Ah Dai bowed at us gently with his palms together in front of his chest, an amber-coloured mala wrapped loosely around his wrist. He was smiling humbly in his dark linen Mandarin-collared suit.
Mother was the first to notice him. “Oh, that must be the owner?” She turned to the waitress leading us on a tour around Longjing Manor’s Centre Hall.
“Yes, but...” she said hesitantly. I suppose the owner would probably have preferred not to be recognized. However, mother was already on the move with her arms outstretched.
“So nice to meet you! We came all the way from Hong Kong to try your restaurant!” The two were by now shaking hands.
Thanks to mother, what followed afterwards that night was magical. Ah Dai turned out to be a very jovial and talkative young man who had decided to open Longjing Manor with a few friends out of their sheer passion for food. Inspired by Qing Dynasty poet Yuan Mei’s dedication to gastronomy, Ah Dai set out to create a space which not only provides quality Chinese food loosely based on Yuan Mei’s recipes in “The Food Lists of the Garden of Contentment” (隨園食單), but more importantly respects traditional cooking methods and local agriculture. Longjing Manor was meant for only Ah Dai and his friends at first, but has since grown to its current size which comfortably accommodates 8 individual dining halls scattered around in pavilions around the Ming style garden.
Having just consumed a bowl of MSG-laden beef noodles at Chamate ( 一茶一座) along the banks of the West Lake reluctantly that same afternoon, to hear the following words come out of a Hangzhou man was an almost hallucinogenic experience.
“There are way too many fast food chains in our country these days. Children don’t even know what the real taste of food is anymore. The chicken you eat at KFC do not come from real chickens, they are merely genetically engineered substances that taste like chicken,” Ah Dai said with a sigh. “When I came across the slow food movement which originated from Italy, I decided that I should do something to promote this practice in China. We too need to slow down and learn to respect our land. That was how Longjing Manor came about.”
Ah Dai then instructed the waitress to hand him a computer-generated blueprint of what looked like a siheyuan (Chinese central courtyard) in the remote mountains. “This is a project that is due to be completed by the end of 2010. Here we invite guests to stay with us and to experience life in nature as we do. They are advised to wake up with us, work in the fields with us, watch us cook in the kitchen and then finally to eat with us. Here they will learn about the source of our food and to respect that source. It will be an educational and holistic retreat in one.” I can see mother’s eyes already lit with anticipation.
Moving into our dining hall, Ah Dai instructed his manager Xia Tian (literally Summer in Chinese) to guide us through the entire dining experience. We were first given each a bowl of freshly ground soymilk to warm our stomachs (it was during one of Hangzhou’s coldest winters with snow having fallen just the day prior) while Summer explained in detail the use of elevated serving bowls for the appetizers.
“Our cutlery are all custom made according to Qing tradition in Jingdezhen (the porcelain capital of China). However, the bowls being concaved traditionally you cannot see the food within from the side. Therefore we had the bottom of the bowl elevated as well. The result is something like a plate stacked on top of an elevated bowl,” giggled Summer.
Next came soup 金蟬銀翎 made from “old” duck reared 3 to 5 years cooked with a rare “plant/insect” hybrid called the “golden silkworm flower” (金蠶花). The golden silkworm flower is a silkworm by winter, and infested with pollens in its head by summer to become a flower. It apparently has the same medicinal purposes as the caterpillar fungus and gives the soup its natural sweetness. This insect flower is hard to find nowadays and only available at a small selection of Chinese herb shops.
The vegetable dish, “Can Let Go” (捨得) (the Chinese name of which, is one of those regretful terms that cannot be more beautifully translated into English) is a myriad of vegetables of the brightest, prettiest green I’ve ever seen, made only with the tender, young bulbs of the bak choi. Even simple scrambled eggs with spring onions, is the best I have tasted. Summer informed us that their eggs are sourced directly from farmers’ private stock of chickens kept for their own consumption, which lay eggs on their natural cycle. On the other hand, all of Longjing Manor’s daily purchases are documented in detail in a “Sourcing Log” with the name of the local farmer, the quantity purchased and price.
The rest of the night continued to be an inspirational affair complete with dishes such as the “Loving Mother’s Dish (braised pork belly and eggs cooked for up to 48 hours to reflect the legendary repeated cooking of this dish by the mother while she waited anxiously for the arrival of her son, not knowing exactly when he would return)”, old-style sea cucumber and handmade rice cakes, while Summer continued to wow us with his knowledge of traditional Chinese literature and gastronomy.
I left Longjing Manor in a state of bliss, bemused at how much China seem to have evolved and changed within the last couple of years. I had never thought I would encounter anything of the caliber of Blue Hill, or indeed anyone with the ideal of the Barber brothers, but I got more – an idyllic Chinese garden, true to its origins and the land from which it is surrounded, and a group of modern day Chinese literati working to preserve and combine traditional Chinese cuisine, with a somewhat poetic poise.