Culinary Journeys

Born again prawns: Reinventing a classic Chinese dish

Maggie Hiufu Wong, CNNUpdated 28th May 2015
This story complements the Culinary Journeys TV series, airing monthly on CNN International. See more of the show here: www.cnn.com/journeys. Share photos of your own Culinary Journeys on Instagram with the hashtag #CNNFood for a chance to be featured on CNN.
(CNN) — It's either a match made in culinary heaven or a recipe for a dining disaster.
Take one chef, famous for creating delicate, miniature landscapes out of the food she puts on a plate.
And take one iconic imperial Chinese dish that owes its existence to the rich and beautiful landscape in which it was created.
That's the scenario when feted Hong Kong chef Vicky Lau, owner of the Tate Dining Room, joins CNN on a Culinary Journey to Hangzhou, south of Shanghai, to learn how to cook the classic Longjing tea river prawns.
Guiding her are Colin Cheng, chef at Hangzhou's standout 28 Hubin Road restaurant, and tea master Wan Jiachun.
From the go, it's all about the landscapes.
"Wok-fried Longjing tea with river prawns adopts something from the mountains and something from the water in Hangzhou," says Cheng. "It's the dish to represent Hangzhou."

Quashed tomatoes

This video is no longer available. We apologize for the inconvenience.
Before she can fire up a wok, Lau is sent to learn about the two main ingredients.
First stop: picking tea leaves in Longjing tea village, close to Hangzhou's West Lake.
So far so good, until Lau suggests playing with a recipe developed over centuries as she tours a plantation with Wan.
Her idea of pairing tea with tomatoes gets short shrift from the master.
"I object," he says.
As a tea master, it's no surprise Wan is against the idea. Longjing tea, a specialty in Hangzhou, is considered one of the most prized tea leaves in China.
The best leaves -- those picked from 18 shrubs chosen for an ancient emperor Qianlong -- were auctioned up to $43,000 for 100 grams, equivalent to the weight of half an apple.
"Tomatoes will destroy the taste of the tea," says Wan. "And Longjing is a really good tea."
"The geographic environment is really particular here -- we've white sand soil which is good for nurturing the roots."
Longjing is a sea of shrubs where tea ladies in pink raincoats, baskets lashed around their waists, dot the mountain. Gently, they nip the baby leaves from the shrubs as they move swiftly up and down the hill.
The quality of tea leaves can vary even from the top of the hill to the bottom, so it's important for the pickers to move about to create a well-mixed blend.
After lots of picking, smelling, brewing and, eventually, drinking the tea, Lau has acquired the tea knowledge she needs to move onto the second stop of her journey.

Prawn stars

This video is no longer available. We apologize for the inconvenience.
Early the next morning, Cheng and Lau meet for a prawn run at a local market.
Like football fans bumping into each other at a sports bar, the two speak non-stop in a shared tongue: food.
They discuss everything from dining habits in both cities to the perfect way to cook beetroots.
Finally, they arrive at the prawn stall, where Cheng assesses the crustaceans with an expert's eye for how China's regional landscapes have affected their flavor.
"These prawns are from Zhejiang and Jiangsu, and here are prawns from Guangdong and Fujian," says Cheng.
"River prawns from Zhejiang are firmer in texture, whereas those from Guangdong are softer because of the high temperature there, shells are thinner too."
It's no surprise that the local prawns, from surrounding Zhejiang province and from Jiangsu, to the north, are considered the best for the Longjing tea recipe, largely because of their firmer texture.

Accidental recipe

After sourcing the two main ingredients, Lau joins Cheng back in his kitchen, ready to cook.
Like many other great dishes around the world, Longjing river prawns begin with an accident.
Legend says emperor Qianlong popped into a local eatery in Hangzhou one day and asked for tea and some river prawns.
Instead of serving up seafood with a beverage on the side, the confused chef instead added tea leaves to the prawns.
Surprise, surprise, Qianlong loved it -- and soon, so did everyone else.
Cooking the dish isn't as complicated as sourcing the ingredients.
Peel the shrimp. Season. Drain. Marinate.
Longjing tea is added later like an herb. It's quickly blanched in oil that becomes infused with its aromatic flavor before the prawns are added.
"I'm particularly drawn to this dish because I've always heard a lot about dragon well and prawns together," says Lau. "I never understood why."
She does now.
"Coming here to Hangzhou and the river as well as the Longjing tea farm are such a highlight. That's why it's natural to put the two highlights of Hangzhou together."

French twist

This video is no longer available. We apologize for the inconvenience.
Back at Tate in Hong Kong, away from the West Lake, Lau is inspired to create her own version, using her own French influences.
She squeezes green paste in a swirl shape on a deep plate.
"I'm trying to re-create the landscape of Hangzhou's tea farm," says Lau.
She carefully garnishes the newly plated green tea paste with shiso flowers.
Instead of frying prawns in a wok, Lau makes them into a consomme which is decanted into a teapot.
This will then be poured onto a "tea farm" when served to mix the two ingredients.
There's only one element missing from the experience -- and it's not tomatoes.
It's the mist that regularly rises from the West Lake.
Lau carefully places the teapot onto a special stand bubbling with dry ice.
It's a perfect landscape of landscape food.
Love taking photos of food? Share snaps of your own Culinary Journeys on Instagram with the hashtag #CNNFood. For inspiration, check out this selection of food pics shared by CNN staff and readers.