China: A taste of Shanghai

Posted on May 24, 2011

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Rather than being neglectful, the two month long silence is due to what I’d loosely term as ‘research’. Well, it was definitely a learning experience in the least! Four weeks plus in China will teach you quite a lot about the cuisine, so here are some of my major take outs from the trip.

While I will try to characterise the cuisines I tried, this is by no means comprehensive. Time was one limiting factor, as was language and my ability to really unearth some of the hidden treasures. I tried to seek out all the main dishes a particular city was known for and also make general observations on what I found day to day. Obviously I would need much more time in each city to truly be able to describe its food culture in a meaningful way.

As highlighted in a previous post, until recent years, the vast majority of Chinese food on offer in Australia has been Cantonese or generally from the southern provinces. Yes, there are many similarities across the regions, but there are also a number of distinctions as well. So it was no surprise that I found a lot of Chinese food in China rather foreign, and did not fit in with what I had conceptualised as ‘Chinese’. For example the Chinese that I have known are generally not fond of lamb/mutton as they believe it carries a certain unsavory smell. However, there are large sections of the China where lamb/mutton is a commonly used meat.

Also, I use to find it strange that despite Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia being praised for it’s great food culture (most of which being Chinese in origin), China has not been granted the same international status. But now I see why. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of fabulous food in China, but there are also plenty of bland uninteresting food as well. Some of the peasant dishes we tried were quite low quality, as in overly greasy and lacking in quality protein or vegetables. Plus having been accustomed to southern Chinese cuisine, I’d admit my taste buds will appear to be slightly skewed towards Cantonese flavours.

Now for a more detailed look at the food actually consumed. To make it easier to digest, I intend to blog separately about each city visited.

Shanghai was the first destination visited, and who can go past those famed Shanghainese xiao long bao (soup filled dumpling)? The fillings can vary from pork to the more luxurious crab meat and crab roe. Quality and pricing also runs the full spectrum, coming as cheap as $5RMB up to $100RMB+ for a serve. A chat with the locals brought us to the Nan Xiang Man Tou Dian in the tourist hotspot of Yu Yan Garden. The line for their takeaway xiao long bao was long and winding if that will serve as any indication on how good their dumplings are. The eat in option was equally popular.

Having tried both the eat in and take away varieties, I can vouch for the price mark up for dining in. While the takeaway pork variety was definitely tasty and excellent value for money, there is a distinct quality difference. Dining in also allows you to choose from a range of xiao long bao fillings (only the pork ones are available through the take away window, about $20RMB for 16). We opted for the mid range pork with crab roe filling (around the $50-60RMB mark for 8  – I think) which was absolutely delectable. The broth inside was steaming and full of flavour, the pastry was thin and the filling was spotted with orange crab roe. Bliss.

For novelty more than anything else we also sampled the giant xiao long bao. It’s mostly filled with broth which is drunk through a straw poking out from the middle. Cute, but I wouldn’t necessarily order it again.

Soup dumplings aside, the savory fried nian gao is another Shanghai speciality. Nian gao translates literally as ‘year cake’ and is a steamed sticky dough made from glutinous rice flour. It is typically eaten during the lunar new year, hence its name. The southerners serve it as a sweet dish, where the dough is flavoured with brown sugar. It is then eaten either just steamed or pan fried. The Shanghainese variety however, is not necessarily made with glutinous rice flour and tends to be more solid and chewier in nature. It is usually treated like noodles in a stir fry, accompanied with pork and vegetables. The texture of the Shanghainese nian gao is what makes this dish so great, though consuming a whole serve by yourself proves to be quite the jaw work out!

Snack wise there are plenty of options. Small hawker stalls are dotted in particular parts of the city, some operating the night shift up till 3-4am. There are quite a few skewer stalls selling meats/vegetables and other edibles on sticks, noodle stands and various deep fried goodies. Just a word of warning though, a lot of these snacks are extremely oily (and this tended to be the case throughout China). There are also numerous of retail stores selling packaged snacks by weight. Personally I found these snacks to be rather average, but clearly I’m in the minority considering the sheer number of stores and how popular and amazingly busy they all were.

I found the sweet snacks to be the least impressive, with the main reason being that these so called sweets weren’t actually very sweet or even flavoursome at all. Ok admittedly this may be due to my tastes being warpped from a diet based mainly on western sweets and refined sugars, but hey, I’ve had Cantonese and South East Asian sweets plenty of times before and have always found them rather flavoursome. Take the Shanghai version of tang yuan (a glutinous rice dumpling served in syrup or sweet soup) for example; it was rather bland. The dumplings itself did not have any stuffing (some tang yuan are filled with red bean paste, sesame paste etc.) and the fermented glutinous rice syrup only had a hint of sugar through it making the syrup taste a little on the sour side of things. And I had been rather looking forward to sampling this dish from Shanghai given I’d had a brilliant version of this dish back here in Melbourne! Perhaps I just had bad luck and tried a bad stall? Oh well, you can’t win them all.

Overall, I’d rate my eating experience of Shanghai to be quite tasty and cheap. There were a few misses (read sweets/desserts) and I found the range of food to be quite limited. A lot of fatty pork on the menu and eggplant and cabbage dominated on the vegetable camp. But of course they do some things really well (the soupy xiao long bao comes to mind!) and sometimes it’s nice not having so much choice.

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