The delicate flavours of Suzhou cuisine

The Chinese city of Suzhou, about 60 miles from Shanghai, is known best for its gardens and for the network of canals that once earned it the nickname, alongside numerous other Asian cities, of “the Venice of the east”. Though much of the old city has been erased by overzealous development, the gardens are still enchanting, with their rockeries, pools and pavilions. The canalside street of Pingjiang Lu has a sleepy, old-world charm. However, I am here mainly to investigate the food, for Suzhou has its own culinary style, su bang cai, or Suzhou cuisine.

A certain obsession with food is perceptible just by strolling along Guanqian Street, the main shopping street in the city centre. Here, engraved plaques outside famous old cake shops explain their pedigrees, and shoppers queue for seasonal delicacies such as red-sauced pork or glutinous rice balls stained by fresh wheatgrass. On another street running south, the old noodle shop Zhuhongxing dispenses soup noodles served with sticky-sweet eel and tender pork belly and other favourite local snacks. It all reminds me of the novella that gave me my own first sniff of Suzhou culinary culture, The Gourmet by local writer Lu Wenfu: a satirical tale of the relationship between a gluttonous landlord and a young communist with a priggish disdain for gastronomy. Hints of the devastating pleasures of Suzhou cuisine pepper every page.

Broadly speaking, Suzhou belongs to the great Huaiyang culinary region in the east, which is notable for its easy climate, plentiful produce and rich artistic and gastronomic culture. For centuries, this region was a magnet for the literati and many gentlemen of letters who lived or lingered here, such as the Song dynasty poets Su Dongpo and Lu You, and the Qing dynasty poet Yuan Mei, wrote about its food.

Suzhou itself, like other cities in the region, has its own famous dishes and gastronomic predilections, although many Chinese outsiders dismiss its style as cloyingly sweet. In the west, Suzhou cooking is largely unknown, although anyone eating Shanghainese cuisine will be unwittingly tasting the influence of Suzhou, and many people will have come across a few of its most celebrated dishes, such as “squirrel fish” (song shu gui yu) dressed in sweet-and-sour sauce.

On this, my first trip to Suzhou, by an amazing stroke of luck I find myself within 24 hours in a small kitchen with two retired master chefs preparing a private banquet for a table of local officials. I watch as they whip up, in barely more than an hour, a feast of eight or nine dishes, including a fabulous soup of turtle, pork, ham, chicken and bamboo shoots (not to mention the nine cold dishes they had made in advance). With every dish, they throw a little extra into the wok, so that I can have a taste, and when they have finished we join the rest of the staff for supper. For me, it is a delightful introduction to Suzhou culinary culture.

It isn’t the only serendipitous encounter of the trip. Later, I stumble upon Wumen Renjia, a restaurant devoted to traditional Suzhou cuisine. It occupies a rambling old courtyard house and is part of the Suzhou Folk Museum. Founded in 1986, it is now run by Sha Peizhi, a devoted advocate of Suzhou’s culinary culture. “Suzhou is an extraordinary place with a remarkable heritage,” she tells me. “Its gardens are already on the Unesco World Heritage List, and its opera is recognised as part of the world’s intangible cultural heritage – so why not its food?”

Since Sha took over Wumen Renjia in 2003, she has conducted her own research into the history of Suzhou cuisine, visiting the imperial archives in Beijing to find out what the Qianlong emperor ate during his visit here in 1751, and writing introductions to local culinary culture that are displayed on the walls of the restaurant. “Originally there were around 300 gardens in Suzhou [only a few dozen remain], as well nearly 50 official residences, and each of these households would have had teams of private chefs, so you can imagine the standard of the food. Suzhou has a well-established gourmet culture.”

Sha dismisses the accusation of sweetness as a misunderstanding by outsiders. “Most Suzhou dishes are very subtle, with flavours that are light and gentle. They are understated rather than fancy, like our gardens, with their naturalistic elegance. Of course, this means that Suzhou cooking is hard to do well because it relies on the finest, freshest ingredients; and some of our cooking techniques are rather troublesome. But ours is a very balanced style of cooking.”

Over dinner at Wumen Renjia, some Chinese friends and I enjoy a feast of Suzhou specialities, many made with unusual local ingredients. There are spiced peanuts and bean curd, a delicious, crunchy relish of roasted pine kernels with Jinhua ham and white sugar, sliced cold duck in a rich, ruddy sauce, and xian cai, preserved mustard greens.

Our main courses include “cherry pork” that has been slow-cooked for seven or eight hours, seasonal broad beans stir-fried with spring onions, and mushrooms with shepherd’s purse greens. For our soup, we have a broth of tender silver fish with water shield (chun cai), a slippery water vegetable. As Sha had promised, the sweet tastes are balanced by the understated flavours of fresh ingredients, simply but beautifully cooked. I was satisfied that this was a meal that would have pleased Lu Wenfu’s gluttonous gourmet and outraged his starchy communist.

By all accounts there is a small and dwindling number of Suzhou restaurants that specialise in the local cuisine. Two famous old names in the city centre, the Deyue Lou and the Songhe Lou, offer classic Suzhou dishes (squirrel fish is a speciality of the Songhe Lou), but they are outnumbered by western fast food outlets and by restaurants specialising in other cuisines, such as Indian and Sichuanese.

“Chinese people are blindly following the west in the clothes they wear, the homes they live in, and the food they eat,” says Sha. “Cultured Suzhou people know it’s not a good idea to eat spicy food in this climate because it creates internal heat. But young people’s tastes are changing. They are seduced by advertisements and they are also after stimulation in their food, which is why Sichuanese places are so popular. They see the kind of food we serve as old-fashioned.”

Wumen Renjia is not a smart or fashionable restaurant – aside from one vast and magnificent private room, the main dining spaces have a scruffy, lived-in air – but it’s a favourite among the older generation of locals, and with tourists who come here for a real taste of Suzhou. In the kitchens, one chef, in his seventies, is schooling younger members of staff in the arts of Suzhou cookery. “I want visitors to understand something of our way of life,” says Sha. “I want to make sure that our culinary traditions are handed down to the next generation.”

Fuchsia Dunlop is the author of ‘Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China’ (Ebury Press), winner of the Jane Grigson Award in the US and the UK’s Kate Whiteman Award

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