Most famous for its vegetable and fish dishes, Suzhou cuisine emphasizes fresh, subtly sweet flavors and exquisite appearance. 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 flavored spring rolls, youtunjinjiao (fried steamed buns), sugar porridge and Jiuniang cake.
Yangtze River Delta
The delta lies South of the Yangtze River, 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 in Jiangsu province has a 620-mile coastline on the Yellow Sea and a supply of freshwater fish from Taihu Lake.
The sweet and sour fried squirrel mandarin fish dish is known throughout Suzhou and Jiang province. Regarded as a 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 (1644-1911) in the 18th century, Manchurian Emperor Qianlong visited Songhelou 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 comes from 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. Songhelou Restaurant is in two locations on historic Shanlang Street and just off busy Guanqian Street; Mandarin squirrel fish with braised bean curd and crabmeat and shelled fresh shrimps are two of its most popular offerings.
Deyuelou Restaurant, also on Guanqian Street, features dishes made uniquely with ingredients from nearby Taihu Lake, 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; you can find it in the courtyard of the admission-free Suzhou Folk Custom Museum. Dishes are carefully researched for authenticity and follow traditional cooking methods focused on quality cuisine, meticulous techniques, elegant presentation and natural fragrant flavors from nearby gardens. Try the cherry pork, slowly cooked for several hours, perhaps accompanied by spiced peanuts and bean curd, Suzhou noodles, lotus, water chestnuts, broad beans stir-fried with spring onions, and preserved mustard greens.
Be assured that a smile and a ‘thank-you’ is appreciated at the end of an enjoyable meal.