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May 30, 2010

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Su cuisine celebrated for its good looks and flavor

BRAISED Pork and Crabmeat Balls is a common dish of Su food, one of the eight Chinese cuisine systems. The finished meatball has a rough surface, which resembles a lion's head and leads to the dish's more sophisticated name -- Crab Lion's Head.

A typical dish in Huaiyang cuisine, a subset of Su cuisine, it can be ordered in any Huaiyang food venues, from five-star hotels to street vendors. Many people recently were surprised to learn that it was one of the main items on a celebrated national banquet. For years, people had gossiped about what the national leaders ate on the evening of October 1, 1949, after the New China was founded.

The banquet's menu was revealed in a Chinese cuisine history book last year. Along with Braised Pork and Crabmeat Balls, most dishes came from Huaiyang cuisine, an important part of court banquets since ancient times.

The eight Chinese cuisine systems, developed over thousands of years, are primarily designated according to regions. Due to distinct geographic and climatic features, various areas grow different kinds of vegetables and provide different fish or meat. In general, northern cuisines are saltier and spicier, to help fight the cold, while southern cuisines tend to be milder and sweeter as it gets rather hot in summers.

The eight cuisine systems, usually featuring a main city or area, have been developed from traditional dishes and cooking methods generic to the place and share some features. Su cuisine developed from traditional dishes in today's Jiangsu Province and is more complicated than others in terms of common features.

Jiangsu Province is divided by the Yangtze River into two distinct parts. Areas north to the river share similar weather, language, clothing, products and hobbies with other northern Chinese cities, while southern regions have more in common with places like Shanghai.

The system consists of four distinct branches -- Huaiyang cuisine centering on Yangzhou and Huai'an, Suxi cuisine featuring Suzhou and Wuxi, Jingsu cuisine based in Nanjing and Xuhai cuisine surrounding Xuzhou and Haiqi. Those cities were all important ports or commercial centers in ancient times.

The area of today's Jiangsu Province has long been known as the "hometown of fish and rice" -- geographic and climatic advantages have provided rich products from grains to seafood. These ingredients have also influenced development of the cuisine system in the area.

Su cuisine cooks prefer fresh materials, whether seafood or vegetables, and focus on the length and intensity of cooking rather than the ingredients. The key is to feature the original and authentic aroma, flavor and taste of the dish.

Appearance also plays a significant part, so Su cuisine is known for its food sculpturing and arranging. Cooks spend a lot time decorating dishes along the lines of scenes in traditional Chinese paintings and give them poetic names.

Huaiyang cuisine and Suxi cuisine remain among the best-known in the country and have each further developed their unique features. Huaiyang cuisine represents northern characteristics in the area and Suxi the southern.

Belonging to the same Su cuisine system, Huaiyang and Suxi cuisines are rather distinct. The first has milder versions of dishes in northern areas like Shandong Province while the later reflects versions of cuisines in Shanghai.

In earlier times, Yangzhou had the added advantage of proximity to the Grand Canal. The city was at the juncture of northern and southern areas -- almost everyone on the road had to pass by the place. Merchants, government officials and intellectuals went through the city on their way to business, civil service or exams and brought products and cuisines from all over the nation.

The busy crowds also pushed the local cuisine to satisfy an increasingly higher demand for taste and quality. Gradually, Huaiyang cuisine earned its fame as being one of the most balanced in taste and style, able to accommodate customers from all over the nation and thus making it safe for the imperial dinner table.

It is neither too salty like the northern nor too sweat like the southern. The cuisine merges the features of southern dishes -- tender, crispy and fresh -- with those of northern dishes -- tasty, colorful and dense. The main cooking methods include braising, stewing and warming over a tiny fire.

Huaiyang cuisine cooks are always masters of knives. It was said that a Huaiyang cuisine cook would have to practice using knives for years before learning anything else.

Suxi cuisine has always been linked to students, intellectuals and literati. Many dishes were named by, or for, famous literati while some were said to be concocted by intellectuals who appreciated fine dining.

Suzhou was renowned for producing the most zhuangyuan -- those who scored top in the imperial examination to become a government official. During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties (1644-1911), the small city of Suzhou produced almost 10 percent of all zhuangyuans.

As a result of its rich products, Suzhou's intellectuals have a reputation for appreciating fine dining. Many believe in the idea of finding perfection and harmony in everything from flowers to food. They held regular meeting in restaurants around the city to exchange poems, paintings and essays as well as political ideas.

They had high expectations of food in terms of taste, appearance, aroma and, most of all, the settings of banquets. Some of the earliest Chinese cook books were written by these intellectuals, leaving today's historians and cooks a treasure trove of facts about the history of Chinese cuisine.


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