8 dishes to try in Nanjing

8 dishes to try in Nanjing

As the ancient capital of a nation obsessed with its food, Nanjing maintains a royal culinary standard

The emperors may have left town, but their chefs appear to have stuck around.

That's the best explanation for the delicate and delectable options found on tables across Nanjing.

Jiangsu Province -- Nanjing is the capital -- is home to one of the most influential cuisines in China.

More on CNN: Nanjing mini-guide

Typified by exquisite shape and cut, Nanjing's own homegrown dishes provide some of the tastiest examples of Jiangsu cuisine.

Here are 8 essential orders in Nanjing. 

1. Salted duck

salted duckThe best salted duck has pale skin and pink meat, like this.
Nanjing is a city with duck fever -- from marinated to roasted, from the meat to the blood.

As the local saying goes, “Without duck, it’s not a proper meal.”

Salted duck is a cold dish usually served as an appetizer or snack with alcohol.

More on CNN: Around China in 31 dishes

Plum Garden’s salted duck is marinated in a special brine that keeps the meat tender and imbues it with a slightly salty flavor.

Best at: Plum Garden, 2/F, Jinling Hotel, Xin Jie Kou Square, Nanjing; +86 25 8471 1888 (ext. 4204); open daily 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 6-10 p.m.

2. Pan-fried beef dumplings

Beef dumplingFor the complete experience, pan-fried beef dumplings should be accompanied by beef soup.
With its crispy wrapper, flavorful beef and onion filling and steaming soup, it's no wonder niu rou guo tie (pan-fried beef dumplings) are the pride of Nanjing.

Pan-fried beef dumplings are considered one of Nanjing's eight traditional Qinhuai treasures, as designated by government-sanctioned experts in 1987.

The original dumpling mentioned as a Qinhuai treasure comes from Jiang You Ji restaurant, which is still located in an alley in Nanjing's Confucius Temple area.

Liji Halal Restaurant is another popular local choice for the dumplings.

For the complete experience, pan-fried beef dumplings should be accompanied by beef soup, or niu rou tang.

Best at: Jiang You Ji, 313 Qin Hong Lu, Qin Huai District; +86 25 5262 2265

Liji Halal Restaurant, 1 Dading Xiang, Pingshi Jie, Baixia District; +86 25 5225 7736

3. Tangbao (soup dumpling)

tangbaoBursting with flavor ... literally.
Who needs fries or chips when you can snack on these marvelous soup dumplings for a dollar or two?

The sight of chicken broth and pork wobbling inside a paper-thin wrapper -- assuming a chopstick hasn't accidentally pierced the tender wrapper -- is sheer heaven for many locals.

The most famous places for the dish is Yinshi Jishi Tangbao restaurant, though the flavor can be too sweet for some.

If you prefer your dumplings less sweet, Liu Changxing restaurant is recommended. 

Best at: Liu Changxing, 506 Zhongshan Dong Lu, Baixia District; +86 25 8441 1031

4. Sweet and sour Mandarin fish

Squirrel-like mandarin fishMandarin fish is the perfect example of Jinling cuisine.
Sweet and sour Mandarin fish is perhaps the quintessential example of Jinling cuisine (a subset of Jiangsu cuisine, typical of Nanjing) -- preparation requires delicate skill, and there's an emphasis on appearance as well as savory taste.

The fish is de-boned and sliced in grids before going into the wok. 

Boiling sweet and sour sauce is combined with ingredients such as shrimp, nuts and mushrooms and poured onto the fish, creating a squeaking sound.

The result is a plate of fish shaped like a squirrel, hence it’s common name, “squirrel fish.”

Best at: Ma Xiang Xing, 32 Yunnan Beilu, Gulou district, Nanjing; +86 25 8328 6387/6388; 6:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.

5. Duck blood vermicelli soup

duck blood soupDuck blood and offal -- waste turned into treasure.
Yes, the soup is made of duck blood curd and offal -- but that doesn't deter local connoisseurs.

It’s said that duck blood vermicelli soup was brought to Nanjing by a traveler from Auhui, a neighboring province.

But the dish has become a Nanjinger favorite cheap eat.

You can find duck blood vermicelli soup as easily in Nanjing as you can find kebab stands in Berlin.

Best at: Yadebao, 11-12 Chaozhi Xiang, Baixia District; +86 25 8452 4820

6. Jinling roast duck

roasted duckLess fame, same famous flavor.
It’s a never-ending debate as to where roast duck was invented -- it's called Peking duck in Beijing and Jinling duck in Nanjing.

According to one legend, Ming Dynasty emperor Zhu Di brought his favorite roasted duck chefs with him from his Nanjing palace when he moved the capital to Beijing.

Though less celebrated internationally, Jinling duck is hardly inferior to its northern counterpart. Crisp and greasy duck skin with juicy and tender flesh is the standard formula of the satisfying dish.

Best at: Chen Lin, 5-1 Diao Yu Tai (Near Zhonghua Gate)

7. Hairy crab

CrabCholesterol? Hahahaha!
Since 2001, the biggest event in Gaochun County in southern Nanjing has been the annual hairy crab festival.

This makes sense -- about a third of the county's area is occupied by Gucheng Lake, one of the country's top breeding grounds for hairy crabs. 

The crabs are meaty and sweet, with a paste inside that has a rich, buttery texture. 

The best season for hairy crab is autumn.

Chinese believe that the ninth month of the lunar calendar (usually mid-September) is the best time for female hairy crabs and the tenth month (mid-October) is best for male hairy crabs. 

Best in: Gaochun county in mid- to late September

8. Egg shaomai

egg shaomaiShaomai version of the seafood omelette.
It's the most expensive shaomai in Nanjing, but it's the best. 

Ma Xiang Xing Halal restaurant reinvented the shaomai dumpling for a Chinese general who loved shaomai and loved shrimp.

Typical shaomai uses pork, fish or cheaper bits of shrimp -- at Ma Xiang Xing Halal, fresh shrimps are made into a paste and wrapped in a thin dumpling made from egg.

These aren't to be mistaken for the egg yolk shaomai sold on the ground floor in Ma Xiang Xing.

Best at: Ma Xiang Xing, 32 Yunnan Beilu, Gulou district, Nanjing; +86 25 8328 6387/6388; 6:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.

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Hiufu Wong is CNN Travel's staff writer.

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