IT’S the time of year many middle-aged Shanghai housewives get excited. Seasonal delicacies like shuibaxian (literally “eight fairies in water” 水八仙), or eight different water products from Taihu Lake, are now in season.
Gorgon fruit seed, lotus root, water caltrop, water chestnut, arrowhead, water shield, wild rice stem and Chinese eddo, a type of taro, are all available for approximately the following 30 days.
The name shuibaxian is derived from the misty lotus ponds they grow in, which is also how heaven is often depicted in Chinese legends.
Jitoumi (鸡头米), literally “chicken head rice,” or gorgon fruit seed, is one of the most expensive ingredients in Shanghai this month. The aquatic produce is shaped like a ball and is white. It grows in the seed pod of lotus harvested in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, and can cost more than 300 yuan per 500 grams.
It’s relatively rare and harvesting it requires a fair bit of labor, which is why it’s expensive. Gorgon fruit seed is usually only available from September 20 to October 20.
“The best serving time is even shorter, only the final 10 days of September. It needs to be removed from the water by hand. A farmer at most picks about 1 kilogram of seeds every day,” says Roger Xu, executive Chinese chef at Shangri-La Hotel Suzhou.
Lu Yuenong, a Shanghai connoisseur of local delicacies, says people crave the seeds since it’s been a year since they last ate them.
“The eyes of many traditional Shanghai housewives, especially middle-aged ones and seniors like my mom, widen when hearing the words jitoumi,” Lu says.
Gorgon fruit seeds have a light, fresh scent that remind people of lotus ponds in the summer. They also have a distinctly glutinous and slightly bouncy texture with a sweet flavor.
Traditionally, Shanghai people make it into dessert, boiling it with sweetened osmanthus, or cook it with red bean paste for a thicker and richer taste.
Shuibaxian is best complimented with Suzhou cooking techniques, and Xu has just launched an eight course menu featuring the eight ingredients.
“I try to combine all eight ingredients with local fish and shrimp to ensure both authenticity and creativity,” says Xu, the chef.
“There’s nothing better than Suzhou cooking, generally simple and gentle, represented by frying, stewing and simmering to highlight the original beauty of the delicate ingredients.”
For example, Xu stir fries gorgon fruit seeds with hand-peeled lake shrimp. Both ingredients have a firm texture. For another dish, he double boils silver fish and meatball soup with water shield, which is known for its distinctive gluey texture.
He also offers a very traditional dish in which six of the shuibaxian are stir-fried together to showcase their diverse textures and flavors. The crunchy lotus seeds blend with the crisp and slightly sweet water chestnuts.
Arrowhead stands out from the other ingredients as it is best suited to more robust cooking techniques. It tastes mild and is starchy, which means it tastes best when cooked with other ingredients. Most chefs say it goes superbly with fatty pork.
Suzhou locals used to replace steamed rice with seasonal black rice in autumn to pair with these delicacies. Black rice has a natural sweetness, a glutinous texture and special ink black color from the juice of a black berry growing on black trees. It is also harvested in September.
Visit the home of “eight fairies in water” before tasting. One of the most reputable regions is Jiangwan Village located in Luzhi, an ancient water town in southeast Suzhou known for its stone bridge and homes with white walls and black-tiled roofs.
The best shuibaxian produce is no longer from the wild as local farmers have built sheds along Taihu Lake. Each shed has a pond inside and the water is taken directly from the lake.
Wang Jinlong, director of Jiangwan, says polluted water has forced the farmers to change their methods.
“We didn’t mean to change, but the traditional wild harvest isn’t big enough to earn a living from anymore. We created a system linking the farmed ponds with the lake to ensure the water flows,” Wang says.
Visitors can taste and buy freshly picked shuibaxian produce in the village. For those interested in the history of all eight foods can check out Suzhou Chenghu Lake Eight Local Water Plants Exhibition Hall in the village. It’s free.
The best time to eat “eight fairies” dishes starts this week.
Restaurants serving shuibaxian dishes
Established in 1735, it’s probably the oldest restaurant in Suzhou and is known for its authentic local dishes. Besides the seasonal “eight fairies in water,” sweet and sour fish is its signature, said to be Emperor Qianlong’s (1711-99) favorite.
The mizhi huofang (preserved pork braised in sweetened sauce) also comes recommended. The tender meat is cooked in a rice wine sauce and sweetened with osmanthus flower.
The minced mustard leaf and tofu soup (太极白玉羹) looks and tastes wonderful. The green mustard leaves and white toufu are finely minced. The colors of each ingredient are used to represent the Taoist yin and yang symbols. This state-owned restaurant is also known for its inconsistency.
Address: 198 Shantang Street, Suzhou
Tel: (0512) 6532-1398
This restaurant is hidden in an old lane with a stone path and bridge. It is near Humble Administrator’s Garden, the city’s biggest classical garden.
The privately owned restaurant is one of a few in Suzhou providing authentic traditional dishes in a comparatively fine way. Service is friendlier compared to the state-owned restaurants. It’s also cheaper than hotel restaurants but more expensive than state-owned rivals.
The menu includes all Suzhou dishes and seasonal delicacies. The cherry pork and sweet congee, which is made from soybean paste, gorgon fruit
Address: 31 Panruxiang Rd, Suzhou
Tel: 0512-6728 8041
Shang Palace, Shangri-La Hotel Suzhou
Chef Xu’s “eight fairies in water menu” includes all the seasonal local delicacies along with lake fish and shrimp. Songshu guiyu (sweet and sour deep-fried fish 松鼠桂鱼) is one highlight.
It’s Suzhou’s most famous dish, with the fish presented like a squirrel. The mouth of the fish is opened and its tail is bent upward to make it look like a squirrel.
The flesh is cut into the shape of a blossoming chrysanthemum. After deep frying, the chrysanthemum turns golden, like the fur of a squirrel. When the sweet and sour sauce is poured over the freshly fried fish, it makes a wonderful crackling, sizzling sound.
For those somewhat squeamish about new foods, this is a good introduction before trying other fare.