Traditional Cuisine and Food in Suzhou
Occasionally, Suzhou cuisine is more broadly referred to with reference to Shanghai cuisine, since the world’s largest city is less than 60 miles away. However, local chefs are proud to say the flavors of “su bang cai” (Suzhou cuisine) are far more delicate.
Most famous for its vegetable and fish dishes, Suzhou cuisine emphasizes fresh, subtly sweet flavors and exquisite presentation. It commonly features freshwater fish, especially eel and carp, which are usually steamed. Traditional dishes include Mandarin Fish, Steamed White Fish, Water Shield with Egg Flakes, Moon Cakes, Fengzhen noodles, Aozao noodles, Semen euryales, Fish Flavor Spring Rolls, Youtunjinjiao (Fried Steamed Bun), Sugar Porridge, Jiuniang Cake, and more.
Yangtze River Delta
South of the Yangtze River, this is the important Golden Triangle of the river delta, where fertile soil yields rice, wheat, maize and other agricultural bounties, such as soybeans, peanuts, tea, peppermint, spearmint, apples, pears, peaches, loquat, gingko and herbs. Suzhou, found in the Jiangsu Province has a 620-mile coastline on the Yellow Sea and a supply of freshwater fish from Lake Tiahu.
The sweet and sour fried squirrel Mandarin fish dish known throughout Suzhou and Jiang Province is named for its unusual shape. Regarded as the traditional dish to celebrate family occasions, holidays and banquets, the festive presentation of this main course with its reddish-orange sweet and sour sauce sets just the right tone for celebratory gatherings.
Like many foods in China, this regional dish called “song shu gui yu” has an anecdotal history to share. During the Qing Dynasty in the 18th century, Manchurian Emperor Qianlong visited Song Helou Restaurant near the Yangtze River, where the chef served him a delicious boneless carp. Some say its shape on the plate resembles a squirrel, others say the name takes after the sizzling sound of the hot sauce poured over the fish.
Visitors and residents alike frequent the city’s oldest and best-known restaurants specializing in the regional Jiangsu cuisine, which is sometimes described as just a little on the sweet side. Song Helou Restaurant is in two locations on historic Shanlang Street and just off busy GuanQian Jie Street where Mandarin squirrel fish and braised bean curd with crabmeat and shelled fresh shrimps are two of the popular choices. At De Yue Lou Restaurant, also on GuanQian Jie Street, dishes made uniquely with ingredients from nearby Taihu Lake are a feature on the menu, as well as spring chicken, de-shelled shrimps fried with green tea leaves and steamed pork slices with glutinous rice flour.
Wumen Renjia Restaurant also specializes in traditional local cuisine; find it in the courtyard of the admission-free Suzhou Folk Custom Museum. Dishes have been carefully researched for authenticity and follow traditional cooking methods focused on quality produce, meticulous techniques, elegant presentation and natural fragrant flavors from nearby gardens. Try the cherry pork, slowed cooked for several hours, perhaps accompanied by spiced peanuts and bean curd, Suzhou noodles, lotus, water chestnuts, broad beans stir-fried with spring onions, preserved mustard greens.
Be assured that a smile and a ‘thank-you’ is appreciated at the end of an enjoyable meal, as tipping in restaurants is not part of the culture in mainland China.