I first visited Jiangsu in 2011 as a wide-eyed college student and a newly minted freelance writer. My first adventure into that region was a trip to Suzhou – a quaint little water town not far from Shanghai known for its canals and gardens. On assignment to write about the food there, I spent the day wandering into the grand restaurants by myself, ordering whatever my research had told me was unique.
One of those dishes was a deep-fried sweet and sour fish known as squirrel-shaped mandarin fish. It’s a grand plate – a fish is sliced in two and arranged so that the fried fish meat looks like porcupine quills. It’s blanketed in an orange hue – a sweet and sour sauce that derives its distinct color from a combination of vinegar and ketchup.
In many ways, it’s representative of the grandiosity and affluence of Jiangsu province. Anchored by the Yangtze River and the East China Sea, it was once known for having some of the best freshwater fish and seafood in China. Today, Jiangsu is still prosperous, but in a whole different way; it’s the electronics hub of China. Fish are still just as abundant, but with the pressures of development, admittedly, they are not as fresh as before.
Squirrel-shaped mandarin fish is found most often in the banquet halls of the area, served with a dollop of peas, carrots and bamboo shoots. It’s cloyingly sweet – a signature flavor profile of Jiangsu.
In 2011, I had spent my time in Suzhou alone and this time around, I do the same. I book an Airbnb on the outskirts of town and make a point of retracing my steps, as best as I could remember them. I route myself through Pijiang Road, a narrow street near the canals now chock full of stationery stores and coffee shops. I wander through the city’s famous gardens, which have inspired generations of poets and writers. I take a walk on Guanqian Street. My memory painted the former as a quaint alleyway with traditional Chinese architecture.
Near Guanqian Street, I had found the famous Song He Lou restaurant, a noted establishment with more than 200 years of history. Five years ago, I had walked in and timidly asked for a table for one. Once seated at my table in the corner, I had ordered a plate of squirrel-shaped mandarin fish. The waitresses thought I was terribly weird but I, weary from a day of walking around, didn’t care. It was lush and grand and a bit terrifying, really – the way the fish had curled up after being deep-fried.
Today, Guanqian Street feels like a tourist trap. It always was, but my 20-year-old self was much more easily amused. I walk past Song He Lou; I’m tempted to go in again and reorder the fish, but I stop myself.
I remember: I never was able to finish that dish.
I culled this recipe from a cooking class in Shanghai (chinesecookingworkshop.com), where Chef Mike demonstrated how to slice the fish. Fish is an indispensable feature of a Jiangsu dinner spread, so it’s of utmost importance to do the cuts correctly.
There’s a saying that is frequently uttered during meals, especially during Chinese holidays. It’s “Nian nian you yu” – “May there be plenty of fish year after year.” The word “yu,” which means “fish,” is also a homophone for the word “plenty.” Therefore: “May there be plenty of surplus year after year.” Fish is a symbol of luck and fortune. And a fish, like this squirrel mandarin variety, carved with such complicated shapes, is perfect symbol of auspiciousness.
Squirrel-shaped mandarin fish
Time: 1 hourServings: 2