Premium Suzhou cuisine is famous for its sophistication — perfect ingredients, high-level culinary craftsmanship and visually beautiful presentation that tells stories.
Some five-star hotel chefs today are recreating the glory days of Suzhou cuisine in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.
It originated with aristocrats, mostly retired officials, who held lavish banquets for each other to showcase their wealth and taste, and, of course, to outdo each other.
The Suzhou style was further developed by chefs at upscale brothels who created exquisite dishes to attract customers. These dishes are known as shu yu cai (literally “high-end brothel cuisine” 书寓菜).
Chefs, then and now, are not satisfied with good seasonal ingredients but the best of the best. For example, “400 shrimps weighing 0.5 kilogram” is a traditional standard to select the right-sized shrimp, according to Peter Pan, a food critic from Suzhou.
The best fish weighs exactly 500g, for the right texture and flavor, he says.
Some meticulous chefs use only the gorgon fruit produced in Nantang, a small town on the northwest outskirts of Suzhou.
“Relying heavily on craftsmanship ensures the fine texture and flavor,” says Jay Li, banquet sous chef at Crowne Plaza Suzhou.
Chef Li says his team peels the shrimp and gorgon fruit gently by hand to retain its original shape, texture, juiciness and flavor.
Li’s signature dish is “moon dumpling,” in which each scallop is rolled out by hand into a sheet “as thin and translucent as paper, as clean and bright as the moon in the sky.” It’s then used to wrap shrimp filling.
Many Suzhou dishes melt in the mouth, as a result of precise temperature control.
For example, men rou (stewed pork 焖肉) should first be cooked at high temperature and then turned to low heat; the experienced chef knows when to turn down the heat, says Jerry Gao, sous chef de cuisine at InterContinental Suzhou.
In premium Suzhou cuisine, dishes are not just food but also works of art that please the eye and tell stories.
Through cutting and arranging on a plate, chefs create animals and plants or “draws” a picture to tell a story with food.
For songshu guiyu (sweet-and-sour fish 松鼠桂鱼), the fish is presented like a squirrel. The fish mouth is open while its body and tail are bent upward to resemble a squirrel.
The flesh is scored in tiny squares and deep fried a golden color, to resemble fur. When the chefs spreads hot sauces on the freshly fried fish, it crackles and makes a little sound like a squirrel’s bark, or so they say.
Zhuan zhu yu zhi (fish swallowing a sword 专诸鱼炙) baked and covered with sauce evokes the story of an assassination during Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 BC). By hiding his dagger in a fish, the assassin Zhuan Zhu murdered the king at a banquet.
Chun lu zhi si (sliced carp stewed with water shield 莼鲈之思) expresses homesickness and evokes a Jin Dynasty (AD 265-420) story about a Suzhou official who supposedly resigned and returned to Suzhou because he missed the carp and water shield dish.
Some five-star hotel chefs in Suzhou preserve the traditional flavor but adapt old recipes to make the flavor lighter.
“We are influenced by Cantonese cuisine to some extent, making the flavor lighter and not so sweet,” says chef Gao from InterContinental Suzhou.
“We use less oil and sugar and try to avoid deep-frying to make the flavor healthier,” says chef Li from Crowne Plaza Suzhou.
Here are some highlights of Suzhou dishes by Suzhou hotel chefs.
Songshu guiyu 松鼠桂鱼
The fish dish is said to have been a favorite of the Qing Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795). Peter Xu, Chinese executive chef at Kempinski Hotel Suzhou, selects Tai Lake mandarin fish with delicate flavor and tender texture.
The fried fish is golden yellow and spread with an orange sauce. It’s crispy and hot outside, tender and juicy inside. Shrimp meat, corn and green beans are spread on the side to give each bite more flavor and textures.
Wang Hu Ge Chinese Restaurant, Kempinski Hotel Suzhou
Tel: 6289-7888 ext 6505
Address: 3/F, 1 Guobin Rd
Taihu san bai 太湖三白
This clear soup features white shrimp-and-fish balls and green water shield floating on tip.
Chef Li uses Taihu san bai (Tai Lake three whites, namely white shrimp, white fish and silverfish) to make balls and stews them in clear chicken soup. The fish balls have a delicate flavor and fine texture. The shrimp is peeled by hand and the fish is boned by hand.
Sun Seeker, Crowne Plaza Suzhou
Tel: 6761-6688 ext 6
Address: 1/F, 168 Xinggang Street
Gorgon fruit almond tea 鸡头米杏仁茶
Chef Gao recommends this almond tea, a Cantonese dessert, with seasonal gorgon fruit which features a new, balanced flavor. The almond is freshly ground by hand so that the tea tastes silky, rich and pure. Gorgon fruit has a glutinous, bouncy texture and clean, light sweetness, balancing the tea.
Ah Yat Abalone Chinese Restaurant, InterContinental Suzhou