When thinking about who to talk to for this series on the Eight Great Cuisines, Xiao Gao was the first one to come to my mind. She posts foodie pictures almost daily on WeChat and also used to run a foodie group chat. Every time I go to visit her, I can be sure to leave the house with a very full stomach.
She readily accepted my request to meet her to talk about food from her home province Jiangsu, and so we met on a sunny day at her home. Her neighbour Huang Ayi – originally from Shanghai and very well-read on the subject of food – also joined in our lively conversation.
Xiao Gao and Huang Ayi quickly agreed that the term “Eight Great Cuisines” is somewhat artificial and not to be taken too seriously. For them, the cuisines of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Shanghai are very similar. Even though there are famous speciality dishes that are unique to each of these provinces, if you look at what people in their everyday life eat, it’s hard to make a clear-cut distinction between these cuisines. Jiangsu Cuisine to them is a fresh and delicate taste that is slightly salty.
Apart from taste, another important characteristic is the skillful use of the knife. “Knife skills” (刀工) are an important part of Chinese cuisine in general. Whereas many people in the West take pride in a multi-part knife set, most chefs of Chinese cuisine will only use one knife, that is, a cleaver. In order to be able to cut the ingredients into the many shapes required for different dishes, chefs need to practice their knife skills a lot. A classic recipe for showing off advanced knife skills is “Chrysanthemum Tofu” where a block of Tofu is cut into the shape of a chrysanthemum flower, as you can see in this video:
This is a dish from Henan, though. The most iconic Sucai dish showing off a lot of knife skills is a dish called Squirrel-Shaped Mandarin Fish.
The mandarin fish is cut into shape, deep-fried, meticulously arranged on a plate and then garnished with sweet and sour sauce. If you feel ambitious and want to try it at home, you can follow this link to the recipe.
For Xiao Gao, a huge variety of seasonal food is also an important part of her home food. Jiangsu is a coastal Province with the Yellow Sea to the East, but it also boasts several large lakes, such as Tai Lake (five times the surface of Lake of Constance!) and also a good portion of the Yangtse River. That’s why all kinds of fresh and salt water fish and crustaceans are part of the Jiangsu diet. Jiangsu also offers fertile ground for growing vegetables and rice, which are the basis for Sucai. Depending on which region you are in, the dishes will vary, so for example in the city of Suzhou next to Tai Lake, the diet is more based on fresh water fish and crustaceans, whereas Nanjing cuisine lays more emphasis on vegetables and an elegant presentation.
Back in her hometown near Nantong, Xiao Gao would mainly eat vegetables and all kinds of bean products – be it fresh beans, or tofu in its manifold varieties. One of her favourite snacks is Baipu Chagan, a Nantong speciality.
Baipu Chagan is a kind of Dou Gan which, if you are not familiar with this delicacy, are pieces of firm tofu marinated or smoked so that they usually are golden brown on the outside and white on the inside. You can eat Doufu Gan either as it is, cut and dressed with sauce, or as part of a stir-fry. Baipu Chagan has a unique flavour thanks to the many spices used to marinate the tofu. (Tip: You can get Doufu Gan at our favourite Chinese supermarket Lianhua, though the marinade is not the same as for Baipu Chagan).
Having spent many years abroad, first in the UK and the last three years in Switzerland, Xiao Gao has a hard time finding the childhood flavour she sometimes craves. On the one hand, she only has limited access to the necessary ingredients here in Switzerland where the selection is even smaller than in the UK. On the other hand, even when she goes back to visit her family, it is hard to find that specific flavour, as the food sector has changed a lot and commercial interests, as well as the focus on convenience and availability, have changed the flavours of many foodstuffs.
Since Xiao Gao is a trained doctor of Chinese medicine, we soon started to talk about the health aspects of Chinese food. According to Chinese medicine, eating healthy means balancing your diet according to seasons, the climate you are in and your bodily condition. So whereas eating a cold dish is fine on a hot summer day, it is regarded to be detrimental to your body in cool weather conditions or when you are experiencing stomach problems.
As one of her favourite dishes she recommends our readers to try out Ginger Meat Stripes (姜丝肉), a Yangzhou speciality. With its generous amount of ginger, this dish is considered to be a “warm” dish according to Chinese medicine, so it’s a great dish for winter. Try and enjoy!
- About 200 gr of lean pork
- 2 big pieces of ginger
- 1 tablespoon Chinese cooking wine
- 1/3 tablespoon Chinese white vinegar
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 1 scallion
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- Oil for frying
How to make it:
- Cut the pork into fine stripes and mix it with the cooking wine and a pinch of salt. Marinate for 20 minutes.
- Cut ginger and scallion into fine strips.
- Heat oil in a frying pan. Once the pan is very hot, add the pork strips and fry until the meat changes the colour. The meat should be 80% cooked. Then remove the meat from the pan.
- Fry the ginger strips in the pan with the remaining oil. Once it starts changing colour, add soy sauce. Then add the meat strips and scallion and mix everything. Fry until the meat is completely cooked and the ginger stripes soften.
That’s it, enjoy!
This recipe was translated and slightly adapted from this recipe in Chinese.