November in China: Of Wine and Stinky Tofu

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The drive from Ningbo to Shaoxing had much of the same dreariness. Knowing how similar tourist places were, we matched our expectations with the weather, bracing ourselves for yet another tourist trap.

Shaoxing city proper was a typical Chinese city with lots of grey buildings and little else. The tiny historic quarter was different. It had lots of old restored buildings, canals, and tiny lanes. We had to leave the car behind and transfer to the hotel’s minivan.

Our boutique far exceeded expectations. It was an old building with rooms surrounding a private inner courtyard. Mum and Dad were enchanted. I especially liked the slate roof and red lanterns.

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The rooms made it extra special. I had a traditional canopy bed, a mahjongg table and a rattan rocking chair. My parents had a modified opium bed with pretty carvings. The bedding, though, was thoroughly modern, with soft pillows and mattresses, unlike the typically hard beds in the rest of China!

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For breakfast, we had the local carb-rich fare: youtiao (deep-fried dough fritter), mantou (steamed bun), bao (steamed bun with filling) and watery rice porridge. The porridge was eaten with a cube of furu, fermented tofu in several styles. It was smooth, salty and almost cheesy, somewhat like goat cheese. Yum.

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Of course, that little bit for breakfast wasn’t enough. I had to conquer another frontier, chou doufu (stinky tofu), which originates in these parts. These are sold in push carts all over town, each claiming to be the best in town, each proclaiming to be stinkier than the rest. They can be spotted a block away, just from the special aroma reminiscent of rotting garbage.

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I bought two pieces of stink on a stick for ¥1. It’s actually not too bad. It’s crisp and salty on the outside and smooth and silky on the inside. Somehow the smell didn’t really bother me when I ate it. It just wasn’t very stinky when I got close. Mum kept her distance from me and Dad as we hit the museum.

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Soon we were hungry (again) and went to Shaoxing’s best restaurant for lunch. We had to order the famous cold dishes, drunken chicken and drunken fish. Not a regional specialty, but still good was braised firm tofu with fresh herbs. These were a fab departure from the usual oil-laden fare.

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The drunken fish was some kind of raw salted fish then soaked in shaoxing wine. It was salty and, well, fishy with a mild fragrance from the wine and a mild alcoholic kick. Great to nibble on with hot tea before lunch proper.

The chicken was something closer to home. Mum makes it quite often, though she does it Taiwanese style by steaming then dousing in wine. Here, the traditional way is to poach the chicken in wine and leave it to soak. It’s heavenly, like a  very grown-up interpretation of Hainanese chicken.

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Now after all that eating, we proceeded to the drinking, or rather the buying for future drinking. Shaoxing is especially famous for its rice wine. It has to be made from a particular lake in the town before it can be called Shaoxing wine. Though this being China, I doubt many wines are really made using water from that lake. Out of the myriad types, we chose hua tiao (medium, quite like sherry) and nu’er hong (dry and slightly savoury).

I think we spent enough to give this shop its year-end bonus. It had a mind-bloggling array of rice wines all made in the region. I can’t imagine how each bottle differs from the other, it’s quite different from regular wine where the grapes are different and the vintages are different. Here, the rice and water must be pretty much the same and while the wine is aged, it’s not done according to the year like wine. Yet, each brand claimed to be different and indeed the  ones we tried all tasted quite unique.

In the end, we bought six mini-bottles as gifts, three big bottles of good aged wine for personal consumption and one big bottle for cooking. The sales lady was taken aback by our request to have the oldest possible wine for cooking. Shaoxing natives normally use cheap new wine for cooking, but we found that we could tell the difference. She was horrified that we wanted to cook with a five-year old wine. We settled for a three-year old instead.

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