Sous Chef: The way you write about Jiangnan cuisine is full of passion, love and excitement. Would you say that Jiangnan cuisine also embodies these emotions?
Fuchsia Dunlop: I think Jiangnan cooking embodies an idea of peacefulness, balance, and the comfort of body and mind. Personally, I do get very excited about it!
SC: You say seasonings in Jiangnan cuisine are used to enhance and harmonise rather than flavour. What do you think are the most important seasonings in a Jiangnan store cupboard? Are there any ingredients that definitely wouldn't be used?
FD: Soy sauce is one of the most important seasonings: either a traditional Chinese soy sauce (which is both salt-savoury and dark in colour), or a combination of light and dark Cantonese soy sauce. This is the seasoning that gives the characteristic 'red' colour of the red-braised dishes that are so typical of the region. Another vital ingredient is Shaoxing wine, which is often used in small amounts in marinades and in cooking to refine the flavours of meat and fish ingredients, or, in some of the classic Jiangnan dishes such as Dongpo pork and drunken chicken.
I think Jiangnan cooking embodies an idea of peacefulness, balance, and the comfort of body and mind. Personally, I do get very excited about it!
Vinegar is typically found on the table as a dip, and is also used in sweet-and-sour dishes. And then there is sugar, which is used in tiny amounts to 'harmonise' flavours, but also gives the sweetness that is particularly associated with Suzhou, Wuxi and Shanghai cooking. Local cooks generally use either white sugar or rock sugar, and occasionally brown sugar. Ginger and spring onion are also vital in the Jiangnan kitchen. In general, garlic is used far less than in other parts of China, although it is found in some dishes.
SC: Jiangnan cuisine is incredibly varied, but are there any flavours or ingredients that particularly stand out for you?
FD: Red-braising, in which soy sauce, Shaoxing wine and sugar are used to create rich, deeply-coloured sauces is found across China, but really comes into its own in Jiangnan. 'Drunken' dishes made with Shaoxing wine are also typical, as are the heady fermented tastes of Shaoxing. When it comes to fresh ingredients, the watery Jiangnan landscape of lakes, rivers, paddyfields and streams can be seen in the extensive use of freshwater fish and crustaceans, as well as water vegetables such as lotus root and wild rice stem (also known as water bamboo). Among the more common, everyday vegetables, green pak choi is absolutely typical of the region.
SC: What would you say is the most important thing for people to keep in mind when trying to cook Jiangnan dishes at home?
FD: Many of the values of traditional Jiangnan cooking are absolutely in tune with concerns of people in the modern west who are interested in food: the ideas of eating for health, of sourcing good ingredients and treating them well, of looking for a kind of harmony between man and nature, and of eating in accordance with the seasons. So I hope that people will be able to keep these in mind when cooking Jiangnan dishes.
Ingredients for the Jiangnan Pantry
You'll want to make sure you've got the right storecupboard ingredients before starting out with Land of Fish and Rice. Luckily the main fresh ingredient you'll need is pak choi, so you can just add that to your weekly supermarket shop. The storecupboard ingredients we've chosen are more specialist, so certainly worth sourcing in advance.
Naturally brewed soy sauces have the best flavour, so we've selected some of China's finest to get you started on your Jiangnan cuisine journey. Pearl River Bridge Superior Gold Light Soy Sauce is naturally brewed in sunlight, and is drawn from the first fermentation in the brewing process, making it more aromatic and with a richer flavour.
Fuchsia also recommends using mushroom flavoured dark soy sauce in her cooking instead of plain dark soy - recommended by one of her favourite Shanghai restaurants - and Pearl River Bridge Superior Mushroom Dark Soy Sauce is also one of the best. You'll notice all Pearl River Bridge Soy Sauce bottles have a hologram on their label - the brand is so sought after in China, that the company has had to introduce the holograms to prevent fraud!
Although many recipes are fine with ordinary Shaoxing cooking wine, the flavour of the shaoxing wine really shines through in Jiangnan drunken or wine-braised dishes. For these, Fuchsia recommends using aged Shoaoxing wine. And after taste tests in the Sous Chef offices, we found this 10 year aged bottle is just the ticket.
One of China's most famous vinegars, with a rich mellow flavour and slightly smoky taste.
Large sugar crystals with a delicate caramel flavour. Sugar is often used in savoury cooking, particularly in braised dishes.
A tiny drizzle of pure sesame oil adds intense nuttiness - don't be tempted to buy cheaper blended sesame oil.
Potato starch, or potato flour, is used as a thickener in sauces throughout China. Many recipes in UK and American cookbooks will suggest using cornflour as a substitute, which is okay. But unlike cornflour which can turn sauces opaque, sauces thickened with potato starch keep their translucence, making them more beautiful. The mouth feel is also richer with potato flour.
(cassia bark, star anise, white pepper powder) Whole spices are very important in braised dishes. Cassia bark (similar to cinnamon, but doesn't break down during simmering - leaving sauces and braising liquids clear) and star anise add aromatic sweetness. White pepper is sadly overlooked in the UK, and its more delicate flavour and apperance is favoured across much of across Asia.
Vegetables like bamboo shoots & shiitake mushrooms are key for texture. Shiitake mushrooms are also rich in umami.
Six Jiangnan Ingredients You Won't Have Tried
Here are six more Jiangnan ingredients that will be less well known, even to our most adventurous customers. All are used in at least one recipe in Land of Fish and Rice.
Fuchsia Dunlop suggests Japanese aonori seaweed is a great alternative to dried 'branched string lettuce' or 'sea moss' which is rarely found outside China. Try in her recipes for 'sweet Ningbo rice cakes with seaweed', where rice cakes are rolled in icing sugar, dried flowers and seaweed flakes.
Loved for its texture, Jellyfish is eaten across China. Fuchsia Dunlop combines a packet of ready-to-eat jellyfish with white Asian radish (daikon or mooli), sesame oil and spring onions for an quick Jiangnan appetiser.
Dip in water, and wrap rice parcels or fish and meat before steaming. Fuchsia Dunlop also suggests the leaves 'can be added to congee to lend it a most delicious flavour and pale green tint'.
Used widely in Buddhist cuisine as an alternative to meat, cubes of dried wheat gluten take on flavours of the broth they are simmered in.
A soybean and wheat paste used in dipping sauces. Sweet and rich, it is often confused with hoisin sauce.
Or 'red fermented tofu' is a staple in red braised dishes. However the sharp-salt-umami flavour is also beautiful with simple stir-fried vegetables.