I knew I had to leave the city.
After a considerable amount of time in the metropolitan clusters of China, I started to become lethargic, depressed and confused. Most people I had met were able to list their favorite restaurants, but few people were passionate about their food and it was difficult to find inspiration. Recipes seemed standard and, quite honestly, I could have just gotten the same information online.
Desperate for something new, I chose to retreat to the Qingheyue International Youth Hostel, which is in the time capsule that is Hongcun, an ancient walled village in the Anhui province of China. Think winding alleyways, red paper lanterns, cobblestone streets. The town is a reflection of the China that existed between the 14th and the 20th centuries. The walls are whitewashed and the village is entirely devoid of cars — they wouldn’t be able fit in the narrow streets. The village is surrounded by water and, in the off-season, when the crowds are gone, it’s truly a miniature throwback to an older China. It has maintained its pristine architecture and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
"The town is a reflection of the China that existed between the 14th and the 20th centuries."
Hongcun is located just at the base of Huangshan, a mountain known for its grandiose peaks nestled in the clouds.
Immediately, I knew staying at the hostel was the right decision. The couple who owns the hostel, Xudu Chuang and Benyan Miao, are masters at their crafts. They have their own farm and they make their own herbal brews and liquor. During the spring, they’re particularly adept at roasting green tea.
Xudu and Benyan are from Anhui and Jiangsu, respectively, and worked at office jobs before retiring to the countryside. They visited Hongcun for a family vacation and knew immediately that they wanted to leave the corporate grind and start a hostel. It would be a place where they could indulge their culinary curiosities and have time to pursue their crafts. They did just that. They are mainly self-taught and divide their time between managing the hostel and traveling.
"They knew immediately that they wanted to leave the corporate grind and start a hostel."
Though I was only there for a week, I now consider the couple my family. They took me to their village in the mountains and taught me how to kindle a fire with bamboo. They said I am free to head back there whenever I want as a guest.
At the end of it all, I spent a wonderful afternoon with Xudu, who taught me how to make a beautiful plate of “hairy tofu.” Hairy tofu is tofu that is left outside to spoil until it grows hairs. It’s a specialty of the Anhui region and, during my time there, I spotted many people cultivating the tofu outside of their houses.
The texture is akin to blue cheese. It’s not eaten raw; it’s deeply coated in a batter of egg yolk, fried and then coated with sauce.
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