In her latest book, Fuchsia Dunlop, whose previous works include Sichuan Cookery (2001), Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook (2006), Every Grain of Rice (2012) and Shark’s Fin Sichuan Pepper (her 2008 memoir about living in China), writes beautifully and evocatively of the Jiangnan region of China.
“In the West, Jiangnan is known mostly for the modern metropolis of Shanghai, and yet Shanghai is just the gateway to a broader region that has been renowned in China for centuries for the beauty of its scenery, the elegance of its literary culture, the glittering wealth of its cities and the exquisite pleasures of its food … In China, the region is known as a ‘land of fish and rice’ … blessed with a warm and nurturing climate, fertile land, and lakes, rivers and coastal waters that teem with fish and seafood.
“My own journey there began nearly a decade ago, when I visited the old gastronomic capital of Yangzhou, and, like the Qing emperors more than two centuries before me, was captivated by its gentle way of life and glorious cuisine … I fell in love with the region and its extraordinary gastronomic culture, just as I had with Sichuan a decade before. I returned often to Jiangnan over the following years, seeking out chefs, home cooks, street vendors and farmers with stories to tell and recipes to teach, and tasting some of the most wonderful food I have ever encountered. No one who has fallen in love with Jiangnan ever wants to leave … While every Chinese cuisine has its charms, from the dazzling technicolour spices of the Sichuanese to the belly-warming noodle dishes of the north, I know of no other that can put one’s heart so much at ease as the food of Jiangnan.”
She continues, “Local people believe they enjoy the finest food in the country. Whereas Cantonese food, they say, is too raw and wild, Sichuanese is too hot and northern cooking is too salty, the food of Jiangnan is both so varied that one never tires of it and so harmonious that it calms the mind as well as the palate. In the opinion of many locals, their food is perfectly balanced, particularly healthy and has universal appeal, which is why it has for so long played a leading role in Chinese state banquets and diplomacy.
Jiangnan food also strikes a chord with modern Western tastes because of its clean, light flavours, the emphasis on health and seasonality, the love of fermented foods and the use of meat in moderation as part of an everyday diet rich in vegetables …
“I hope in this book to bring you a taste of the Jiangnan region and its food. I’ll invite you to sample the magnificence of red-braised dishes, the mellowness of slow-cooked soups and stews, the refreshing brightness of stir-fried vegetables and the delicious ingenuity of Buddhist vegetarian cooking … I hope too to show you something of the rich landscape of the region, with its rolling hills, shady bamboo groves, ponds and streams, and the terraced paddy fields, flooded early in the season with the silvery gleam of water, and later with the quivering green of new rice shoots.”
The recipes in Land of Fish and Rice live up to Dunlop’s promise. They include celtuce salad with spring onion oil; slow-cooked pork hock with rock sugar; bowl-steamed chicken with salted fish; eight-treasure stuffed calabash duck; oil-exploded prawns; Hangzhou breakfast tofu; stir-fried potato slivers with spring onion; Yangzhou fried rice; Shanghai potsticker buns; and Shanghai eight-treasure glutinous rice.