Man-Han Feast of plastic

Out of more than a dozen of canal towns in the Yangtze Delta, Mùdú is definitely NOT the prettiest one. Let me tell you why I enjoyed it nevertheless. Curio time!

Mùdú Ancient Town 木渎古镇 lies in the urban area of Suzhou, roughly mid-way between the city center and Lake Tai. Comparing to other “Venices of China”, there’s really not much to see here. Even Mudu’s greatest attraction, the Hóngyǐn Mountain Villa 虹饮山房, is not worth a detour if you have already seen other ancient mansions and other classical gardens in the region.

First things first, there is no mountain anywhere near this “Mountain Villa”. It’s just a name. History buffs may appreciate the fact that Emperor Qianlong visited this private garden residence not once, not twice, but six times. But what drew my attention was a display of Mǎn-Hàn Banquet dishes recreated in plastic.

Kangxi was one of the first emperors of the Qing, a dynasty established by the Manchu people who subdued China in the 17th century. At some point of his reign, he held an unimaginably lavish banquet to show off his power and to placate his Han Chinese subjects. Hundreds of dishes of both Manchurian and Han cuisines were served over a course of several days to officials of different ranks and ethnicities. Manchu-Han Imperial Feast 满汉全席 refers not only to that original fete, but also to later banquets of similar scale or using the same recipes. Today it is also an expression in Chinese: to say “Manhan Quanxi” is to mean a really sumptuous meal.

There is something perplexing in finding this exhibition here, in a small unassuming town so far from Beijing (which was the Great Qing’s capital). The style of the display only adds to amusement. The plastic dishes are stacked on one another in tiny cabinets mercilessly squeezed in a small room, with little-to-no explanation and covered in dust. A true gem for awkward tourist attractions hunters. Just look at my pictures. I took these for research purposes, but today I decided to share them with you.

Later while walking through Mudu, I saw a woman cooking Jīn Jīn Dried Tofu 津津豆腐干. Also known as Dried Tofu in Marinade 卤汁豆腐干, this Suzhounese product has about 100 years of history. Photos below.

It was winter, the best time to eat mutton. The Chinese believe it is perfect for cold weather. Many restaurants in Suzhou serve goat meat, but the streets of Mudu have them in a really notable density. Look for signs with “Cangshu Mutton“, 藏书羊肉.

The town of Cángshū 藏书镇 is located just a few kilometers west from Mudu. At first, having in mind the refined culture of the region, I was surprised to learn how popular mutton is here. I have always associated Suzhou with urban culture while mutton brings to mind such epithets as pastoral, hearty, rural. I zoomed in on the map and I couldn’t find enough of open country for sheep or goat farming. A quick check on the Internet revealed that Cangshu must have had suitable topography and vegetation in the past and even excelled in husbandry. But I have also found an article stating that all goats are shipped to Cangshu from various locations around China. Is it a way to uphold ancient traditions and recipes or is it a trend lasting just a few decades? It’s a common problem with Chinese Internet sources – telling apart real history from merchandising is sometimes very hard.

Mutton comes in various ways in Suzhou. I opted for a simple bowl of noodle soup.

Before leaving this article page, have a look at some other photographs taken in Mudu.