Together with Beijing’s Quanjude, Yangzhou’s Fuchun and Hangzhou’s Louwailou, Songhe Lou is considered one of the four most famous ancient restaurants of China. Now Songhe Lou have expanded to the capital.
Songhe Lou 松鶴樓 and Jin Yong 金庸
Songhe Lou 松鶴樓 is a very famous Suzhou restaurant that is over 200 years old. When one talks about Songhe Lou, one name would come to mind – Emperor Qianlong. Many culinary creations were associated to this gourmand of an emperor during his many visits to Jiangnan during his long reign. To be precise, the year of the opening of the restaurant was the 2nd of year of the reign of Qianlong (1737). As a story scene, Songhe Lou appears multiple times in Louis Cha’s (aka Jin Yong 金庸) martial arts novels.
In the Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 天龙八部, Songhe Lou (literally “pine crane pavilion”) was mentioned many times. The protagonists of the novel, Qiao Feng 乔峰 and Duan Yu 段誉 met in the restaurant and challenged each other to a drink match, after which they became blood brothers.
But at that time writing, Jin Yong had never been to the Songhe Lou. It was not until 2007, when 84-year-old Jin Yong stepped into the honten of Songhe Lou in Suzhou for the first time. While tasting the Suzhou-style dishes, he realised that he had made a “common sense mistake” when writing Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils: he mistakenly placed the restaurant in Wuxi.
- 冷菜 Appetisers
- 苏帮菜 Su Cuisine
- 重油重咸 Other Cuisine
- 苏式点心 Suzhou Dim Sums
- 甜品 Desserts
Usually in a Chinese banquet, the cold appetisers are already on the table before the meal starts. They serve as the interim as the chefs prepare the hot dishes ala minute.
江南庭院醉三拼 Jiangnan Courtyard Drunken Appetisers
Zhaohuo 糟货 (literally “bad goods”) is a way to make an appetiser in Jiangnan region by marinating them in wine lee. Generally, the food is cooked and cooled, and then soaked in the marinade overnight or longer to impart the intoxicating flavours onto the ingredients. A must-have dish in Shanghai during the summer.
苏帮苏熏鱼 Suzhou-style Smoked Fish
A classic Su cuisine appetiser that epitomises the style. The pomfret slices are pan fried to a crisp and then coated with a sticky sweet and savoury soy sauce. 浓油赤酱 – oily, strong flavours, brown sauce, sweet overtones – these are the pillars of the style that may turn away some.
金牌菌菇素烧鹅 Signature Mushroom-stuffed Vegetarian Goose
This is a vegetarian dish, even though it is described as goose. The bean curd skin that is used to wrap the ingredients of chopped mushrooms, tofu and bits of turnips, celery etc. and then grilled to crispy brown. A very savoury dish, I liked it.
秋葵木耳 Okra and Black Wood Fungus
Simple salad made with blanched okra and black wood fungus mixed with a Chinese vinaigrette sauce.
轻食色拉 Salad in Light Dressing
Another simple salad that came with a thousand island sauce.
焦糖苹果鹅肝配 Caramel “Apple” with Foie Gras
And then there’s the more complex appetiser like the foie gras that was borrowed from the Western cuisine that was incorporated into the Chinese appetiser repertoire in recent years. It was more like a pate than a foie gras.
I thought it was an apple sauce or chutney, but it turned out to be a crystal apple that you can crack open to review the almonds in there.
苏帮菜 Su Cuisine
Huaiyang cuisine has often been used as the cuisine of choice for the National Banquet in China, a tradition that started with Mao. Su cuisine, a branch of Huaiyang cuisine, originates from Suzhou. It is often mistaken as Shanghainese cuisine as the latter borrowed techniques from Su cuisine.
响油鳝糊 Sautéed River Eel
This is my favourite dish, the sautéed river eel. The finishing touch is the ladle of boiling oil poured over the scallions and chives to give the sautéed river eel that shine. The flavour can be overpowering for the uninitiated.
清溜河虾仁 Sautéed River Shrimp
Another Songhelou classic, 清溜河虾仁 sautéed river shrimp requires a lot of patience when preparing in the work for taking out the intestines and impurities from each shrimp so that the result would be a plate of crystal clear sautéed shrimps that is simply seasoned with salt and egg white. The taste comes naturally with the freshness of the shrimps.
蟹粉豆腐 Soft Tofu Braised with Crab Roe
They used hairy crab roe and meat that were kept frozen (it’s May so it’s not hairy crab season yet) and made this classic Jiangsu dish. Hairy crabs are best in autumn and must come from Yangcheng Lake in Jiangsu. The savoury crab roe provided the umami to an otherwise bland soft tofu.
松鼠桂鱼 Sweet and Sour Fish with Pine Nuts
Well-known for its nickname of the Squirrel Fish 松鼠鱼, the sweet-and-sour dish is made of mandarin fish 桂鱼 and sprinkled with pine nuts. It’s a classic specialty invented in Songhe Lou and has more than 200 years of history. It is prepared by deboning and carving a mandarin fish into an ornamental shape similar to a squirrel, and then deep-frying it in batter before dousing it in sweet and sour sauce.
I have never appreciated this dish, because it’s too sweet and too sour. But it was favourite among my guests and often appear in my dinner banquets.
鸡头米甜豆 Fresh Gorgons with Sweet Peas
Gorgon fruit 芡实 is not a fruit but the seeds from the prickly water lily. The gorgon fruit is said to tonify spleen and kidney. The fresh version is also known as 鸡头米 and is a seasonal staple for autumn in Suzhou. Tasted like boiled chickpeas and this dish featured the sweet peas more than the gorgons.
淮阳狮子头 Huaiyang-style Lion-head Stewed Meatball
“Lion’s head” meatball 狮子头 was originally called “Sunflower Minced Meat” 葵花斩肉. It was believed that during the construction of the Grand Canal (which stretches from Beijing to Hangzhou) in the Sui Dynasty (589-618), Emperor Yang travelled to various points along it, including Yangzhou. There, he was reportedly enamoured by several sights, one of which was a valley of sunflowers 葵花岗. When he returned to his palace, he asked the chef to create dishes that would remind him of these sights. And “Sunflower Minced Meat” 葵花斩肉 was passed down over the long river of history, with a few variations in the Jiangzhe region.
鸡毛菜 Stir-fry Baby Bokchoy
鸡毛菜 (“chicken feather vegetable”) was the first vegetable I was introduced to in Shanghai when I moved there at the turn of the millennia. I had been trying to find out what it was as it weighs nothing, cost very little, and withered very quickly, so one cannot leave it in the fridge. Now I know that it’s actually just buds of the common bokchoy, I appreciate it even more.
重油重咸 Other Cuisine
The restaurant tried to reinvent itself to suit the palate of modern diners. So they came up with several dishes borrowed from other cuisine, like the Sichuan offals stew and Shandong braised abalones.
新派毛血旺 New-style Sichuan Offals and Blood Pudding Stew
毛血旺 Sichuan Spicy Offals is a Chongqing speciality. 毛 “Mao” in Chongqing dialect means “casual” or “random”. This dish came as a coincidence. A butcher’s wife used offals that remained from a butcher store to create this Sichuan classic to sell for more money. This was 70 years ago and Mao’s Spicy Offal was born.
I almost always order this when I see it on the menu. It was a competent attempt at this Sichuan classic.
火焰低温牛肉粒 Sous-vide Flambée Beef Cubes
The technique is quite modern – sous-vide. The beef cubes were sous-vide to the right tones and then completed on the cast iron plate for the smokiness. Nothing outstanding for this dish, a decently executed 中规中矩 hotplate beef.
走地鸡鮮鲍 Free-range Chicken with Dalian Abalones
This next dish was done in the Shandong style of braising 葱烧. The brown sauce was used to braise chopped up free-range chicken 走地鸡 and live Dalian abalones 大连鲜鲍. The chicken had the bite and the abalone was tender in a reversal of texture. And the brown sauce was so delicious I couldn’t help but asked for some steamed rice.
苏式点心 Suzhou Dim Sums
No Chinese banquet is complete without the main course 主食 – usually fillers like pancakes, noodles or other forms of carbs. Suzhou made this course one of their highlights with little dim sums that are pretty to look at and delicious to eat.
蟹粉灌汤小笼 Soup Dumplings with Crab Roe
Jiangsu is famous for these soup dumplings called xiaolongbao 小笼包. And each region in Jiangsu claims a different style and the origin of the same. Although our gourmand emperor was again associated with this delicious dim sum, it did not appear until his grandson, Emperor Daoguang’s reign (1820-1850). The style here is Suzhou/Wuxi style xiaolongbao – larger in size and sweeter in flavour.
香积净素包 Vegetarian Buns
Trivial: there’s a buddha by the name Gandhālaya 香积佛, who was so sweet-smelling that the realm he lived in is considered the purest of the pure. The term 香积 is hence used as the adjective to vegetarian meals and kitchens.
Jin Yong’s trip to the Songhe Lou left a deep impression as a real “foodie” on the Suzhou people present. The author praised the deliciousness of vegetarian steamed buns. He couldn’t wait for his add-on order to come, so he ate the portion of the neighbouring seat. I did not share his enthusiasm.
百年苏式汤面 Suzhou-style Soup Noodles
A good bowl of Suzhou noodles 奥灶面 depends on five different aspects 面、露、汤、浇、青 – the noodle, the sauces, the soup, the toppings and the final touch of scallions. Every noodle shop has its unique sauce and soup that gives the noodle its distinct flavour. This shop is famous for its red soup, i.e. braised meat sauce with fish, eel and pork soup. Full of umami and deeply satisfying.
Chinese desserts are usually the Achilles’ heel of menu. Usually consisting of cut fruits, and/or some hot dessert. This meal was no exception, we only had a double-boiled papaya and some cut fruits.
木瓜炖雪蛤 Double Boiled Hasma in Hawaiian Papaya
Hasma is the fats around the fallopian tubes of the frog. It is supposedly a fine source of collagen and helped with respiratory ailments. It is usually cooked in a sweet soup (dessert) like this double boiled hasma in papaya. The flavours come from the papaya and jujubes that are used in the double boil. And the sweetness come from the rock sugar. Nice.
时令果盘 Fruit Platter
The agriculture techniques in China have improved by leaps and bounds, given the quality of the fruits that has been presented to us. And every once in a while I come back to China, I am surprised by a new variety that becomes locally available. Like this green melon.
Overall it was a really good meal, and I looked forward to having the meal in their original restaurant in Suzhou in the future.
Songhe Lou 松鹤楼 (台基厂)
Tel : +86 (010) 6527 8195
Visited May 2023
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