Have you noticed how prices in expat restaurants in the S.I.P. and SND have shot up recently? Now you pay about the same in an Indian restaurant on Jinjihu Lake as you pay in Chicago…except here the portions are smaller! With wages and basic food costs less than half as much or less, why the rip off? It's time to break out of these purveyors of artificial atmosphere and take advantage of the very real and wonderful world of fresh foods offered in our city's night food markets!
I have been buying food off the street all over the world for the last 40 years and some of my best memories are sitting under makeshift lighting at rickety tables having the best food locals have to offer. Here in Suzhou, we are lucky to have lots of fresh produce deliverable within an hour's drive. The small night market operators are out to the green markets in the morning and are cooking it up that evening. No freezers or buying in bulk and trucking it in from wherever a middle man will sell it the cheapest – night markets offer home grown, fresh goodness.
Same goes for the meat. You know that chicken beak in the soup was crowing with the rise of the morning's sun and that the beef and pork probably haven't seen the inside of a freezer. That's the way it is meant to be. Kill it, cook it, eat it! At least at the outdoor market you can see the level of hygiene in the kitchen and all the products used. So come on and cross the old moat and the psychological one to experience the delights of Suzhou's many different cuisines.
Chicken, as fresh as it gets. Photo: flickr.com
Markets around the university's east campus
Actually if you are coming from the S.I.P. you don't even have to cross the moat into the old city. Just east of it, around the university's east campus, there are three lively night market areas. The largest and most bustling is just before the bridge south of Zhongxin Jie on Moye Lu. Here there is a myriad of choice for the students swarming out of their nearby dorms. They jostle around stalls that are hawking egg pancakes, sizzling sausages, dumplings and steamed buns. You can even choose chose from a cart of green vegetables, mushrooms and meats, have it weighed and stir fried within minutes and served at a table where you watch the street show or take it away. The cost for two evening meals is less than the price of one bottled water in the fancy places...and you don't pay for packaged atmosphere.
After your meal, wander by the water along Moye Lu for some late shopping. You'll find everything from motorcycle leggings to manicure sets. It is a short walk around the corner to stop in one of the many bars on Shiquan Jie for a night cap. Option two, turn up Fengmen Lu to the raised highway where there is another, quieter night market. Help yourself from at any of the many stalls and have a seat under the gazebo in the corner park. Lots of kebabs here and it stays open late.
A third choice in the same area is just north of the east campus gate at the corner of Zhangxian Wan Lu and Donghuan Lu. This street is a festival of lights which spill out, along with the tables and dinner. It is a favourite haunt of students for food and froth with large, cold Harbin beer selling for 5 RMB. A lot of the food is on the sidewalk hopping, slithering, croaking or squawking. Unfortunately, my experience tells me this is one of the very few places you need to be sure of the price before you order.
Shantang Street and Changxu Lu area
If you are coming from the SND side head to the Shantang Street and Changxu Lu crossroad up from the Holiday Inn. You will find an eclectic carnival atmosphere with performing monkeys on leashes, hawkers selling stuffed cuddly toys, flashing coloured light wall fixtures, clothes and a bazaar of kitschy things. Win your man a prize at the ring toss or impress him with your marksmanship skills as you decimate a wall of balloons! Then follow the scent of barbeque coming from Shantang Jie. Here the restaurants have extended their seating past the sidewalks and into the streets under billowing red awnings. The grills are kept white hot by industrial sized fans sucking the air through the hot coals and grilling meats permeat the airs with flavours. It's hard to walk by without picking up a few sticks of chicken wings, roasted eggplant, grilled corn or skinny long white mushrooms carefully impaled and quickly grilled. The competing rolling restaurants serve up noodles, squid and stinky tofu beside trucks loaded with giant grapefruit and tangerines and gunny sacks of walnuts – all this framed by the imposing Changxu Gate half hidden in the smoke evoking a siege scene in a Qing period movie.
Similar but smaller night markets can be found at the crossing of Xueshi Jie and Jingde Lu or on the north side of Jingde Lu by the Cha Yuan bus stop. Next to the food stall the clothing racks run on down all the way to Renmin Lu. Then there are the late night post KTV set ups near Pet Street and Lindun Lu at the end of Guanqian Jie.
Most of the reputable action begins to wind down around 23:00 but the atmosphere is still hectic as taxi's make u-turns to pick up a fare, overloaded ebikes silently swerve their way through the chaos and rattling pedal bikes bounce down the lanes with a passenger precariously standing on the trailing rack in her high heels…and not a policeman in sight. Despite having an urban population of about five million people, Suzhou seems like a small town. People make way for each other and get along. So come out of the overpriced, sanitized bubbles and into the action of Suzhou's amazing night food markets. Treat yourself to a spicy stir-fry of Suzhou life!
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Keywords: Night markets Suzhou street food Suzhou food markets Suzhou
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