Kunshan’s stove mystery

Unless you’ve heard about Kunqu, an important form of Chinese opera, the name of the city of Kūnshān 昆山 might not ring a bell at all. Close to the mouth of the Yangtze and between Suzhou and Shanghai, its location is an undoubted advantage.

Kunshan often appears on lists of “best in business” and “most livable cities”. But a different kind of list brought me here: “top 10 Chinese noodles”.

Some noodle connoisseurs may be surprised to find Kunshan’s àozàomiàn 奥灶面 matched with more famous wheat flour creations such as Sichuan’s dandanmian or Wuhan’s reganmian. While these two example noodle dishes can be found virtually everywhere in China, aozao is a typically local fare. Even the choice of “recommended restaurants” can be narrowed to… just one. Aozao Guan 奥灶馆 is the heir successor of 150 year-old aozao tradition. I went there straight from the train station.

Made from wheat, very thin noodles of “dragon whiskers” type (龙须面) are thrown into pipping hot brownish-red soup. The broth is very rich, made with different kinds of meat and/or different parts of fish. There are several toppings to choose from, with the most popular being braised meat 焖肉, marinated duck 卤鸭 and fried fish 爆鱼. As you can see from my pictures, I opted for a combo of these three.

Chinese gastronomy has myriads of dish origin stories with the same, recurring motif: an emperor/king is traveling incognito among the commoners, tries some local dish, likes it and gives it a name. Aozao noodles have its own legend of this type. In it, Emperor Qianlong of Qing Dynasty visits a hill in Kunshan and at some point starts to feel hungry. He finds a small eatery where he is served a warm bowl of noodles. He likes it and asks his servant to retrieve the recipe. But the servant fails to do so, as he does not understand the local dialect. Trying to scramble out of trouble, the minion states that „it’s not about the formula, the secret (奥 ào) must lie in the stove (灶 zào)!” The Emperor laughs and decides to name the dish aozaomian or „Stove Mystery Noodles”.

In another, more down-to-earth explanation, the original restaurant was very popular and the competitors tried to vilify its noodles by calling them „ao zao”, which stands for „not very clean” in local language and can be written as 鏖糟 or 懊糟. Eventually the name „ao zao” was embraced by the clientele, albeit with a different spelling which gave it a poetic vibe: 奥灶, with ào for „mystery” and zào for „stove”. A merchandising counterattack worthy of a master copywriter!

Satisfied with the meal and not discouraged by gloomy weather, I next headed to Tinglin Park 亭林园. It’s a small scenic area established around a hill historically known as Yufeng 玉峰山, but also called Ma’an 马鞍山 or “saddle”. Do you remember the legend about an emperor from several sentences ago? Yeah, that’s the place he was allegedly visiting (and where he got hungry). Because of the heavy rain, I was unable to take good photos, but it didn’t stop me from enjoying my stroll in the empty garden.

Named after the city, Kun Opera or Kunqu 昆曲, is a stylistic progenitor of the today-more-famous Peking Opera. The Kunqu Opera Museum 昆曲博物馆 may not be a must-see even for the most hardcore enthusiasts of performance arts, but it is still informative enough to give it a try if you are in the park.

Also inside the park, the Museum of Kunshan Stone 昆石馆 is a shrine to the Chinese art of appreciating the natural beauty of rocks. This tradition is known as gongshi 供石 (“scholars’ stones”) or as shuishi 水石, pronounced suseok in Korean and suiseki in Japanese. Excataved from the Yufeng Hill since centuries, Kunshan stones are highly revered and considered unique.

The next stop on my itinerary was a long awaited one: Bacheng Town near the Yangcheng Lake, famous for the mitten crabs (大闸蟹). Although the crab-eating season falls around October and it was January, I was already in the area and determined to visit the place just to “be there” and “see it with my own eyes”. Stay tuned.