Mikong: A Taste of Zhejiang

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Some regional cuisines are more closely related than others. For example, nobody in their right mind would ever say Chengdu and Changzhou’s cuisines are remotely similar. One is super spicy, and the other is sweet. However, you can find some commonalities between Jiangsu and Zhejiang. There is an emphasis on lighter, fresher flavors. Both tend to be on sweeter side, but out of the Zhejiang dishes I have tried, the sweetness tends to be more subtle.

A year or more ago, a Chinese friend introduced Zhejiang cuisine to me by taking me to 弥空的小确幸 Mí kōng de xiǎo què xìng. Based on Google Tanslate, a possible English name might be Mikong’s Small Fortune. Then again, it’s always risky to trust non-human machine translators. Also, the restaurant didn’t seem to advertise an English name, so I’ll just call it Mikong going forward. A different good friend and I recently wanted to grab lunch and do some catching up, and I realized that I hadn’t been back  to this particular place. I had good memories of the food the first time around, and so we settled on here as a place to dine. So, how was it?

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Yeah, it’s a picture of a refrigerator. It’s also the only interior shot of Mikong that I have.

The inside has a very cozy atmosphere, and interestingly enough, there was soft, jazzy English-language music on in the background. The location is also highly convenient for downtown; it’s across the street from the rear end of Wuyue / Injoy Plaza. Basically, it’s part of the non-historic side of Comb Lane. On the downside, you have to walk through another restaurant and climb a set of stairs to get to Mikong, but that almost gives it a secluded, tucked away vibe while essentially being in a highly trafficked part of downtown Changzhou. Enough about that, how about the food?

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The shrimp smothered in garlic was particularly good. This was a repeat ordering from my original visit more than a year ago. There is reason why I like this dish. I have always had a problematic relationship with shrimp in China — I don’t like the fact they are often cooked and served with their heads and eye stalks attached. In fact, I still haven’t figured out how to eat shrimp in China. There seems to be an art and skill level involved that is completely lost on me. At Mikong, the prawns are beheaded, and that really simplifies matters.

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Next up was a goose dish. It tasted good, but to be honest, the goose itself seemed to have too many bones. This led me to putting my chopsticks down and using my hands to inelegantly gnaw. The brown sauce it came in reminded me a little of slightly sweet “sort-of” curry. I often used it a dipping sauce for the remaining side dish.

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Lightly fried potato balls. This is just sheer simplicity. It is really hard to go wrong with potatoes that haven’t been overly fussed with. These three dishes led to a final bill around 160ish RMB. The friend and I left satisfied and thinking Mikong would be worth a return visit.

A Lost Town and Forgotten Temple

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Typically, a brown street sign in Changzhou denotes something of cultural value and significance. The above, for example, advertises something called Xucheng Temple and Ruins. It’s next to a narrow little street off shooting from Xiacheng Road in Wujin — this would be on the eastern side of the Science and Education Complex adjacent to College Town. However, sometimes in China signs are not all what they seem. In fact, if you followed this sign, you would end up in a wasteland.

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There is really nothing to see out here. But what about the sign? What about the temple? That would be this….

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Part of the temple is still there, but closed to the public. The front part, however, has been demolished. I know this because I had visited this area four years ago, and it looked different. The front door of the temple was still there. The road here not used to be shattered, and the nearby bridge lead to a rather creepy building where I heard a hoard of pigs screeching and scratching around. That creepy building is now gone, too.

How about the sign’s advertised “Xucheng Ruins?” Yup, that’s actually still there, I think. It has a historical preservation marker.

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So, that means something historical, right?

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Well, maybe — if you’re counting a mound of dirt and pile of stone slabs. In fact, this whole area is something of a seemingly barren and morose landscape. It’s like a memory that is fading away, but still somehow clinging on by its finger nails.

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The above is a marker for Shangdian Ancient Town 上店古镇, and the marker speaks about this. However, if you enter those Chinese characters into Google, nothing comes up, even in Chinese. There was once a Chinese language blog post about the town, but even now that is a broken link. As for Xucheng Temple, there is an entry for that on Baidu’s Chinese language version of Wikipedia, but that seems grossly out of date. The entry ends by mentioning that the area was declared a cultural site worth protecting in 2008. That hardly squares with how the area looks now. There is, however, one thing that has remained intact.

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That would be a grave site. The above is the tomb of Yun Nantian 恽南田, a noted painter from the Qing Dynasty. Yun Nantian has had worldwide fame and has had gallery exhibits held outside of China. He was a native of this particular section of Wujin. His specialties included caligraphy and painting flowers.

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All in all, something was here. Several years ago, Changzhou was accused of being a “ghost city.” This is a term often leveled at over-building and over zealous urban development. The term really isn’t accurate for most of Changzhou these days, and since that initial accusation five to six years ago, major construction projects have finished and many of the eerily quiet parts of Wujin have filled in. So, a ghost city? Maybe not, but some places still have the vibe of “ghost towns” — places that life once was and that have been quietly forgotten.