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Delicate Nanjing cuisine from boat banquets
By Ruby Gao

PANCAKE as thin as a transparent cicada’s wing, noodles chewy enough to tie a knot, wonton soup is clear enough to grind ink — these are the attributes of seven famous Nanjing foods described by “Qing Yi Lu” (“Records of the Strange and Unworldly,” AD 950), a classic recording Chinese culinary history.

Nanjing cuisine is distinguished by its sophisticated craftsmanship and a historical dining tradition originating from boat banquets.

Nanjing chefs are known for expressing moderate and balanced flavors, fine textures created by slow-cooking techniques such as stewing and braising, and vivid presentation of dishes that look like plants and animals.

The city’s distinctive history and geography shaped the style of cuisine, says Sun Xuewu, executive chef of Jinling Hotel, Nanjing.

Nanjing, capital city of Jiangsu Province, is known as one of the “Four Ancient Capitals of China” and was the capital of six dynasties (not all consecutive). It dates back to the Three Kingdoms Period (AD 184-280).

Tycoons and aristocrats used to stage lavish dinners, serving elaborate dishes to showcase their wealth and taste. The ingredients were diverse and meticulously selected; the cuisine became increasingly refined and sophisticated.

The city is located in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, where there are many rivers and lakes, making aquatic food and wildlife abundant. They include lotus seed, mugwort, fish, shrimp, molluscs, ducks, and geese.

The most famous dish is Nanjing duck. Nanjing cuisine probably features the most duck dishes in China. Each part of the duck is utilized.

Whole duck can be made into yan shui ya (salted duck seasoned with osmanthus flower 盐水鸭), cha kao ya (roast duck with honey and fermented rice 叉烧鸭), and huang men ya (long-simmered duck with a soft, tender texture 黄焖鸭).

Duck’s head, wing, feet and neck are braised in sauce, and usually served as a snack with Chinese rice wine. Duck blood (coagulated), intestines and liver are boiled together with rice noodle for noddle soup.

Duck fat is used to bake shao bing (a layered flat bread, with no filling, and sesame on top烧饼), featuring a delicate fatty taste. If prepared in the authentic Nanjing style, duck has tender, fatty but not greasy meat, and a rich and deep flavor created by spices and fragrances.

Shrimp is also popular. Unlike many Cantonese and Shanghai chefs who prefer to use the whole shrimp, Nanjing chefs often pound the shrimp into a paste and reshaped it into flat cakes and balls.

“Many classical Nanjing dishes come from the boat banquet, which can be traced back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644),” says chef Sun from Jinling Hotel.

At that time, leisurely covered-boat rides were the major entertainment for Nanjing aristocrats who wrote and recited poetry, listened to music and appreciated he passing scenery. Dining complemented the whole experience.

“All banquet foods would be related to water to emphasize the river, such as duck, fish, clams and shrimp,” the chef explains.

The popularity of boat banquets also inspired people to open many tea houses and restaurants along the river. They were famous for serving boat chuan dian (船点), or boat dim sum, that was mostly steamed, with savory or sweet fillings. They also served rice cakes make in the shape of water plants and fish, as well as puff pastry.

Some boat dishes gradually developed into minguo cai (民国菜), a cuisine that arose when the city was the capital of the Republic of China (1912-1949). It is not one of the hottest food trends in the city.

“Minguo cai is based on Nanjing cuisine but absorbs food culture from other cuisines such as Hunan, Zhejiang and Cantonese. It is known for being time-consuming and labor intensive in preparation,” says chef Sun.

Many of the dishes are related to historical anecdotes, some linked with Kuomintang leaders such as General Zhang Xueliang. For example, a popular meat dish, “General’s Jar of Pork,” is named after him because it was his favorite.

It’s difficult to find restaurants featuring authentic Nanjing cuisine in Shanghai, but it’s easy to make a weekend food trip. Nanjing is just a three-hour drive from Shanghai and a two-hour high-speed train ride.

Here Shanghai Daily explores classical flavors in some five-star hotels in Nanjing.

Palace Lantern and Phoenix Tail Shrimp

The dish is presented in the shape of a phoenix inside a lantern. The phoenix is shaped of shelled shrimp that retain their shelled tail. The shrimp is pan-fried so that the meat is white and the tail turns red, like the tail of the legendary phoenix. The “lantern” surrounding the shrimp is made of cucumber slices.

Venue: Kingsley Room, Sheraton Nanjing Kingsley Hotel and Towers

Address: 41/F, 169 Hanzhong Rd, Baixia District, Nanjing

Tel: (025) 8666-8888 ext 7878

Fried Mugwort Shrimp

The white shrimp meat is pierced with “spears” of tender, green mugwort shoots. The shrimp is wrapped in egg white which gives it a crystal-like appearance. Each bite, containing both the juicy shrimp and crispy mugwort, is rich in textures and flavors.

Venue: Five Zen5es, The Westin Nanjing

Address: 9/F, Nanjing International Center South Tower, 201 Zhongyang Rd, Nanjing

Tel: (025) 8556-8888 ext 7528

Meatball stewed with vegetable

The meatball is made of pork and crab meat and topped with crab roe. It has an umami taste, soft, fluffy texture and juicy mouth feel.

Venue: Yue Yang Chinese Restaurant, Hilton Nanjing

Address: 2/F, 100 Jiangdong Rd M., Jianye District, Nanjing

Tel: (025) 8665-8888 ext 8222

Customer Service: (86-21) 52920164