½ bunch very fresh watercress or cilantro
8 ounces / 235g thinly sliced flank steak (see Tips)
2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon water
1 egg white lightly beaten with 1 tablespoon water
2 to 3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

1. First put the beef stock and water on to simmer in a 3-quart / 3-liter pan. Add the ginger, sugar, and black pepper. Lower the heat to a gentle simmer and let it cook in the background while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

2. Slice the bean curd horizontally into 5 or so thin wafers and then lengthwise into strips, and then finally crosswise to form a bunch of tiny white cubes. They don’t have to be exact, but the more uniform they are, the prettier your chowder will be. Just saying.
A touch of bite to the mix

3. Remove the stems from the mushrooms and slice the caps horizontally so that they are around the same thickness as your bean curd cubes. Then, slice these into cubes. Rinse the watercress, trim off any tough ends, and chop this coarsely so that they will look complementary to the rest of the ingredients. Do the same with the beef. (This recipe can be done ahead up to this point and all these elements refrigerated. About 30 minutes before serving, bring the stock to a boil again and then proceed.)

4. Add the bean curd and mushrooms to the stock and bring to a full boil before reducing the heat to a simmer. Allow the mushrooms about 15 minutes to release their flavors into the soup, and also to give the bean curd a chance to absorb them. About 5 minutes before serving, bring the soup to a boil and stir in the beef and the cornstarch mixture. Gently stir the soup as it thickens up into a chowder, and as soon as the meat has turned from red to gray, remove the pan from the heat, adjust the seasoning, and stir in the watercress or cilantro. Drizzle the egg white over the soup in a thin ribbon, and let it set up and turn opaque before gently stirring it into the chowder. Sprinkle the sesame oil on top and serve.
Lovely flank steak


Fresh black mushrooms (sometimes sold as fresh shiitake) are ideal here, as they have a soft texture that bounces admirably off the pillowy bean curd. If you don’t have these, soak some dried black mushrooms overnight in cool water, which will give them a better texture; strain the soaking liquid into the stock in Step 1.

Any good quality boneless and relatively lean beef is good here. I like to buy it already thinly sliced, as for a hot pot, since this makes it even more tender. Whatever you get, stash the meat in the freezer for 20 to 30 minutes before you slice it, as this will allow you to control it better and get thinner pieces.


  1. "...a fish when it is so fresh that rainbows dance up and down its skin..."

    This line reminded me of the cuttle fish I saw at Valencia Spain that was so fresh that its active camouflage was still pulsing in waves and dancing over its body. An amazing sight to behold.