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We ate a very light breakfast because we were going to Louwailou for lunch. Established during the Qing Dynasty more than 150 years ago, Louwailou is one of the oldest and most famous restaurants in China. It is located on West Lake, and they even have a couple of permanently moored "boats" where customers can dine. However, we didn't have reservations for those, so we ate in the main dining room.

Lou Wai Lou Restaurant - Hangzhou, China

Like most first time visitors to Louwailou, we decided to try the famous "Beggar's Chicken." The name of this dish comes from a legend surrounding its origin.

A beggar was given a chicken by some sympathetic villagers, but he didn't have a pot to cook it in. So he caked the chicken in mud and put it directly into a fire. After it had cooked, he removed it from the fire and knocked off the hardened mud. The feathers came off with the mud, and the smell of the chicken attracted all the neighbors, who praised the beggar for creating this unique new cooking method.

Beggar's Chicken being served at Louwailou

Today, restaurants start with a cleaned chicken, and they no longer cake the chicken directly in mud. Instead, they wrap it with lotus leaves and plastic wrap first. After caking it in mud, it is baked for 3-4 hours, and the mud is removed in front of the customers just before serving. Being wrapped in lotus leaves and encased in mud keeps any moisture from escaping during the lengthy cooking time. The result is an incredibly tender chicken whose meat is literally falling off of the bone. This is truly one of the world's best chicken dishes, and it costs less than $25.

Beggar's Chicken

Another famous dish at Louwailou is their Dongpo Pork. Legend has it that this dish was created by accident. Su Dongpo was a famous writer and statesman of the Song Dynasty. He was also an excellent cook that specialized in braised meat. During his second visit to Hangzhou, he supervised the dredging of West Lake and the mud was piled up to create a long causeway. Later, this causeway was named the first of the Ten Scenes of West Lake.

The people of Hangzhou were very pleased with this new causeway, and they wanted to express their appreciation to Su Dongpo. Knowing his fondness for braised meat, all of the residents coincidentally presented him with pork as a gift for the Spring Festival. Since this was more than he could possibly eat, he decided to share it with everyone.

Su Dongpo ordered the pork cut into cubes, cooked using his method, and distributed to every household with some wine. However, the cook misunderstood his instructions and mistakenly cooked the pork in the wine. The result was what we now call Dongpo Pork. Although other stories exist about Dongpo Pork's accidental discovery, this is the one told by Louwailou. 

Dongpo Pork

Dongpo Pork is certainly not health food. It is a cube of pork belly, complete with the skin and fat. It is braised until it is so tender that it can be easily pulled apart using chopsticks. The fat is supposed to be the best part, but I only ate a couple of small bites. I'll admit it was tasty, but eating pure fat just seems wrong. In my opinion, the meaty part was much better. One piece of Dongpo Pork costs only 16.80 yuan (about $2.50), so it is definitely worth a try.

Since it wouldn't seem right to eat an entire meal of just meat, we also ordered a plate of West Lake Sweet Lotus Roots. It was very sweet, very tasty, and a nice contrast to all the fatty meat. At about $3.00, it was more expensive than the Dongpo Pork, but still quite reasonable. In fact, our entire meal was about $40, including a pot of Dragon Well Tea and a couple of Cokes.

After lunch, we returned to our hotel to meet with my Chinese teacher and her husband, who live in Hangzhou. I met Emma while she was teaching at the Chinese Village (Sen Lin Hu) at Concordia Language Villages in Minnesota. Concordia Language Villages pioneered the immersion method of language instruction, which means all instruction is done exclusively in the target language. Although this "sink or swim" method can be a bit intimidating at first, it really is the best way to learn a foreign language. In fact, while serving as Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan gave a speech where he described Concordia Language Villages as the best language program in the world. Clearly my poor Chinese is a result of my own lack of effort, and not the fault of my teachers or their methods.

It had been raining most of the day, and I was afraid the weather would derail my plan to take a cruise on the Grand Canal. Luckily, the rain stopped just in time. While the Grand Canal has been around for almost 1,500 years old, they have only been offering these cruises in Hangzhou since early 2010. Very few locals even know about this cruise, but I was lucky enough to have read about it online.

Grand Canal - Hangzhou

Were it not for the Great Wall, China would most likely be world famous for its Grand Canal. Stretching 1,776 km (1,103 miles) between Beijing and Hangzhou, the Grand Canal is still the longest canal in the world. It was completed during the Sui Dynasty (581–618 AD), and portions of it are still used for its original purpose of transporting cargo.

The cruise starts at Wulin Gate Dock, and returns to the same spot about an hour and a half later. I think the cruise starts at 7:30 pm, but you should verify the time. Our guide from the previous day wrote down all the information for the taxi, but a hotel concierge should be able to do the same. Since the taxi won't be able to drop you off right at the dock, you will have to walk about the length of a football field to get there. Where you are supposed to go might not be obvious at first, but just walk away from the street until you see water. From there  you should be able to see the dock.

The cost for the cruise is about $12 per person, which includes tea. The narration for this tour is in Mandarin, but even if you don't understand what they are saying, it is still a very nice trip. Slightly cheaper tours are offered during the day. There are also water buses that operate on the Grand Canal in Hangzhou, with tickets starting at less than 50 cents. However, these are intended purely as transportation, so comfort is not a consideration.    

It is also possible to take an overnight cruise on the Grand Canal from Hangzhou to Suzhou. Prices start at about $8 per person for a bunk in a quad room on a standard ship, while a twin room (sleeps two) on a luxury ship costs about $40. For some reason, the return cruise from Suzhou is considerably more expensive. Going in either direction, cruises leave at 5:30 pm and arrive at their destination early the next morning.

Hai Hua Restaurant - Hangzhou

Back at our hotel, we went to their Hai Hua Chinese Restaurant for a late dinner. We had Stir-fried Chicken with Chestnuts, Scallop with Sliced Potatoes, and Poached Kale in Soy Sauce. Interestingly, the "sliced potato" in the scallop dish was a single deep fried slice of potato under each scallop that looked and tasted exactly like a potato chip. Still, everything tasted great, and the entire meal cost less than $15.

Scallops with sliced potato - Haihua Restaurant - Hangzhou, China

 

 

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