In China, I'm quickly learning that you can immediately tell what a city's most iconic dishes are by simply browsing through the gift shops at the train station. There's always vacuumed-sealed food packaged neatly in a box, ready to be taken home and eaten immediately. In Hangzhou, it was Longjing green tea cakes. In Wuxi, it was the pork spare ribs and meatballs.
In Nanjing, it's all things duck. Whatever part you're looking for, you can find it pre-cooked and sealed in a bag: duck gizzard, roasted duck, cured duck, duck blood, salted duck. Nanjing has it all.
Located in the Jiangsu Province, Nanjing used to be the imperial capital of China. Emperors had considered duck a superior type of poultry, and the tradition of eating duck quickly spread from royal courts to the layman.
Today, Nanjing is still China's capital of duck—much more so than its northern counterpart, Beijing. While Beijing roasted duck is a luxurious dish reserved for special occasions, in Nanjing, duck is an everyday affair. It appears everywhere from the street food stands to bougie banquet halls. It is estimated that the city itself goes through 200 million ducks a year.
There's a local saying in Nanjing: Wu ya bu cheng xi. The meaning: "Without duck, there is no feast."
Here are all the duck dishes I documented in Nanjing:
Nanjing Salted Duck (盐水鸭)
Salted duck is the most renowned duck dish in town. It's served cold, usually as an appetizer. The duck is first brined in a bath of salt and peppercorns and then hung up to dry for three days before being carefully butchered and plated. The final product comes out remarkably supple and ghastly white. The simple salt brine brings out the natural flavors, and the texture is everything but dry.
Jinling Roasted Duck (金陵烤鸭)
According to legend, Jinling (which is the former name of Nanjing) duck is the ancestor of Beijing's roast duck. Ming Dynasty emperor Zhu Di allegedly introduced the dish to Beijing via chefs from his former Nanjing palace. Nanjing's version doesn't come with wrappers or cucumbers, though; it's much more simplistic than that. It's served in a wet brine of sweet grease, and the skin is crisped up with a maltose glaze.
Duck Blood (鸭血)
Congealed duck blood is boiled in soup with vermicelli or chunks of spicy tofu. This is an old-school dish usually cooked with a cloth bag containing Chinese medicine. It is said to promote circulation and warm the stomach. Duck blood has a texture akin to tofu; it is fermented and has a heavy offal taste. There's a lot of iron in this dish, and it becomes the preferred soup among locals during the winter.
Duck Gizzard (鸭肫)
Duck gizzard is salted and dried, and sometimes sautéed with fresh chilies for an extra kick. By and large, it's usually eaten unadorned. You can spot rows of the stuff hanging from storefront windows or stuffed in boxes. People eat them as snacks; I spotted commuters popping gizzards while they waited for the next train.
Duck Roll (鸭卷)
This dish isn't specific to Nanjing; I see it everywhere. It's simply a fast-casual take on the Beijing roast duck. The roasted bird is sliced thinly and wrapped in a crepe. It's stuffed with cucumbers and spring onions before getting brushed with hoisin sauce. This is now my favorite type of burrito.
Duck-Wrapped Duck Egg (鸭包皮蛋)
This was a weird one. Duck skin is gelled and wrapped around preserved duck eggs. On top is a sprinkling of sweet osmanthus for color. At first I was hesitant to embrace the odd combination, but I rapidly changed my mind after a couple of bites. The mild duck skin (which has a jelly-like texture) works well when contrasted with the overly salted duck egg. It's the Chinese version of a turducken, if you will, but with various parts of duck.
Duck Head (鸭头)
Duck head doesn't have much meat to it. You mainly gnawed on it for flavor. You can get it salt-brined or cooked with soy sauce. Expert tip: Eat it with your hands. The head is impossible to pick up with chopsticks.
Duck Soup Dumpling (鸭汤包)
By far the most glorious dish I've encountered this year, this duck dumpling was such a beautiful find, I've been eating it every day. It's exactly what it sounds like: roast duck in a soup dumpling. Yes, chunks of duck are actually stuffed in there and the broth that comes out is real duck soup. Pure magic.
Duck Buns (鸭包子)
This doesn't actually contain any poultry; it just looks like a rubber ducky, which is admirable and all kinds of adorable. In truth, it's filled with red bean and makes for a stellar dessert. What better way to end a day of duck than with a bun shaped like a duck?
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in January 2016.
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.