Good Eats

Shan Zhen Bao 山珍宝 @ Suzhou

When you are stuck in a conference for a couple of days, you tend to be fed too well. And so when it’s time to have one final meal before you hit the road, you opt for something simple.

Shan Zhen Bao 山珍宝 doesn’t sound simple. It can be roughly translated as “Treasures from the mountains”, and they have many posters in the lobby that explain their dining philosophy of eating organic and fresh. They have their own farm and supply their own poultry. So you can be sure (or not) that their ingredients are not GMO or laden with antibiotics and pesticides. So that sounded nice.

前菜 Starters

山珍地耳菜 nostoc commune salad

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山珍地耳菜 nostoc commune salad

This dish looked like a wet plate of moss or seaweed, but it is a fungus that grow on wet and warm places called nostoc commune. Usually found as a dried format, the fungus is reconstructed and mixed with sesame oil and soy sauce. Very light, fragrant, crunchy and a great appetiser.

What is nostoc commune?

Nostoc commune is eaten as a salad in the Philippines and is also eaten in Indonesia, Japan and China. Common names include star jelly, witch’s butter, mare’s eggs, fah-tsai and facai. In Taiwan, it is nicknamed 雨來菇 yǔ lái gū (meaning “post-rain mushroom”). In China, it is called 地皮菜 dì pí cài or 地耳菜 dì ěr cài (“ears on the ground”).

Nostoc commune var. flagelliforme is known as 发菜 fàcài in China which forms part of the food traditionally served at the Lunar New Year. Research indicates that consumption of Nostoc commune var. sphaeroides, in addition to consumption of other cyanobacteria may be beneficial by means of an anti-inflammatory mechanism.

五香驴肉 five spice donkey meat

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五香驴肉 five spice donkey meat

Five spice donkey meat is often presented as a starter in the banquet. The meat of donkey is of high protein, less fat and calcium (the only time I know there’s calcium in meat), so is very suitable for both the young and the old. There is a folk proverb in China that states the best meat in the sky is from dragon, while the most delicious meat on the ground is from donkey. These days you can also find it as a snack and wrapped in tiny vacuum bags. But beware, because of its popularity, there’s many fakes out there using mules, pork or mutton.

五香素鸡 five spice fake chicken (gluten curd)

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五香素鸡 five spice fake chicken (gluten curd)

A chameleon of a food, one most often made to look and taste like one or another animal food, gluten is certainly popular in China. That is where it was first developed, and where its use by vegetarians and non-vegetarians is still most popular. All Asian cultures, most particularly their Buddhists and their macrobiotic adherents, eat lots of gluten. The Japanese call it seitan, the Chinese have a variety of names, many changing over the centuries.

Technically, gluten is the crushed endosperm of a protein surrounded by a protein matrix. It is a polymer of two main proteins, glutenin and gliadin that, when mixed with water, becomes what we call ‘gluten.’ This protein mixture is a sticky mass which, with yeast and sugars, breaks down and yields alcohol and carbon dioxide. That is why there are bubbles that help bread to rise and give it its delicate taste.

By itself, gluten has very little taste but it surely absorbs flavors from any companion foods. It has a long shelf life and can stay a month or two. It freezes well. And, it can be kept until other flavorful foods or sauces are available to cook with it. They not only look that way, or like beef, pork, chicken, fish, or scallops, they fool both eye and taste buds.

糟味双拼 shrimps and edamame in wine marinade

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糟味双拼 shrimps and edamame in wine marinade

主菜 Main Course

银鱼炒蛋 whitebait omelette

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银鱼炒蛋 whitebait omelette

One third of the “Three Treasures of West Lake” 太湖三白, whitebait has been used for many dishes in Suzhou, but the best variations in my humble opinion are still omelette or deep fried as an appetiser. Here we have the whitebait omelette using organic chicken from the restaurant’s own farm. Not sure how to verify that claim, the egg wasn’t as nice as the one we ate the night before. But this dish was “killed in seconds” 秒杀 as everyone was overwhelmed by all the rich food these couple of days.

姜葱炒蛏子 ginger scallion razor clams

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姜葱炒蛏子 ginger scallion razor clams

This brought back memories of seafood along Upper East Coast Road in Singapore, when the shoreline was just beyond the backyard of the restuarants like Keng Luck, Red House, etc. Only Hua Yu Wee remained these days. It tasted like the sambal Tuatow (local razor clams), their ginger scallion razor clams were not spicy but equally filled with umami.

坛子红烧肉 braised pork belly in red sauce

Another classic in the Jiangzhe repertoire, the braised pork belly in red sauce was not too sweet (like the ones in Wuxi) and braised until fork tender. The sauce has permeated throughout the pork and you can get order this dish with a bowl of rice and the meal is complete.

红烧生态珍珠鸡 free range organic chicken in red sauce

I have never understood why would they chopped up the chicken into such small pieces making free range organic chicken in red sauce a hassle to consume. But the sauce (different from the pork belly above) was great, the chicken was free range (thus a bit tougher), so you cannot really fault.

茶树菇杭椒牛柳 poplar mushroom, jalapeño with beef cubes

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茶树菇杭椒牛柳 poplar mushroom, jalapeño with beef cubes

Black Poplar, or “Piopinno” in Italian, is a clustering, meaty mushroom with a nutty and crunchy flavour. Usually, you get the dried version in China and the flavour is made more intense with the dehydration process. There was very little beef in the poplar mushroom, jalapeño with beef cubes, but the intense flavour of the mushrooms and the heat from the jalapeño were such a match that this was the second most popular dish for lunch after the omelette.

蒜蓉粉丝蒸扇贝 steamed scallops on half shell with vermicelli and garlic

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蒜蓉粉丝蒸扇贝 steamed scallops on half shell with vermicelli and garlic

A typical Cantonese dish, steamed scallops on half shell with vermicelli and garlic can be made quite badly in as you travel further inland from Guangdong. And yes, this restaurant could not carry this dish with a dried out vermicelli  and very salty product.

帝王剁椒鱼头 spicy steamed fish head

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帝王剁椒鱼头 spicy steamed fish head

Spicy steamed fish head is a popular Hunan dish. The fish head used is the typically Song fish head that we used in Singapore, and I still prefer the way we do it in Singapore (with fermented black beans, garlic and blue ginger).

香茅卤乳鸽 lemongrass braised pigeons

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香茅卤乳鸽 lemongrass braised pigeons

Lemongrass braised pigeons should do without the lemongrass. And the pigeons were quite puny. We didn’t even finish this dish. What a waste.

清炒盆栽菜(紫油菜)seasonal vegetable (purple rape)

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清炒盆栽菜(紫油菜)seasonal vegetables (purple rape)

There weren’t much purple rape in this dish, only the garden variety green rape. This is the vegetable that you get rapeseed oil from. But if fresh, it is a crispy and tasty greens suitable for a quick stir-fry. The restaurant prides itself for having its own organic vegetable farm, and you can order a variety of farm/pot to table vegetables for the hotpot.

主食 Staples

韭菜煎饺 fried dumplings with chives

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韭菜煎饺 fried dumplings with chives

There were only eight pieces of fried dumplings with chives with every order. Don’t recommend, very oily after the frying.

手工水饺 handmade dumplings

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手工水饺 handmade dumplings

The handmade dumplings were quite delicious, again the effect of eating too much rich food over the course of conference. So a simple filling of minced pork, ginger and cabbage hit the spot.

Afterthoughts

There are many restaurants these days that exude the benefits of non-GMO, organic, free-range, etc so-called green food. It was just not so long ago that all the things we ate were pesticide free, organic and free-range. What has happened? Over production and over consumption and commercial greed.

Everyone wants cheaper, better and faster. Food needs time to grow. Certain food are seasonal so it would be against nature to force them to be produced at the “wrong” time. Pests and diseases are nature’s way of controlling and rejuvenation. So, I am really sceptical of all forms of so called organic farming.

Anyway, the restaurant was OK, reasonably priced. We came for lunch, and we were only one of the 5 rooms (not busy) occupied. So I can only say the service was so-so.

山珍宝生态美食餐厅(斜塘店)
工业园区淞涛街1088号斜塘老街45幢
Tel : 0512-62659885/6

Date Visited : Oct 2019

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