Back to blog index

The Lady of Wulumuqi Lu

This is the second in a series of posts about the diverse and fascinating food vendors lining Wulumuqi Lu in the French Concession. You can read the first one here

Back in Shanghai after a lovely few days in Anji I found my cupboards bare. So, off I trotted to the lovely greengrocer at 274 Wulumuqi Lu. This lady has achieved cult status amongst foreigners in the city. A year ago, she began selling avocados (a rare and expensive delicacy here) at a reasonable price. Word spread, and she became known as The Avocado Lady. Realising the number of her foreign customers was growing, she began offering cheaply priced blueberries for sale. This may not seem strange, but technically she was a vegetable seller, not a fruit seller, and these two food streams never mix. So selling blueberries in a vegetable shop was nothing short of revolutionary. People heard about the cheap blueberries, word spread, and soon enough The Avocado Lady became The Blueberry Lady.

Nowadays, The Blueberry Lady sells basil, sage, parsley, rocket, pine nuts, walnuts, olive oil, mozarella cheese, aged cheddar, Lyle’s Golden Syrup and other hard-to-find commodities. Her status as a finder of whatever fresh food you need is unparallelled, and she is now known simply as The Lady. Famous amongst foreigners, enterprising and hard-working, long may she prosper.

Village Faces, Anji

On our second day in Nine Dragon Valley we took a long ramble to a local village nearby. Leaving the small township of Nine Dragon Valley and a two-lane road behind, we walked gradually uphill along smaller and smaller roads through beautiful tea and farming countryside. The sun was shining, the shrubs were full of butterflies, the wildflowers were in full bloom, and beside the small road flowed a tiny creek. It was about as far from downtown as you can get. For a while I didn’t even hear a single horn, but horn-honking is not restricted to Shanghai, it’s a national characteristic. Sure enough, before long a small goods truck laden with rocks for a building project came honking his way loudly and frequently down the road, just in case we hadn’t seen him. It was a straight stretch, with a clear view of 500m, but it would be really bad luck and a lot of police bother to hit a bunch of foreigners, so he was taking no chances.

Almost at the village, we passed by a group of workmen having lunch in the shade by the roadside. Seeing our hot faces they stood and offered their seats, and a glass of the local white tea. This kind of open hospitality is one of the best things about living in China – the people are genuinely welcoming of foreigners of all guises. 

The workmen had weathered skin the colour of chestnuts from working all day outdoors, and they were wiry and strong. They had heard that Australia was big, but that was the limit of their understanding of a place so foreign and far away, so we chatted while we rested about the house they had been employed to build. It would have air-conditioning, I was told, which would make it easily the fanciest house in the village. We thanked them for their kindness and kept walking, passing their country wheelbarrow with its bicycle tyres and their bamboo work-ladder.

At last we came to the village itself, high up at the head of a valley. There was an old three storey schoolhouse, maybe from the 1950s, but now abandoned in favour of the larger, newer school in Anji township, a 15 minute drive away. Not to be wasted though, the schoolhouse had been turned over to all manner of useful activities – grain was being stored there, the local drunk had taken up residence in a corner, and a lot of washing was being dried on its covered balconies. On the ground floor a woman was cooking a communal lunch for many of the locals in an enormous wok. We climbed up through the washing to the roof, for a fantastic view – a panorama of the whole valley, vegetable plots, rows of tea, and stands of bamboo.

The villagers were surprised to see so many foreigners in one place, but they smiled a lot and tried to work out why on earth we would have an interest in their end-of-the-road village. They were all hoping to move on to bigger and better things, like everyone else in small villages all over the country. Shanghai is full of people from villages just like this one, working as odd jobs men and garbage recyclers, waitresses and cleaners. It’s hard to imagine they could like Shanghai better than this idyllic rural spot, but I was told the winters here are so harsh the water pipes freeze and they have to chip ice to melt for drinking water, and that there are frequent power cuts and no heating. Not so idyllic after all, but very beautiful nonetheless to our ignorant eyes. 

Anji Nine Dragon Valley

Apologies for the short break in transmission but I have been in the wifi-less wilds of the Anji Bamboo Forests for the last 3 days. Escaping from the urban jungle for my birthday, we drove for hours to a remote spot about an hour past Moganshan, through Anji township to the magnificent and sparsely populated Nine Dragon Valley.

This place is incredibly beautiful – lush green bamboo densely covers the steep hills, and between the hills mountain streams run cold and deep, spilling over into small waterfalls. From the top of the mountain to the bottom are nine waterfalls, each representing a mythical dragon with its own story. Dragons figure heavily in the myths and legends attached to natural wonders in China, and this place has nine dragons! Very auspicious. 

Although it was the weekend, it wasn’t crowded. A lot of Anji’s tourists come from Shanghai, and as everyone back in Shanghai was working the weekend to make up for this week’s three day Dragon Boat Festival, we were just about the only visitors. Perfect.

We took a trail walk up and over the mountain top on the first morning, to work up a big appetite for lunch (isn’t that why anyone goes for a long walk??). It’s been a long time since I was surrounded by so much green – as you walk through the bamboo forest the ground is covered with tiny wildflowers of all colours, but around you and above you is nothing but green – as the light filters through the top of the bamboo it becomes the colour of jade, and under the bamboo canopy it feels cool even though the day is hot and humid. 

The bamboo forest looks wild, but all this bamboo is being cultivated for harvest, and every trunk is marked with the name of the farmer, and the age of the bamboo so that it can be cut down at the correct time. Bamboo shoots not intended for cultivation are cut off for food, and many of Anji’s famous dishes centre around fresh or dried bamboo shoots. 

Anji’s hills also produce some of the most famous green tea in China, Anji White Tea (Anji Báichá 安吉 白茶) Every tiny plot of land not given over to bamboo farming is used to plant terraced rows of tea bushes, many clinging precariously to the sides of the steepest hills. The fresh green tips are picked and dried to make the tea – a delicate, light-flavoured and very pure green tea. 

After hours of climbing and clambering over and down each of the Nine Dragon waterfalls we returned at last to the base of the Nine Dragon Valley and cooled our hot feet in the river. Time for lunch!

One of Life’s Great Mysteries Solved

There are many little everyday mysteries in China. Some I know I will never crack, others reveal themselves to me gradually, as my knowledge of the language and the people increases. Yet others hit me with a blinding flash, like this one.

Every single day of my life in Shanghai so far has been punctuated by the sound of a recorded male voice saying something unknowable in mandarin. It’s played from a tinny portable cassette player attached to a small loudspeaker, and mounted on the front of a non-descript motor-scooter. The motor-scooter driver rides slowly up and down my lane with the drone of this mysterious sing-song message ringing in my ears. It sounds to me like ‘kung now, dee now, bin yang, she ye my my’ 

What does it mean? Is it a communist slogan to cheer the masses as they go about their daily drudgery? Is it a kind of motivational message? I later realise that there is a whole army of scooter messenger-givers, going up and down every street, lane and alleyway in the city every day. What does it mean? Will I ever know?

So last week I’m enjoying a pleasant ramble in the Old City, and I lose myself down an alleyway of old lanes I’ve never been in before. Suddenly, I come across a forest of second-hand whitegoods. Every little store front is packed to the brim with old fridges, old washing machines, old TVs, airconditioners and computers. Then I see one. A scooter-messenger. With an old fridge strapped precariously to the back of his scooter. A light bulb goes off in the dim recesses of my Basic Mandarin brain – refrigerator is ‘bing xiang’. At the speed of…oh…..paint drying my brain pieces together the other bits of the puzzle……..I’ve got it!!

‘Kong tiao, dian nao, bing xiang, xi yi, mai mai’

Loosely translated as a message, not from Chairman Mao as I had thought, but from the whitegoods market sellers: 

‘Air-conditioners! Computers! Refrigerators! Washing machines! Buy and Sell!’

I’m going to make it the basis of my next manifesto………..

Wulumuqi Lu – Smoky Pork

Wulumuqi Lu in the French Concession is one of the best food streets in Shanghai, not for restaurants so much as for fresh food supplies. Walking along Wulumuqi Lu is a feast for the senses (although the feast may have a few courses you’re not so keen on). In the space of one block you can walk through wafts of slow-cooked pork, freshly gutted fish, stinky tofu, ripe mangoes and sweet lychees. Followed by fresh ginger, steamed pork buns, rotting garbage and lillies. It’s the street of a hundred smells!

I have a few favourite shops and shopkeepers I’ll write about and photograph over the coming weeks. The first is the smoky pork shop. Smoked meat, pork in particular, is a staple of Chinese cooking, and a way of preserving the meat and enhancing its flavour. Smoky pork sits somewhere between bacon and prosciutto in taste, quite intense, and only small amounts sliced very finely are needed to give a lot of flavour to stir-fried vegetables. I wonder if I will ever be able to find these things when I get back to Australia, so for now I’m just going to enjoy it while it lasts.  

The guy who runs the smoky pork shop is always very friendly and waves every time I walk past or go in to buy something, but he had an acute attack of shyness when I tried to take his photo. So here are his cleavers instead. I’m so jealous! Look at how those blades gleam and the worn wooden handles shine, as they sit stacked side by side on his heavy wooden chopping block. 

Can a Smoothie Cure Cancer?

This quiet little juice bar, 365 Lohas, has sprung up close to my house. Attracted by the astro-turf decor I went to have a look at their menu this morning. There are lots of juices and smoothies on offer – but if I thought they would have something like a Berry Buzz, or a Pineapple Mint Frenzy, or even a straight and simple Freshly Squeezed Orange Juice I was very, very wrong.

There are times in Shanghai when I see a new juice bar (or sandwich bar, or hamburger bar, or wine bar) and I think ‘Oh! I just feel like a fresh juice….(or sandwich/hamburger/glass of white)’ and I have a little non-China moment. But this is China, where nothing is what it seems, and even if it seems familiar I will soon come thudding back to earth with a crushing reminder that I’m actually in the PRC.

Take this place for one – I’m looking for the juice menu, but there is none – there is a list of symptoms. Run your eyes over the list until you find one that fits you, then take the juice treatment recommended.

So what’s on offer? I look down the first column….

OK – fever, cough – not so out there. Halitosis – stand well back from the counter when you order that one. Parched throat and Hiccup – also not weird, in fact a glass of water would fix those…..but Inappetency?? What the..? Is it a lack of appetite? Or is it impotency?
Intrigued now, I look further….

So all those who’ve had a boob job? Or felt puffy? Or lost a few pounds on a diet? Who knew you could have slugged back a juice to get the same results? Been hoarding toxins? Get rid of them! Drink this!

Actually, on second thoughts maybe don’t drink the papaya/milk/tomato combo. And give the gherkin/carrot/orange smoothie a swerve. Unless, of course, you like that blend of flavours. Yum.
What else is on their list?

Further down the list I can now see that inappetency has probably got something to do with gut problems and not erectile dysfunction, because here it is alongside all the other gut symptoms. Although I’m telling you, Harrison’s Textbook of Internal Medicine has nothing written in it about Intestinal Tract Ageing. Yet another part of my ageing body to worry about. And I wish my urinary tract would stop inflecting. So annoying. Thank God it’s totally curable at 365 Lohas. I wonder what else they can cure?

And yes, you guessed it, they can handle the big C as well. These guys deserve the Nobel Prize. But can a juice guy tell the difference between a cancer and a tumor? Can anyone? 

I’m now feeling quite fatigued by all these illnesses. It’s like being back at work and I’m having a few misgivings about stopping by after all. I’ll probably get insomnia from thinking about disease, and the tiredness will make me testy and sullen, and I’ll start forgetting stuff like I always do when I’m tired. 

I look back at the lists -I don’t need to worry at all! 365 Lohas will fix all of these things! Look!

Don’t you love China?

There are always funny things happening here. Read about the Crocodile Wars, Laundry Wars, Helpful Shanghai Road Signs, Shanghai Taxi Drivers or my recent Shanghai Haircut for a good giggle.

OK, Any Clues?

Today is a guess-the-fruit competition. Bet you can’t get it. These luscious, juicy dark plum-coloured beauties appeared in the fruit shops here in Shanghai about 2 weeks ago, and are starting to disappear already. Their season is very short, and I’ve never seen them before moving to Shanghai. They taste a little like a mulberry but are the shape and size of a knobbly plum. No skin to peel either, just bite straight in, then spit out the small seed.

For the curious amongst you, try googling ‘weird Chinese fruit’ and that should send you in the right direction. I’ll give you the answer tomorrow.

Oh…and many apologies to all the nanchanglu subscribers – thank you for your patience whilst some formatting issues are being ironed out.  You will no longer receive four copies of each post in your reader (just one I hope!).

I Love Shanghai!

The city is looking amazingly fabulous right now. I love it! The dreariness of winter has vanished and in its place, an explosive riot of rainbow neon and LEDs has transformed Shanghai into a city of lights. Before Expo began, the lights of the buildings along the river were turned off at a sensible and practical 9pm, even though the city itself never sleeps. Now the Bund has taken a leap into hyperspace with every conceivable surface covered in pink, red, blue and green fluorescent neon lights; the Pearl Tower looks like it’s ready to rocket off into the stratosphere at any second; and all the high-rises have been transformed into giant TV screens. Guess the Party will be footing the electricity bill for all this then…

The Aurora building in Pudong has the best display – 50 storeys of animated Coke advertisements, electronic fireworks, Expo ads and my own personal favourite – ISH with a big pulsating red heart. Say it loud and proud – I Love Shanghai!

Shanghai Street Food #7 Jiān Bǐng 煎餅

I rarely meet a street food I don’t like, and jiān bǐng 煎餅 are right up there with the best. They are usually eaten as a breakfast food, and you can spot a vendor by the long queue of hungry Shanghainese waiting to buy one on their way to work. At around 3 kuai (50 cents) it’s a filling and satisfying breakfast that will keep you going until lunchtime.

These amazing crispy egg pancakes are the stuff of legend – there are whole website forums devoted to them, YouTube has dozens of videos of them being cooked, and the poetic longings of expat Chinese on the internet for genuine jian bing are delightful. Personally, I can’t seem to get equally worked up about Kellogg’s NutriGrain, even though it is Iron man Food, probably because I actually prefer a Chinese breakfast food to cereal or toast. Horrifying, I know – breakfast seems to be the meal held closest to the hearts of anyone living away from home, but there it is.

This is my local jian bing vendor, who starts work at around 6am. The jian bing itself is cooked on a heavy iron griddle – she places a spoonful of the sticky mung-bean flour batter onto the plate, then uses a crepe spreader to make a thin pancake. 
While it’s becoming nicely crisp at the edges, she cracks two eggs and spreads these thinly.

Then come a variety of toppings – chopped coriander, diced scallions, finely chopped pickled greens, and sometimes black sesame seeds. 

By now, the underside of the pancake is brown and crispy, and she deftly folds it in half. On the semi-circular pancake she now spreads several sauces – hoisin, red bean sauce, and chilli sauce. It is the alchemy of the sauce combination that makes jian bing so fantastic.

Lastly, she places a crisped rectangle of fried pastry, bread, tofu skin or wonton wrapper inside (this is for the essential component of crunch, contrasting with the soft middle of the crepe) and quickly folds the whole thing in thirds. Now she gives it a quick karate chop to break the fried rectangle, folds it again and slices it into two halves. Pop it into a bag and you have instant breakfast-to-go.
If you’d like a recipe or more details, I recommend the 4-part series by the girls at Beijing Haochi, who have a particular devotion to jian bing. Theirs is very faithful to the original Tianjin jian bing, from which this Shanghainese version differs a little. But they all taste great!

Love street food? I do! I’m working my way through all of Shanghai’s street foods, one by one. This is Number 7 in the Shanghai Street Food series. Enjoy tasting them all!

Number 1   Roast Sweet Potatoes
Number 2   Snack-on-a-stick 
Number 3   Liangpi – a spicy cold noodle dish
Number 4   Langzhou Lamian – hand-pulled noodles
Number 5   Cong You Bing – fried shallot pancakes
Number 6   Baozi – steamed buns, Shanghai style
Number 7   Jian Bing – the famous egg pancake
Number 8   Dan Gao – street cakes
Number 9   Shao mai – sticky rice treats
Number 10  Summer on a Stick – fresh fruits

Number 11  You Tiao – deep-fried breadsticks
Number 12  Dan Juan – egg rolls
Number 13  Shao Kao – street barbecue
Number 14  Bao Mi Hua – exploding rice flowers
Number 15  Chou Doufu – stinky tofu
Number 16  Bing Tang Shan Zha – crystal sugar hawthorns
Number 17  Mutton Polo
Number 18  Yumi Bang – puffed corn sticks
Number 19  Mian Hua Tang – cotton candy
Number 20  You Dunzi – fried radish cakes

Number 21  Suzhou Shi Yue Bing – homestyle mooncakes 
Number 22  Gui Hua Lian’ou – honeyed lotus root stuffed with sticky rice
Number 23  Cong You Ban Mian – scallion oil noodles
Number 24  Guotie – potsticker dumplings
Number 25  Nuomi Cai Tou – fried clover pancakes
Number 26  Da Bing, Shao Bing – sesame breakfast pastries
Number 27  Ci Fan – sticky rice breakfast balls
Number 28  Gui Hua Gao – steamed osmanthus cake
Number 29  Zongzi – bamboo leaf wrapped sticky rice
Number 30  Shengjianbao – pan-fried dumplings

Number 31  Mala Tang – DIY spicy soup

Bean Fever

Shanghai is in the grip of bean fever – broad beans are in season and everywhere I look they’re being packed, transported, unpacked, haggled over, bought, sold, shelled and eaten. I never much liked broad beans until I came to China, but these are amazingly good – plump, fresh and delicious.

On early morning walks I see the broad bean boys, out on their scooters and bikes, heavily laden with bulging great green sacks of beans, travelling from Bean Central -the main vegetable wholesale market in west Shanghai – along the broad bean arterial roads and bean highways to the city’s wet markets. Every square inch of footpath now is taken up with broad bean activities – farmers from out of town spread out canvas sheets and sell their beans from rough bamboo baskets, old couples sit side-by-side and shell the beans together, young women shell and gossip. They grab the big fat pods and pop them in three places along their length – pop, pop, pop – to release the beans inside.

And how do you cook them? Once shelled, blanch them quickly in boiling water. Then stir fry them then with loads of garlic and black beans, and lastly a dash of sesame oil.