TEA (& MORE) IN SUZHOU
It's hard to narrow down all the fun food experiences in Suzhou, China. Here's a roundup of our favorites:
Pingjiang is a historic district situated along Suzhou's picturesque canals. Small sampans ferry people and cargo along the waterways between points of interest such as markets, museums and the many fabled gardens. Best of all, Pingjiang has an array of shops, tea houses and restaurants and a plethora of street food!
On our first day there, we stumbled on Pin Von, a small, crowded eatery that overlooks the canal. We ordered from a paper checklist, ticking off items that filled us with hunger (andcuriosity). Or first pick was savory beef bao—orbs of succulent, crisp dough with explosively tasty barbecued meat on the inside. We also ordered a "shepherd's purse" with crab meat, an odd large, pouch-shaped wonton impaled with a straw for drinking the soup that swished inside. (By far one of the tastiest and "weirdest" dishes we've ever had.) The Water of the Eight Immortals was a hot, sweet drink with an odd, earthy but not unpleasant taste. Their rose flower tea brimmed with full, pink buds that infused the air with a lush aroma. We finished the meal with a favorite treat—sesame pastries filled with red bean paste. Later in the week we stopped back in to try seasoned snake with peppers, cilantro and onions, more pork bao and steaming glasses of green tea; a very tasty meal! Item on the menu we bypassed but most wanted to order out of curiosity? An offering listed as: "The Tiny Black Fungus". Our guess is that it's probably be a mushroom dish. However, you just never know ...
A WALKING & NOSHING PARADISE
Pingjiang is a "walking and noshing" paradise. It's an incredibly pleasant place to walk, enjoy the sights and meld in with locals and visitors along the waterways. As for where and what to eat? Just follow your nose and try anything that tempts you! Shopkeepers all along the lane call out their wares—beckoning you to stands and storefronts bursting with teas, pastries, sweets shaped like animals, noodle and green onion pancakes, fried tofu and an enticing abundance of meats on sticks. The ice cream seller at the Ice Bridge sells delicious green tea ice cream cones. At the foot of the bridge, a woman peddles fermented eggs simmering in a pungent dark sauce, gizzards and chicken's feet (a favorite, local treat). We observed with fascination as her steady stream of customers, young and old alike, snacked on the eggs and glazed, claw-like chicken's feet with relish.
COMFORTING FLAVORS ABOUND ...
Familiar flavors can be a good good palette cleanser now and then. Our comfort food line-up is as follows: Fox Star Café serves wonderful, large mochas. There is an exquisite tea place near the middle of Pingjiang Lane (which we can't recall the name of) that offers Orange Matcha Cake and Wolfberry Tea as well as lovely, second-story views of the canal and shops. We fueled up at Mingtown Lodge Cafe in the mornings. Friendly staff and great prices—80 RMB ($13 USD) for breakfast for two, including coffee. Our favorite find? At the top of Xiangmen Wall (one of the gates of Suzhou’s ancient city wall that houses the Suzhou City Wall Museum) there is a family-run eatery in the traditional building at the top, where its friendly proprietors fed us the tastiest, heartiest bowls of dumpling soup we’ve ever eaten for only 10 RMB (less than $2 USD) each.
Our hotel, Pingjiang Lodge, was set right on the canal at the district's south end. It is a beautiful, 400-year-old residence and offers well-appointed rooms with traditional canopied beds, mini bar, tea sets, modern baths (as well as old style wooden bathtubs), wood-beamed ceilings, antique Chinese furnishings, temperature control. We booked a large Deluxe for 743 RMB ($114 USD) per night. An excellent value for the price. Superb locale—we could walk everywhere! The lodge provided complimentary tins of local green and orange teas—both excellent brews. We enjoyed reading and sipping in our room at night as the spring rain pummeled the ancient, slate tiles on the roof. Magic.
Suzhou is less than hour from Shanghai. We took a G-Class Train from the Shanghai Railway Station, paid 80 RMB ($13 USD) each for second-class tickets and arrived in Suzhou in thirty minutes (the high-speed trains travel at a blazing 280 mph!). At the Suzhou Railway Station, we joined the queue for a cab and paid 14 RMB ($2.50 USD) for a ride to the Pingjiang historic district. The taxi dropped us at the corner of Dongbei and Pingjiang Roads and we walked the to Pingjiang Lodge (south on Pingjiang Road about 1 mile, a very enjoyable stroll).