In all four seasons, the bountiful Jiangnan, which refers to the area south of the Yangtze River in China, brings to you a great variety of fresh aquatic food and produce. Come in summer for wild rice shoots and in winter for lotus roots. If you are here in spring and autumn, feast yourself with water shield and arrowhead mushroom. Expect to enjoy on your dining table a selection of finely cooked Baisi fish, white clams, puffer fish, river turtle, eel, river shrimp, mandarin fish and yellow-head catfish for a lingering taste of Jiangnan and a nostalgic feeling.
Aquatic Food in Yangcheng Lake
he Yangcheng Lake produces not only hairy crabs, but also eight “treasures” of aquatic food. The delicious food lures tourists in all year round. Even when the season for hairy crabs is over, the eight “treasures” are here to make your trip just as worthwhile.
Legend has it that before the Eight Immortals in Chinese mythology crossed the ocean that stood in their way when they were heading to the Conference of the Magical Peach, they stayed for a little while in Yangcheng Lake. Moved by local people’s hospitality, they tried to think of a way to pay back their kindness. Finally, they decided to each leave behind a kind of aquatic food, hence the delightful “treasures” of sea snail, eel, Baisi fish, yellow-head catfish, fresh-water bream, grass carp, black carp and freshwater shrimp.
Two Puffer Fish Dishes
Puffer fish has no scale but tiny spikes on their abdomen. Rub their bellies and they will inflate as a patterned balloon, while making squeaky sounds. Two dishes can be made from puffer fish: steamed or braised fish meat, and puffer fish liver steamed with shredded ginger and spring onion, also known as puffer fish liver soup. You don’t come by such toothsome dishes every day.
Puffer fish, especially its liver, has been much sought-after food since ancient times. In the cookbook of Yuan Mei, a well-known scholar and gastronome in the Qing Dynasty (1636-1912), puffer fish soup was featured as a signature dish. Yuan wrote: “Puffer fish is the most tender of all. Peel it and separate the liver from the meat. Cook in chicken soup with three portions of rice-wine, two portions of water and one portion of soy sauce. When the soup is ready, add in a large bowl of ginger juice and some spring onion, to eliminate the fishy smell.” The other ingredients of this soup include ham, bamboo shoots, and mushrooms. Therefore, it contains the most delicious food available in the lake and on the land. Fresh bamboo shoots may taste a little bitter, but when cooked with ham, they cover up the undesirable smell and reinforce the taste of ham. Thanks to the ham, there is absolutely no hint of fishy smell from the puffer fish. When fresh bamboo shoots, ham, puffer fish and rape all melt in chicken soup, we have a bowl of puffer fish liver soup ready to be served.
With an extensive river network within the Kunshan Tourism Resort, fresh aquatic food can be found almost everywhere, from Zhouzhuang, Jinxi, Dianshan Lake to Yangcheng Lake.
River shrimp is a kind of fresh water shrimp with a shell-covered long body. Fresh shrimp has thin and almost transparent green shell with brown spots. In addition to two pairs of feelers on its head, one short and the other long, river shrimp has many tiny feet growing on both sides of its body. Put it into a bowl of water on the table and it will jump all over the table, hence its nickname “flying over the table” in Jinxi. River shrimps are commonly seen in the lakes and rivers of the resort. The best river shrimps are the ones with shrimp eggs in summer and shrimp eggs are an ingredient for shrimp egg soy sauce. A well-known dish, Wine-marinated Shrimp, is made from shrimps harvested in spring and autumn, when shrimps are the most delicious. If you have tasted it, you know what I’m talking about.
Shrimps are not only rich in taste, but also in nutrition. Shrimps contain the most calcium among all plants and animals and are, therefore, especially good for children and old people. Moreover, because of the presence of trace element selenium in shrimps, eating shrimps regularly helps prevent cancer.
According to A Supplement to Compendium of Materia Medica, a TCM classic, freshwater shrimps are typically green in color while those from the sea are whiter, with rougher meat. Shrimps that grow and live in streams tend to have thicker shells and stronger fishy smells while their counterparts in lakes have thinner shells and are tastier.
How to cook shrimps:
1. Clean the shrimps and marinate with salt and rice wine.
2. Prepare a pot of water, with spring onion and ginger pieces inside. Put in rice wine and salt. After the water is boiled, put in the shrimps.
3. Shrimps cook easily, so be sure to watch the time. Immediately take them out when they are ready. Otherwise, they will turn rough.
4. Pouring cold water on shrimps next can make the meat tighter.
5. Reduce the amount of salt during cooking if you prefer to have the shrimps with ginger vinegar or other sauces. You will not be disappointed either.
Stir-fried Water Snail
I remember going to the river or pond in the countryside as a child with my younger brother to catch water snails with bare hands. We would take them home and keep them alive in fresh water until the next day. Our mother would cut the snails’ bottoms and stir fry them for us. As a child, we felt so proud to be able to put food on the table.
Steamed Baisi fish
Tender and nutritious, Baisi fish holds a prominent position on the menu of the resort. The whole body of the fish is translucent, looking like a piece of white jade. Baisi Fish feeds on little fishes and shrimps and is a fast swimmer, hence the nickname “Swimmer in the Waves”.
I used to attach an earthworm as bait to a hook tied on a string to fish bitterling when I was young. I could usually get a dozen of them by evening, but they were too small to make a dish, so it was just for fun.
I still vividly remember the first time I had salt and pepper fried bitterling made by my grandmother and how I liked the taste of it. Salt mixed with pepper not only removes the fishy smell but also heightens the flavor. After adding in stir-fried minced garlic, ginger and spring onion, the seemingly different elements become a harmonious whole, producing a mouth-watering smell. Overall, the bitterling’s skin is fried to be crispy and rich in flavor while the meat is tender and retains its original taste. It is a dish that blends very well with the seasonings but still let you taste the essence of the fish.
Fresh Water Mussel
There are many ways to make a dish with fresh water mussel: stewed mussel with bean curd, fried mussel with pickled cabbage, fried mussel with Chinese chives, mussel with gravy, and so on. I favor the first one because both the mussel and the bean curd are smooth and tender, like large and small marbles on a plate.
Be careful though: tasty as the water mussel is, having too much at a time may upset your stomach.
Sweet and Sour Mandarin Fish
Sweet and Sour Mandarin Fish is a famous signature dish in Jiangsu cuisine. It is cooked to produce a perfect combination of color, aroma, taste and shape. The sweet and sour taste of the dish comes from the hot gravy, which is poured onto the freshly deep-fried fish, producing a tantalizing sizzling sound that completes an interesting dining experience.
Black clam is one of the popular local aquatic products in Jinxi. It has two triangular dark brown/black shells, each up to 3-4 centimeters in length, hence the name “black clam”. People usually make thick clam broth, which is luscious and high in nutrition. It is good for people with hepatitis and high blood pressure. In recent years, the Lianhu Village and the Fishing Village in Jinxi have made good use of the water resource and developed its aquaculture. Every year, around 1,000 tons of black clams are shipped to Japan, making this aquatic food a strong product for export.
Red Water Caltrop
Red water caltrop in Jinxi, a floating annual aquatic plant, is one of the premium types of water caltrop with thinner skin, fuller seed and a refreshing taste. It is a much sought-after fruit during its harvesting months in autumn. In Jinxi, which is west to Dianshan Lake and east to Cheng Lake,red water caltrops are only cultivated in the corners of the shallow areas of these two lakes, yet they grow abundantly and vigorously requiring little maintenance. People who have long-term experience with red water caltrop become very skillful at harvesting the fruit. During mid-autumn festival, visitors who come here often marvel at how agile these farmers are at picking the red water caltrops while paddling through water in a single-man size wooden basin, as if they are performing Kung Fu on the lake. People in Jinxi are very particular about having water caltrops at the right time. There is a custom of “having water caltrops while fresh and keeping lotus roots till later”, which means freshly picked red water caltrops will be consumed during the same day. Therefore, no matter how hot the weather is, farmers will go down the lake in the wee hours and bring the red water caltrops to the market as early as possible to satisfy foodies’ craving for the fruit.