Three hours by car or an hour and a half by high-speed train ride from Shanghai is the city of Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang Province, one of China's eight distinct culinary traditions. But while here in the U.S. we know about the fiery spice of Sichuan food and the ropey noodles of Xi'an, the food of Zhejiang isn't exactly on Western radars (yet). In Hangzhou, the seafood and plants that inhabited West Lake, in the center of the city, formed the basis of the local cuisine: fish, shrimp, and crabs, along with the water shields, bamboo shoots, and lotus roots that continue to grow in and around the lake. In September, the city will play host to the G20 Summit; it earned itself a spot on lists in both The New York Times and Travel + Leisure of where to go in 2016.

And it's the proud home of the Hangzhou Cuisine Museum. What I knew when I went: there were 13,000 square feet filled with dioramas of historic Hangzhou food scenes and plastic replicas of classic Hangzhou dishes. What I didn't know: Why?


Not much greets visitors at the entrance to the Hangzhou Cuisine Museum. Funded by the city, it's free to enter, and a small dais serves as the front desk—basically a coat check. I'm one of a handful of other visitors. I take an electronic audio tour, which supposedly automatically detects my location and describes what I'm looking at. Over and over again, I'm discombobulated: the audio tour guide rattles on about something or other—believing that I'm somewhere I'm not. A sign tells me that the museum "interacts food history with food reality and enables eyes, nose, and tongue to have a culinary party."


When Marco Polo wrote about Hangzhou about seven hundred years ago, he said a lot of awfully nice things, describing it as deserving of the moniker of Kinsai, or "Celestial City," "which it merits from its pre-eminence to all others in the world, in point of grandeur and beauty, as well as from its abundant delights, which might lead an inhabitant to imagine himself in paradise."

West Lake visually echoes Polo's writing. The hills, dense with the shiny green of tea leaves, poke out above the rising mist. The city, to your back, floats away. If it weren't for the Starbucks a few hundred yards later, you might wonder if it wasn't just the same as it was back then.


Polo goes on to describe vast marketplaces, endless lists of game meats, poultry, domestic animals, herbs, and fruit, but he also highlights the cultural mixing: Mongolian, Arab, Mediterranean, and Korean visitors doing business. As with so many great cuisines, Hangzhou benefitted from the variety of ingredients and dietary customs. Many of Hangzhou's best-known dishes come from outsiders: Sister Song's fish broth, a classic local delicacy, came from the north: it's a peppery soup, studded with ham and ginger.


In a 2014 BBC article about the museum's opening, Chinese food scholar Fuchsia Dunlop tries to explain why it exists. "The Chinese are famously obsessed with food," she starts, but even she admits that the Hangzhou museum is unusual—both for its dedication to the cuisine of a single town and for the city-footed price tag of $30 million. Shanghaiist added that it hoped the enthusiasm for food heritage would motivate the preservation of "food streets and culinary landmarks." The museum itself explains, "It is a kitchen for Hangzhou citizens and guests worldwide to experience, sense, and see Chinese food." The sign also says: "We show and serve the Chinese table and its Hangzhou flavor to people near and far."

dongpo display

Hangzhou draws tourists from all over China—it's one of the top domestic tourism destinations, and its cuisine is widely known and celebrated around the country—but has yet to attract international visitors in as high numbers. The sign that tells museumgoers about that might be a slight exaggeration: "It was praised widely, thus made the world know the fame of Hangzhou as a city of leisure and gourmet."

Certain dishes, though, have gained that renown: a life-sized diorama tells the story of the Song Dynasty and one of Hangzhou's most famous dishes: dong po pork. Around 1000 CE, West Lake was no longer the breadbasket of the region: neglect left it overgrown, dirty, and in disrepair. Governor Su Dongpo dredged the lake and held a grand banquet to celebrate. All dishes served at the event were much gossiped about and grew famous—including the dish now known as dong po pork. Its long braise leaves it tender enough to cut with chopsticks and fragrant with the wine in which it is cooked, showing off two marquee elements of the region's cuisine. The mild flavor of the braise plays second fiddle to the starring texture of the pork: almost half fat, it wobbles on the plate. According to Dunlop: Su Dongpo "wrote so lovingly about pork that he was immortalized in the name of the Hangzhou dish."


Of the two dozen dishes in this display case, labeled "Fun for picnics" (fish head broth with tofu seems a slight stretch there) the security guard claims, one is real. He asks if I can guess which one. I glance from scallion rice rolls to whole fish. Chicken feet, piled on a pedestal, lake greens that glint under the harsh lights—is it reflecting off plastic or oil? I venture a few half-hearted guesses, then give up. The guard tells me it is the red-braised river snail. I'm not sure I believe him. He seems like he might be messing with me out of boredom. There is a museum restaurant, though.


Real fish

At the museum restaurant, I order dishes I've seen in plastic: poached grass carp in vinegar sauce (commonly known simply as "West Lake Fish"), water shield soup, shrimp stir-fried with Longjing tea leaves—none of which, unfortunately, is very good. I begin to doubt the veracity that, as a display announces, "Hangzhou cuisine will own a glorious future with vigor like the Qiantang River tide."


The 150-year-old Hangzhou Restaurant, just off the main path around West Lake, shares menu items with the museum's restaurant. We head there later that evening. Here the West Lake fish comes looking like perhaps it was alive just seconds before, the trademark vinegar flavor sharp enough to slice through the slightly sweet gravy. The drunken shrimp we order flap their tails as we move them to the plate. Ordering the Beggar's Chicken, it arrives looking like a prehistoric egg. The server hands me a mallet and I give it a thunk. The server peels back layers of lotus leaves and cracks open the clay within, then carves up the pork-stuffed chicken inside. Here, though the food isn't sculpture, it's still art.