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Above Earth is Heaven, Below is Su Hong

by Irving Beilin Chang

Chinese Food in China, Hong Kong, and/or Taiwan

Summer Volume: 1999 Issue: 6(2) page(s): 7 and 8

Actually, in totality the old Chinese saying states: Above earth there is heaven, below there is Su Hong. Even though heaven above is very pretty, on earth there are few places that are as beautiful as Su(zhou) and Hong(zhou).

In the old days, when the emperors of China got tired of the long Beijing winter, they would travel to the Su Hong area for a long winter break. This trip, about one thousand miles in length, would begin over land from Beijing to Tientsin and be made by horse drawn wagon. Then at Tientsin, they would board barges for the rest of the journey on the Grand Canal. These barges were drawn by horses, and in this manner, they travelled in leisure and comfort for nine hundred more miles going south on the Grand Canal.

The Grand Canal starts at Tientsin and ends in Hangzhou; it was built mainly for the purpose of travel by the emperor. It crosses five provinces, two major river systems (the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers), and numerous valleys and lakes. It was built more than one thousand years ago and was a major engineering feat especially when one considers that in those days there was no electricity, no power tools, nothing but manual labor. All the locks that control differences in water levels of the canal had to be operated hydraulically or mechanically. The three cities, Wushi, Suzhou and Hangzhou, which in the Tai Lake area is at the end of this long trip, were considered to be the Emperors winter playground.

In China today, this is the only north-south waterway for commerce. In 1972, when President Nixon went to China to re-establish diplomatic relations after tough negotiations, Premier Chou En Lai invited him to Hangzhou for some R & R (rest and relaxation). There they signed the Shanghai Communiqué. That document was the understanding that normalized China-United States relations, a first since the communists took over China.

The beautiful Su-Hong area is one of the most important centers of China's culture. Many famous scholars and poets have come from this area. This bed of Chinese culture, an area full of historic events of the past and things to come, is very rich agriculturally. It truly is a land of rice and fish. With culture comes culinary art and related activities, and they have thrived here.

Suzhou has a network of canals that criss-cross the city and so it is known as the Venice of China. The area, with numerous lakes, canals, waterways, and mild weather, produces most of the vegetables that supplies the big cities of the Jiangsu and Zhejiang Provinces. The most famous products of the region include Dragon Well tea from Hongzhou, hams of Jinghua, pressed ducks of Nanjing, fish and eels from Tai Lake, and famous fresh-water hairy crabs from Hungtze Lake. There are these items and much more.

Foods produced here are consumed by the populations of the big cities along the Shanghai-Nanjing corridor. They also are used by other cities along the banks of the Yangtze River. Chinese chefs, regardless of region, demand the freshest produce to prepare their local and regional fare. With so much available to them, the cities of this area became and are famous for their own specialities, their own distinctive cuisine.

In America today, we benefit from availability of Asian food products, some from this region. Whether it be a new vegetable, a dried food, or a condiment, many are crossing the ocean and finding their way to our shores and our markets. Of course, most of them are still only available in Asian grocery stores. However, one by one they are slowly making their way into mainstream markets. For instance, Chinese spinach, smaller, more tender, and more delicately flavored than the spinach offered in most local supermarkets first came from China, now it is grown in the United States. The Chinese adore eating its red root because it is so very sweet and nutritious.

Other examples include the so-called Japanese eggplant. It is thin and slender, much smaller than the large ones found in most supermarkets. It crossed the ocean, too, and is now enjoyed here. It is more tender, I think superior in taste, less watery, too, especially when cooked in the garlic-flavored "fish sauce" style.

The sweat pea pod, called snow pea, is such a popular vegetable, so beloved everywhere, that it has already found its way into most major supermarkets, some small stores, as well. However, its tender shoots so delicious in their own right and when prepared in a clear soup and not yet available outside of most Chinatowns. Canned waterchestnuts are in most markets, but the fresh ones are also only available in places with large Chinese populations. Hopefully, they will make a similar mainstream move in the not too distant future. I prefer to use them because of their superior flavor and texture; and I do even though they require extra time to prepare them.

So that you can enjoy delicious foods of the Su Hong region, here are three recipes from my wife Wonona's files for your consideration. They are from Hongzhou, Yangzhou and Shanghai, respectively.
Stir-fried Shrimp with Dragon Well Tea Leaves
1 pound medium shrimp without shells, deveined
1 egg white
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon Dragon Well tea leaves
1/3 cup peanut oil
1 Tablespoon dry sherry
1 scallion, minced
6 fresh waterchestnuts, peeled and sliced
1. Dry shrimp with paper towels then mix with egg white, cornstarch and salt.
2. Pour half cup boiling water over the tea leaves, stir and as they start to open, drain reserving the liquid.
3. Heat oil in wok or pan and add the shrimp mixture, stir fry one minute and drain, returning shrimp to the pan.
4. Add tea leaves and tea water and fry one minute then add sherry and mix well, then add scallions and waterchestnuts, mix thoroughly, then serve.
Lion's Head
2 teaspoons dark soy sauce
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
2 Tablespoons dry sherry
1 and 1/2 Tablespoons sugar
1 pound ground pork
3 shiitake mushrooms, soaked and diced
1 very small onion, diced
2 slices ginger, minced
12 fresh waterchestnuts, peeled and chopped
3 Tablespoons peanut oil
5 ounces hearts of celery cabbage, quartered
1 cup chicken stock
1. Mix both soy sauces, sherry, and sugar, then mix with the pork and set aside for ten minutes.
2. Mix mushrooms, onion, and ginger and mix with the meat. Let stand five minutes more then form into five large balls.
3. Heat oil in wok or pan then add the cabbage hearts and sir-fry for two minutes. Then spread leaves evenly over the bottom of the pot and add the pork balls and the chicken stock and bring to the boil.
4. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer over low heat for twenty-five minutes. Then serve.
Smoked Fish, Shanghai Style
2 pounds black fish or carp
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
2 Tablespoons dry sherry
2 scallions
6 slices ginger
1 stick cinnamon
2 star anise
1/2 teaspoon five spice powder
1 and 1/2 Tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup dark soy sauce
1 cup corn oil
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1. Cut fish into one-and-a-half-inch by two-inch pieces then dry each of them with paper towels.
2. Coat fish with soy sauce and sherry and refrigerate for half an hour.
3. Mix scallions, ginger, cinnamon, anise, five spice powder, sugar, one-quarter cup soy sauce, and one cup water into a sauce pan and bring to the boil, then lower heat and simmer for half an hour.
4. Drain removing the solids and saving the liquid. Add sesame oil.
5. Heat corn oil in wok or pan and fry fish pieces until brown and crisp, about three or four minutes, then drain on a paper towel and immediately dip in sauce mixture and place into a glass bowl. Pour remaining sauce and the sesame oil over the fish and set aside for half an hour. Remove pieces from sauce, and if desired, sprinkle with a little more five spice powder, then serve.

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