Zhenjiang: fragrant vinegar, suspicious oddities

 cold cuts on a dish
black gold emits sweet fragrance
lid floats in the pot

Aye, I decided to catch your attention with this odd haiku. Don’t worry, odds are that it will all be clear soon. Welcome to Zhenjiang, the city of Three Oddities…

All over the Chinese lands and all over Chinese history, numbers are a thing. “Top 5 of this” and “top 10 of that” are not mere blog titles, but an integral part of Chinese civilization. Five Great Mountains, Four Treasures of Calligraphy, Four Classic Novels: many such classifications help navigating the vast ocean of sinitic culture. Some are a monolith, others are constantly updated over the centuries: especially the likes of “ten views of the X province” and “ten scenes of the Y city”. It is also of no surprise that modern tourism bureaus implement poetical classifications as a marketing strategy.

Among numbered sets assigned to the city of Zhenjiang are these three triplets: Three Fishes, Three Montains, Three Oddities. Especially the last-mentioned is well known and boards describing legends about each “oddity” hang all over the town. It may seem that they are celebrated since ages. Or is it a merchandising gimmick? As you will learn later in this article, the truth is not simple.

First, geography: Zhenjiang is a riverside town. It lies not on just any river, but on one of the mightiest ones of our planet: the Yangtze. “Three Fish” (三鱼) are three species eaten around its lower reaches: shad 鲥鱼, anchovy 刀鱼 and longsnout catfish 鮰鱼. The latter is sometimes swapped for pufferfish 河豚. At times, Zhenjiangers extend the whole thing to “Three Fish Two Heads” (三鱼两头), where “heads” refer to stewed silver carp heads (拆絵鲢鱼头) and lion heads with crab meat and roe (蟹粉狮子头; „lion heads” being a poetic moniker for meatballs).

These two elaborate dishes remind us that just a few kilometers to the north, on the other side of the river, lies Yangzhou 扬州, a city famed for Huaiyang cuisine 淮扬菜. This very influential style of cookery centers around light flavors, freshness of ingredients and meticulous preparation. Cutting skills are crucial in many recipes. Based on its intricacy and refinement, Huaiyang cuisine is often chosen for official state banquets. The two syllables in its name stand for two regions: one is the Yangtze Delta with the city of Yangzhou, the other is Huai – another powerful river – and the city of Huai’an 淮安. Huai plus Yang equals Huaiyang. These two cities are connected by a stretch of one of the greatest engineering marvels of all times, the longest artificial system of waterways in the world: the Grand Canal of China.

The connection of various rivers and canals into one integrated network was first accomplished by the Sui Dynasty in the early 7th century, but the Huai-Yang section itself has already existed for several centuries before. With the rise of the importance of Beijing from the 13th century onwards, the system started to concentrate intself on the North-South line, with other branches falling into neglect. Many changes were applied to the network over the time, but the Huai-Yang canal stayed its crucial part throughout history. Together with the transportation of tribute grain and countless goods, enormous wealth and refined culture came to the adjacent regions. Yangzhou became a major trade hub known for artists and scholars. The riches and status of local salt merchant families is legendary. These are the circumstances in which the elaborate Huaiyang cuisine was born.

But let’s refocus on Zhenjiang. It is Yangzhou’s little sister, across the river. Whoever was to travel between the two had to take a ferry from one distant bank of the Yangtze to another. Be it a modest fishmonger or a state official on duty, be it Marco Polo or Qianlong Emperor.

The area neighbouring the wharf flourished. Today, the Xijin Ferry Ancient Street (西津渡古街) is Zhenjiang’s main tourist drawcard: an array of beautiful grey buildings nestled between the river and a hill. I was here in January and many Spring Festival decorations were adorning the quarter. Despite the busy period, the hostel I based myself in turned out to be pleasantly relaxed.

If only for the view of picturesque roofs below, it’s worth to wander through the maze of old alleys uphill, towards the Lamaist-style Shaoguan Stone Stupa. I continued to the top of the Yuntai Mountain 云台山, where a panorama of modern Zhenjiang emerged to my eyes on its other side.

Just a few steps away, behind a handsome building that was once a British Consulate, is the Zhenjiang Museum 镇江博物馆. The artifacts are pretty decent, especially considering that this is just a medium-sized museum. If something really valuable is unearthed in Zhenjiang – it would be transported to Nanjing, Shanghai or Beijing. The paradox of such smaller regional museums is that infoboards are often “better” than the artifacts. In case of Zhenjiang, they are really the highlight. Neatly organized and well designed, they carry detailed, yet welcomingly concise descriptions and almost everything is in English (if somewhat flawed). The most extensive section is that on pottery. Next to the general history of earthenware and porcelain, famous kilns are discussed and some tea culture trivia is introduced (点茶 diancha, 斗茶 tea fight, etc). The bronze section is equally well organized but has less artifacts. The gold and silver section is even smaller but it deserves a special mention as Zhenjiang was an important center of gold and silverware production. My eye was also caught by an absorbing corner about “Drinking Game in Tang Dynasty” with a 1:1 wax figures scene.

Not far is a revered restaurant called Lao Yanchun 老宴春. I came here to try their crab cream buns 蟹黄汤包. “Crab cream” refers to the crustacean’s soft interior: ovaries, roe and digestive glands. In this steamed dumpling, “cream” is paried with crab meat and broth to form the soupy stuffing so popular in Zhenjiang, Nanjing and other nearby cities.

There are three hilly scenic areas in Zhenjiang: Jinshan 金山, Jiaoshan 焦山 and Beigushan 北固山, collectively known as Three Montains 三山. I went to the first mentioned to see the well known Jīnshān Temple 金山寺. Also known as Jiangtian Temple 江天寺, this large Buddhist complex has its key buildings laid on steep slopes. The diversity of the consecutive floors and halls is worth the quite strenuous walk. The mustard yellow tower with dark cyan eaves and crimson railings that tops the compound is Cishou Pagoda 慈寿塔.

Jinshan Temple is related to one of the most famous Chinese folk tales, the Legend of the White Snake (白蛇传). Originally a horror story, it later evolved into a romantic one. In the tale, a snake spirit transforms into a woman and falls in love with a mortal. A Buddhist monk tries to separate the lovers and unmask the demon. Sometimes a total villain, sometimes a rightful and righteous hero, most modern versions have him somewhere in between. After all, the love that he vows to destroy may be forbidden by the laws of nature, but is genuine and beautiful. Monk’s name is Fa Hai and some sources try to identify him with a real friar that resided here, in this very temple. During my visit, I saw a sculpture of the historical Fa Hai enshrined in a small cave. The text hanging next to it did not mention anything about the legend, but if you are looking for something White Snake-related, walk a few steps from the main temple complex to a pavilion with White Lady’s statue and snakes in glass tanks.

The Legend of the White Snake is big. I have seen several cinematic renditions of the tale, including Chinese, Japanese and Korean productions, animations and live-action films, and I am sure that there are more. Mostly associated with Hangzhou and its West Lake, Zhenjiang plays a marginal role in this legend’s cult. It’s still a claim to fame for this medium-sized city. Not the only one, oh no. Zhenjiang has one specialty that outshines all the others…

A pleasantly pungent smell rises above the town. Clink and clank of bottles containing black liquid echo on the streets. The city is synonymous with vinegar!

Outside of China, not many of the Middle Kingdom’s products are remembered by their geographical tag – a notable exception is Shaoxing (Shaohsing) cooking wine. And another name that frequents international cookbooks is Zhenjiang (Chinkiang) vinegar. Now you know the true reason of my visit. The local Vinegar Culture Museum was my top priority while in the town. Such a prime foodie pilgrimage destination deserves a separate entry on my blog. Click HERE to read the article in which I describe the museum and delve into the intricacies of the glorious Zhenjiang fragrant vinegar 镇江香醋

So, yes, vinegar is the black gold from my opening haiku. Now that we know so much about Zhenjiang, we just need to reveal all of the famous “Three Oddities” (三怪). They are as follows:

  • 香醋摆不坏 “vinegar won’t go bad” refers to vinegar’s aging ability;
  • 肴肉不当菜 “meat is not a dish” ridicules the fact that the famous local terrine (meat jelly) is a side rather than the main dish;
  • 面锅里煮锅盖 “lid is boiled inside the pot” concerns the tradition of putting a small lid to float on the water surface while cooking noodles.

Zhenjiang’s revered pork jelly: 肴肉, transliterated either as yáoròu or xiāoròu, is akin to terrine or head cheese. Pig’s feet are cured, cooked with a variety of seasonings, placed in a pot and pressed with a heavy object. After it solidifies, the terrine is ready to be cut into domino-like tiles. The aspic encased intensive pinkness of the meat gleams with a crystal-like shine, hence its other name: crystal pork jelly, 水晶肴肉 or 水晶肴蹄. A legend says that it was invented by chance: instead of salt, some cook put saltpeter powder intended for making firecrackers into a curing tank with pork hocks. After realizing the mistake, the meat was meticulously cleaned and boiled several times out of fear that it can be poisoned. The resulting jellied meat became a sought-after treat.

Local noodles are the third oddity. They are known as “pot cover noodles”, 锅盖面, guō gài miàn. A rather intriguing name, doesn’t it? A peep into one of the many noodle restaurants around the town is enough to reveal the oddity of this oddity. Direct your eyes towards those huge pots, bursting with steam, in which the pasta is boiled. Look carefully. Yes, there is a small wooden lid, floating on the water’s bubbling surface! Way too small to cover the pot: it just floats about, just like that.

The noodles themselves are of the “bounced noodles” type (tiào miàn, 跳面). This method is rather eye-catching itself: the dough is pressed with a big bamboo pole, one end of which is fixed to the table or to the wall. The cook sits on the pole’s other end and bounces up and down to knead and flatten the dough, which is then cut into long strips.

But why the lid? Is it smeared with some sauce? Does the physical presence of a piece of China fir wood in the water do some difference to the flavor or the texture of the noodles? Or is it just a publicity stunt?

There are several legends about this tradition. In most of them, a cook either accidentally slips a small lid into a pot or covers the pot with a lid of the wrong size. In one story, a family is too poor to clean their lids and while reusing them when cooking a new batch of noodles – accidentaly creates a new flavor. But the most common narrative – the one printed on every restaurant’s wall – is about the Qianlong Emperor visiting Zhenjiang. He enters Zhang family’s huomian noodle restaurant. But the noodles are not yet even “bounced”! The staff does everything in a hurry. Water starts to boil. Someone drops a small lid into the pot. The customers get impatient. Eventually, the noodles are ready. And delicious! The ruler of the Qing empire rushes to the kitchen to thank. He sees the small lid floating in the big pot. His eyes widen: the tradition is born and huomian noodles are rechristened as “pot cover noodles. ”

This legend is really everywhere around the town. I find it funny but not sufficient, so I started to read into the subject. Digging into the cybersphere revealed that indeed the noodle’s original name is Zhenjiang huǒmiàn 镇江伙面. It is said that this huomian was probably first prepared by a former military chef who settled around Zhenjiang somewhere during the Qing Dynasty era. Another name was “Zhenjiang knife noodles” (镇江小刀面). But what about the lid? The more I am reading about it, the more I realize that the oldest living Zhenjiangers didn’t use the name we apply to it today. All changed since one specific event…

In 1979, the local government organized a meeting to discuss how to promote the city. It was suggested that the “Three Oddities of Zhenjiang” are somewhat distasteful. New Oddities were chosen and set to become Zhenjiang’s advertising trump card. Several decades later, it’s everywhere: online and offline, on museums’ plaques and on restaurants’ walls. It is hard to walk around the town without bumping into Oddities’ stands, billboards, flags, brochures.

Wait, what?! So there were OLD Oddities? And why were they considered distasteful? According to an article I’ve found, the old Three Oddities probably (!) were “大锅滂个小锅盖,裤子跨过街,马桶撑起来晒” – “the cauldron has a small lid, the pants cross the street, and the toilet dries in the sunlight.”

Whatever they were, they are now forgotten. Fragrant vinegar, delicious meat jelly and lids floating in noodle cauldrons replaced them completely. Mythmaking? Yes. Rewriting history? Not necessarily. Each of the new Three Oddities has a long and glorious tradition. I am not sure about the importance of the lid for “pot cover noodles”, but noodles themselves were here. Jellied pork and black vinegar are associated with Zhenjiang since time immemorial. Pretending that the current Three Oddities were always the same is a stretch, but choosing these three is giving them justice.

This is actually how history has always been treated. It is being created.

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  1. […] (You may want to read my other article, where I elaborate on the Three Oddities and descibe my visit to Zhenjiang. Click here!) […]

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