The culi­nary pre­tender that won big

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - By XU JUNQIAN in Shang­hai

xu­jun­qian@chi­nadaily. com.cn

Lao Zheng Xing, a restau­rant lo­cated in a sixs­tory build­ing in Shang­hai’s Huangpu dis­trict, got an­other nod of af­fir­ma­tion for its culi­nary ex­cel­lence when it was awarded one Miche­lin star on Septem­ber 21.

The Miche­lin Guide Shang­hai, which marked the French pub­li­ca­tion’s first foray into the Chi­nese main­land, awarded 26 restau­rants with a to­tal of 31 stars.

The guide has since its de­but sparked con­tro­versy, with many ex­perts in the lo­cal din­ing scene com­ment­ing that there is a skew to­ward Can­tonese and ho­tel restau­rants and how the guide is hardly rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Shang­hai’s ef­fer­ves­cent din­ing scene.

Lao Zheng Xing’s re­cep­tion to its lat­est ac­co­lade was rather un­der­whelm­ing as well. In fact, no one turned up at the awards cer­e­mony to ac­cept the honor. The restau­rant man­age­ment told China Daily that they were not in­formed of the event be­fore­hand.

Hu Bing, the ex­ec­u­tive chef of Lao Zheng Xing, was seem­ingly non­cha­lant about the win, too.

“Trou­ble,” said the 41-yearold Shang­hai na­tive, when asked what this award meant to the restau­rant.

“We have not taken a break since the mid-au­tumn fes­ti­val. This award means we now have to deal with even more cus­tomers.”

The 400-seater restau­rant said that busi­ness has spiked by 25 per­cent since the re­sults were re­leased last week, with more young din­ers, in­stead of the reg­u­lar crowd com­pris­ing se­nior ci­ti­zens, pour­ing in than be­fore.

Opened by Xia Shun­qing, the son of a busi­ness­man from Wuxi, Jiangsu province, who was born and raised in Shang­hai, Lao Zheng Xing is ac­tu­ally a copy­cat es­tab­lish­ment.

The orig­i­nal, called Zheng Xing, was set up in 1862 by two busi­ness­men from Ningbo, Zhe­jiang province.

The duo, Zhu Zhengx­ing and Cai Renx­ing, had ini­tially opened a gro­cery stall in Shang­hai. Af­ter the busi­ness failed, they came across a chef from Wuxi and de­cided to make a come­back with a restau­rant which of­fered a hy­brid cui­sine that com­bined the greasy na­ture of Hui (An­hui) cui­sine and re­fine­ment in Xi (Wuxi) cui­sine.

The idea turned out to be a hit with the lo­cals, who were will­ing to fork out more money to sa­vor some­thing other than the coarse An­hui cui­sine that was pre­dom­i­nant in Shang­hai at that time.

Ac­cord­ing to li­brary archives, Zheng Xing had dur­ing its peak in the 1930s at­tracted peo­ple to set up more than 120 copy­cat es­tab­lish­ments in Shang­hai.

How­ever, only Xia’s es­tab­lish­ment man­aged to with­stand the test of time, run­ning till the 1950s when it was taken over by the mu­nic­i­pal govern­ment as a sta­te­owned com­pany.

Cre­ativ­ity is not some­thing we look for. Peo­ple come to Lao Zheng Xing for tra­di­tional Shang­hainese cui­sine — our job is to sat­isfy their palates and hearts, not at­tempt to be fancy.”

Hu Bing,

Zheng Xing the ex­ec­u­tive chef of Lao

Lao Zheng Xing has since been the go-to place for clas­sic Shang­hainese dishes such as fried river shrimps and braised pig’s in­testines with al­falfa sprouts.

The restau­rant’s con­tin­ued suc­cess over the years can be at­trib­uted to its team of loyal and highly skilled chefs. Wang Hui, a 27-year-old chef at Lao Zheng Xing, first set foot in the restau­rant about a decade about. Af­ter work­ing in the restau­rant for a year, Wang was taught how to pre­pare the river shrimps, some­thing that he has per­fected as an art form to­day.

Ev­ery day, Wang deep­fries hun­dreds of plates of shrimps that are no larger than a thumb­nail. The shrimps are dunked into boil­ing oil that mea­sures around 200 de­grees Cel­sius for ex­actly 18 sec­onds — no more, no less — be­fore be­ing scooped up, re­veal­ing a crisp, or­ange shell that can be con­sumed. This cook­ing method quickly de­hy­drates the shell while re­tain­ing the juices in the meat within.

“No one makes them bet­ter than us. And I am not say­ing this sim­ply to pride our­selves as vet­er­ans,” said Hu, in a rare dis­play of pride not seen in Chi­nese chefs who usually pre­fer to be dis­crete about their achieve­ments.

How­ever, the dishes that are served at Lao Zheng Xing to­day, ad­mit­ted Hu, aren’t ex­actly the same as those from a cen­tury ago. The braised pig in­testines they serve now, for ex­am­ple, do not have the pun­gent odor like how it nor­mally would in the past.

Hu said that his job as the ex­ec­u­tive chef is to “mod­ern­ize Shang­hainese cui­sine” while main­tain­ing the orig­i­nal char­ac­ter of the dish. The restau­rant has through the years been mak­ing their dishes a lit­tle more bland in or­der to cater to to­day’s health-con­scious cus­tomers.

“We’ve re­duced the us­age of su­gar and oil in our dishes by about 15 per­cent. That’s the best we can do with­out com­pro­mis­ing the taste,” said Hu.

“Cre­ativ­ity is not some­thing we look for. Peo­ple come to Lao Zheng Xing for tra­di­tional Shang­hainese cui­sine — our job is to sat­isfy their palates and hearts, not at­tempt to be fancy.”

GAO ERQIANG / CHINA DAILY

Chefs at work at Lao Zheng Xing

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