Noodling up Suzhou soup
Suzhou chefs are control freaks when it comes to noodles as the texture, taste, temperature and toppings are strictly monitored before serving. Gao Ceng slurps down a bowl.
A bowl of seemingly simple Suzhou noodles demonstrates the city's pursuit of perfection in terms of food.
With proper timing, proper soup at the proper temperature makes for a, you guessed it, a proper bowl of noodles.
Suzhou noodles are served with various toppings sprinkled with spring onion and garlic sprouts. Unlike noodle dishes in northern China, where the emphasis is on the texture, Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, emphasizes the soup.
Longxu mian, or dragon beard noodles, which are thin and long and have a tender texture, are believed to absorb the soup flavor better. Soup recipes vary and can be complex. Locals often refer to the soup as "the soul of the noodle."
"Soup is an important criteria when judging the quality of a noodle shop," said Xiao Weimin, the general manager of Tong De Xing Noodle Shop (known for authentic Suzhou-style noodles) and a chef with more than 10 years of noodle cooking experience.
He shared a few tips for choosing a good noodle shop.
"When you come to a Su-style noodle shop, pay attention to the leftover food in a bowl," he says. "If the noodles are left while the soup is finished, the Su noodles are believed to be authentic and tasty. If it's the opposite, you'd better think about choosing another."
Lu Wenfu, a Suzhou writer known for his book "Gourmet," considered the bible on Su noodles, says: "Good noodle soup should have a limpid color, delicate fragrance, natural sweetness and rich flavors from the ingredients, not from artificial seasonings."
Generally, the soup is made of pig bone, chicken meat and sometimes duck meat. Using fish bone and eel is also popular. Based on those basic ingredients, various noodle shops add something different, which is seen as a business secret that only the head chef and shop owner know.
Tong De Xing Noodle Shop is known for its rich and tasty soup. However, Xiao refused to share the recipe, only saying it includes fish bone, shrimp shells and river snails.
In the kitchen of Su noodle shops, there are usually two huge pots - one for the noodles and the other for the soup. A pot of soup is kept simmering all day. In the afternoon, when the soup is nearly gone, some water is added to boil with the ingredients again. Thus, the soup served in the morning is believed to be tastier.
Those who love Su noodles used to get up early, rushing to eat toutangmian, known as "head soup noodle," which means the noodles served with the day's first soup.
"Actually, this is a misunderstanding. Usually, noodle shops open at around 6:30am but it's not until 7:30am or so that the soup fully presents all the flavors of the ingredients," Xiao says.
When ordering, customers will be asked "do you prefer red soup or white soup?" White soup refers to the original soup while the red refers to soup with luzhi, a kind of red thick gravy made of meat stock. This adds a fatty taste and some sweetness.
Zhang Jie, a Suzhou native who works in Shanghai, says: "Usually we order fatty red soup in winter and light white soup in summer."
She adds that compared with the red soup in Suzhou, Shanghai's is much lighter and not fatty enough.
Popular toppings include fried eel paste, smoked fish, stewed pork and stir-fried river shrimp. Prices vary according to toppings.
Xiao says the toppings are important.
"The way toppings are served is another important reference in judging the authenticity of Su noodles. Those spread directly on the top of the noodles aren't authentic," Xiao says.
The authentic serving way is called guoqiao, which means crossing the bridge. The toppings are placed on a separate dish. When serving, pick the topping from the dish to the noodle bowl. The process is similar to crossing the bridge between two containers, which is where the name comes from.
Suzhou people are known for their delicate dining culture. Thus, serving the toppings separately keeps the soup clear and pure.
For a truly authentic experience, eat Su noodles in a Su noodle shop rather than in a fancy restaurant or luxury hotel.
A small restaurant playing pingtan, a form of musical storytelling that originated in Suzhou, and crowded with square wooden tables usually indicates you've found a typical Su noodle shop.
Suzhou people often customize their order by talking to the chef in Suzhou dialect.
Here are some highlights:
Zhongjiao qingmian means more toppings and less noodles.
Qingjiao zhongmian means less toppings and more noodles.
Kuantang, literally means loose soup, but refers to more soup and less noodles.
Jintang, literally means tight soup, refers to less soup and more noodles.
Zhongqing, literally means heavy green, which means more garlic sprouts.
Shaoqing, literally means less green, which means less garlic sprouts.
The temperature also plays a crucial role in Suzhou noodles.
"An authentic bowl of noodles should meet four 'hot' requirements including hot noodles, hot soup, hot bowl and hot chopsticks or the flavor will be influenced," Xiao says.
Of course, the best Su noodle shops will be in Suzhou - only one hour by car from Shanghai and even less by train. But for those who don't have that much time, there are some nice Suzhou noodle shops in Shanghai.
Here are two recommended noodle shops in Suzhou and two in Shanghai.
Tong De Xing Noodle Shop
Located near downtown Guanqian Street and filled with ink-wash paintings, this is one of the most famous Su noodle shops in Suzhou. Its red and white noodle soups are rich and well balanced.
Customers can see how old Suzhou people serve noodles for breakfast. People who don't know each other eat together at one table while listening to the news on the radio. After that they order a cup of green tea and discuss the news that was just reported.
Signature noodles include red soup noodles with fried eel paste and white soup noodles with braised duck. Fengzhen meat noodles with jiuniang, an unfiltered rice with a sweet fragrance, is also recommended.
Address: 6 Renmin Rd, Suzhou
Average cost: 15 yuan (US$2.38)/person
Lu Chang Xing Noodle Shop
It's a traditional noodle shop in Suzhou with a history of more than 60 years. It's also one of few places where people can get Su noodles for dinner. The noodle soup is made of chicken meat, pork, pig bone and eel bone. This gives the soup a rich and fatty flavor with a hint of sweetness. The noodles absorb the soup flavor well as they are thin and silky.
The shop is also known for its great variety of toppings. Everything from braised pork and stir-fried shrimp to bamboo shoots, shredded meat and smoked fish can be ordered. They also have a fried mushrooms topping.
The red soup noodles with braised pork topping is recommended. The fat and tender pork goes well with the soup.
Hours: 5:30am-3pm, 5-7:30pm
Address: 1558 Donghuan Rd, Suzhou
Average cost: 15 yuan/person
Cang Lang Ting
The restaurant design replicates the ambiance of traditional buildings from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. The wooden tables have carvings of flower patterns.
The thin noodles are slightly chewy. The red soup is rich, but a little heavy while the white is light and comes more highly recommended.
Popular toppings include sautéed shrimp, stir-fried mushrooms and braised pork rib. White soup noodles with pan-fried yellow croaker is its signature dish. The yangchunmian, soup noodles without toppings, is also worth a try.
The restaurant also provides takeaway Su-style dimsum such as niangao, glutinous rice cakes with various fillings and wontons with seasonal greens and meat.
Despite the tasty noodles, service could be better.
Hours: 6am until midnight
Address: 509 Dagu Rd, Shanghai
Average cost: 30 yuan/person
Although this noodle shop is in Shanghai, the food and serving way are in authentic Suzhou style. Classic red soup noodles with a fish or shrimp topping and white soup noodles with duck are available. Toppings are served separately, which indicates it is an authentic Su noodle shop.
They also serve some noodle dishes combining Shanghai and Suzhou cuisines. Try the white soup noodles with preserved greens and shredded meat or the red soup noodles with pork rib braised in soybean sauce. Pingtan music is played in the background.
Hours: 10:30am-2:30pm, 4:30-9pm
Address: 2/F, 141 Shaanxi Rd S., Shanghai
Average cost: 50 yuan/person