At the beginning of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Shen Wansan became one of the richest men in Jiangnan, or south of the Yangtze River. He began to follow the customs in Jiangsu Province and became particular about dining. Whenever guests came, Shen would hire best chefs to cook what he referred to as “Wansan Family Banquet”. Of all the dishes that appeared on the banquet, the best-known were the “Eight Bowls”, which remain to be the most popular choices when families in Zhouzhuang receive guests. The “Eight Bowls” typically come in celadon and are eaten with bamboo chopsticks. Guests can pamper themselves by washing down large chunks of meat with large bowls of alcohol.
The “Wansan Family Banquet” usually comprises Wansan Pig’s Trotters, Three-flavored Meatballs, Xianjiang Aquatic Food, Braised Rice Eel, Stuffed Field Snails, Braised Mandarin Fish, Stuffed Fried Glutten Puff and Ah-Po Dish for dishes, Wansan Cake, Sweet Taro and Supporting Waist Cake for desert and white liquor.
Wansan Pig’s Trotters
Zhouzhuang, a place with profound historic and cultural heritage, boasts a unique cuisine, which includes the must-have Wansan Pig’s Trotters. When Shen Wansan, the wealthy businessman, put on a banquet for distinguished guests, the signature dish would always be served. Having been passed on after hundreds of years, this dish continues to be a main course in banquets for weddings or major festivals, with the auspicious meaning of family reunion. Wansan Pig’s Trotters are often cooked so soft that you can feel them melting in your mouth. They are succulent but not heavy, with the right balance kept between sweet and savory tastes.
Three-flavored Meatballs in Chicken Soup
Otherwise known as “Gluten Puff Dipped in Soup”, this dish wraps minced chicken breast meat, shrimps, pig’s hindleg meat with spring onion, ginger and rice wine in flattened gluten puff. Then the meatballs are cooked in chicken soup. Once completed, the skin will turn semi-transparent and you could see the fillings within. Prof. Chen Congzhou, a well-known Chinese architect, once said that this one dish had in it the delicious flavors of steamed buns, wontons and steamed dumpling with gravy, hence dubbed as “three-flavored”.
Braised Field Eel
Clean and cut the field eel into several parts. Braise with soy sauce and seasonings and the dish is ready to be served. It not only has the appetizing reddish look, but also smells and tastes fantastic.
Stuffed Field Snails
Pick out the meat in field snails and mince it with pig’s hind leg meat. Mix the minced meat with spring onion, ginger and rice wine before putting it back into the snail shells for cooking. This dish combines the fresh taste of field snails and pork.
Stuffed Fried Gluten Puff
This dish from authentic Zhouzhuang cuisine stuffs minced pork and edible wild plants into fried gluten puff before cooking. The finished dish takes on a golden appearance, filled with delicious meat and thick stock. You will surely find this dish to be interesting and appetizing.
Since ancient times, Ah-Po, or grannies, who are often retired and idle at home have enjoyed gathering together for tea. They choose ordinary rape to make refreshments. Later, this dish becomes known as Ah-Po Dish. The best time to harvest rape, the ingredient for Ah-Po Dish, is in late spring, when rape blossoms. During this time, local people hand-pick the tender shoots, clean them and dry them in the sun. After they are properly dried, move them to a small jar and seal the jar with mud and bamboo leaves. Store it upside down in a pottery plate to avoid aeration. After a few months, take out the fully marinated vegetable. The moment you open the jar, a refreshing smell will come right at you and the shoots taste far better than any other pickles. You may eat it directly, cook it in soup or pan-fry with other vegetables. This auspicious-meaning dish resembles the shape of a long carp. Far more than a tea refreshment, Ah-Po Dish has become one of the symbols of Zhouzhuang’s unique cuisine.
Braised Mandarin Fish
Clean the fish and braise it. When it is cooked, put it in a large bowl so that the head and tail will point upwards, resembling a gold ingot. This is a well-meaning dish that shows your respect for the guests. Serve it when important guests are present and they will not be disappointed.
Two Kinds of Aquatic Food in Zhouzhuang
In the pleasantly cool season of autumn, people in Zhouzhuang often make water caltrops and lotus roots, the two fresh vegetables that are in season, into a special dish for their guests. In the carefully prepared dish, water caltrops resemble gold ingots while lotus roots, with a hole in the middle, remind people of coins. Therefore, this smooth-tasting dish conveys the good wish that more wealth will come to the diners. This unique dish can be found only in riverside regions.