Suzhou is famous its trade in silk. Because of this ancient trade, Suzhou was home to richest folks in ancient China. As such, Suzhou cuisine flourished as a fine dining style in China. I had the chance to try it as a fixed menu private dining when I was in Tongli.
Suzhou Private Dining 苏州私房菜
The dinner was Suzhou Cuisine 苏帮菜, which is a branch of Jiangsu-Zhejiang (Jiangzhe) cuisine 江浙菜, served in a private dining style.
Suzhou was one of the richest city in old China, where silk trade flourish and then later the salt commission around Yangzhou and Suzhou brought the golden age of private gardens and massive mansions built by rich merchants. In Suzhou private dining, there’s a unwritten rule for 4-6-4 “四六四”, i.e. each meal started with 4 cold appetisers, followed by 6 hot hor d’ouerves and then followed by 4 main courses. (四个冷盆、六个热炒、四个大菜)
Four Cold Appetisers 精美四冷拼
We started with 4 cold appetisers that consisted of Goose liver terrine 鹅肝酱, Beef and vegetable aspic 镇江肴肉, Pumpkin cake 南瓜糕 and Braised beef offals 夫妻肺片. These were classic dishes reinvented, and this set the tone of the evening cuisine.
Three Treasures Soup 三件子汤
The three “treasures” in this soup were chicken gizzard, duck gizzard and pork knuckle. Unlike the traditional three “treasures” – where the entire chicken, duck and pork knuckle are boiled in a stew to a thick, creamy white soup – their three “treasures” soup is clear and light, yet packed with the same flavours. This is usually not considered one of the hor d’oeuvres.
Six Hot Dishes 六热炒
1/ Shrimp in Two Style 虾仁双拼
There were two different types of shrimps served here. The river shrimps were stir-fried in the simple Suzhou/Shanghai-style (清炒虾仁). A larger sized shrimp was wrapped in noodles and deep fried. Each was delicious in its own way.
2/ Crispy Fried Rose Fish with Spring Roll 香煎玫瑰鱼拼春卷
It was given a beautiful name “rose fish” because of its bright red colour. The actual name is cherry burb and is found in abundance in the Indian Ocean. They are usually available as a flash-frozen fish, and the chef has made it into two style – as pan fried whole fish and a spring roll filled with fish meat. The fine bones had been fried to a crisp so you can actually eat them.
3/ Baby Abalone with Pork Rib in Sweet Sauce 鲍鱼仔排
The pork rib was slow cooked with a sweet and sour sauce. The same sauce was used for the steamed abalone. The sweet corn seemed out of place but it turned out to a masterstroke as it helped to balance the sourness of the sauce.
4/ Braised River Eel with Rock Sugar 冰糖河鳗
Each piece of eel was wrapped with straw and braised carefully in a sweet red sauce. Rock sugar provided the glaze and made the whole dish eerily red. A bit too sweet for my liking, even though I love eel. Because it was cut across, the vertebrate was left in the eel and made it difficult to eat.
5/ Egg White Snow with Crab and Roe 雪花蟹斗
A dish with a beautiful Chinese name – “crabs in a snow fight”. It was made with a whole hairy crab – meat and roe – crusted in the back shell and topped with egg white espuma. The almost tasteless egg white cloud complimented well with the very intense and rich crab meat and roe. Great balance.
6/ Asparagus with Scallops 芦笋鲜贝
And finally for the hot hor d’oeuvres, and the simplest of the lot, was stir-fry asparagus with scallops with Maggi seasoning. Yep, they love their Maggi seasoning in China.
Four Main Courses 四大菜
Then there were the four main courses that were served as the hor d’oeuvres made their way through the dinner.
1/ Steamed Imperial Mandarin Fish 龙须桂鱼
Mandarin fish was a treasured fish found the canals and rivers in Jiangsu and was brought to the palace as a gift because of the cool sounding name. I had it usually as a salted version. This was the first time I tried it a fresh fish. Mandarin fish was supposedly priced for its tender flesh and fragrance as the fish feeds on fallen osmanthus.
2/ Dried Bamboo Shoot and Cured Meat Stew 腌笃鲜
Nothing in this dish was fresh – cured pork belly, dried bamboo shoot, dried bean curd. But the combination and cooking technique brought the ingredients “back to life” that tasted better than when these ingredients were fresh. I usually had this as a soup, but the Suzhou version is more like a vegetable stew.
3/ Fish Maw with Pig Stomach and Black Fungus 花胶焖猪肚
Fish maw is considered a delicacy and an expensive ingredient in Chinese cuisine. Fish maw is basically the dried fish swim bladder of large fish like sturgeons. It has no taste and need to borrow the flavours from the accompaniment. In this case, it took the flavours from the pig’s stomach and black fungus and chicken stock. It is considered a “big dish” 大菜 as it takes a long time to get the flavour going for the fish maw.
4/ Buddha Jumped Over The Wall 佛跳墙
The story went like this. There was a monk meditating in the prayer hall. His neighbour was cooking this stew that consisted of the most expensive ingredients – fish maw, abalone, pig tendon, whole chicken for stock and Chinese ham for taste. The stew was sealed and slow cooked for over a day to render the thick, flavourful soup that was full of umami and collagen. When it was unveiled, the monk could no longer stand the fragrance and jumped over the wall to ask for some soup from the neighbour. Hence, the tongue-in-cheek moniker “Buddha Jumped Over The Wall”.
Well, the dinner was not over yet, not until the vegetables, the carbohydrates and desserts were served.
1/ Water Celery with Shredded Bean Curd 水芹干丝
The vegetable dish was not part of the formal dinner. The vegetable course was more for the modern day balance of greens with the main courses. The waitress asked if we wanted more vegetables after this dish was served. Not really, we were really full at this point. And then she asked if we need a filler, like fried rice or noodles. No thank you.
2/ Osmanthus with Gorgon Fruit 桂花鸡头米
As you walked around the town, you can see and smell the osmanthus trees. These are common trees in this part of the world and people harvest their flowers to make osmanthus flower syrup that is used in desserts. Gorgon fruit was also in season, and it was quite unusual for me to see it featured in a dessert.
3/ Fruits and Green Bean Cake 水果绿豆糕
And finally the cut fruits were served, signalling the end of the dinner. Together with the fruits (not really exciting combination) was a piece of their homemade green bean cake. It was really beautifully done, with a nice osmanthus fragrance and just the right sweetness to end a very good dinner.
Tongli is located around an hour and half drive from Shanghai. It is one of the earliest tourist attractions when Shanghai opened up for business in the early 90s. The owners opened a private dining restaurant in their family home. Their old aunt still lived in the compound. They own the hotel next to this restaurant too.
They get their ingredients from the nearby fisherman and farmers, and grew some their own vegetables too. The idea is to do seasonal dishes that’s farm-to-table. The pace of the dinner was unhurried, there’s nothing else to do in the sleepy town after 10 pm. The waitress was very knowledgeable about the dishes served and very attentive. Highly recommended if you come over to Tongli. Reservation may be required if you want them to prepare something special.
Hall of Providence Private Dining 恩泽堂私房菜
Tel : +86 15995884758
Date Visited : Nov 2020
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