Wuxi is a southern Jiangsu Province town, located halfway between Shanghai and Nanjing on the eastern seaboard of China. It’s a hardworking, rather gray area with a sizeable electronics and textile industry. The city borders the Taihu Lake—China’s third-largest freshwater body and a bountiful source of great fish and crustaceans. It has stunning views and a ferry service to supplement.
Yes, the views were quite lovely. In the wintertime, the water is particularly still and glassy; yellow plum blossoms bloom on the side.
I went to Wuxi not for the view, but for the food. I had heard a rumor that they have the sweetest food in all of China.
I’m happy to report that the rumors are true. In a province already known for its sweetness, Wuxi beats out all its municipal neighbors. Wuxi is as sweet as Hunan is spicy. Rather, for a more local comparison, Wuxi loves sweet things as much as the South loves barbecue and as much as New York City loves bagels. You get the idea.
At Si Cheng Yuan (熙盛源), a soup dumpling hotspot in town, they have a dish known only as “Wuxi-style soup dumpling.” It’s disgustingly sweet. Stuffed with shredded crab and pork, it tastes like it contains more sugar than pork broth. They have other dumplings on the menu as well, and I ordered a couple for comparison. Same deal; all were just filled to the brim with sugar.
Take the city’s most praised local snack: the barbecue pork ribs. Slow-cooked in soy sauce and rock sugar, they’re essentially candied pieces of meat. San Feng Qiao (三凤桥), a well-known brand in town, is so famous for its sweet ribs that it offers them vacuum-sealed to be taken home and microwaved. Two bites in, I desperately needed something salty to counterbalance it all.
At the local chain Wang Xing Ji (王兴记), smoked fish is made crispy with a sugar coating and set atop a mildly sweet broth with neutral noodles. Even the vegetables there were stir-fried with a considerable amount of sugar. Dessert came in the form of rice cakes, some stuffed with black sesame paste and red bean. It was all—you guessed it—cloyingly sweet.
“Oh, this town’s food is just too sweet, even for me,” lamented the very first taxicab driver I met in the town.
Some of the sugar is natural. The three specialties of the Taihu Lake, known as the three whites, or san bai (三百), have a subtle sweetness to them. They are: white fish, white shrimp, and Oriental whitebait (a tiny juvenile fish that’s finless and soft). It’s all mildly saccharine, cooked simply with a bit of ginger, and maybe a sprig of scallion.
The sweetness of the fish and shrimp makes sense; it’s a byproduct of the lake. But why do locals have to add sugar to everything else?
I asked cab drivers, tour guides. At one point, my friend and I ended up in a town hall-like discussion with a bunch of aunties in the supermarket.
“Why is the food here so sweet?” my friend asked, thinking out loud. We had been openly discussing the topic all morning. There had never been a sugar industry in Wuxi.
“This is a tradition passed down from our ancestors,” a woman said, overhearing her.
“But who started the tradition?” she asked.
“People from ancient times,” a second random woman responded. Everyone around us stared.
“But when?” we asked. “How? Why?”
“This, I don’t know.”
We looked around for answers. People shrugged.
The conversation repeated itself in many different permutations throughout the day, although we did manage to squeeze out a couple of theories. One was that Wuxi used to be a fairly rich city, so the people there were able to afford sugar. Using excessive amounts of sugar in the food was a way of showing prosperity. Another was that laborers used sugar water as a way to get energy during the humid summers.
“When I first moved to America, I thought everything was a bit bland,” Qingyuan Liu, a college student in Illinois by way of Wuxi, told me. We had met Liu at that grocery store, where we were talking to all the ladies. He had heard us speaking English and approached us to say hi. “After a couple of years in the States, when I returned to Wuxi, it started to really hit me just how sugary things are here.”
A paper I found online, titled “The Diets Of The Wuxi People,” adds another soft theory about modern Wuxi cuisine: that the people inherited a sweet tooth from their ancestors, and therefore have a very high tolerance for sweets.
In short, no one seems to have a definitive answer.
During our last cab ride in the city en route to the train station, my friend attempted one more time to get our question answered.
“Why is Wuxi‘s food so sweet?” she asked our driver.
I looked at her and mockingly began to mouth silently the answer we had been fed over and over again: “Zhe shi gushi hou chuan xia lai de.” This is a tradition, passed down from ancient times.
Without hearing what I had just said, the cab driver said, verbatim and confidently: “Zhe shi gu shi hou chuan xia lai de.”
To his confusion, we both started giggling hysterically—no doubt still on a sugar high.