I don’t like Shanghai’s style of noodles. They are thin and often mushy, the soup is insipid, and they are all about the toppings. Go into a noodle shop and the choices are basically stir-fried dishes sitting on top of noodles in dishwater. Kung pao chicken noodles. Stir-fried julienned pork and peppers noodles. It’s like ordering a pizza with fettuccine alfredo on top. You wanted fettuccine alfredo, not a pizza. You wanted kung pao chicken, not noodles. Why force it?
My big mistake was believing this topping problem (or, ahem, you might say bottoming problem) was regional. East China. I love the noodles of Shanxi, of Sichuan, of Xibei, of Guangdong. Shanghai always left me a little cold.
So it’s with great regret and relief that after being mistaken for so many years, I have discovered that right here, in Shanghai’s backyard, is a noodle culture that is as sophisticated as Japan, among the most delicious things you can eat in China, and accessible by train in 30 minutes. Suzhou.
Chinese foodies know this. Average Shangainese know this. I made a really big mistake – forgive me. But now you and I know this too.
So in the past two weeks, I’ve been shuttling back and forth to Suzhou in the mornings to eat noodles and kicking myself for not getting there sooner. I will not pretend this is a comprehensive list. The three places I’ve chosen are not only on the same street — you can shout from one to the other. But that is a quirk of development, as the government has begun to redevelop Jiayu Fang, a once-thriving food street that has seen better times. Metro development is part of it, and now the government is helping to bring back some of Suzhou’s most celebrated brands. As far as I can tell, they have lost nothing in the process. It is 200 meters of some of the best eating one can do in this part of the world.
A City of Riches
First on the street is Tong De Xing. It’s been around for god knows how many years, and it had a 20-second cameo in A Bite of China, so it draws serious crowds on the weekends. They have recently renovated, and the store is a lovely, if slightly heavy, classical Chinese interior.
The menu is a series of tiles behind the cashier and it’s a little confusing. I will walk you through it. Or to it.
Fengzhen mian. That is what you want.
With da rou. A big and beautiful rectangle of pork belly of a texture that in all my years of cooking, I’ve never been able to replicate: firm enough to cut with clean sides, soft enough that they don’t even warm it before putting it on the noodles, because the heat of the noodles is enough to soften it. That’s how tender it is. They add a touch of jiu niang, fermented rice, to the broth, and there’s a whole imperial story about that. It’s a delicious twist but you don’t need to know that story. You need to know this.
And then Exhibit B. Because the most important question that you need to answer when you are ordering noodles in Suzhou is: white or red? That means, do you want the stock plain, straight out of the pot, or do you want a light seasoning of soy sauce, the “red”? I ordered three bowls of white in a row, thinking I’d found something so good, why deviate?, and then on my final visit, I felt obligated to try red in the name of this article. It’s also excellent. The stock comes through clearly. It does not taste like a bowl of soy sauce.
Suzhou noodles are so good because they care about the soup base. It is that simple. For a bowl of plain noodles in fengzhen broth, named after a village in Suzhou, Fengqiao, where they were supposedly invented, Tong De Xing charges 15rmb. That says it all. Shanghai would never dare charge you 15rmb and give you just noodles and soup. For people in Suzhou, the soup is an investment, and among the various spices and herbs that go into making the gao tang for fengzhen mian, the proper name for what we call compound stocks in the west (i.e., chicken + pork), you have the thigh bones of pigs, eel bones, freshwater snails, pork skin and whole old hens. The bowl with the da rou is 26rmb. A steal.
A noodle employee at a different restaurant explained it best.
“Shanghai is a city of migrants. People eat to fill up, not for the flavor,” he told me.
“But Suzhou has always been a rich city. We’ve been very lucky with agriculture.”
Another Suzhou food writer pointed out to me that Suzhou’s climate allows it to grow four rice crops a year, more than many other parts of China, and that bounty has translated into a city of riches, both culturally (all the gardens and opera and such) and in the food. The first guy continued: “Because we’ve been rich, we’ve been able to appreciate and refine our cuisine.”
This is undoubtedly true. Everyone I spoke to pointed out how closely tied the average Suzhou person is to the seasons, and how they don’t eat out of season. At the moment, it’s loquat (pipa) season in the Suzhou fruit world, it’s fengzhen season in the heavy noodle world (May to October at Tong De Xing), and even better in the light noodle world: right now, we are in the middle, the prime, the peak of “three shrimp” noodle season, a brief period that lasts at most a month on either side of the Dragon Boat Festival, which just passed.
’Tis the Season for Three Shrimp Noodles
And so it’s out the door of Tong De Xing, and about five storefronts down to arguably the most famous of all Suzhou noodle shops, Yu Xing Ji.
Yu Xing Ji, according to Yu Xing Ji, has gone through three periods: the first, starting in the mid-1600s and lasting about 300 years, when they were among the best the city had to offer; the second, when the Communist business model basically wiped them out and destroyed their reputation; and the third, when a chef surnamed Yang, who himself came from another 100+ year-old restaurant in Suzhou, decided to revitalize the place in the early 2000s. Today they have a dozen locations and go through 60-70 pounds of tiny river shrimp per day during Three Shrimp season.
My first trip to Yu Xing Ji was on a quiet weekday morning, and besides me, the only other people in the dining room were employees, silently scrubbing shrimp the size of your pinky joint with toothbrushes. One shrimp at a time. Pick it up. Turn it over. Rub its belly with the bristles. Toss it into the pile for the next stage.
I initially thought this was a cleaning process but subsequently learned that this is what has to be done to harvest the shrimp’s eggs. Three Shrimp noodles don’t refer to a quantity or type of shrimp but rather to three parts of the shrimp: the peeled meat, the intense eggs, which are smaller than poppy seeds, and the shrimp “brain”, the good gooey stuff in their head. On a later trip, the boss told me that during the season, there are 25-30 people working eight hours a day at this: up to 240 man hours, every single day. The eggs themselves are brushed off into the water, and the water sieved; then the shrimp are peeled and the heads are squeezed for the --- there’s really got to be a better name for this, but my brain has been squeezed itself too many times to think of it -- fatty but delicious gunk in the head. Like crayfish.
To wit: here is Yu Xing Ji’s Three Shrimp noodles (106rmb), always served dry, as the broth would dilute the flavor of the eggs. (The broth is the same gao tang served with fengzhen noodles.)
That is 100 grams of shrimp, and easily more than 100 shrimp. It seems imperial to eat. It is excellent.
But the Three Shrimp season at Yu Xing Ji only lasts for a couple more weeks after the Dragon Boat Festival and they need to stay in business year-round, and this is where my favorite noodle of all the Suzhou expeditions lies: the er mian huang with peeled shrimp and pork tendon (38rmb).
It is a tangle of noodles that don’t even hint at the taste of oil, but have the taste and crunch of deep-fried wontons, floating on a gravy made from thickened fengzhen gao tang, slowly going soft on the bottom. It is a knock-out.
Crispy giving way to soaked noodles, delicate pinky-nail size shrimp and luxurious soft tendon, all of it changing in ratio with every bite. I skipped a lot of noodles on these trips to focus on the broth but I never ate less than 2/3 of a plate of the er mian huang, or “two-sides-yellow”. For noodle people, this is worth the trip alone. And like the Three Shrimp noodles, Yu Xing Ji claims to have invented the dish at its original location three centuries ago.
Advanced Studies: Wild Duck Noodles and (Even Tastier) Three Shrimp Noodles
Leaving Yu Xing Ji is hard but there is consolation to be found after the short walk across the street to Yu Mian Zhai. For a noodle shop, Yu Mian Zhai is beautiful, decorated in a contemporary Chinese way with screens and modern tea ware for their excellent jin jun mei tea, served in nearly flat cups. None of the shops are holes in the wall but this is by far the nicest.
Started in 2013, it’s the passion project of Ren Xiaochen, 53, who was an accountant before retiring, buying a building and deciding that the next stage of her life should be dedicated to perfecting a craft, an idea she admires very much in the Japanese. As you might have guessed, her craft is noodles. And though she’s only been open for five years, she is getting pretty damn good. Noodles in Suzhou are slender, and while they are properly, i.e., barely cooked, at all the shops, there is an ineffable quality to hers. It turns out hers are custom made with duck and chicken egg yolks.
You come to Yu Mian Zhai for luxury. They have all manner of outrageously expensive noodles, noodles that put this guy to shame, noodles with American ginseng and noodles with Australian lobster (1,888 rmb, though they serve four), but on my visits I couldn’t pull myself away from just two kinds: the wild duck noodles, served in a clay pot, and Ren’s take on Three Shrimp noodles.
These are the wild duck noodles.
The thigh is small – a sign that maybe it really is as wild as it claims to be? but then, are there even wild ducks left in China? – and the broth is deep and complicated, flavored with dark Chinese spices recall winter. I felt a bit too warm after eating my first bowl, but the friends I brought on subsequent trips told me that was a small price to pay for such a lovely broth. (The actual price to pay is not as small: 88 rmb, and still one of the cheapest on the menu.)
It was at Yu Mian Zhai that I finally learned to be clever for once in my life, and it was Ren’s bowl of Three Shrimp noodles that did it. The small twist of noodles in the bowl was showered with the peeled shrimp, all light pink and perfectly formed crescents, covered in shrimp eggs and dotted with bright orange…. shrimp gook. Ren watched me toss the noodles and take the first couple of bites. They were sublime. She asked me what I thought, knowing I’d just come from Yu Xing Ji. “Over there, across the street, their Three Shrimp noodles are really good, truly very tasty…,” I stalled. “But yours, well, yours are… even tastier.” It was a triumph of simple and effective Chinese language for the orange gook in my own head that passes for a brain, and Ren’s husband, who works the cashier desk on his days off from his government job, smiled and sat back in his chair, content. Obviously Ren approved of my opinion. I would later find out her shrimp to noodle process has six steps, unlike the alleged two steps at some other restaurants, and that she tosses the noodles with both her own homemade shrimp egg soy sauce (available to buy take-away, if you telephone in advance, 158 rmb) and spring-onion oil. I’ve eaten many noodles in many countries over many years. Yu Mian Zhai’s are among the best.
From Shanghai to Suzhou
The final discovery in all my noodle wrangling was that I’ve also been stupid with transportation, blinded by the shiny new Hongqiao train station and its 28 minutes-to-Suzhou trains. If you live downtown, please learn from yet another one of my mistakes and skip Hongqiao in favor of the original Shanghai Station, known as…. Shanghai Station (上海站). For people living in the city center or Jing’an, it is superior in every respect. It takes 15 minutes to get to, which is less than 25rmb in a cab (Hongqiao being 55-60rmb), it delivers you right to Suzhou station, not Suzhou North Station (which you don’t want to go to), and there are dozens of trains a day.
It’s even better on the way back. The first time I came back to Shanghai through the old station, the taxi line was two people long. The second time, there was not even a line, just a parking lot full of empty, waiting cabs. Heaven. If you live anywhere near me, which is around Jing’an Temple, it takes longer to get to Hongqiao station on Metro Line 2 than it takes to get from Hongqiao station to Suzhou.
Go from Shanghai Station.
Tong De Xing (同得兴, #6), Yu Xing Ji (裕兴记, #25), and Yu Mian Zhai (御面斋, #50) are all located on a street known as Jiayu Fang (嘉余坊), which intersects with Renmin Lu, and just about every taxi driver can find it. It costs less than 20rmb from the train station.
The final consideration is that if you are going to take a noodle trip, and I hope I’ve made the case for why you should, go early in the morning and then come back and take a nap. Suzhou noodle restaurants are officially open until 2 or 3pm, but prime time starts about 10am and many close when they run out of gao tang for the day, which can be 1pm. You’d be wise to take an 8am train out of Shanghai, arrive to the noodle shops at 9am, give yourself 90 minutes to get stuffed (don’t eat all the noodles! It’s about the broth!), and then head on back to the Suzhou train station for an 11.30am or 12 noon train. I’ve done this trip every which way. Learn from my mistakes. Mea culpa. Don’t repeat them. Go to Suzhou.