Chinese Women, Asian Women, Online Dating & Things Chinese and Asian
Gareth is an Australian who has lived in JiangSu, SuZhou (Heaven on Earth) for a few years - he is a keen observer of the Chinese people, Chinese culture and the changes that are occurring in China at break-neck speed. He can often be found on his a nightly 'perch' in front of his bar in the famous Bar Street in Suzhou, talking to the locals in his bad Mandarin, teaching the 'flower-selling girls' English, eating street food and smiling at the local chengguan (neighbourhood police). Gareth also has several other businesses in China around Business and English training. His experiences have been varied and interesting and his years in China have taught him to be wary of promises but excited about prospects, not a bad situation to be in!
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Perils of China - instant Banquets    

By Garreth Humphris
2910 Views | 6 Comments | 1/2/2014 5:34:42 PM

If there is one thing that almost every Chinese person loves and that is a banquet! The chance to get their mouth around foods that they might not necessarily eat at home is quite a sweet deal and people will travel hours for the possibility, sometimes not eating anything from the day before, just to get their fill - and, if it comes on the dime of someone else the taste is even sweeter.

A few years ago I used to run my own bar - and I was always amazed how my staff were able to arrive with bags and bags full of food for the others - all gleaned from 'leftovers' when taking friends and bar customers out to dinner! I doubt that some of them ever paid for food or did any cooking! Either meeting a friend or 'dining in' at the daily horde at work!
Because my bar serviced mainly expat visitors, many of whom would cycle-in/cycle-out of China every couple of months, the girls would keep a tally of who was in town, on which evening they would arrive, and which evening they would leave and they would plot a 'greeting banquet', a 'mid stay banquet' and a 'leaving banquet', maybe this is giving away a trade secret or three, but anyway, you get my point about free food. These ladies were masters at it! Even keeping a little diary of the flight details of the customers!

Of course, they were keeping customers of my bar happy too - they would come into my business and have a few drinks, a chat and continue the evening! Many said that it was a great experience having a friendly local person to take them to dinner, force them to eat strange things that they wouldn't have tried themselves and have a fun evening - with no strings attached!
Even if the guys were travelling with family, the girls in my bar would assist everyone with shopping, sightseeing and buying souvenirs (and pirate DVDs) and showing them around the city and sights! The usual deal was meet in the afternoon, take you to the local sights, buy me dinner!

Sometimes the girls would come in a little later - but being a greedy boss who saw the extra value of happy customers that would return many times, I didn't ever dock their pay or have any real issues!
Some might argue that I paid them so little money that they needed to supplement their income with free food! But maybe that is a different story for some later telling!

I think that I too am becoming a bit Chinese about food! Now that the weather has become a bit colder, some of my favourite dishes have become extra tempting! You may have read about my love affair with mutton soup in a previous blog! Not so much the soup, but the salubrious locations you have to travel to to find it! Dark winding alleys and little rooms with a single lightbulb! steam and smoke, grease and grime - like some 19th Century novella - with a few rogues and a dandys, all slurping loudly together!

Last weekend, I decided I really wanted 'turnip cake', a sort of grated turnip dumpling cooked in really hot oil, found mainly on the side of the walkway in an ancient wok by an equally ancient little farmer lady with furrowed brow and smiling eyes! And the best place to get these (in my humble opinion) is in the countryside, where the turnips are home grown, the old lady is authentic local (local dialect only) and been cooking these for 40+ years and the oil doesn't come recycled from sewers! This meant a 40 minute bus trip to a little village on the edge of my city called LiZhi.

Suzhou city (and the surrounding villages) is situated on a swamp! It is criss-crossed by waterways, lakes and canals that dry out the land and also act as transport for lots of raw materials - the city has part of the GrandCanal running through it, a series of rivers, lakes and man-made canals that stretches from Beijing to Guangzhou and Suzhou is one of the 'switching stations' that has access to canals from Zhejiang (Hangzhou and Ningbo), the Southern areas and the Northern areas. These days, most of the traffic is square nosed, flat bottomed boats that ply along in big rafts of 15-20 lazy vessels - with water lapping over the gunnels and a single diesel motor for the 1940's gallantly chugging blue smoke and dripping oil rainbows on the water...a circa 1950 bicycle precariously perched on the load by some sort of river-folk magic and a line of old shirts fluttering in the breeze as it makes it's way along the river, a circa 1940's wiry old man in the wheelhouse! Most are carrying sand, gravel and road building materials, dug out of riverbanks in the countryside and transported to the cities and towns - if you are walking around in the countryside, you can identify the rivers by the cranes hovering over them...ready to load and unload in a massive diurnal struggle.

So the waterways are an integral part of the village life too - there is usually a central river and a narrow rock-paved path running along each side. In some places, the river is open, allowing access to it via little stairs and in other places, narrow houses and shops perch along the banks. These days, in central Suzhou, the main use of these old village riverbank gathering areas appears to be for taking wedding photos during the day and parking your car on at night, but in the rural village areas you will find little stalls of home-grown produce, plastic guns and trinkets for children, cracked memorabilia from a few decades ago and a few little boats taking tourists under ancient stone bridges, a few boats with 'fishing cormorants' here and there and the creaking ancient architecture of laneways and lean-tos, restaurants and snack shops, dust and debris and of course, lots of charm.

So, when I negotiated the rabble of cars, scooters and bicycles at the main bus station in the town and made my way toward the low, smoky old town, I had 'turnip dumpling' on my mind! I rounded the corner and darted across the little stone bridge... The canal was fairly clean and the autumn leaves hanging over it made a beautiful photographic opportunity - but I was on a mission...Turnip Dumpling.
It might be easy to just jump at the first opportunity on entering the laneway - a few 'commercial looking' places with price lists and choices of spices and sauces was first in view and there was a crowd of well-heeled tourists from Shanghai crowded around it! I baulked at it, not wanting to elbow people out of the doorway (Great Unanswered Mysteries of China #372: Why do Chinese always congregate in open doorways?) but I have found it better to delve deeper into the alleyways - and get it cooked fresh on the spot! 
After some zigzagging past fake Gucci glasses and suspicious Burberry jackets, I found my way to Mr & Mrs Liu's stall - a folding table just outside the front door of their home, facing the river across a small paved area.
I sauntered up to the stall, 'Hello, Masters. What do you have for sale here?'
'Oh, ho, oh, big fat brother', said Mr Liu, 'I am called Liu. I see you are very hungry...sit down, sit down', cried Mr Liu, pointing to some small rickety stools across the narrow path, perched above the river. I chose the stone parapet along the river, worn smooth by a couple of hundred years of human perching.
'DoFu or Turnip', asked Mrs Liu, smiling with a twinkling eye!
'Turnip, please!', I asked, to which came a mirthful laughter from them both as Mrs Liu duely dropped a scoop of the turnip pancake mixture into her wok of oil.
'She always wins with LaoWai', said Mr Liu, 'you never like DoFu!'
'But his stinky DoFu always gets the Suzhou Ladies' quipped Mrs Liu, motioning to a couple of ladies appearing over the top of the little stone bridge. They came toward the stall and ordered large slabs of the slightly rotten bean curd to be dunked in oil and then skewered and served with vinegar and chopped shallots.
After they had gone and still munching my devilishly hot Turnip Dumpling, I explained to Mr Liu that I liked the taste of Stinky DoFu, but the smell of Stinky DoFu was just too much for me to handle. Mr Liu smiled, 'You are like a teenager - give DoFu to a baby, it will turn away crying!... Give to a young boy, he will spit it out.!.. Give to a teenager, he will try but not like!...Give to a young man, he will eat and consider the taste!...but give it to an old man, he will savour the taste and ask for more!' 
At this point, Mrs Liu gave me a second turnip dumpling in hand and another in a plastic bag, 'one more for you!', she said, 'together 6 Kuai'...I handed her a 10, she passed back a small bag of Tofu milk and a small bag of local sweets..'you need this too old friend!', she smiled - upselling techniques KFC and McDonalds would kill for!
I chomped away for a few minutes, watching the blushing brides and wedding photographers pose photos in front of the old bridge.
'Maybe next time, you will be strong man, try my DoFu', shouted Mr Liu as I bid farewell to them, 'I will be here, to cook for you...come see me!'
I said I would and waved. 'If you like the sweets, my daughter has a shop...ahead and left...try, try!', deftly added Mrs Liu. I smiled, nothing like Chinese HardSell to make your buying decisions stick!

Next stop on the sojourn was a warm place - a cart with an oven. The old man that ran this stall was busy stoking the fire inside when I arrived...'Sweet yams, purple or yellow...very cheap for you today!' Said the man. He motioned to the contraption for cooking the yams - a metal box with a central fire and a small series of sliding drawers around that door. He slid open one of the doors and inside, resting on 3 thin wires was a large black yam - burned skin flaking and cracked with dark orange flesh peeping out. He picked it up and put it in a bag for me - then pointed to another parapet beside the river. 'Hot is best, but can eat cold' he said. The yam (sweet potato) was nutty and creamy, sweet and homely - I brought back those stirring memories of wilderness camping with my father when I was a kid - a little strange combination in the hustle and bustle of a Chinese market town! It took me a few minutes to eat so I leaned out into the river to watch one of the tourist boats meander it's way down the river. 
The boats are flat-bottomed with a deep curve front and back so they look like they are not really touching the water. They are propelled by a single oar at the back - a large blade for steering and propulsion and the handle had a large C-shaped curve. The oar rests in a yoke at the rear of the boat and the engine, usually a small but sprightly woman, paddles the boat forward by turning her wrists against the handle - the result is a series of long S-shaped strokes in the water that push the boat forward. This lady was singing happily and as she almost effortlessly slid past, smiled a big golden tooth smile - maybe being a boat engine is a good trade - gold teeth and all!

Next on the shopping list is indeed Mrs Liu's Suzhou Sweet delicacies. They are sweet, super sweet! I went to daughter's stall and looked at the packaged sweets - they were nice but I couldn't decide which to buy. It was then that daughter noticed the small bag in my hand - 'you met mother?', she exclaimed, 'come inside, I get husband make you fresh sweets'.
The sweets are made from sugar syrup, made hot on a wok. The syrup comes from squeezing sugar cane and rice shoots - it is a thick and slightly greenish liquid, smelling a little like grass! With a bit of heat, it clears to become a thick toffee, to which is thrown handfuls of roasted peanuts, sesame seed and roasted chestnuts. It forms a giant molten ball and then this is taken to a chopping block and pounded with wooden hammers - 2 people in tandem - to smash the nuts and blend the toffee into a biscuit-like consistency. When pounded thin (about 3-5 mm), it is quickly sliced with a long flat knife into bite-sized squares and then cooled a little to become the tasty treats. I've got to say, it is probably the best treat I have tasted anywhere, especially since I saw it getting made. Anyway, a few RMB and I was on my way with sweets and sticky teeth!
There are other types of candy from Suzhou as well - a thinly sliced soft marzipan type sweet made from water chestnut and many other toffee combinations - most Chinese people say Suzhou cuisine is very sweet...and the next purchase is why!

*** Warning, Vegetarian Alert. Graphic descriptions of meat preparation follow ***
My most favourite dish in Suzhou is Hong Shao Rou, closely followed by Triple Cooked Pork Knuckle. The latter is available only in the countryside around Suzhou. It is made by boiling pork knuckle in large pots, making the meat soft and grey. The next method is to slowly stew the meat in a marinade of sauces and herbs plus sugars from local fruits and vinegar. This takes about 5 hours of slow cooking so the meat is literally falling from the bone. The last process is a fast flame-grill that crystallises the marinade onto the surface of the pork skin. 3 cooking processes to carnivore heaven. I usually slice it very thin and enjoy the marbled marinade within the meat with some crusty bread and a bottle of red - not traditional, I know, but one has to adapt to the local environment!

Hong Shao Rou has a few varieties - the one I like best is probably the most deadly if you have a heart problem, but the most heavenly on a cold day in a restaurant with friends, celebrating nothing in particular. It is essentially a slab of belly pork, filleted from the ribs and then slowly steamed for a few hours. The top surface of skin is coated in a mixture of herbs and fruits from the local area as well as vinegar and dark soy sauce and this slowly moves down through the meat as the steaming process progresses - the meat becoming soft and melting, the spices mixing with the steam and the whole thing looking like a giant layered cake.
It is served as one large piece, carved into squares and eaten alongside steamed Chinese cabbage or green vegetables. The combination of taste, texture, smell, and the feeling of complete success when you pick up one of the small squishy, slippery squares deftly with chopsticks is only matched by the strong slurping sounds as you take it into your mouth - it is like eating a ball of soup! Solid yet impossibly liquid!

Ok, enough harping over food - I bought my Triple Cooked Pork Knuckle, safely vacuumed sealed in a foil bag and stowed it in my backpack, deftly placed a few sugar snacks in my mouth and slowly made my way past the handicrafts and stalls to the bus-station.

A 20 minute wait in the slowly swirling fog of a Suzhou winter and I was on my way home in the rickety old bus...happy and full of SuZhou Sugar! 

How could I ever walk again?

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(Showing 1 to 6 of 6) 1
#2014-01-02 19:38:42 by zhshwu @zhshwu

Too beautiful! The beautiful jiangnan water, suzhou.
Described really looks like a nostalgic old movie, very good taste.
The third picture, should be baked sweet potato, non bake yam. Should be very good to eat, eat it is advantageous to the body, said, to soften the blood vessels......
Turnip jiaozi looks very delicious, but did not see the photos, do not know some dumplings eaten and we are the same.

#2014-01-02 19:41:45 by zhshwu @zhshwu

In fact, see the pictures, in the above.
That is carrot cake,no a turnip dumpling. Ha ha.

#2014-01-02 21:56:17 by yeranyi @yeranyi

There are many lakes in Suzhou. Some lakes have other special mean:

Jin ji lake(金鸡湖) in Suzhou industrial park: its pronunciation is same as 经济( economic devoelopment )

Du shu lake in Suzhou high education town : it is homonymic with 读书( reading and learning )

Yang cheng lake in Suzhou north countriside: its pronunciation is similar as 养生( health fitness and leisure)

Also there is a famous and ancient road which has 2500years history in the centre of the city , it is named Pingjang road , you have metioned it in your article ....

Otherwise ,there is an ancient street named Shantang street which was a bustling and noisy place in Tang dynasty . it is 5KM long .,so ,we call it 十里山塘

There are many gates in suzhou too, such as Pingmeng ,Qimeng ,Loumen . Xumeng ,Jinmen, Panmeng , they also have their history and stories .....

Suzhou is an old city with many many stories ,haha

#2014-01-02 21:56:19 by panda2009 @panda2009

Eat so much sweet and fat food in Suzhou, enjoy in such beautiful scene. If married a Suzhounese wife, raise a baibai pangpang kid, your days in Suzhou will be better.

#2014-01-03 00:28:09 by aussieghump @aussieghump

I can assure you that it is a turnip cake/dumpling! I ate 3 of them! They are very yellow in colour - that is true - I think it is because of the really hot oil! They are cooked for only about a minute and the oil is so hot it smokes!

Baked potato is also correct - there are 3 common kinds orange-red sweet potato, a dark purple sweet potato and a browny yellow tuber that they call a 'yam' but is probably more like a variety of sweet potato. All taste pretty good but I generally prefer the orange-red ones that are a little nutty and less sweet.

#2014-01-03 19:08:24 by zhshwu @zhshwu


Well, you said yes, there is a radish filling, should be a Chinese English name is different. This is very interesting.
Chinese snacks, too much. Really delicious. Read these, you described, we associate, awakened the taste, the mouth is watering .Hee hee

(Showing 1 to 6 of 6) 1
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