Chop­sticks for my steak, please

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pro­cessed hams are chopped into dice-sized cubes and mixed with a spe­cial salad sauce made from egg yolk and cooking oil. The re­sult is a creamy, sweet con­coc­tion.

Fried pork chop re­mains truer to the Vi­enna cut­let from which it is de­rived. But the spicy soy sauce makes it Shang­hai’s own. Lo­cal gourmets are so par­tic­u­lar about the sauce that they in­sist on us­ing only one brand. They are con­vinced that the slightly spicy, lip-puck­er­ing sauce cuts through the greasi­ness of the pork chop to make it the per­fect com­pan­ion.

The Rus­sian soup, which is bet­ter known here as be­cause it sounds sim­i­lar in Shang­hai di­alect to the word “Rus­sian”, has lit­tle to do with the orig­i­nal. As beet­root was not grown in China, it has been trans­formed into a tomato paste-based soup fea­tur­ing a hotch­potch of veg­eta­bles and a hand­ful of sausage slices.

“Ev­ery dish fol­lows two prin­ci­ples: use the most avail­able in­gre­di­ents and adapt it to lo­cal tastes,” said Hou Gen­quan, a re­tired chef from Red House, the most sought-af­ter restau­rant in the city for this kind of cui­sine.

Opened in 1935 by a JewishI­tal­ian man and his French wife, Red House was orig­i­nally named Chez Re­vere and lo­cated on Huai­hai Road, the Fifth Av­enue of Shang­hai. For decades, peo­ple have queued pa­tiently in long lines out­side the red-brick restau­rant — sim­i­lar to the phe­nom­e­non caused when­ever Ap­ple launches a new prod­uct here.

“Of course we had regular dishes like steaks and sautéed mush­room soup, but they never man­aged to be bestsellers,” said Hou.

Ji Bing, a lo­cal food writer with 30 years’ ex­per­tise, said Shang­hai lo­cals are nat­u­ral­born prag­ma­tists who pri­or­i­tize taste over fac­tors like whether the food is au­then­tic or not. Gen­er­ally, pork is fa­vored over beef in China and soups are more popular when they con­tain a num­ber of in­gre­di­ents.

When baked snails were in­tro­duced into the city, some restau­rants in­vented va­ri­eties like baked clams or shrimps to sat­isfy the grow­ing ap­petite and “they sold like hot cakes,” Ji said.

The va­ri­eties sold well be­cause such eater­ies were rare at the time, when fru­gal­ity pre­vailed and dining out was rarely en­cour­aged.

There have never been that many restau­rants serv­ing

cui­sine, said Huang Tiemin, direc­tor of the Shang­hai Restau­rant As­so­ci­a­tion. He es­ti­mated the num­ber to be less than a dozen.

Huang noted that in the early days, such restau­rants were con­sid­ered ex­clu­sive and en­joyed only by the rich or, on oc­ca­sion, the less wealthy who were cel­e­brat­ing an im­por­tant oc­ca­sion. In Shang­hai di­alect, go­ing for some West­ern cui­sine is col­lo­qui­ally called

which roughly trans­lates as “taste for­eign meat and fish”.

As in­comes started to climb in the 1990s, driv­ing out to dine be­came more popular and crowds of fancy restau­rants sprouted up to dom­i­nate the mar­ket.

“Nowa­days, young peo­ple would rather go to real West­ern-style restau­rants and fork out more for an au­then­tic steak or sautéed mush­room soup,” Huang said.

Shang­hai na­tive Zhou Yon­gle may not agree. He opened his restau­rant Tian’e Shen Ge (lit­er­ally, Swan Shang­hai Cham­ber) in 2008 be­cause he couldn’t find his fa­vorite child­hood dishes any­where in the city. His restau­rant is named in homage to Tian’e Ge, a ri­val of Red House in the 1940s and 1950s that was fre­quented by the city’s yup­pies. It closed down in the 1990s.

The scion of a wealthy fam­ily, Zhou re­mem­bers dress­ing up and go­ing for a feast at Tian’e Ge ev­ery week­end. “They were the hap­pi­est mem­o­ries of my child­hood,” he said.

Af­ter spend­ing sev­eral decades living and work­ing in the United States, he re­turned to Shang­hai in 1998. The idea of start­ing a restau­rant arose from his crav­ings for cer­tain pork dishes he was un­able to find.

“I had had enough West­ern cui­sine but the Shang­hai style was ul­ti­mately the one I missed the most,” he said.

Now din­ers of his gen­er­a­tion fill his small restau­rant, which can ac­com­mo­date nearly 50 peo­ple, al­most ev­ery day. Many bring their chil­dren, mean­ing that should con­tinue to have a fu­ture in the city.

GAO ERQIANG / CHINA DAILY

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