I’m floating down a narrow canal on a broad, flat wooden boat, a gondolier standing behind me using a sturdy single oar to guide along the waterways. The water is a deep dark green, reflecting the weeping willows and cherry trees blossoming along the banks as we pass under ancient stone bridges.
I’m back in the quiet, relaxing canal town of Tongli, having a post-lunch boat ride down some of Tongli’s tree-lined waterways. My younger sister and her family are visiting China for a couple of weeks, and Tongli seemed like the perfect short break – an hour and a half from Shanghai and you feel like you’ve entered an ancient world of cobblestone lanes and life more simply lived.
For me, the other major attraction of a visit to Tongli is the zhuàngyuan tí 状元蹄 or “champion trotter” – Tongli’s main attraction for food-lovers. I appreciate any food that’s been given the name of “champion”although I would probably call it something more poetic, like “five-spice braised pork shank”, just to avoid confusion and whet your appetite.
A whole pork shank, skin on, is gently braised until it is as tender as butter, then served up in a large bowl with a generous ladle of the sweet aromatic soy and star anise sauce. The meat, being cooked on the bone, is intensely flavoured and rich, but falls away at the slightest touch.
The best way to eat a champion trotter is sitting by the water in one of the many tiny open-air restaurants lining the two main canals. Don’t worry about which one is best – they are all essentially identical with their indigo blue tablecloths, old wicker chairs, and a menu of local specialty dishes including crispy fried river fish, and cucumber with garlic. The best accompaniment to a whole trotter is cold beer and a big appetite.
As you eat the boats ply up and down and the gondoliers occasionally break into song, with a rendition of old favourite “Moli Hua” or a “Welcome to Tongli” song.
After lunch, wander through the town’s many small lanes or beautiful gardens and buy yourself a little something – it’s a food tourist’s kind of place, and all the souvenirs you can buy are of the edible kind – a box of home-made sesame brittle toffees, a basket of local goose eggs, or another couple of champion trotters, vacuum sealed, ready to eat.
Tongli is best reached by private car (one and a half hours from Shanghai), although a bus leaves several times daily from Shanghai Indoor Stadium.
We have stayed more than a dozen times now at the Gufeng Yuan Guest House (Gufeng Yuan Kezhan 古风园客栈) which is clean, quiet and looks onto a beautiful garden courtyard. It has lovely old furniture in the rooms and starts at 100 yuan/night ($16/night) for an ensuite room.
Tongli Champion Trotters (zhuàngyuan tí 状元蹄) start at 48 – 58 yuan each for takeaway, expect to pay 60-70 yuan in local restaurants.