Suzhou is a paradise for gourmets, with hundreds of years of culinary experimentation. Suzhou cuisine is light in taste and sweeter than neighboring Yangzhou’s Huaiyang Cuisine. Each course is individually prepared and the emphasis is on the use of quality ingredients and attention to detail meaning the dishes are all unique in color, aroma, shape and taste.
There are many signature dishes of Suzhou that make up a formal banquet Suzhou style and which are renowned throughout China. Squirrel-Shaped Mandarin Fish is the most famous, legendary both home and abroad. The Mandarin Fish is characterized by its lack of bones and the softness of its meat. The head of the fish, its mouth positioned wide open, and the tail bent upwards, gives the overall look of a squirrel. The fish is also cut into spikes resembling the fur. It is finished with shrimp, dried bamboo shoots and a sweet-and-sour sauce and thus the Squirrel-shaped Mandarin Fish is complete in color, shape, and flavor.
The second dish of a typical Suzhou banquet is Whitebait Soup. Whitebait, noted for its soft texture, appears on the Suzhou fish market every fall. This light, delicious soup is seasoned with ham, bamboo slices, green vegetable leaves, and includes the whitebait’s liver. Biluo Shelled Shrimps are named after Bi Luo Chun tea, arguably the finest green tea in all of China, which comes from Suzhou. This dish is prepared using the tea to flavor the shrimp, allowing for a unique taste.
The fourth dish on any menu is Cracking Eel Paste, where rice field eels are broiled, stir-fried or quick-boiled. The cracking refers to the sound of the oil having been served immediately after cooking. Watermelon Chicken is a dish that is braised and then marinated by using the watermelon. This allows a combination of both sweet and savory flavors.
In addition to these formal banquet dishes, Suzhou food from Taihu Lake has a difference. With the Taihu Lake as a backdrop, you can experience what has come to be known as Taihu Boat Dishes. Taihu Boat Dishes first appeared in the Tang Dynasty, over 1,000 years ago, when rich officials and merchants held banquets on boats so they could enjoy the beautiful scenery while dining.
Since 1994, Boat Dishes have become a well established tradition in Guangfu town on the eastern bank of the Taihu Lake. There are now 13 magnificent boat restaurants along the fishing harbor offering wide varieties of fresh seafood. Steamed White Fish and Water Shield Soup with Egg Flakes are some of the best known dishes. White fish is a specialty of the Taihu Lake, steamed with shredded ginger and red and green peppers, it is a wonderful dish in texture, look, aroma and of course, taste. Water Shield Soup with Egg Flakes is just as popular, especially as it is a nutritious soup while still being extremely appetizing.
Furthermore, Suzhou has various snacks, ideal for a tea or coffee break. They may not appear in large restaurants but you can still find them in ordinary stands or shops. Dragon Head Sweet Potatoes with Sugar Juice, Gorgon Fruit with Osmanthus, Plum Blossom Cakes, and Boiled Lotus Roots with Osmanthus are the best of these unique treats.