China: A taste of Suzhou

Posted on May 24, 2011

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Having only spent a day in this fine city, it is hard to comment on its food, but here goes.

Arriving in the city hungry having foregone breakfast meant that we found the ‘snack street’ pretty quickly. Snacks included things like tofu, fried dumplings, soup noodles and the likes. Out of curiousity, we tried these Taiwanese style corn cakes which was basically a deep fried batter. Given my not so great experience with sweets in China thus far, I was hoping the Taiwanese would deliver. Unfortunately not. Despite the lady reassuringly me that it would be sweet, my taste buds did not agree. It was bland with only the faintest hint of corn. I didn’t even like the texture. The inside was claggy and to be honest, this is how I’d imagine glue to feel in my mouth.

Since I’ve already started with the low points, another very ordinary food included the supposedly famous jiu bu li steamed buns from Tian Jin. They looked cute enough and seemed to be rather popular, but were completely bland to me. I’m not even actually sure what meat was inside, but I’m hoping it’s just pork and not dog (the ‘jiu’ in its name is the character for dog)!

Luckily for us, we discovered an even bigger snack area in front of the Temple of Mystery a couple of streets away. It must have been a special festival as there were many banners up and the concrete pavement had carpet overlay. This market area would be a foodies’ haven. There were all sorts of food stuffs being sold, from the conventional to the down right strange (for a western tourist anyway), scorpions or starfish anyone?

Jackfruit appears to be quite the foreign delicacy here with a small box costing up to $15RMB, compare that with a small roast bird for only $8RMB. I tried the bird, but I’m not actually sure what it is. It lacks the gamey taste that pigeons have, despite the seller telling me it was. Perhaps it got lost in translation somewhere and he really meant a squab? Because surely it’s too small to be a chicken! Hm sometimes it can be quite disconcerting ordering in China…you’re never too sure what you’re going to get.

So it would seem you can get anything on a stick in this food market, including the very strange skewered whole crabs. Unfortunately soft shell crabs these were not. We bought a skewer just for the heck of it, and it was a mistake. It was near impossible to bite through the shell to eat the little meat that was inside. It really was more trouble than it was worth. And for me to say that really is saying something, I would usually go to a lot of trouble to get crab!

The hot and sour glass noodles with duck blood jelly was another big seller, priced very cheaply at $10RMB a bowl. I’m quite partial to blood jelly, but I can’t say I could really discern the taste difference between the more commonly available (in Melbourne) pig blood versus duck blood. But perhaps the fault does not rest solely on me as the soup was really quite spicy! The kind of numbling ‘ma la‘ hotness you’d expect of Sichuan food. It also had a decent sour twang to arouse your senses further. Overall a fairy tasty dish, although it did leave a rather strange and somewhat unpleasant after-taste and sensation on my tongue that I don’t know how to explain. Guess you’d just have to try it for yourself.

There’s only one more noteworthy food story that I want to share, the free glutinous rice cake (similar to tang yuen but not served in syrup) sampler from a little retail snack boutique. The sticky dough forms the outer covering for sweet fillings like red bean paste, coconut and peanuts etc. The Japanese version, the mochi, is probably more well known. In Chinese, it’s called a ma chi. In Suzhou, however, it wasn’t exactly a sweet filling that we got. Strangely enough, it was filled with a mung bean and pork floss. A filling more associated with a savory zong zi (a steamed glutinous rice ball with stuffing and wrapped in bamboo leaves). The first bite really threw my senses as I was expecting something sweet. My companion did not like it at all, I think they were too set on sweet ma chi. The pork floss did give it a subtle sweetness and I found the taste grew on me with subsequent bites.

Generally the food we tried did not depart too far from Shanghainese cuisine, and we did expect some resemblance given the proximity of the two cities. Too bad time did not permit any visits to proper restaurants on this short trip. There is always next time I suppose.

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