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Suzhou Dining


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Well, we're being assured on a daily basis that a wave of foreign visitors is going to hit Suzhou as a result of the wildly anticipated Shanghai World Expo 2010. (New City! New Life!) So..if you're in the neighbourhood, there are a few decent places to eat.

Suzhou is mainly famous for its formal gardens (not food), and one of the nicest places in town is a restored street of traditional housing - Ping Jiang Lu. It's lined with a number of nice teahouses and places to eat.

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One of my favourite houses has a terrace to sit out on the canal, where you can watch traditional canal boats poling by, and enjoy one of their many teas by the leaf. On a recent visit, we sampled some Hangzhou longjing IMG_0012.jpg

I tried the bi luo chun, in an attempt to find one I like, but I'm just not a fan.


A young couple runs this house, and they have an eclectic selection of teaware that is matched to each of their teas. They also offer fruit and flower teas, which are quite trendy now. You get your leaves and a giant thermos of hot water, so you can while away an afternoon in the sun reloading your cup and reading. They also have wi-fi.

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  • 4 months later...

One of my favourite restaurants in Suzhou, Yang Yang Dumpling, is actually right at the end of my alley. I blame this place for not exploring more of what Suzhou has to offer, actually, because it's so conveniently located I can never get up the motivation to go anywhere else.

This location, however, has helped us achieve status of laoke(老客) - "old customers", which means we get perqs like not being snarled at when we order and the communal tea pot of barley tea being left on our table a little longer than average.

There are two cold dishes I always alternate getting here; one is the standard pickled cucumber, although they do a hot version with strips of fresh red chili and ginger, and rice vinegar instead of black vinegar. The other, which I ordered yesterday, feeds my unholy love for white radish - they chip off thin shards of medium daikon, then marinate them with soy, vinegar, sugar, and sesame oil.


We got a plate of their specialty - fried pork dumplings heavily flecked with cilantro and that teaspoon full of rich pork juice inside. They're fried crunchy on one side and thickly doughy on the other side. Their dumpling skins have heft, and you can see the kitchen staff come down from the roof to the kitchen hourly with fresh-made flats.


We also love their gan bian dou jiao (干扁豆角), green beans fried with pork and chilies. Actually, we order this so often that when they hand us the menu they ask us if we want it before we can get our order out.


I can't resist eggplant, either, so we got a plate of their hot-plate eggplant - tie ban qie zi (铁板茄子), in which eggplant sliced lengthwise is stuffed with small nuggets of ground pork, laid on a bed of red onion and cilantro, covered with brown sauce, then wrapped up and served on an iron plate, still sizzling and threatening first-degree burns as it sends up a hot spray of eggplant juice and oil as it's unwrapped.


It's located on Shi Qian street, almost directly across from the UNESCO World Heritage Master of the Nets Garden, meaning that they're used to foreigners, and have picture menus to help order, if you need one.

They do a mean sweet-and-sour chicken; my co-workers swear by the restorative properties of their hot and sour soup; and as we're approaching hairy crab season, I'm looking forward to the annual installation of their crab tank.

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This is very exciting stuff to me. We aren't coming for the Expo, but if all goes well the World Canals Conference will be in the area in 2012. We will be based someplace along the Grand Canal. I know, that's a long time to wait. But now I can "study up" on where to go, and more importantly, where and what to eat. I am so looking forward to it as our only trip to China was a tour, with somewhat dumbed down food.


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Ah, the Grand Canal! It's around here somewhere...I know it hits Suzhou at some point, but since we're criss-crossed with canals (big and small) I'm never been sure whether I've seen it or not. At any rate, lots of good stuff here to eat, and easily accessible, too. Since we're such a major domestic tourism destination, there are a lot of dining options. Although Jiangsu cuisine is not really famous in its own right, there is regional representation here as well.

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Yang Yang is easy to find - they've got a big English sign up touting their inclusion in the Lonely Planet Guide. The small closet of a restaurant next door is an imitator - if you go, you'll want the big, bustling, multi-storey one.

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Another great place to go in Suzhou is also on Ping Jiang Lu is called Pinvon. They're in a historic house set on the side of a canal, and they specialize in dumplings. Picture menus again, so perhaps you'll forgive me for not remembering what any of these delicious things are called:

Pork-filled baozi; sesame crusted and fried on one side in a cast iron pan.


Standard jiaozi with a thick, chewy dumpling skin (on purpose). Much more substantial than a gyoza-style wrapper.


Interior shot:


Steamed rice dumpling with more pork inside - a house specialty, I think. I liked them; my friends preferred the wheat-wrapped dumplings.


Soup. Bland, but a nice counter-point to the dumplings.


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One more place that I end up in regularly is Yun Gei Cantonese Restaurant, on the corner of Feng Huang Lu and Shi Qian Jie next to the canal. Most Sunday mornings my husband and I go here for brunch.

Apologies for the poor pictures -

We usually get beef kweoy teow:


Roast Pork (They also have duck and chicken for chicken rice), of course.


These vegetable dumplings that have the lightest, thinnest skins, and are crammed full of water chestnut, garlic chives and carrot:


Vinegary garlic cucumbers:


As well as char siu bao that have a very nice filling heavy on cassia - probably my favourite ones so far in China - how lucky that they're right down the street from me.

They also specialize in claypot baked rice, although if you order it, it takes a half hour to come. Very worth it - we've gotten the one topped with qing cai and roast pork before. They also have a pig lung soup that seriously seems to go out to every table, but I've never tried.

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  • 3 weeks later...

My cousin e-mailed me back in June and said, "I'm coming to Shanghai during National Week! Suzhou's near Shanghai, right? Can we sort out some train tickets?"

Some frantic booking and one missed train due to station confusion later, I spent the weekend with her and her husband seeing some more sights around Suzhou. We went first to Tongli, a Song Dynasty "water village" on the outskirts of town. It's a canal town, with gondolas that will pole you around the old streets. There are lots of little tea shops along the canal that have fine tea lists. We stopped for a cuppa char, as my mum would say; the choices were jasmine tea, "grandma style" tea, Tie Guan Yin, and Long Jin teas. We opted for some TGY and enjoyed the view:

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There were lots of snacks on offer for the October 1st holiday crowds, including an assortment of Suzhou-style dumplings. The white ones have a simple pork filling with a rich soup gravy; the green ones are made with some sort of herb worked into the dough, and have smoked tofu and mushrooms inside; the pouches have glutinous rice with "eight treasures". We didn't indulge.

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The dumpling master looks in askance at his apprentice:

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Was he taking the cover off wrong? We'll never know.

I didn't indulge because I was saving myself for some chou doufu. (Oh no you didn't! Oh yes I did!) Okay, I didn't actually have chou doufu (stinky tofu) at Tongli, I had it the day before in the city centre. But this picture is so much prettier than the knock-off alley behind a discount drugstore where I had my first stick. For those who are uninitiated to choudoufu, it's got a pungent odour which I personally liken to the smell you get off a brown streak on a baby's diaper. It was one of the more difficult things I have put in my mouth. I would like to report it tastes exactly like it smells, for those of you who may have read the opposite. That being said, despite gagging to get it down, I could see the appeal. If I could eat three or four more sticks, I'm sure I could snack on it happily. It had a really compelling, definitive taste. And the texture was great. I'm far more sensitive to texture. But the first time was like licking the floor in the KFC toilet of the long distance bus station. And it was really salty.

The great thing about eating choudoufu, though, is that while I couldn't say I enjoyed it, every time I smelt it afterwards, I found it much less striking a smell. Like I had been innoculated somehow.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Another one of our favourite places to go is a Xinjiang restaurant "Yakexi", on Shi Qian Jie.

Xinjiang ("New Frontier") is a province in the west of China that's recently seen confrontations between the Han Chinese and the Muslim Uighur populations. For a while, the government had not only shut down all internet service in the region, but also all mobile phone SMS service. The tension, however, has not affected the popularity of Xinjiang restaurants in Suzhou, which are always jammed. The region is famous for its raisins and other fruits, and lamb dishes. Yakexi also makes its own fresh yogurt drinks.

When you walk in, the waitresses are in national dress, and there are dishes of raisins and peanuts on the table for starters. You get barley tea immediately, and they also have pomegranate juice, and Xinjiang beers in lager and stout. Xinjiang lager is a lot lighter than Qingdao, and much fizzier, but still drinkable.

We always order Gan bian sijidou (干扁四季豆), which they make with sichuan peppercorns in place of the more typical pork for flavour. There are also slivers of pickled garlic throughout, which are gorgeous.

There's a man in a booth outside the restaurant grilling lamb skewers. We usually order ten, they're so delicious - chunks of lamb and lamb fat sprinkled with chili and cumin.

He also has an oven for making nang (nan) bread, which is excellent for sopping up lamb juice. Some Xinjiang restaurants make a kind of pizza out of their nang, added minced lamb, herbs, and yogurt to the top, but I haven't found it on the menu at Yakexi.



Carmelised potatoes inexplicably go quite well with spicy lamb. When I'm feeling the lack of Western food most strongly, I order this along with the lamb skewers, and it somehow cheers me up.


More vegetables - tigerskin green peppers in black bean sauce. This one is made with quite thin-skinned green peppers that fry up with delicately thin flesh. The charred taste of the skin makes them taste like roast peppers. I never get to order this when it's just my husband and I, since he prefers the green beans to the peppers. When we go with a larger group, we can add another vegetable dish.


And the final touch: rack of lamb ribs.


The lamb has been braised, I think, in star-anise flavoured stock. Then it seems to be grilled to put on a bit of crust, then covered in a green and red pepper sauce. The flesh just slips off the bones, and my mouth is watering just thinking about it.

I think that their menu has been heavily influenced by Han Chinese dishes, but the lamb is excellent. There are a few more Xinjiang restaurants in Suzhou that offer even more lamb options that I'd like to visit.

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