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August 25, 2011

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Savoring seasonal dishes in Suzhou

SUZHOU cuisine is famous for soft and tender textures, as well as an impressive selection of fish and water plants. Gao Ceng takes a bite.

Suzhou, in Shanghai's neighboring Jiangsu Province, is known for its classical gardens and network of canals. Ren Hua, a poet in Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) once wrote verses to praise the beauty of Suzhou by saying: "Just as there's a paradise in heaven, there are Suzhou and Hangzhou on earth."

But the beauty of Suzhou goes beyond its gardens and can be seen in the local cuisine. It's known for soft and tender textures, cloyingly sweet flavors and excellent presentations. The cuisine also features a good variety of water plants, fish and other aquatic foods.

Like other Chinese cuisines, Suzhou cooking is famed for serving seasonal food. Spring is the best time for fresh wild herbs such as malantou and xiangchun. In summer, it's time for refreshing water plants represented by water chestnut and water caltrop. In autumn, rich foods that are naturally sweet, such as hairy crab, do the trick.

In winter, many prefer foods to warm the body such as lamb paired with a cup of dongniangjiu, a winter wine made of glutinous rice and local osmanthus.

Suzhou chefs are also famous for making full use of ingredients. For example, they will use the head, body and tail of a fish to make three different dishes in different cooking styles.

They also use their fine cutting skills to make nice presentations. Fish can be made into the shape of a squirrel while river shrimp and crab can be presented like a peacock.

Here Shanghai Daily introduces three traditional Suzhou dishes. Late August is a good time to visit the city, which is about 96 kilometers from Shanghai, and try some Suzhou cuisine.

Sweet and sour mandarin fish

It's a sweet and sour fish dish that features a squirrel-like presentation. The mouth of the fish is positioned open and its tail is bent upward to make it look like a squirrel.

Chefs cut the body into spikes to resemble fur. More interestingly, as the chef spreads the hot sauce on the deep fried fish in front of diners, a sound like a squirrel barking can be heard. It is said this dish was Emperor Qian Long's (1736-1799) favorite.

Peter Xu, the Chinese executive chef from Kempinski Hotel Suzhou uses mandarin fish from Taihu Lake as they have a firm, yet tender texture. Shrimp, green beans and shelled corn are added to give more flavor and textures.

The fish, with a golden yellow color, tastes hot and crispy on the outside, warm and tender on the inside. The meat has a firm yet creamy texture, showing natural sweetness.

Baked Chinese yam rhizome in meat broth

Chef Jacky Li from Pan Pacific Suzhou creatively uses baking to cook yam rhizome, a traditional Chinese ingredient.

"Yam rhizome matures around the Mid-Autumn Festival and it has a crisp, refreshing taste. Suzhou locals usually fry it with sliced pork or celery, which seems too light. Hence, we use the meat broth collected from braised pork to give the yam rhizome a rich taste and fatty aroma. Baking is a good way for the yam rhizome to absorb the meat flavor from the broth," Li said.

The dish presents a nice crispy texture and rich flavor, balancing sweet, salty and spicy. Li recommends serving the dish with a cup of osmanthus tea to balance the fatty broth. The tea leaves a long and sweet finish in the mouth.

In TCM, yam rhizome is said to be good for the spleen and removing residual dampness.

Jitoumi with sweetened osmanthus

It's a seasonal dessert from InterContinental Suzhou hotel's Mid-Autumn Festival menu. Jitoumi, also known as fox nut, is a flowering plant in the water lily family. Every year around autumn, hawkers can be seen selling freshly picked jitoumi across Suzhou.

Li Shizhen (1518-1593), one of China's greatest herbologists, introduced the plant in his Compendium of Materia Medica by saying that its spherical appearance and white color look like the pearl. After being cooked, it has a taro-like texture. He emphasized that it has the effect of strengthening the spleen and replenishing qi (energy), thus making it a good nourishing food.

Since the plant has a natural fragrance, simply cooking it in soup with some sweetened osmanthus is the best way to highlight its flavor.

The soup has a pleasant sweetness and intense floral note. Jitoumi tastes soft and silky.


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