A Discovery of Jiangsu Cuisine — and Invitation to Dinner

Updated: 9th Nov 2014; This restaurant is closed.

We are continuing our journey of the Eight Great Traditions of Chinese Cuisine next with the Jiangsu Cuisine.

A few weeks ago, we had our first dinner in Alvin Garden which was on the Hunan Cuisine. That event was a great success and was attended by 52 chowtimes readers. This next event is going to be an entirely different experience.

Dylan will be our cuisine lead for the next cuisine and this will be bigger and better … building upon what we learned from the last dinner. In Dylan’s words, he will be taking us on a journey from the rustic farm house in the Hunan province to the ancient Chinese capital in the Jiangsu province.

Yesterday, I blogged about the Shanghai Village Restaurant on Cambie which from the feedback I received I think you all are impressed. Well, guess what … the discovery of the Jiangsu cuisine will be in that very same restaurant. Read all the way below for the details!

Before you read on, you must imagine yourself in the palaces of the ancient Chinese capital of Nanjing.

Nanjing-Palace1-600x450
Source: Wikipedia

Here it is … the second in the series on the Eight Great Traditions of Chinese Cuisine … presented by Dylan:

The Jiangsu Province

To many Chinese Jiangsu is a special province in China. It is often considered that Jiangsu is the center of China. It is in this province that demarcation of the north and the south is the most noticeable. It is as if the north and the south China appears like separate country.

In 1987, Colin Thubron in his book, Behind the Wall: A Journey Through China said:

…the Yangtze redefines the country with a subtle absoluteness. It marks the immemorial divide between a soldierly, bureaucratic north and the suave, entrepreneurial south. Men dwindle in size and integrity as they go south (say the northerners) and the clear-cut Mandarin of Beijing becomes a slushy caress. The dust of the wheat and millet-bearing plains dissolves to the monsoons of paddy fields and tea plantation. The staple of noodles becomes a diet of rice, and the low cottages and symmetrical northern streets twist and steepen into labyrinths of whitewashed brick.

Jiangsu is defined by the Yangtze, which splits the nation, and the province, into north and south. Its topography is a bit like that of the Netherlands: flat and wet. It has a warm, subtropical climate and its fertile land produces world famous tea and rice.

Jiangsu-Province-600x481
Credit: http://www.sacu.org/

In imperial China, Jiangsu see-sawed between being … the center of politics and being politically cut off. But it was always a center of culture, home to literary giants such as Wu Cheng’en, author of Journey to the West, and Liu E. It was the province that writers wrote about and painters painted, a place noted for its beautiful scenery, which has been praised for centuries.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic, Jiangsu has become a political and economic powerhouse. Jiangsu benefited greatly from post-Reform and Opening economic liberalization and has become one of the wealthiest provinces. It’s not mere coincidence that many of the Chinese elite call Jiangsu home, including Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. Coastal China, and Jiangsu in particular, has been remade in the new image of the new People’s Republic. In the thirty years since Reform and Opening, it has transformed itself. It’s modern and confident and international.

Yuejiang-Tower-481x600
Yuejiang Tower overlooking the Yangtze Jiang

Nanjing (also known as Nanking) was one of China’s four great ancient capitals, and is now the provincial capital of Jiangsu. It is a modern, liveable city of nearly six million people. Its wide, busy streets are shaded with tall sycamores. Some people joke that Nanjing is what China would look like if the Communists had lost the war, and it is still home to the Kuomintang’s Presidential Palace, and has a bonafide pleasure district in the 1912 entertainment quarter. It is now a university town, home to Nanjing University (considered to be a míngpái dàxué 名牌大学; equivalent to being an Ivy League school) and several other institutions. Top universities and a great local business climate attract people from inside and outside the province and country, giving Nanjing a modern, international flavor.

Jiangsu Cuisine (and It’s Regional Schools)

The cities of Jiangsu (江苏) were already ancient before the modern European states had even entered the Dark Ages. Cities like Suzhou (苏州) and Nanjing (南京) have an impossibly long and deep history, both having been founded in the 4th and 5th centuries BCE. For most of their history, they were capitals of culture, places that poets wrote about, where the literati enjoyed life. It’s no mystery that Jiangsu’s cities are renowned for good music, good wine, beautiful women, and – maybe foremost – good food.

The keyword for Jiangsu cuisine is sophistication. The classical dishes of the Jiangsu cuisine canon have been refined over a period that spans centuries. The flavors differ from the spicy cuisine of Hunan or Sichuan, and they’re nothing like the meat-and-potato fare of northeast China, or the strong flavors of cumin and lamb that hold sway in the western China. There is an emphasis on the purity of flavors, whether the saltiness of a brined duck, or the pungent flavor of fermented tofu, or the subtle sweetness of freshwater eel or crab.

Duck-Farm-300x213Jiangsu is located on the most fertile land in the nation, land which has been cultivated for millenia, and has produced a cuisine that prizes freshness of ingredients: the best rice in the country, all matter of freshwater fish and shrimp, seafood brought from the coast, free range chickens and ducks, and organic and wild produce … all before our supermarkets labeled them that way, Jiangsu’s chefs and connoisseurs were seeking them out.

Perhaps it’s best to think of Jiangsu cuisine as a collection of regional cuisines. Jiangsu cuisine is often divided into three different regional schools, but even that might be simplifying it too far. The three major schools are often divided like this:

Wuxi cuisine (无锡菜), where freshwater shrimp and fish are often combined with wild vegetables. Fermented rice from the production of the famous local liquor is often featured, and there is often a sweetness combined with savory flavors of meat or mushrooms.

Suzhou cuisine (苏州菜), the cuisine that, arguably, gave birth to Shanghai cuisine. There is an emphasis on subtle sweetness, lots of seafood, and rich braised pork dishes.

Our dinner will focus on Nanjing’s Jīnlíng cài 金陵菜, dishes from the city at the very center of the province, which serves as a border between gentle southern cuisine and the rough-and-ready northern style.

Apart from those, every city in Jiangsu claims a rich culinary tradition. An argument could be made for including any of those cities (Changzhou, Yangzhou, Xuzhou) in an ever more complex division of Jiangsu’s cuisine.

Representative Dishes

Lions-Head-600x399

  • Sōngshǔ guìyú (松鼠鳜鱼) — A Mandarin fish, a type of freshwater perch, intricately cut and deep fried and served with a sweet and sour sauce.
  • Bīngtáng liánxīn gēng (冰糖莲心羹) — A thick, sweet soup of rock sugar, lotus seeds, and delicate white fungus.
  • Bìluó Xiārén (碧螺虾仁) — A renowned Suzhou dish, featuring freshwater shrimp steeped in Biluo (“Green Snail”) tea.
  • Hairy crab — A freshwater crab from the lakes and rivers of the province, prized for its sweet meat and rich roe. The most famous hairy crab comes from Yangcheng Lake, south of Suzhou.
  • Wuxi spareribs — Pork spare ribs “red-braised” in a rich broth of dark soy sauce, anise, cassia, pepper, and rock sugar.
  • Bàwáng Biéjī (霸王别姬) –A typically lavish Jiangsu banquet dish, in which a soft shelled turtle is stewed with a chicken or quail and wine.
  • Yangzhou fried rice — A dish that is served in Chinese restaurants around the world, which originated in Yangzhou. The authentic version features shrimp, local ham, and fresh snow peas.
  • Lion’s Head — Another dish that has spread far and wide, but which originated in a more delicate form in Yangzhou, relying on rich, fatty pork for flavor.

References

The Restaurant

Shanghai Village (忆江南)
3250 Cambie Street
Vancouver

Shanghai-Village-Cambie-3-600x400

Shanghai Village is, on the surface, a run-of-the-mill Shanghainese joint which Vancouver isn’t lacking. But if you talk to the right people and know what to look for on the menu, it soon becomes apparent that it’s a Nanjing restaurant in disguise, where the classics of the region can be sampled.

Chef Ming, born and raised and trained as a chef in Nanjing, has a firm knowledge of the canonical dishes of Nanjing and greater Jiangsu. He has a deep knowledge of the history of the dishes, but he also has an eye on what can be done with the food. Shanghai Village recently won a Chinese Restaurant Award for its fish noodles with enoki mushrooms.

Many other dishes on the menu hold true to the rules of Jiangsu cuisine, but bear the mark of Chef Ming’s innovations, such as his marbled preserved egg dish, which combines, in one shell, a salted duck egg and the pungent flavor and jade-like color of century egg.

The Menu

This will be a feast like you have never had before. The 8GTCC team debated intensely about the number of dishes. At the end of the day, we had landed on a selection of 18 dishes!

The approximate cost will be $40 per person rounded (i.e. taxes and tips included) but is subject to minor tweakings. Here is the menu:

Cold dishes:

  • Nanjing salty duck — the city’s classic dish; a duck, pressed and brined. Showcases the purest flavor and texture of the duck.
  • Marbled preserved egg — the playful take on a cold dish of preserved duck egg: a salted duck yolk and a century egg combined in one shell.
  • Five-spice fish — cooked in the red-braised style, flavored with anise, cloves, cassia, and dark soy sauce.
  • Wine-steeped chicken — free range chicken simmered in rice wine.
  • Qinhuai bean jelly — a cold dish of green bean jelly, named for the former pleasure district of Nanjing.

Soup:

  • Clay pot soup, two types — a specialty of the restaurant. Double-boiled soup cooked in individual clay pots.

Main dishes:

 

  • Soy sauce-braised spot prawns — taking the Jiangsu cuisine philosophy of eating what’s in season, local prawns cooked simply.
  • Stirfried eel — freshwater eel, cooked to emphasize their subtle sweetness.
  • Braised crab
  • Yangzhou Hongyun lion’s head meatball — returning to the roots of the famous dish, with the version most identified with Yangzhou, and with the famous Hongyun Restaurant in particular.
  • Suzhou Wang Si beggar’s chicken — many versions of beggar’s chicken exist in the regional cuisines of south and central China, but many would say it originated in Suzhou, and the best version was created by the renowned Wang Si Restaurant.
  • Jinling spareribs — perhaps Chef Ming’s bias, but the Jinling spareribs are his take on the more well known Wuxi spareribs, and take their name from the ancient, poetic name for his hometown of Nanjing.
  • Suantang fish noodles — a more sophisticated and flavorful take on the dish (Stir-fried Fish Noodle with Enoki Mushroom) that won the Chinese Restaurant Awards’ Gold Medal for “Most Innovative Dish.”
  • Fried grouper — Chef Ming’s riff on the Suzhou’s sōngshǔ guìyú (松鼠鳜鱼), in which a freshwater perch is intricately deboned, deep fried, and then doused with a slightly sour, slightly sweet sauce, and garnished with shrimp.
  • Yangzhou fried rice — a dish that is available on every continent, perhaps; a homey plate of fried rice, filled with ham, fresh vegetables, and shrimp; a dish that closes out most banquets in the province.
  • Qiaoxia pea shoots — the soul of Nanjing cuisine, a superficially simple dish of fresh pea shoots served with a clever preparation of shrimp; it sums up the flavors of the region.
  • Soup dumplings — Shanghai’s xiǎolóngbāo (小笼包) are justifiably famous, but greater Jiangsu’s soup dumplings deserve some love, too.
  • “Quartz” dumplings — a multicolored glutinous rice dumpling that mimics perfectly the quartz-veined river stones that one can find on the shores of the Yangtze, polished to a deep shine by the sandy currents of the river.

The Dinner

All chowtimes readers are invited to join us in this discovery of the Jiangsu cuisine.

The dinner will be held on May 15th (Saturday) at 7:00PM.

We had made an initial reservation for 60 people. Depending on the response, unfortunately we might need to cap the number of people for this dinner like we were forced to during the last dinner.

Reservation is on a first come first serve basis. If you are interested to join us in this dinner, could you please send your request to suanne@chowtimes.com with (1) your name, (2) the number of people in your party and (3) any dietary allergy concerns? Please send in your request by Monday, May 10th.

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  1. Hope everyone ends up digging it. Sign up early!

  2. Great job Dylan with the background report. I’m really amazed at your excellent knowledge of Chinese culture. And I’m even even more amazed when I found out that you’re a Caucasian who can read, speak and write Chinese.

    1. Yes, that’s quite a feat considering how many CBC’s (canadian borne chinese) this generation can’t read, write, or speak much Chinese!

      Also, the menu looks fabulous!

      1. Back to Saturday morning Chinese classes we go !!! 😉

  3. I have had the occasions to lunch and dine in various restaurants in Suzhou, Nanjing and smaller towns in Jiangsu, where a simple stir-fry vegetable dish is delicious and aromatic.
    If the chef is offering Jiangsu-Nanjing dishes, he is not doing himself a service by calling his restaurant “Shanghai Village” and offering “新派上海菜”. Really Shanghai dishes impart the notion of thick oily noodle and salty meals. Jiangsu cuisine is light and refreshing. What is it in a name of a restaurant, one might ask?

  4. How sad I can’t attend this feast, but hopefully will be able to savour the flavours of the cuisines mentioned above when I visit those cities in Sep!

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