Why is Shanghai food so sweet?

Feb 12, 2020

Soup dumplings might be Shanghai’s most famous export, but did you know sweet and sour dishes are also a hallmark of the region’s cuisine?

In the United States, starchy, tangy sauce is associated with Chinese-American creations like General Tso’s chicken and sweet and sour pork, but the land of fish and rice—as Shanghai and Jiangsu Province are known—has an undeniable sweet tooth.

Jiangsu cuisine is one of the eight major schools of Chinese cuisine. The region is known for its light flavors, fresh seafood, and spectacular knife work. One popular dish, known as squirrel fish, is a deep-fried Chinese perch sliced into thin stalks to resemble the tail of a squirrel.

Squirrel fish is a hallmark of Jiangsu cuisine.
Squirrel fish is a hallmark of Jiangsu cuisine. / Photo: Shutterstock

It’s then drenched in a sweet and sour sauce made with tomatoes, salt, vinegar, and sugar. (Sound familiar?)

Poultry, pork, and other meats are often coated with a braising sauce made with soy sauce and rock sugar. Even soup dumplings are made with a bit of sugar.

Even soup dumplings, arguably Shanghai’s most famous export, have a bit of sugar in them.
Even soup dumplings, arguably Shanghai’s most famous export, have a bit of sugar in them. / Photo: Shutterstock

So how did this region develop such a sweet tooth?

“The reason is economical,” says Chen Yanjie, a food writer and researcher based in Shanghai. “We know that the most prosperous place is usually around a country’s capital.”

When the capital of China moved south during the 12th century to the area surrounding Shanghai, many of the flavors also followed.

“Eating sugar was a convenient way to show off a strong local economy.”

Chen Yanjie

“Eating sugar was a convenient way to show off a strong local economy,” Chen says.

Although the capital later moved back north to Beijing, the preference for sweet flavors persisted in Shanghai and the surrounding region.

You can expect to find a lot of desserts such as tangyuan 汤圆, sweet rice balls in soup garnished with osmanthus flowers, and sticky rice cakes in this part of China.

ExplainerShanghai

Credit

Host and Producer: Clarissa Wei

Videographers: Nathaniel Brown and Nicholas Ko

Editor: Nicholas Ko

Animation: Ray Ngan

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