In 2006 when I spent a month in Shanghai, we did two day trips over the weekend to famous cities that were within driving distance of the city: Suzhou and Zhouzhuang, both in neighboring Jiangsu province, and both famous water towns that are well known within China. Suzhou is oftentimes nicknamed “the Venice of the East” or the “Venice of China” because of its many canals that make up the city. That, plus it is famous in Chinese history and culture for being one of the most scenic and idyllic towns.
There’s this saying in Chinese that goes, “Shang you tian tang, xia you Su Hang – 上有天堂, 下有苏杭.” That roughly translates to, “In heaven, there is paradise, while on earth, we have Suzhou and Hangzhou.” In other words, Suzhou and Hangzhou are the beautiful places we have to enjoy on this earth; to the Chinese, these two towns are like paradise on earth. During my day trip here in 2006, we visited a number of famous, gorgeous gardens in Suzhou, and this time around, Chris and I also did. But for me this trip, the highlight was certainly the two noodle dishes we enjoyed at two different restaurants on the same block in Suzhou.
The first place we went to was well known for its san xia mian, or “three shrimp noodles.” “Three shrimp” does not reference three different types of shrimp, but rather three different parts of the same shrimp that are separated and then put back together for your consumption while eating this dish. These local shrimps, which are seasonal for a very short period during the spring to early summer, are teeny tiny, just a bit smaller than my thumb nail, and are manually cleaned with an instrument that looks just like a little toothbrush, deshelled, scrubbed of its little shrimp eggs, and then degutted. As the final step, the shrimp bodies, eggs, and guts are all put back together and cooked, then served on a small serving plate for you. Alongside it is a bowl of dry, toothy wheat noodles that are perfectly straight and al dente, slightly salted with a few spoonfuls of broth to keep the noodles moist. Then, there is an accompanying bowl of plain chicken broth for you to enjoy, plus a plate of simply seasoned bok choy and a side plate of finely shredded ginger.
The shrimp tasted like the ocean – briny, salty like the sea, with a good bite indicating that they were cooked perfectly. To me, the noodles were the biggest highlight – each strand of noodle was long and firm, and the flavor was just pure wheat with a hint of salt. Each bite required a good, long chew. This was so satisfying and worth the cost. At this point in our trip, this bowl cost the equivalent of about $15USD, which was quite expensive for China. When I looked at the cost breakdown, the real cost was in the shrimp; the bowl of noodles barely cost a dollar.
Chris and I shared this bowl, finished, and went a few store fronts down to the second noodle spot on my list that is well known for noodle soup, with the broth being a “gao tang,” or “high soup,” meaning it is a superior stock made with the finest ingredients available. Unlike stocks made in the West, this soup was made from all fresh ingredients, meat, bones, vegetables, even rice wine, and simmered for over 10 hours. If the stock is no good, the dish would be no good.
This dish lived up to his reputation. The soup was infinitely layered, extremely rich, with so many different flavor elements. You could tell right away that it was made from rich pork bones, but there were also flavor notes of seafood, perhaps dried shrimp and scallop, and even a bit of rice wine, onions, and other fragrant herbs. We ordered the soup with a topping of one piece of “big pork,” which mean that a massive slice of hours-long-simmered pork laid on top of the noodle soup bowl. We took a bite into this and realized right away what a treat it was: it was so tender, not even needing any chew. It was intensely rich, fatty, and delicious. The noodles were quite similar to the noodles of the first restaurant, but given they were soaking in the soup, were not as toothy as that first bowl. But clearly here, the soup was the main star, and the pork slice, as Chris noted, was extremely rich, “maybe too rich,” he admitted. It wouldn’t look like much from its photo, but this is one of the best bowls of noodle soup I’ve probably ever enjoyed. It is deceptively simple looking, but fails to be judged merely based on its humble appearance.
While most people come to Suzhou for its immaculate gardens and historical architecture, I hope they do not overlook the delicate and refined cuisine that this city has to offer. It doesn’t look like much at first, but don’t judge its dishes by its cover.