Jiangxi cuisine or Gan cuisine for short, though not included in China's eight famous culinary schools, has carved out its own kingdom in the country's gourmet map. (The "big eight" styles are Shandong, Sichuan, Guangdong, Huaiyang, Zhejiang, Fujian, Hunan and Anhui cuisines.)
The food is spicy with chilies and noted for umami or savory flavors. Cooks frequently use hot tea oil. Ingredients include fresh fish, shrimp, crabs, frog and other aquatic ingredients, both plant and animal. Fresh poultry and meat is also common, as are vegetables and fungi.
The signature dishes include long-simmered soups, and cold dishes are rare.
A southeast inland province of many rivers and a subtropical monsoon climate, Jiangxi has fertile land, hills and mountains, as well as abundant resources. Five rivers empty into Boyang Lake, China's largest freshwater lake. On the southern bank of the Yangtze River, Jiangxi is bounded by Zhejiang, Fujian, Anhui, Hubei, Hunan and Guangdong provinces, absorbing culinary elements from all of them.
Dishes from Nanchang, Shangrao, Jiujiang, Fuzhou and Ganzhou cities are famous. Ingredients include bamboo shoots from Jinggang Mountain, hairy crab from Junshan Lake, hot chili from Yugan County, li hao (藜蒿) grass that grows in Boyang Lake and many others.
Most Jiangxi dishes are sautéed, stewed, steamed and simmered to retain the original taste. Soups are a staple and cooks try to bring out the umami taste. The famous signature wa guan tang (earthen jar soup 瓦罐汤) is a multi-ingredient masterpiece simmered in a clay pot for many hours, and considered the best of best umami.
Almost everything can be put into wa guan tang including poultry, pork, beef, fish as well as aquatic ingredients, fungus, bamboo shoots, soy bean products and vegetables.
Shanghai has a handful of restaurants, usually with bold, red decor and a giant clay vat in the main dining hall. Each features their own wa guan tang; many recipes are passed down through generations.
All are cooked in small clay pots that are arranged within a huge clay vat around a meter wide and 1.3 meters high. It can contain more than 30 small pots at one time. They are cooked over charcoal for eight to 12 hours, while hot air circulates around the vat. When the lid is lifted, the soup's intense fragrance fills the kitchen and dining area.
Retaining ingredients' original flavor is the goal of Jiangxi cuisine. The popular san bei ji (three cups chicken 三杯鸡) is another famous soup dish, with chicken chunks simmered for hours in a sealed clay pot. It contains a small cup of oil, a cup of rice wine and a cup of soy sauce (or similar proportions).
Jiangxi dishes are often spicy. Unlike Hubei cuisine that highlights half spicy and half sour, or Sichuan cuisine that is numbingly spicy, Jiangxi dishes are spicy and umami, the texture is always soft and there's a lot of fat but it doesn't taste oily and greasy.
Jiangxi Wuyuan Easy Kitchen
Ambience: Casual. Located on a street famous for high-end restaurants in Minhang District, it's decorated in the style of Wuyuan Town in the province's northeast. The fertile area is known for its golden rapeseed flowers every spring. The color scheme is typical of Jiangxi restaurants, red and yellow, implying spicy and umami dishes.
Who to invite: Friends and family
Pros: A wide range of soups, including mushroom, black-bone chicken, pork ribs, Chinese yam and many others. Service is fast, since soups have already been simmered for a long time.
Cons: Crowded in rush hours. Wait staff were a bit careless and indifferent on our visit. We had to ask several times to order.
Recommended: Spicy boiled bullfrog is really big and spicy, served on large platters so diners can share. The meat is tender and thoroughly spicy. Steamed fu zhu (腐竹), dried bean curd with chicken soup is soothing after the hot bullfrog. Cooked for hours in chicken soup, the curd and chicken are umami to perfection.
Spicy chicken feet cooked in a stone pot is another signature dish, cooked with lots of red chilies, onions and ginger. The longer it's cooked, the spicier it gets. This is a real sweat-producing dish, but on our visit it didn't contain enough chicken feet.
Don't order: The fungus simmered soup, though recommended, only contains one kind of common mushroom. It's not the combination of fungus diners expect.
Drinks: Tea and beer are cooling after a meal of hot chilies. Other alcohol is also available.
Cost: 70 yuan per person
Address: 1006 Longming Rd
Jia Chun Qiu Folk Simmered Soup
Ambience: Casual. Tables a little shabby. There's a big clay vat at the front door. Crowded on weekends.
Who to invite: Friends to hang out with
Pros: Many dishes are salty and spicy, favored by those who like heavy taste. Soup comes and large and small portions.
Cons: Many dishes are very salty. Noisy, slow service.
Recommended: Pork rib soup with slicked lotus root has a balance of fat and freshness. It's not greasy.
Don't order: Three-cup chicken doesn't contain enough chicken. Fried eggplant is cooked in too much flour and is too oily, at least on our visit.
Drinks: Tea and alcoholic beverages.
Cost: 60 yuan per person
Address: 468 Dongchang Rd, Pudong New Area
Shan Jian Tang Folk Simmered Soup
Ambience: Casual with private rooms to serve parties. Decor is tasteful with hardwood tables and soft lighting. It has many chain restaurants in the most popular shopping centers and are often busy, even when it's not rush hour.
Who to invite: Friends, dates, families for reunions and events.
Pros: Some Shanghai dishes and other non-spicy dishes are served - for some people that's a "con," but it's good if a group contains "spicy" and "non-spicy" eaters. And there's free parking.
Cons: It's crowded and service sometimes cannot catch up with the volume. Long lines during rush hours and long waits for orders. As the chain expands, portions are getting smaller.
Recommended: Pig's feet soup simmered with soybeans melts in the mouth and it's so popular that the daily supply is limited. Juicy eggplant is stuffed with pork and seasoned with broth. The eggplant is served in metal foil on an iron plate to keep it warm and steaming. Sugar cake, an authentic Jiangxi dessert, is made of glutinous rice, deep fried, and covered with sugar to make it completely white.
Don't order: There are local dishes and Cantonese-style snacks. If you want the real thing, skip them.
Drinks: A cup of tea or fresh juice. Beer and other alcohol are available too.