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Chow down, lick your chops and fingers -- and savor special foods and their stories

ALMOST all visitors say they want authentic Chinese food, the real thing, the real deal. They want to eat where the locals chow down -- well, some of the time.

Most of the time, however, they miss the genuine article, the fascinating specialties, for lack of time or information.

Food is more enjoyable when you know the stories behind it. The stories go better with the food, too, but guidebooks don't tell many tales.

In old times, people rose in revolution for lack of food. Officials tried to persuade their emperors to change policies through allegories about food and eating.

Many tales about an emperor's wickedness or stupidity are told through his relationship to food, gluttony, for example. Many Chinese sayings and proverbs refer to foods and alcohol. For example, jiu chi rou lin is widely used to describe a luxurious lifestyle.

The four characters literally mean alcohol (jiu), a pool (chi), meat (rou) and woods (lin), indicating a scene of abundance in which alcohol/wine fills a pool and there are so many sticks of barbecued meat that they form a forest.

And there are authentic, small eateries offering specialties that even most locals don't know about. The decrepit hole-in-the-wall eatery with delicious magical food is a fixture in martial arts films and novels. Often it is only known to the hero and his companions.

Sometimes the owner/cook is a retired kung fu master or a criminal on the lam.

In the information era today, it's amazing that many wonderful food spots are still hidden, but their reputation is spread by the oldest media of all, word of mouth. Sometimes only the older generation knows those good eats in dingy places where secret recipes are still used. The owners are usually not kung fu masters or criminals.

There's a legend about renowned writer, poet and politician Zhang Han in the Western Jin Dynasty (265-316 AD) who quit his high government post because he missed the flavorful cuisine from his hometown.

Certainly, the cuisine of Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, was just Zhang's excuse to take his leave of the unstable government.

Still, many famous scholars quote this story in their poems and express appreciation for such a romantic decision, abandoning the cutthroat struggle for officialdom and seeking simple pleasures and hometown cooking.

Zhang's hometown Suzhou is less than an hour's drive from Shanghai.

It's a typical city of the Jiangnan region (south of the lower reaches of Yangtze River), famous for splendid gardens and great food.

Emperors traveled there to contemplate in tranquil gardens and eat well.

Here, we offer several interesting food spots, with "secret" eateries for those in-the-know, or charming legends about well-known local specialties.

All are within three hours' drive from downtown Shanghai and accessible by public transport.

Cakes and congee for longevity

Tongli Town in Jiangsu Province, like Zhouzhuang, is a typical watertown and a protected historical site. The town also has a reputation for longevity - many seniors are over 80 years old, a few are nearly 100.

It is surrounded by five lakes and divided into seven islands by 15 rivers. The 49 ancient bridges embody its reputation as the "Small Venice of the East."

Once called Fu Tu (Rich Earth), the town has been home to wealthy businessmen and important figures since ancient times. The residences feature classic Chinese gardens, with winding paths and intricate designs, inspired by water and bridges.

Most residences have stories behind them. The most famous is Tuisi Garden, or the Retreat and Reflection Garden, with 24 buildings, 28 tablets and 15 valuable old trees. The original owner, Ren Lansheng, was an official of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) who was sacked for accepting bribes. Legend has it that he was a good civil servant entrapped by his rivals in government.

Ren named the place Tuisi Garden to show his determination to reflect and confess in his elaborate garden, with man-made hills and numerous rare flowers and plants. It is noted for its boatlike pavilion. It can take two hours and a knowledgeable guide to appreciate it.

The garden is so famous that the special cake sold everywhere is named Tuisi cake after the garden.

Most specialties in Tongli are not regular dishes but all kinds of snacks like cakes, dumplings, and congees - perfect for the informal, chilled atmosphere of the watertown.

Min bing, or cake of the Min family, is sold around the world by a Shanghai company. Made by the Min family alone, the cake recipe goes back 400 years. The delicious secret is the stuffing, sweet red bean paste and several mysterious ingredients.

Another notable snack is healthy qianshi grain congee, made of Tongli's specialty qianshi, known as "ginseng in water." Traditional Chinese medical uses it in food therapy to improve immunity, aid digestion, ease the pain of arthritis, among other benefits.

Local residents also attribute the longevity to the special grain.

Marvelous mutton of wisdom

Mutton (sheep, lamb, goat) has always been an important dish. Traditional Chinese medicine recommends mutton in winter, as it's a yang (hot) energy food that boosts your own energy. Winter is the time to build energy.

Many people find the mutton odor disagreeable, even when the meat is cooked with a lot of spices. But the best mutton has no odor, even when it's boiled.

Most people go to Beijing, the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region or the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region for the best, odorless mutton (it comes from castrated sheep and there's no hormone smell).

Mutton isn't as popular in the south, but many small towns near Shanghai have been preparing mutton for centuries, with their unique family recipes.

Long Legs Mutton

Long Legs Mutton is a tiny, dusty and dilapidated eatery hidden in a long narrow lane of Zhoupu Town in Nanhui District, above an hour's drive from downtown. The town itself is small and unremarkable and Long Legs isn't a real restaurant. It only has a small butcher's counter where mutton is sold and six dusty tables and some chairs outside.

It fits the description of those secret little food havens in martial arts novels. Even most Shanghainese don't know about it. Most people pass by because it's closed for most of the day.

The mysterious Long Legs Mutton belongs to Uncle Long Legs, whose real name is kept secret, but he has been selling mutton in the area for at least 25 years. He only sells broiled mutton, intestines, noodles and rice wine.

Mutton is about 40 yuan (US$6) per pound (0.45 kilogram) and rice wine is 4 yuan per bowl.

The shop opens at 4am daily and starts wrapping up around 8am, when everything is sold out. Uncle opens again briefly around 2pm, and closes again when the mutton is sold out - it goes fast.

Many seniors in town have been going there for more than 20 years. They gather at the four tables in the narrow lane in early morning, eating mutton and noodle soup and drinking rice wine. They also take the fresh meat home.

There are long lines that include folks who woke up early and drove to the legendary spot.

An entire town of mutton

Compared with tiny Zhoupu, Qibao Ancient Town in Minhang District is more famous as the new popular watertown, after Zhouzhuang and Zhu Jiajiao.

The town is named after a small temple in the town, built at least 2,000 years ago by a rich family named Lu as a place to pray to ancestors. The temple was expanded many times, and crowds drawn by the temple helped develop the town into one of the richest in the area in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

The town has numerous, well-preserved buildings, old family shops, folk crafts and delicious food.

It's famous for its mutton. Almost all shops sell broiled mutton and the largest restaurants even provide an entire meal of mutton - more than 10 dishes of different parts of the sheep, cooked in different ways. Everything but the "baa" is eaten.

Wise and wonderful mutton

Cangshu is a small town in Suzhou, missed by most travelers on a brief trip. It's quite ordinary compared with other attractions in Suzhou, except for its appealing name.

Cang means hiding and shu means books. Apart from its beautiful scenery and gardens, Suzhou is famous for producing scholars. Many famous ancient scholars, writers, poets and painters were born in the area.

After the Emperor Qin Shihuang unified China in 221 BC, he became notorious for burning the books of intellectuals and burying Confucians alive. Local tales in Cangshu tell of book burning.

Long ago students and scholars there had to bury their books to protect them, and to save their own lives. They dug them up 15 years later when the brief dynasty ended and named the town after their sad experience.

Ancients believed that all the plants and trees in the town absorbed the wisdom and the aroma of buried books, through their roots.

Local sheep grazing on the wise grasses ingested the wisdom - and that's why mutton in the town doesn't have that strong odor.

A charming story. Castration is the real story; the male hormones create a strong smell.

Although some Shanghai restaurants sell mutton from Cangshu, the most authentic mutton is sold in the old town. The most famous is cooked with soy source, and it's possible to eat a full-course mutton meal.

In addition to mutton, the town has a long history of stone carving.

All-in-one town

Zhujiajiao is the famous "Venice of Shanghai" in Qingpu District and dates back more than 1,000 years. Ancient buildings and bridges are well preserved.

Much larger than other watertowns like Tongli or Zhouzhuang, Zhujiajiao also has more attractions. It's easy to get lost. It's recommended to take it in this order: one bridge, one street, one temple, one plaza, one pavilion, two gardens, three bays and 26 lanes - and that's just the first visit.

The town is known for producing literati and for its book collections. It is said more than half the old families collect books as a family tradition and even own valuable copies of ancient books.

The varied cuisine is a major attraction. There's not a single specialty, but many dishes, from lake fish and crustaceans to snacks.

The most popular are the wrapped meat, the zongzi or glutinous rice dumplings, and pig's feet cooked with soy source. Although you can buy them in downtown Shanghai as well, it's fresher, tastier and much cheaper.


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