Ordinary food can be heavenly if it’s served in the right season with seasonal ingredients.
Suzhou cuisine is known for its precise definition of seasons — not simply autumn, winter, spring and summer — and for its distinctive expression of sweetness and smoothness, which is balanced and lingering.
Tasting the best Suzhou food is like a race against time. Local ingredients change every five days and never come again until the following year, according to “Gu Su Zhi” (“Annals of Old Suzhou” 姑苏志), a classic written in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) recording Suzhou’s geography and local customs.
“The food you have been thinking about for a year undoubtedly tastes impressive,” says Ye Fang, a Suzhou-born artist and connoisseur of Chinese food and wine.
For some fastidious locals, certain ingredients are only available for 15 days each year, while others may be available for only three to five days, even less, according to Peter Pan, a Suzhou native who is a food critic and columnist based in Shanghai.
“For example, some Suzhou food lovers only eat river shrimp during the plum rain season (from mid- or late June to early July) because the shrimp at that time contains both roe and eggs and the meat is firm,” he tells Shanghai Daily.
“Besides, we only eat turtle and tang li yu (a kind of river carp 塘鲤鱼) during the first three days that the rape seed flowers blossom in early spring,” says Pan.
From mid-September to mid-October, Suzhou is considered by many connoisseurs to be a gastronomic heaven featuring the widest variety of delicacies during the year.
The reason Suzhou people are so picky about food is largely due to the rich variety of produce in the area and distinctive geography. They are spoiled for choice.
Suzhou is on the shores of Tai Lake in southeastern Jiangsu Province. The fertile region is known as China’s “land of fish and rice.”
It is known for abundant fresh water produce, including diverse fish, shrimp, hairy crab and aquatic plants such as lotus root, water chestnut, jiao bai (a water bamboo with crisp texture 茭白), water shield and gorgon fruit.
The city is surrounded by mountains producing plenty of mushrooms, bamboo and fungus.
According to Pan, in terms of water plants, September is the right time for lotus seed, hong ling (a red water caltrop 红菱), gorgon fruit and ci gu (literally “benevolent mushroom,” also known as arrowhead due to the shape of its cap 慈姑).
Hong ling can be either served fresh and raw as a fruit or stir-fried with other ingredients such as vegetables and shrimp. To highlight its glutinous texture, gorgon fruit is made into a sweet dessert soup, a Suzhou specialty.
Ci gu tuber is starchy and mildly sweet, commonly braised with pork and soy sauce.
Some delicacies are only available at this time of year, around the Mid-Autumn Festival which falls next Thursday this year, including famous Suzhou-style mooncake with pork filling and flaky pastry.
“For those born and raised in Suzhou, the rich meaty smell of fresh wu xiang xiao rou (deep-fried minced pork with five-spice such as anise and cinnamon 五香小肉) sold in food stores indicates the coming of autumn,” says Pan.
He says Lu Gao Jian, an historic shop known for its meats section sells the best fried pork in Suzhou.
Besides, jiu niang bing (fermented rice cake with the filling of sweetened rose酒酿饼) is only available at this time of year. The golden yellow cake with a dusting of pink is soft and fragrant. The filling has a floral taste with a delicate, clean sweetness.
It is only during autumn that chefs prepare yingtao rou (literally “cherry pork” 樱桃肉), in which pork is cut into pieces the size of cherries and braised in a cherry-colored sauce made from a special kind of fermented rice, with various spices.
Suzhou is known for its soup noodle. In summer the soup is generally made from duck and is light and white in color. In autumn, the soup is red in color, made from fish and liver eel with a deep umami flavor.
Distinctive sweet flavor
Suzhou dishes are often criticized by non-locals for being overwhelmingly sweet. Some food critics disagree, saying Suzhou flavor is diverse and more than just sweet.
It is true, however, that most famous Suzhou dishes are either cooked hong shao-style (braised in soy sauce 红烧) fed or tang cu-style (糖醋), flavored by sugar and vinegar. Both use sugar to highlight the flavor, according to Shen Hongfei, one of China’s most experienced food critics.
Suzhou chefs do not add sugar just for the sake of sweetness, but to make the flavor deeper, complementing other flavors in dishes that are savory and sour. Sugar is also added to make the food glisten.
For example, songshu guiyu (fish deep-fried in the shape of a squirrel and covered with a sauce of sugar and vinegar 松鼠桂鱼) has a balanced, sweet and sour flavor.
Mi zhi huo fang (ham braised in sweet sauce 蜜汁火方) is known for its layers of flavor starting with sweet and ending with savory.
Those two dishes demonstrate chefs’ interpretations of sweetness and demonstrate fine culinary techniques. They create a soft, melt-in-your-mouth texture without losing the shape of the ingredients.
Shanghai Daily launches its September Suzhou food hunt map, taking you around the city and pointing out some distinctive, must-try foods only available in this season.
The stops are mainly grouped around Guanqian and Shiquan streets, except for a few in Mudu Town, 10 kilometers southwest from downtown. Most of the recommended restaurants and food stalls are popular among locals and little known by tourists.
Some excellent food stalls have no signs. They are hidden in lanes mainly downtown and are difficult to find. Hours are irregular. This is where locals go because the food is handmade and affordable.
Owners put all their efforts into preparing one or two foods in limited quantities.
A stall hidden in Daru Lane (close to Pingjiang Road) sells xie ke huang (fluffy flaky pastry with filling 蟹壳黄) is one of the most popular in town. Filling is either sweet sesame or savory spring onion. It usually opens around 2pm.
Another local favorite is a congee stall run by an elderly couple in their seventies. It’s at the gate of Pishi Flower Market on Pishi Street. It sells various Su-style desserts, mainly sweet soups and congees.
Favorites include sweet osmanthus congee, glutinous rice dumpling and red bean soup, and rice dumpling in fermented rice soup. The rice dumplings are glutinous but not sticky. The stall usually opens from 3pm to 5am. There’s a queue.
Guanqian area 观前区
The crowded area around Guanqian Street contains most of the time-honored restaurants featuring traditional Suzhou cuisine. Some locals say they are not as authentic as they were 10 years ago. They complain the atmosphere is too commercial and prefer to take the food home to eat.
“It’s still the first choice of tourists visiting Suzhou for the first time, where they hope to taste representative Suzhou dishes in one stop,” says Pan.
The classic route starts with buying a pack of wu xiang xiao rou at Lu Gao Jian and some jiu niang bing at Cai Zhi Zhai, a candy and snack store just next door.
Then food lovers should turn right/left on Lingdun Road, visiting Ya Ba Sheng Jian, a dim sum shop, for a bite of sheng jian (fried dumpling with pork filling and broth 生煎). This sheng jian is distinctive for its sweet, red broth.
On the same road is Chang Fa Xi Bing food store selling local pastry. Its signature mooncake with pork filling is many locals’ favorite. A nearby wonton shop, Lu Yang Wonton, features strongly recommended wonton with shrimp filling.
Shiquan area 十全区
The quiet area around Shiquan Street is dotted with classical Chinese gardens and Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasty architecture. It’s shaded by old plane trees.
“The street is quiet and nostalgic and many locals unwind and dine in the area,” says Pan, adding that most of the Suzhou restaurants are small, not “fine,” but cozy and authentic.
For those who want Suzhou soup noodle, Qiong Ling Ge is the place.
It features a rich, fragrant soup said to be made from three chickens, five ducks and 10kg of river eel — just enough to make 400 bowls of noodle a day.
Visitors should try the signature mi zhi paigu (deep fried pork rib braised in sauce 蜜汁排骨) and the men rou (stewed pork 焖肉) as topping for the noodle.
Another recommended eatery is Xie He Cai Guan with offerings ranging from songshu guiyu (sweet-and-sour fish) to jiang fang (pork braised in soybean sauce 酱方).
Those looking for fresh fish and shrimp should visit Wu Sa Jiu Jia, a small restaurant with only six tables.
Three dishes are strongly recommended — fu ru qiang xia (shrimp eaten alive but “stunned” in distilled spirit and soaked in fermented soy bean sauce 腐乳炝虾), dan zheng tang li yu (steamed egg with river carp 蛋蒸塘鲤鱼), and hu pi qing jiao (deep-fried chilli braised in soybean sauce 虎皮青椒).
Mudu Town 木渎古镇
The 2,500-year-old water town is known for its crisscrossing canals and streams, stone bridges, nearby undulating mountains and tranquil temples.
Here chefs get the most out of local ingredients.
Visitors can climb Lingyan Hill to have a bowl of noodle at the restaurant inside Lingyan Temple.
The restaurant’s Zen ambience and mushroom noodle are worth the hike.
Those looking for a fine and rare taste can dine at Shi Jia Fandian. It is known for san xia doufu (shrimp roe, meat and shrimp stewed with tofu 三虾豆腐); ba fei tang (river fish soup 巴肺汤), in which the chef uses only the liver and back meat of a local river fish stewed with seasonal bamboo shoots and ham; and cong you ban mian (noodle tossed along with spring onion 葱油拌面).
Mudu has plenty of restaurants offering mutton banquets in which all dishes are made from mutton/lamb that comes from nearby Cangshu, a famous mutton-producing area.
Chefs use different techniques to cook different parts of mutton. Meat with skin is braised in soybean sauce; blood is used to make soup; the leg is roasted; tender parts are simply boiled and dipped in sauce. The banquet should be ordered one day in advance.