Where a wide variety of tofu dishes will blow your mind
A country as culturally diverse as China is certain to amaze both foreigners and locals alike.
Three years ago, I visited the charming old town of Zhenyuan (镇远古城) while on a tour of Guizhou Province (贵州) in southwest China. My attention was drawn to a plaque indicating that the town was one of the 142 National Famous Historical and Cultural Cities (国家历史文化名城) at the entrance of a museum.
I looked up the list of cities with such distinction. It wasn't surprising that Beijing topped the list that also included Hangzhou (杭州), Kaifeng (开封), Luoyang (洛阳), Nanjing (南京) and Xi'an (西安).
Then there were places like Qufu (曲阜), Confucius' birthplace; Dunhuang (敦煌), home to the famous Mogao Grottoes (莫高窟) and witness to the glory of the Silk Road; and Leshan (乐山), home to the Giant Buddha, which is on the UNESCO Heritage List.
But two names caught my attention because they are both county-level locations. Where is Shouxian (寿县, Shou County)?
I looked it up right away. It's the site of the Battle of Fei River (淝水之战) in AD 383, in which a Former Qin (前秦) army from the north that numbered more than 800,000 was defeated by the forces from the Eastern Jin (东晋) that were only one-tenth its size.
Shortly after, China would enter the period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties, during which the North and the South fought a 169-year-long civil war. It inspired several proverbs that Chinese children had to learn in school.
But Shouxian is much more than a battle. It's the site of Shouchun (寿春), the last capital of Chu Kingdom (楚国), a southern state with a culture markedly different from that of the Central Plains (中原) along the Yellow River (黄河), the birthplace of Chinese civilization.
Qin, one of the seven states in the Warring States Period (476-221 BC), would later unite China and control the Plains.
If you've seen the bronze vessel collection (mostly from the Plains) at the Shanghai Museum, you'll notice how different and exotic the Chu bronze vessels are. Thus, the spectacular Chu Culture Museum of Anhui (安徽楚文化博物馆), which opened in June and houses 230 top cultural relics, is a good place to start your tour of Shouxian.
In the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220), a few centuries later, Prince Liu An, who ruled the Kingdom of Huainan (淮南; literally "south of the Huai River") from Shouchun, is credited with creating tofu (豆腐), one of the most loved Chinese staple food, in addition to writing a Taoist classic. The diversity of tofu dishes available in Shouxian will astound you.
Only a few minutes away from the museum is Jühongsheng Restaurant (聚红盛农庄), a great place to enjoy a tofu banquet.
The tofu in the shape of a chrysanthemum in clear broth (菊花豆腐), which is a true test of the chef's slicing abilities, and the tofu skin dumplings (豆腐饺子) (aren't you scared they would shatter when you pick them up with chopsticks?) are a real treat. If you prefer to stay the night instead of making a hasty return to Shanghai, the restaurant also operates a nearby hotel (聚红盛度假酒店).
After lunch, head north to Shouxian's City Wall (寿县古城墙), which is one of the best maintained in China, with the barbican of each of the four gates fully intact. The existing wall was built during the Southern Song Dynasty. If you have the stamina, walk the entire length of the wall, which is almost 10 kilometers long!
Alternatively, wander around town, but I hope you get to see the Grand Mosque of Shouchun (寿春清真大寺), one of the most important mosques in eastern China, the Confucius Temple (孔庙), and the Qing Dynasty Troops Headquarters (寿春镇总兵署).
If you go:
There are five daily high-speed rail departures from Shanghai Hongqiao Railyway Station to Shouxian. The trip takes approximately three hours. More trains depart from Shanghai Hongqiao for Huainan South Station (淮南南站), which is approximately 40 minutes by vehicle from Shouxian.
If you select Huainan as your entry point, however, a food break is required. There is nothing more comforting than the world-renowned Huainan beef soup (淮南牛肉汤)!
About the author
Dr Louis Lee is an award-winning author, educator, and radio presenter who has visited over 70 countries and regions. He has covered China extensively.