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Balancing Act

Although you can’t see her face, this elegant lady balancing on the back of her grand-daughter’s bicycle is at least 90 years old. Perhaps even pushing 100. I find age hard to tell at the outer extremes……but by our standards she was way too old to be hanging around on the back of a bike with traffic whizzing past. We put so many constraints on our elderly don’t we? When I’m a hundred years old I hope I’m being doubled on someone’s Vespa, and he better be good looking……

Guess what this shop sells?

Shops in Shanghai often have….interesting……English names. These names usually have very little to do with what’s sold inside the shop. Need a new sofa? Don’t go to “Sofa” then, because it sells sneakers. So I was quite surprised to find a shop on Fuxing Lu that sells what you think it does. I just never imagined that selling cooking pots and shoes side by side would be a goer, but you know me……always on the lookout for a place that can solve all my culinary and shoewear needs in one go. Why hasn’t this concept taken off everywhere??

Fiona can make XiaoLongBao!

Unbelievable, isn’t it! Xiao long bao (small steamer basket buns) are a delicious Shanghainese specialty beloved by everyone. Their thin but strong wrapping holds the most aromatic
mouthful of hot broth and pork, and I had wondered long and hard about how such a volume of liquid might manage to be encased in a soft dumpling wrapper. Since I first visited Shanghai I’ve been dreaming of making xiao long bao , but I considered them well beyond the reach of the average amateur cook (myself). But then I discovered a cooking school right here in the French Concession specialising in teaching foreigners the art of making dumplings.

Firstly, make a wheat flour and water dough. Knead the hell out of it to make it strong but stretchy. Divide into walnut sized pieces.

Roll out the dumpling wrappers until 6cm across.

Now for the really disgusting part. Fill your wrapper quite full with the secret mixture. This secret mixture (don’t keep reading if you have a weak stomach. Or you are vegetarian) is pork mince mixed with a thick jelly made from boiling pork skin for hours, until it sets. At room temperature it’s the colour and consistency of lard, yet is totally fat free! There has to be an advantage to outweigh the thought of eating dissolved pig skin. At high heat the jelly dissolves inside the dumpling, mingles with all the other ingredients and makes an amazingly delicious soup. And yes, I still keep eating them even though now I know…… you ever think about those horses hoofs when you eat raspberry jelly? No!
So now, easy peasy, just pleat those little dumpling wrapper edges, oh, about eighteen times until it forms a tight spiral. Pinch to close. Steam for 10 minutes. Can you believe I made these little beauties?

Tongli Washday

Saturday is washday in Tongli, the same as every other place in China. The difference in Tongli is that instead of a tub in the kitchen, you just take your tub down to the water’s edge in the canal. Despite the murky water the clothes come out looking surprisingly clean, from a distance. Then, hang your washing up on the path outside your house, using a string strung between any two adjacent uprights – trees, poles, scaffolding etc. I guess you shouldn’t be too embarrassed about the neighbours seeing your daggy baggy undies, and that bra with the hole in it….because you can see theirs.

Braised Tongli Pork…..Dribbling Yet?

Never, ever visit Tongli without trying their version of Wansan pork. You will regret it for the rest of your days. This slow-cooked, sweet, meltingly tender bit of pig’s leg can be carved with a spoon, or a single chopstick, depending on your preference. It’s that tender. If you want to relive the experience at home, back in your poky Shanghai kitchen, you can buy a take-away leg or three from one of the many vendors lining the last street in Tongli before you leave. Try not to open the foil bag and eat it on the way home………….

Tongli Wedding

We just spent a weekend in Tongli – it’s a small town west of Shanghai with a maze of small canals and old stone houses. Despite the bitter cold a happy wedding group set off to the ear-splitting sound of hundreds of confetti fire-crackers, followed by an entourage of friends and family as they walked beside the canal on their way to good food and a day of celebration.

Now, in Tongli there are 49 stone bridges criss-crossing the canals, but three are particularly famous – the Taiping (peace) bridge, the Jili (luck) bridge and the Changqing (celebration) bridge. Newlyweds should walk over all three to guarantee a long and harmonious marriage filled with good fortune.

Cooking Sheng Jian Bao

Shanghai Fried Dumplings (shengjianbao) are delicious. And completely evil. You will put on 5kg just by looking at them, and boy, if you put one of these babies in your mouth you can expect to be completely hooked. They are the ultimate winter comfort food, a soft white steamed wheaten bun filled with a fragrant and savoury mixture of pork meat and soup, with a topping of chives and black sesame seeds, and a golden,crunchy fried bottom. A little like the coarse country cousin of the refined Shanghainese soup dumpling xiaolongbao.

At cooking class this week, we
made our first batch. The trick is to roll out the dumpling wrapper so it is thicker in the middle than at the edges….this keeps the top of the bun strong.

Then you have to carefully pleat the edges of the wrapper while keeping the filling inside, then pinch the pleated edges together…..for a beginner, this is so impossible you begin to lose confidence…………….but then at last, after much practice, you sort of get the hang of it.

Then pop them all in the pan, sizzle them with a little oil for a few minutes until the bottoms are crisp, then add a little water, and as the steam billows up cover them tightly with a lid. Steam away for 5 minutes or so….

Now enjoy the whole damn lot. Chinese vinegar optional. Try and eat just one…

Chip Chop

When you go to Yu Gardens, as you will when you visit Shanghai, you can have a stamp engraved with your own name in English and in Chinese – it’s called a ‘chop’. If you bargain hard, you might pay 70 yuan, but the bargaining will exhaust you, and you may need a little rest before buying anything else. And if you bargain too hard, the chop-maker may write the Chinese word for ‘tight-ass loser’ under your name………

Blue Nankeen Drying in the Sun

Blue Nankeen cloth is heavy cotton, stencilled with a paste made from soy flour and lime, then dip dyed with natural indigo dye. The stencilled pattern is then scraped off, leaving a white design. There is a little workshop off Changle Lu, down a laneway, behind a house – then you come around the corner to the garden, and the sight of all those beautiful crisp blue designs drying in the sun, like a load of indigo washing.