CHINA: SHANGHAI SUR­PRISE

The orig­i­nal food of Shanghai is of­ten ma­ligned, but as this local knows, you have to know where to go.

Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY MARK AN­DREWS

The orig­i­nal food of Shanghai is of­ten ma­ligned, but as this local knows, you have to know where to go.

For­get the Miche­lin-starred chefs and in­ter­na­tional cui­sine lay­ing siege to the city, steer a path past restau­rants with food from prov­inces in the far-flung cor­ners of China to eat what the Shang­hainese grew up on.

“Shanghai food can be sum­marised by four characters: nong you chi jiang [thick oil strong sauce]”, says Shen

Jian­ming. I ad­mit that doesn’t sound the most ap­petis­ing com­bi­na­tion, and done badly it isn’t. Get it right, as chef

Shen does at the Jian­guo 328 res­tau­rant, and it can trans­port you to food heaven.

Most tourists com­ing to Shanghai know about the soup dumplings but they know about the wrong ones. For­get your dain­tily wrapped xiao long bao – this is not the type peo­ple eat ev­ery­day. It’s sheng jian bao that pow­ers the av­er­age work­ing man or wo­man and they are a proper meal. About three or four times the size of xiao long bao, they have a thicker skin and be­cause they are cooked in a skil­let, have a crunchy base. Yang’s Dumpling is a tourist-friendly chain with many lo­ca­tions around the city. The orig­i­nal pork sheng jian bao are the best of the four types avail­able at Yang’s and or­der­ing is rel­a­tively easy thanks to an English menu.

However, for those want­ing a more au­then­tic ex­pe­ri­ence, head to Da Hu Chun where the chain store lash­ings are es­chewed for a stone floor and wooden ta­bles. Here the lo­cals are friend­lier, giv­ing you a nod that you are in the know. You’ll have to make do with the Chi­nese pic­ture menu on the wall above the counter. Or­der the pork and prawn sheng jian bao (12 Yuan – about $2.30 – for four) and wash them down with a beef curry soup. The com­bi­na­tion of the prawn and pork el­e­vate the dumplings to an­other level and while the soup in­side is quite sweet – a Shanghai-style food char­ac­ter­is­tic

– it is not over­pow­er­ing un­like many of the ones sold on street cor­ners. Beef curry soup may seem an odd dish for China but it is sup­pos­edly a car­ry­over from the days when the Bri­tish used Sikh po­lice­men in their part of the city dur­ing colo­nial times.

Per­haps the rea­son that Shanghai has never pro­duced any great philoso­phers is that they spent too much time de­bat­ing the mer­its of var­i­ous xiao long bao. A word of warn­ing, the fa­mous Nanx­i­ang res­tau­rant in the Yu Gar­dens (old town) area is lit­tle more than a tourist trap. While it is a nice traditional look­ing build­ing, both the ser­vice ex­pe­ri­ence and the dumplings them­selves will leave you sorely dis­ap­pointed. With some of the best soup dumplings and ser­vice in town,

Din Tai Fung is a safe bet. However, as an in­ter­na­tional chain, orig­i­nat­ing from Tai­wan, it has a rather ster­ile shop­ping mall-es­que feel.

When you see the line of peo­ple out the door, you know you’ve found Jia Jia Tang Bao – a great al­ter­na­tive. You’ll likely end up shar­ing your table at this small local res­tau­rant. While wait­ing for your dumplings, you can watch the all-fe­male team deftly wrap­ping the tiny parcels. Though they have six va­ri­eties of soup dumplings, they of­ten run out. I tried the pork and crab mix­ture (30 Yuan – $5.80 for 12), which have a per­fect bal­ance of the two with a rich crab tast­ing soup and skins that are nei­ther too thin as to break eas­ily or too thick as to be dif­fi­cult to bite. The trick when eat­ing xiao long bao or sheng jian bao is to bite a small hole in the wrap­per and then suck out the juice – if you don’t you are likely to launch scald­ing soup at su­per­sonic speed across the res­tau­rant.

Next, you dip it in vine­gar be­fore de­vour­ing. The hall­mark of any de­cent xiao long bao place is that the vine­gar should come with strips of gin­ger. At Jia Jia this is con­fus­ingly just marked as sauce in English on the menu and, like with most dumpling places, you or­der and pay at the en­trance counter.

Neon lights il­lu­mi­nate Shoun­ing Road and restau­ra­teurs are vy­ing for pass­ing trade when I meet my guide Christo­pher Brant­ley from UnTour for their ‘Night Eats’ Tour. We are joined by five Ki­wis on a hus­band-free es­cape along with a FrenchCana­dian cou­ple. Shanghai has two seasonal food ob­ses­sions – cray­fish in sum­mer and hairy crabs in au­tumn. Ev­ery res­tau­rant on the street has pretty much the same dishes but it is the yab­bies in all states of life and be­yond that stand out. Brant­ley tells me that while we are early in the season – they are at their plumpest from June to Au­gust – they are actually avail­able year round and are farmed out near Pudong Air­port.

“Can you smell pineap­ples? All bai­jiu has this smell” says Brant­ley about the fiery Chi­nese al­co­hol of­ten mis­trans­lated as white wine. I’ve never re­ally noticed the hint of pineap­ples be­fore but ten­ta­tively sniff­ing now the aroma to me is more of the sickly syn­thetic flavour­ing type. We down it to col­lec­tive gasps about how bad it is but as bai­jius go this one, from a near spher­i­cal brown bot­tle, is one of the bet­ter I’ve tasted.

We dig into yab­bies bathed in a mala sauce where the spicy and numb­ing flavour soon masks the bai­jiu’s af­ter­taste. Gar­lic fea­tures heav­ily in the scal­lops that ar­rive next along with the

“The hall­mark of any de­cent xiao long bao place is that the vine­gar should come with strips of gin­ger”

roasted egg­plant. The egg­plant comes with slices of man­tou

– Chi­nese-style bread – toasted over the grill and dusted with a cumin and su­gar mix­ture. Be­fore en­ter­ing the res­tau­rant, we did a meet and greet with a water snake, which after be­ing deep fried now comes to us dressed in scal­lions. The meat it­self has lit­tle taste with instead a sweet­ness com­ing from the crisped bat­ter.

“A lot of the night mar­kets have been shut down re­cently and we had to change the name of our tour from night mar­kets to night eats,” says Jamie Barys, UnTour’s Chief

Eat­ing Of­fi­cer. Shanghai has for the last 10 years been tear­ing down smaller restau­rants and get­ting rid of street ven­dors. Barys says that if you do want to try street food, one thing to watch out for is the oil. Those us­ing good oil usually dis­play a large bot­tle of it. Also, she warns if a place is sell­ing beef for the same price as pork, it is prob­a­bly not beef.

“The great thing about com­ing to Shanghai as a tourist is that there are so many mi­grants from all over the country; you can eat your way round the country with­out ever need­ing to leave the city. However, one Shang­hainese dish that they should try is cod head with scal­lion oil, in fact any­thing with scal­lion oil, this is very typ­i­cal of Shanghai food”, says Barys. Old Jesse, a tiny but fa­mous res­tau­rant, is renowned for the dish. It has a sur­pris­ingly large amount of flesh on it with a mor­eish but­tery soft­ness and a taste in­fused with scal­lions.

It is best shared as a dish be­tween three or four peo­ple.

At Old Jesse I also try the hong­shao rou. While a typ­i­cal Shang­hainese food, most restau­rants do not cook it long enough – it should be cooked for at least an hour in a sauce that at its most ba­sic is a mix­ture of yel­low wine, dark soy sauce, water and rock su­gar. The fatty cubes of pork fall apart in my mouth and there is no oily af­ter­taste. I help wash it down with Re­berg Pil­sner, a Shanghai-brewed craft beer.

“I was born in Pudong where Shanghai food orig­i­nates. We call it ben­bang­cai and it com­bines the food of Shanghai with Zhe­jiang and Jiangsu Prov­inces,” says chef Shen. He rec­om­mends I try the pork liver sea­soned with soy sauce. The sauce tem­pers the liver flavour giv­ing a wel­come boost of iron. Re­cently, they’ve started of­fer­ing a spe­cial set menu “Old 8 Dishes”, which is the Shanghai-style feast served to cel­e­brate a daugh­ter’s en­gage­ment. Enough to feed more than eight peo­ple, it con­sists of eight ap­pe­tis­ers, eight hot dishes and eight mains and in­cludes eight trea­sure duck – which at this res­tau­rant is a whole duck wrapped in a lo­tus leaf and stuffed with in­gre­di­ents such as shi­itake mush­rooms and gingko nuts and then steamed for 12 hours. This dish re­quires a lot of work so it’s best to or­der well in ad­vance.

“We are al­ways study­ing how to im­prove local Shanghai food, how to in­no­vate it, to make it bet­ter,” Shen tells me. It seems that in his hands, and those of var­i­ous restau­rants around the city, the food is very safe and hold­ing its own against bet­ter-known Can­tonese and Sichuan cuisines. •

Clock­wise from top left: Hong­shao rou from Jian­guo 328; A lady skill­fully wraps tiny xiao long bao soup dumplings at Jia Jia Tang Bao on Shanghai’s Huanghe Road; Meet and greet with a wa­ter­snake on the UnTour Night Eats Tour out­side a res­tau­rant on...

Open­ing im­age: Cray­fish (yab­bies) along with seafood are the main draw on Shoun­ing Road in Shanghai. From right to be­low: Sheng jian bao in the heavy iron cook­ing skil­let wait­ing for eaters at Da Hu Chun res­tau­rant in Shanghai; A chef cooks scal­lops...

From left: Shen Jian­ming at the en­trance to Jian­guo 328, a small Shanghai style food res­tau­rant on Shanghai’s Jian­guo Road; Scal­lion wrapped cod head (opium fish head) at Old Jesse res­tau­rant on Shanghai’s Tain­ping Road.

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