Food is part of joy of discovering Nanjing

Just as tourists to Italy may choose Rome or Florence as their first-time destination, many pick Beijing or Shanghai for their inaugural visit to China. But my first trip to the People’s Republic of China led me to discover Nanjing.

Known historically as the “southern capital” of China, Nanjing is a city of 8 million people and more than 50 universities. With the longest city wall in the world, built during the Ming Dynasty in the 1300s, Nanjing’s beauty is a mix of silver skyscrapers, pretty pagodas, architecturally impressive tombs, tree-lined streets, lakes, rivers and mountains.

The 89-story Zifeng Tower, the tallest in the city, was the setting for the Sino-American Media Exchange I was invited to attend by Emory University.

The most memorable moments of Chinese cultural exchange involved the sharing of food and drink.

“We’re a city of books and cooks,” explained Nanjing native Liu Kang, who is the director of the Chinese Studies Center at Duke University and dean of the Institute of Arts and Humanities at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

While our days focused on visiting schools from kindergarten to college, the evenings brought Chinese and U.S. journalists and academics together for extravagant dinners. We sat at big round tables with a lazy Susan set up in the middle to facilitate sharing often more than 20 dishes.

Nanjing’s unique Huai Yang cuisine may not be as well known as Szechuan-Hunan’s hot and spicy dishes or the shark’s fin soup of fancy Cantonese cooking, and that’s what makes it an exciting taste discovery.

“The dishes are lighter with less oil and more vegetables, freshwater fish and shrimp,” said Cecelia Yang of the Intercontinental Hotel, which boasts the highest restaurant in Nanjing on the 78th floor of the Zifeng Tower.

Menus feature Huai Yang specialties such as salted duck, duck blood soup and a Nanjing version of Peking duck.

Sissel McCarthy, professor of journalism at Emory University, said, “This is my third trip to China, and while I’m not a hugely adventurous eater, each time it gets easier because you recognize certain dishes. I like the Nanjing cuisine because there are so many vegetables, but you’d better like salted duck.”

And you’d better like to toast. Every meal included a series of toasts followed by the Chinese phrase for “bottoms up” as we were served (thankfully) thimble-sized glasses of powerful white liquor to down in honor of our new friendships.

While rates of obesity are unfortunately increasing in China with more Western-style fast food and less activity in a computer-screen world, it was good to see school kids demonstrating tai chi and playing basketball.

School food seemed really healthy, too. My favorite meal was lunch shared with six teenage girls at Jinling High School. They smiled when I used chopsticks to eat chicken with peanuts as we chatted about classes in applied mathematics, food likes and dislikes, exercise, and going to college. But things really got cooking when I asked them about Justin Bieber. They immediately shrieked with joy.

That’s when I knew that cultural connections are the strongest when sharing interests — whether it’s music or math — at mealtime.