People talk about the four great cuisines of China and Jiangnan cooking—which is known by various other names including Jiangsu or Shanghai—is one of them. The region spans the provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, the city of Shanghai, and the southern part of Anhui province.
But it's almost completely unknown in the West.
I've been visiting Shanghai for about 20 years and I got really interested in the cuisine when I was in Hangzhou about nine years ago. I went to visit the Dragon Well Manor restaurant, which is doing extraordinary things with the classical cooking of that region. I also fell in love with the Jiangnan food through a visit to Yangzhou, which is the old gastronomic capital of the region. It's not nearly as well known now as Shanghai but in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was renowned for its extraordinary food culture.
Jiangnan food is food to go home to. Throughout Chinese history, there are lots of stories about it, including one about a Jin Dynasty official who abandoned his post because he missed the food of his region so much. It's all about the comfort of the body and the mind.
The cuisine is less easy to stereotype than Sichuanese cooking, where you can talk about chilis and pepper. The flavours of Jiangnan dishes are very delicate. It's all about balance and eating in tune with the seasons. It's associated with "red braising"—cooking food with soy sauce, rice wine, and sugar to get these gorgeous, rich, dark gravies. Red is the word the Chinese use for the dark colour from soy sauce.
In Jiangnan, you also get "drunken" dishes because the city of Shaoxing—like the famous Shaoxing rice wine—is in the region. Although Shaoxing rice wine is used all over China in small amounts, you get food steeped in it there. Then there's jui zao, which is the residue leftover from winemaking and gives these really interesting, boozy flavours.
There are also lots of wonderful preserved and pickled foods in Jiangnan cooking. One of the great hams of China is Jinhua ham, which is used in cooking for umami flavours and has a beautiful garnet colour. And there are these fascinating stinky foods of Shaoxing. Within the region, you get these very bold and exciting flavours as well as the very delicate approach of letting fine, fresh ingredients speak for themselves and shine through culinary technique.
Jiangnan is a rice region so rice is a staple food, but it's also a region of water. You get fish from the sea, lakes, and rivers, but also all kinds of other sea creatures and vegetables. Thesea re things like incredible freshwater crabs and shrimp and eel, and vegetables like water chestnuts and water bamboo.
The flavours of Jiangnan dishes are very delicate. It's all about balance and eating in tune with the seasons.
I think the reason Jiangnan food isn't well known in the West is partly because the Western perceptions of Chinese food have been governed by patterns of immigration. For a long time, there were a lot of Cantonese people and they set the tone. Cantonese food was the base of the Chinese food that people knew in the West. In recent years, a lot of Sichuanese and people from the north east have brought those flavours. There hasn't really been a wave of immigrants from the Jiangnan region who have opened restaurants. You get a bit of Shanghainese cooking in New York which you don't get in London.
I also think Jiangnan dishes aren't widely represented in the West is because some dishes require very local ingredients that you can't get here and the cooking is quite delicate. You can come up with an approximation of Sichuanese cooking by banging in a load of chilis but with Jiangnan cuisine, you need a bit more care and good ingredients.
There are plenty of Jiangnan dishes that you can make at home in the West with ingredients that aren't hard to find. I always try and include some recipes in my books which push the boundaries a bit and with ingredients that are harder to get. In Land of Fish and Rice, there's a recipe for wild rice stem.
But there are some Jiangnan ingredients that you really have to go there to taste—like the hairy crab which is amazing but you just can't get here. It's a crazy-delicious autumn delicacy. Also vegetables like fresh bamboo shoots are so incredible that the canned ones don't compare and there's a huge range of seasonal greens. They're always very fresh and often simply stir-fried or eaten in soup.
For me, writing books about Chinese regions is about writing about people and places, writing about the food in its context, and appreciating a culture. Food is about pleasure, cooking, and eating—but also how it fits into that larger picture.
As told to Daisy Meager.
Fuchsia Dunlop is an award-winning Chinese food writer based in London. She is the author of four regional Chinese cookbooks, the latest of which—Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China —focuses on the Jiangnan region.
Welcome to Chinese food week on MUNCHIES! Every day this week, we'll be exploring the stories that make up this diverse cuisine, from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong to the bustling Chinatowns of major Western cities and the potsticker-filled kitchens of Chinese home cooks living across the world. We hope you're hungry. Click here to read more.