Some things in nature are not meant to be eaten. But man has always attempted challenge the forces of nature. Like pufferfish, their guts are poisonous, but still chefs in Japan and China have tried for centuries to cook them.
I was walking around Zhou Zhuang 周庄 one of the weekends I was in Shanghai, admiring the sights of the “Venice of the East”. Almost all the restaurants in this small, rustic water town had these live tanks of freshwater pufferfish.
These days, the freshwater pufferfish 暗紋東方魨 (Takifugu obscurus) are raised in Yangzhong, Jiangsu. Because of the rearing process, the toxin in the pufferfish has been drastically reduced to around 7% of those that exist in the wild. While it is no longer life threatening, accidental preparation and consumption will still result in a bad diarrhoea.
Locally they are called Bayu 䰾鱼. They even cooked the livers (which are usually where the toxin would be) together with the fish in a brilliant red sauce. The fish was not really well cooked, the skin of the fish was like sandpaper but the livers were delicious. I would not dare to eat the liver if it was in Japan, where all the fugu are usually wild caught or raised in the traditional manner.
But I regretted my decision that evening. Right after lunch, I felt sharp pains on the journey back to Shanghai and had to stop midpoint. I spent the whole night running to the toilet. I believed I got poisoning from the fish. My partner ate the same stuff with me, and the only thing she did not eat was the fish. So it must be that.
Besides pufferfish, the lakes and waterways of Jiangsu are famous for other river produce, like river shrimps, Chinese mitten crabs and river mussels.
No culinary skill required for this dish, just really fresh river shrimps 河虾 from the nearby lakes, and in their case, directly from their live tanks.
Zhou Zhuang is blessed with its proximity to the waterways and crab farms around the area, so the residents have for generations been able to use these fresh produce in their dishes. And the objective of this dish is just to enjoy the sweetness of the river shrimp.
This was not the season for hairy crabs, or technically Chinese mitten crab 中华绒毛蟹, so we didn’t expect much from this. The crabs were coated with flour and deep fried before cooking with edamame and stock. They usually served this with noodles called 面拖蟹 (literally “noodles pulling the crab”), but we skipped the noodles.
River mussels 河蚌 can grow to a ridiculous size when left alone. Smart farmers have figured out a way to use them to cultivate freshwater pearls. But most of the mussels were used for culinary purpose. There were more tofu than anything else in this dish, but the sweetness of the mussels can be tasted with every mouthful as the tofu was basically tasteless.
I was so surprised by the brownness of the watershield leaves 莼菜. These are in abundance in the waterways around Zhou Zhuang, and when cooked has a layer of clear slimy gel around the leaves. And the whitebaits were so huge in this classic soup.
Indian aster 草头/金花菜 is a vegetable that can be found in the wild around Jiangsu and Shanghai, and it has been used for many classics like 草头圈子 (Indian aster with pig intestines) because it is herby and helps reduce the heavy tasting accompaniments. It can be eaten on it’s own, but usually sautéed with cooking wine.
Other Local Specials
Coming to Zhou Zhuang, we have to try another of their local specialty. No, not the 万山蹄 (Wanshan braised pork knuckles), but the steamed cakes and pastries that have been served here for centuries.
For all those Louis Cha 金庸 fans out there, you would be familiar with the term Gusu 姑苏. Gusu is the ancient term for Suzhou (ancient capital of the Wu country 吴国) and broadly covers the surrounding area that includes Zhouzhuang and Kunshan. While this particular store did not invent any of these cakes, but they have been selling them in this quiet corner of Zhouzhuang for over 4 generations. They were featured in CCTV food program as the representative of these handmade snacks.
- 定胜糕 “Victory” cake – this steamed glutinous flour cake originated from the Song dynasty (960-1279), when a Song general made it as a reward for his men, and embossed the words “Victory” on the cake. It was made traditional with something red (good luck) or dried jujube (which came into China from Middle East during the Song dynasty).
- 青糰子 Chinese mugwort cake – the green colour came from Chinese mugwort 艾草, which the juice is extracted and incorporated into the dough using glutinous flour. It is usually filled with either a savoury or sweet filling like salted egg with minced pork, crushed peanuts, red bean paste, etc. and is usually eaten around Qingming (Festival of the Tomb Visiting) when people will make them for ancestor worship.
- 乌草饭 Black glutinous rice – This is a simple steamed black glutinous rice that is traditional eaten on the occasion of Buddha’s Birthday. The rice is locally known as 乌米 (black rice) and usually the dialect sounded like amitabha.
- 海棠糕 Haitang cake – 海棠 Crabapple is a type of flowering tree indigenous to China. And the flowers are very beautiful and sought after by Chinese as an ornamental plant. This cake originated from Qing dynasty and shaped like a crabapple flower, so it was named as such. It is a dense cake with intense flavours. Think of it as a very sweet quiche.
Date Visited : Jun 2021