Jiangsu (江苏, jiāngsū) is a long, narrow province hugging the coast south of Shandong. Low-lying, flat and wet, it is one of China’s most fertile and long-inhabited areas. Today, much of it is industrial sprawl, which is why it’s one of China’s richest areas, but there are a few gems among all the new factory towns; provincial capital Nanjing is one of the country’s great historical cities, while Suzhou is an ancient city famous throughout China for its gardens and silk production.
Visiting the region, you find yourself in a world of water. The whole area is intensively drained, canalized, irrigated and farmed, and the rivers, canals and lakes which web the plain give it much of its character. The traditional way to travel here was by boat, though passenger traffic has dwindled away to near-extinction. The traditional route across Jiangsu was the Grand Canal, once navigable all the way from Hangzhou in Zhejiang province to Beijing. The province’s other great water highway – the Yangzi River – connects Nanjing with Shanghai, ensuring that trade from both east and west continues to bring wealth to the region.
Jiangsu cuisine tends to be on the sweet side and is characterized by an emphasis on flavour rather than texture, and by the use of wine in cooking. That said, one of the best-known dishes, yanshui ya (brine duck), has none of these qualities. The duck is first pressed and salted, then steeped in brine and baked; the skin should be creamy-coloured and the flesh red and tender. Other Jiangsu dishes worth trying include majiang yaopian (pig’s intestines), jiwei xia (a lake crustacean vaguely resembling a lobster, but much better tasting, locals affirm) and paxiang jiao (a type of vegetable that resembles banana leaves).