Zhenjiang, home of soup dumplings and hairy crab vinegar

Louis Lee
The city near Nanjing boasts an exquisite gastronomic heritage centered around two delectable delicacies: the esteemed soup dumplings and the tangy hairy crab vinegar.
Louis Lee

If you have lived in Shanghai for a while, you would know that hairy crabs (大闸蟹) are all the rage during autumn and winter. Hairy crabs must be thoroughly savored, with the crabs sourced from either Yangcheng Lake (阳澄湖) or Taihu Lake (太湖), both in nearby city of Suzhou (苏州).

The yellow wine used to wash down the crabs must come from Shaoxing (绍兴) in neighboring Zhejiang Province.

And the vinegar for dipping the crab? Well, it's from Zhenjiang (镇江), a city near Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu Province. Zhenjiang vinegar is also used in soup dumplings.

It is easy to associate Zhenjiang with food. The city is famous for its "three strange happenings" (镇江三怪): "The vinegar never goes bad, jellied pork is not served as a course in a meal, and pot-lids are cooked inside noodle pots" (香醋摆不坏、肴肉不当菜、面锅里面煮锅盖).

Zhenjiang, home of soup dumplings and hairy crab vinegar
Louis Lee / Ti Gong

Ivory carving of a crab in Zhenjiang Museum

Let's do some unpacking here because the strange happenings are not immediately obvious to the unfamiliar, let alone foreigners. According to legend, the son of Du Kang (杜康), the "creator of wine," discovered that his father's distiller's grain would not only not spoil but would instead turn into vinegar after 21 days.

What's more, vinegar gets more aromatic the longer it is stored. Thus, vinegar-making in Zhenjiang is credited to Du's son, Hei Ta (黑塔), who made good use of water from the neighboring Yangtze River.

The city has a museum devoted to the production of vinegar (中国镇江醋文化博物馆), which is housed in the former factory of the biggest local vinegar brand, Hengshun (恒顺).

When it comes to jellied pork, locals like to eat it for breakfast, naturally dipped in vinegar. They don't typically eat it as a course during lunch or supper. Zhenjiang jellied pork is available in Shanghai... as a cold dish.

Zhenjiang, home of soup dumplings and hairy crab vinegar
Louis Lee / Ti Gong

A wooden pot lid in Zhenjiang noodle pot

Pot-lid noodles (锅盖面) are yet another Zhenjiang culinary specialty. Legend has it that on one of Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong's trips down south, the lady chef of a noodle shop was so frightened that she covered her pot with the wrong lid. To her amazement, the considerably smaller lid floating on the soup base enhanced the flavor of the noodles significantly!

Lao Zhao (老赵面店) is a wonderful place to sample them, while others swear by Da Hua (大华面馆). The two noodle shops are a 12-minute walk from each other on Daxi Road (大西路).

Emperor Qianlong's imprint was not limited to Zhenjiang cuisine. One of his most important achievements is the production of the exquisite "Siku Quanshu" (四库全书), the ultimate encyclopedia of China. Only seven complete copies of the 10-billion-word opus existed. They are kept in dedicated libraries in Beijing (two copies), Shenyang, Chengde, Hangzhou, Yangzhou (across the Yangtze from Zhenjiang) and Zhenjiang.

The Zhenjiang library was destroyed during the Taiping Uprising in the mid-19th century, but was rebuilt 12 years later and is now part of the Jinshan Temple (金山寺) tourist area. The Buddhist temple is one of the most famous in China and serves as the setting for many Chinese folk stories.

Zhenjiang, home of soup dumplings and hairy crab vinegar

Jinshan Temple sits by the mighty Yangtze River. The name Zhenjiang means "overlooking the river," as the city has historically been a key domestic and international commerce port.

A tour through the surrounding ancient Xijin Ferry (西津古渡) area is educational. You will discover not just the ruins of the ferry dock from different periods, but also what is possibly the world's oldest river rescue association (救生会) right next to the landmark Zhaoguan Stupa (昭关石塔), dating back to 1311.

Zhenjiang, home of soup dumplings and hairy crab vinegar
Louis Lee / Ti Gong

Former site of the Asiatic Petroleum Company, and once the Zhenjiang Folk Art Museum

There is a lot of modern history as well. On Changjiang Road (or Yangtze Road), not far from the ferry ruins, there were several Western trading companies, including the Asiatic Petroleum Company.

During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Zhenjiang was a logistical hub, an important battleground in the First Opium War, and one of the trading ports established by Britain following the Second Opium War.

The former British consulate (英国领事馆旧址), which is now the Zhenjiang Museum (镇江博物馆), is an imposing structure, but it has a bloody history: the original consulate building was burned down by angry locals when British patrolmen attacked local peddlers.

Zhenjiang, on the other hand, is associated with a well-known Western ambassador to China and Chinese culture. Pearl S. Buck, born into an American missionary family, spent her formative years in Zhenjiang and went on to become the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature "for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China." Her magnum opus, "The Good Earth" (大地), is a must-read for anybody wanting to understand China. Her childhood home is now a museum.

Zhenjiang, home of soup dumplings and hairy crab vinegar

Zhenjiang Museum, site of the former British Consulate

If you go:

Zhenjiang station is on the Shanghai-Nanjing railway line. A typical journey from Shanghai takes one hour and 40 minutes. Trains departing from Hongqiao Railway Station take roughly the same amount of time to reach Zhenjiang.

(The author is an award-winning author, lecturer, and radio host who has traveled to over 70 nations and regions. He has covered China extensively.)

Special Reports