The first thing we noticed when we landed in Nanjing was that it was raining, and it was coming down fairly hard. The second thing we noticed was that the food just got even greasier and saltier!
As I had mentioned in my previous post, Nanjing is considered the capital of duck. These people are crazy about ducks, but specifically… duck’s blood. Weird right? But they just eat that stuff right up! Besides the blood though, one of their regional specialties is the salted duck, which dates back to over 400 years ago. And it actually tastes a LOT better than it sounds. The duck is marinated in a brine that contains different seasonings, mainly salt, for a few hours. Just when it’s about time to serve it, the duck is steamed and it can be served hot or cold. The best time to eat this dish is ideally around autumn because this is when duck is at its fattest. But even when it’s lean it is still very tasty… we must’ve had this dish in at least 3 or 4 other restaurants during our time in China.
Then in no particular order we also had braised duck wing tips, steamed duck heads (I just couldn’t make myself try this one however), and salted duck eggs. The eggs are typically preserved in a salty charcoal paste for a period of time. Once they are cleaned and boiled, the egg white becomes really sharp and salty, while the egg yolks become rich and fatty, but slightly sweet. The salted duck eggs here are slightly different from the ones I’m used to having in Vancouver… the folks of Nanjing definitely prefer their eggs saltier, as I had found, and the yolk wasn’t as orange or rich as what I was accustomed to.
Another regional speciality is, of course, the Duck Blood Soup. You can’t just eat the meat you know… you have to make use of all that blood too evidently! Blood of a freshly killed duck is kept in the fridge until it is ready to use, and as it cools the blood begins to congeal into a solid jelly-like mass. Then it is cut up into cubes to use as you please. I had to try it since I’d already wimped out on the duck heads. It began to get a bit surreal though as the other people at our dining table, my parents included, began to debate about the differences in textures between duck and pork blood… why won’t they let me just eat this in peace! Well, it actually wasn’t bad at all… I even finished my entire bowlful. I thought the blood was very smooth and almost flavourless, and it reminded me very much of tofu.
It was in Nanjing where we visited our very first Chinese McDonald’s… I think Kid Brother mentally went down to his knees in relief before we ventured inside. Unsurprisingly, no one there spoke a lick of English, but luckily they had placemats with pictures of all their food which you could point to, and indicate with your fingers how many of that item you wanted. It was genius. Kid Brother had a spicy chicken filet burger, and Mr O ate a cheeseburger. It wasn’t really anything to write home about… apparently McDonald’s will always be just a McDonald’s.
Our next stop took us to Wuxi which is situated along Lake Tai, the 3rd largest freshwater lake in China. As such, this city has a thriving pearl industry and they will make it into just about anything, including your typical jewellery. Facial creams, supplement capsules, and even tea… pearl tea! It was costly though, and not something I’d ever drink at home, but it was definitely a novel idea.
I thought the food in Wuxi was a bit more… humble… than the two cities that we’ve visited thus far. Freshwater fish was served, and it was steamed beautifully with soy and green onions, but it was incredibly bony which made it almost too exhausting to eat. And there was a dish, akin to mashed potatoes that were shaped in the form of a dragon and drizzled over with mayo. This was Chinese food? I didn’t even know they had mayo in China! Lots of tofu dishes, eggplant, fungi, and bamboo shoots were available to eat as well.
We also got to walk around another market. Vendors lined the streets with fresh produce and seafood products, as well as a Granville Island Market-like bazaar where you could find all types of meat, veggies and more seafood. Some of the more unusual items available included: freshwater eels, turtles, frogs and, of course, fresh duck blood. It sounds like the ingredient list for a witch’s brew right? But everyone here seemed to have a more open-minded attitude about what is allowed to end up on the dinner plate… and with over a billion people they must be doing something right.
Our next stop took us into Suzhou, which is often dubbed as the “Venice of China”… and rightly so with their canal systems and stone bridges. The food here was much like the food we’d tried in other cities with emphasis on duck, freshwater fish and tofu. It was here we had a beautiful duck dish that was a completely deboned bird, except for the drumstick, that’s been stuffed with stir-fried sticky rice and braised in a sweet and salty sticky glaze. It was absolutely to-die for and one of my favourite dishes we’d had so far. And there was also a deep-fried fish served a la sweet and sour style… the first of its kind since we landed in China… everyone on the Canadian home-grown team literally attacked it. Oh how we find comfort in familiarity.
Tune in shortly for the last segment of my culinary adventures in the land of the Far East as I explain what a xaio long bao is and why you should drink more green tea!