Monday, 21 May 2018

A Taste of Suzhou Cuisine @ South Gardens Teahouse in Tongli 苏州.同里镇南园茶庄



When in Suzhou, the "Venice of the East" two Must Do things are to visit their gardens and water towns. For gardens, we went to Humble Administrator's Garden and for water town we went to Millennial old Tongli 同里. One of the memorable stops at Tongli was lunch at the Century old 南园茶庄 South Gardens Teahouse. I love the authentic old Chinese teahouse feel and enjoyed the traditional Suzhou dishes too.



Typical of Suzhou water towns, picturesque Tongli (18km from Suzhou city) was built around a network of placid narrow canals. The canals were spanned by numerous small stone bridges (49 actually), lined with leafy trees and small teashops. Under the shade and at the water's edge, it felt cool even though it was a scorching 33℃ in Suzhou.



In the old days, small wooden hand rowed boats took townsfolk around Tongli town. Today, they take sight seeing tourists on slow rides around town.



Tongli town centre has wide avenues lined with large trees and shops. There's a stage, town square and plenty of shady breezy places to sit and relax.



Away from the town centre, the streets are not as wide but has its own laid back charm. Tongli is a real lived in town, not a theme park. So, we can see local residents going about their unhurried, daily lives.



南园茶庄 Southern Garden Teahouse founded in 1898 during the late Qing Dynasty (China's last) is at one of those old streets lined with quaint old shops.



I was charmed the moment I stepped into South Garden Teahouse and was immediately drawn to the ancient old stove. It's not in use today, but it's still central to the spirit of this century old shop.



The Kitchen God above watches over the restaurant, passes good words about the restaurant to the Emperor of Heaven and blesses all with Peace on Earth.



The dining room is upstairs on top of these creaky century old wooden stairs smoothed by millions of footsteps. Thankfully at South Gardens Teahouse, the original set up and fittings are retained as much as possible, so we can feel the place like we are here 100 years ago.



The high ceiling and huge windows all round gave South Garden Teahouse an open, airy, breezy feel. It is a great place for tea! It's like the lovely gardens outside were brought into the teahouse. Overlooking Tongli town, it felt more like a tea pavilion than a restaurant.

South Gardens Teahouse serves Suzhou dishes which is a branch of Jiangsu cuisine 蘇菜. Jiangsu cuisine emphasises seasonal fresh ingredients as the province is blessed with rivers, lakes, sea and fertile plains. Textures tend to be soft, flavours mild and balanced. Suzhou food is similar but leans on the sweeter side.



The first dish served was Changshu Beggar Chicken. The baked chicken was well browned outside. The meat was tender and juicy while the browned skin had a subtle crisp. The dominant flavour was mild savouriness with underlying subtle herbalness.

Named after Changshu, Jiangsu where this dish came from, the chicken seasoned with herbs was wrapped in lotus leaf, encased in clay and baked under a pile of burning wood. The chicken is released from its clay pod just before serving with all the juices intact. Unfortunately, we did not get to see the pod breaking ritual. Next time, I shall remember to ask.



状元蹄 Scholar Pork Knuckle. Must try this dish, if only because of its history.

During the Qing Emperor Guangxu period (1875 - 1908), he held a competition to find the best braised knuckles under Heaven i.e. in his vast Empire. Scholars were invited to judge the knuckles as scholars (i.e. privileged well to do officials) had the most discerning palates of the time. Hence, the name Scholar Knuckles.

The winning entry was made with fresh pork knuckles weighing around 1-1.25 kg each. They were braised with 18 Chinese herbs for 4 hours, 80 knuckles at a time.

I don't know how the original Scholar Knuckle tasted like during the Qing Dynasty. South Garden Teahouse's rendition tastes mildly savoury from the braising stock with subtle sweetness and spice aroma. The fat was soft, meat tenderly juicy and the skin a little chewy.



Braised river eel is a popular traditional dish throughout the Jiangsu area. The long fish cut into large chunks with spine and bones. They are braised in savoury brown stock with garlic till tender. The tender juicy eels tasted gently savoury with characteristic sweetness and earthy taste.



Pan fried fresh meaty prawns.



One of the famous 太湖三白 "Three Whites of Taihu" which consists of white fish, white prawns and whitebait (small fish).

This is White Fish lightly pan seared and then served with a brothy savoury sauce. A bit of savoury flavour complementing the bony river fish's natural sweetness and slight earthy taste.



White prawns lightly sauteed with green peas and corn. Just layers of complementary sweetness that allow us to enjoy the small white prawns' natural flavours.



Fresh whitebait and chopped scallion tossed in a medium hot wok with beaten eggs to make a fluffy scrambled egg dish. Feels homely and comforting as well as delicious with its eggy flavour and sweetness from the soft white bait.



Stir fried radish with a savoury brown sauce. Nice savoury sweet crunch from the juicy root.



Glutinous rice with stewed pork belly steamed in lotus leaf wrap. Savoury sweet carbs to make sure guests leave on a full stomach.



Pork soup with corn. Simple simply delicious.



袜底酥 Wa Di Su meaning "Sock Bottom Crisp" because it looks like the bottom of socks or insoles 😄 A Millennial old Suzhou tradition. Mildly sweet slightly greased crumbly light crisp which serves well as desserts and goes well with Chinese tea.



4-Stars (out of 5). If you are in Suzhou, a visit to Tongli 同里 water town with a meal of Suzhou signatures at old Southern Gardens Teahouse 南园茶庄 would be a great way to spend a day. Enjoy beautiful scenery and taste traditional Suzhou dishes. Next time, if I have more time, I would love to sit back and sip tea here with some Sock Bottom Crisps 😄



Restaurant name: 南园茶庄 South Garden Teahouse
Address: Tonglizhen, Wujiang, Suzhou, Jiangsu, China | 江苏省苏州市吴江区鱼行街86号
GPS31°09'30.0"N 120°43'08.0"E | 31.158339, 120.718881
Tel0512-63332332
Hours: Lunch & Dinner

Non Halal

Date visited: 14 May 2018



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