Back to blog index

Traitor Lamingtons: How to ‘Bring a Plate’ Without Really Trying

Nothing strikes fear in my expat heart more than the letter I received yesterday. It was from the school, and for tomorrow’s School Picnic I have been asked to ‘bring an ethnic dish of your choice from your native country’. Bugger. Even if Australia had a national dish of any kind (pavlova? sausage rolls?) it surely isn’t going to be easy to reproduce in Shanghai, 10,000 miles from the nearest Woolies supermarket, my Kitchenaid mixer, and an oven that actually works (see Furnace Brownies for my last baking disaster). Those buggers. This is less like the school picnic and more like a challenge from Survivor. I salute the mother who brought along a box of KFC drumsticks last year. Her native country? America.

Call it a stroke of genius, but today out of the blue I realised I could cobble together a plate of lamingtons without too much stress. Hands up who knows what a lamington is?? OK, hands down, none of you have any idea. A lamington is Australia’s national cake, a delicious concoction of day-old sponge dipped in chocolate sauce then rolled in coconut. Apparently named after the Governor of Queensland c1901,  Lord Lamington, after his cook was called on to rustle up something in a hurry for afternoon tea. All that was on hand was a bit of sponge cake left over from the day before, and a pot of melted chocolate. The coconut was to stop it from being too sticky to handle.

A recipe follows, and I call these traitor lamingtons because not a single ingredient comes from Australia, and also because I am a traitor to the baking cause for not cooking the sponge from scratch. If you are virtuous enough to make your own sponge, leave it a day to get nice and stale so it doesn’t break up when handled. Of course you can make them with any old ingredients you want, but it is quite fascinating from a food-miles perspective to see where all of my ingredients have come from.
To make 18 lamingtons you’ll need:

2 Chinese sponge cakes (Carrefour sells plain sponges) 
4 cups of Japanese icing sugar
1/2 cup of American cocoa
15g of New Zealand butter
2/3 cup Chinese milk
2 cups of Indonesian dessicated coconut

First make the chocolate sauce: mix together the icing sugar, cocoa, butter and milk over a very low heat until smooth, with no lumps. The consistency should be cream-like – quite runny. Add a little more milk if needed to get to the desired consistency.

Prepare the sponge cubes by slicing up your cake as shown. Any size up to 5cm cubes is OK, these are 3cm cubes because that was the size of the sponge. Carefully slice off the crust because the crust won’t absorb the chocolate sauce. 
Prepare your work station with everything ready to go – sponge cubes, dish of chocolate sauce, and dish of coconut, and a plate for the finished lamingtons.
Never thought I’d see the day where making lamingtons involved a pair of chopsticks, but they’re perfect for dipping the fragile sponge into the chocolate sauce without damaging it. The sponge should be thoroughly coated, then allow the excess sauce to drip off.
Now dunk the sponge cube in the coconut until every side is covered. Refrigerate for half an hour to help the sauce set.
Eat. Think of home.

Shanghai Street Food #11 Yóu Tiáo – Deep-Fried Bread Sticks

Yóu tiáo 油条 are nothing more than deep-fried twists of bread, salted and crisp. They are almost exclusively a breakfast food, like jian bing, and are usually eaten with congee (zhōu) or with a bowl of steaming sweetened soy milk. 

The vendors get started at around 5am and are still making them way past eleven, for all the late-risers. It’s so commonplace to see someone in pyjamas and flip-flops walking back home with a plastic bag filled with three or four you tiao sticking out of it, for the family breakfast.

Yóu tiáo are fantastic when pulled fresh from the deep-fryer. The foot-long bread can be separated into two side-by-side pieces, with a crisp, almost waffle-like exterior, and a light and chewy interior. Like all fried things, the flavour depends entirely on the quality of oil being used and the freshness. Best consumed within ten minutes of cooking, otherwise they become very tough and rubbery.

The yóu tiáo are made from yeast dough, rolled flat, then cut into short narrow strips. Each strip is placed on top of a second, then pressed lightly together lengthways to make the join that can later be pulled apart after cooking. The baker then deftly twists and stretches them until they are the right length, and lays them side by side in the deep fryer until they are golden brown and nicely crisp. Just drop your money into the ‘cash register’ on the counter (one kuai each, about 16 cents) and your take-away breakfast is good to go.


Enjoyed that? We’re already up to Number 11 in this series on delicious and cheap Shanghai Street Foods. Here are links to the others, if you’re feeling peckish. Everyone especially likes the noodles at Number 4, and the steamed buns at Number 6.

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

A Look of Sublime Satisfaction

The four days of frenzied schmoozing that is the Shanghai Contemporary Art Fair wrapped up over the weekend, with a huge bulge in the pockets of all those gallery owners. I find it very trying having to come up with something intelligent to say about the art, so I don’t. And anyway, my way of interpreting contemporary art is embarrassingly skin-deep – I walk along the rows of artworks mentally noting ‘Like!….Don’t like……Don’t like….Like!’. I have found this method quite idiot proof. 

I do like these works by Hebei artist Li Yibing, titled ‘meditation series 2010’. What is that look on his fat little face? Sublime satisfaction, contentment, contemplation? And those fabulous chubby naked baby legs? He looks very happy even though he is wearing no trousers. I’ve seen the same look after a really choice bit of roast duck passes someone’s lips. I might buy it when I have a spare gazillion kuai.

Spicy Lamb Kebabs and Flatbreads

The first time I walked past a Uyghur (wee-grrr) restaurant I did a huge double take at the sight of the brown-haired, fair-skinned green-eyed guy manning the charcoal grill outside. I wondered why this Irishman was so down on his luck that he was working the grill in a Shanghai hole-in-the-wall, but actually I had just seen my first Uyghur.

The Uyghurs live in the far, far west of China, in a place called Xinjiang (‘the new frontier’) and have a history so complex and turbulent that I couldn’t summarize it in less than eight volumes. Suffice to say that it borders with China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Russia, Mongolia and Tajikistan, and pretty much all of those countries, and especially China, have wanted pieces of it at on time or another. It’s currently labelled as The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of The People’s Republic of China, but it is nothing like the rest of the country. The people look different, speak a different language, and follow Islam.

Xinjiang does have something in common with the rest of China though – in the same way that the Cantonese have colonised the rest of the world with restaurants serving the same rota of sweet and sour pork, mongolian lamb, sichuan beef and fried rice, so too the Uygurs have colonised the all of China with their restaurants. Practically every street in Shanghai has a brightly coloured Uyghur restauarant with a charcoal grill facing the street and staffed entirely by men in embroidered vests and small white caps.

The food is simple and based on mutton and lamb, and various breads. It’s hard to go past the kebabs – chunks of tender lamb on long, wooden-handled metal skewers, sprinkled with salt, pepper, cumin and chilli mixture and grilled over charcoal. Smoky, savoury, and delicious. We also tried the samsas – small meat-filled bread parcels cooked in a charcoal oven until crispy on the outside, and Uyghur potatoes -potato discs doused in a spiced flour mixture the deep-fried. The meal always comes with flatbreads (nang) and tea, not green but black tea, served in an old battered copper pot, and poured into thick white bowls to drink.

I watch the Uyghur men. Their restaurants are full of camaraderie and laughter, with a lot of good-natured fooling around. In the evenings there is often music, dancing, and more banter. Looking at them, it seems hard to believe the dire warnings of the Chinese government about the political situation in Xinjiang, and the ‘Uyghur threat’. I look forward to visiting someday. I know the food will be worth the trip.

Delicate Fragrant Love Plum

I should know better than to buy random packets of food to try out, each time disappointed yet again that the taste doesn’t live up to the packaging, and possibly dicing with death given the alarming standards of food safety in China. (Another melamine milk scandal this week. The factory had been saving up their melamine until they thought the fuss had died down, then put it straight back into their milk). 
I was at Hualian Supermarket the other day and these lovely looking sweets caught my eye. They looked just like Italian amaretti, in their cheery sherbet-coloured wrappers in oranges, pinks, blues, mauves and lemons.  They seemed to be some kind of plum, and unsure which one to try I opted for the one with the best name – Delicate Fragrant Love Plum. There they were, right next to the cat food. That should have been a warning sign. 
In rising anticipation I unwrapped the striped diamond wrapper only to find a second plain paper wrapper inside that, then a third plastic wrapper. Inside that were a pair of small shiny shrivelled sheep turds. At least that’s what they looked like. 
And the taste? Medicinal, prune-like, with a whack of sulphur, and a salty aftertaste.  
Should this description have failed to put you off, here’s what the packet looks like. Remember, they’re right next to the cat food.

Nanchang Lu, Friday Afternoon 5pm

I love watching the life of the street. Now that you can comfortably sit outdoors without rivulets of sweat trickling down your back, the streets are crowded with all sorts of activities it was just too hot to enjoy until now. Eating noodles, cleaning vegetables, chewing the fat with friends, washing your hair and drinking tea have all moved from indoors to out on the footpath. Mahjong and card tables are springing up everywhere. 
As soon as work is over, grab a chair, a glass of tea and set up a game. I’ve never thought of either Chinese poker or mahjong as spectator sports, but as soon as that green baize table comes out, so do the crowds of observers, advice-givers, and general hangers-on. The fortunes of the players rise and fall with the swell of the crowd – their agitation builds to a crescendo of hopping from foot to foot and wringing their hands when an exciting development is about to occur in the game, and then they curse and walk off disgustedly when a player makes a foolish move. No pressure whatsoever. 

Eat Your Greens! Yunnan Ham with Fresh Soy Beans

This is the easiest and most delicious Chinese dish ever. I learned to make it from the Shanghainese ayi who cooks lunch very day for the office downstairs. I don’t speak any Shanghainese mind you (it’s as different from Mandarin as Spanish is from English) but I just perch near the wok and watch the action. She chatters away, I nod. She asks me a question, I nod and shake my head in alternating order. She thinks I’m a complete idiot but I don’t care, she’s a really good cook. I’m learning a lot.
It doesn’t look completely exciting but the rich umami flavours of the soy beans and the salty ham in this dish make it very, very more-ish and completely satisfying. There are never, ever leftovers. I’ve given it to kids and who won’t eat green vegetables and they practically lick the bowl clean, and when the ayi makes it for the office guys it’s the first dish to be emptied.
Yunnan Ham with Fresh Soybeans
Ingredients: 
Fresh soy beans, 500g, or 300g shelled frozen soybeans
Baby bok choy, or snow peas (mange-tout) 150g
Yunnan ham – 50g -you can’t get this smoky, salty dry-cured ham outside China, but the closest thing is prosciutto or speck
Garlic – 4 cloves, chopped finely
Oyster sauce – a splash
Cooking oil
First shell the soybeans. This is the only difficult part of the dish, because the little buggers have a very tough hairy skin that doesn’t give way easily. Give the shelled beans a good wash and remove all the little white bits attached to the ends of the beans. Now steam or boil the soy beans for five minutes (to soften them). Blanch.
Dice the garlic, slice the ham, and wash the bok choy.
In a hot wok, stir fry the garlic and ham in a splash of oil. 
As soon as the garlic and ham brown, add the part-cooked soybeans, cook for a further two minutes.
Add the bok choy and at the same time half a tablespoon of oyster sauce. Stir to combine and cook for 1 minute, until the bok choy looks wilted.
Serve. Eat. Lick bowl.

A Niang Noodles, Sinan Lu

So you’ve tried Langzhou hand-pulled noodles, now you need to eat yellow fish noodles, the house specialty of A Niang’s Noodle Shop on Sinan Lu. This place is virtually invisible to foreigners, yet is apparently known all over China. A customer once told me its fame is in its longevity – it was one of the few noodle shops to stay open continuously during the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution. He thought it had been open since the early 40s. 
Personally I think its fame lies with its simplicity – although they sell other kinds of noodles, everyone comes here to eat huang yu mian – yellow fish noodles. There is some variety seems in the way of side dishes – choose from xian cai – salted vegetables, pickles, or spiced poatatoes with pork. These you can eat these separately or dunk them in your noodles. 
Once you have ordered and paid (20 yuan, about $3.20) find a seat in the packed canteen-style interior. You’ll need to hover menacingly at the elbow of someone who is almost finished eating -no lingering here over the last few mouthfuls. As soon as a bottom rises from one of the orange plastic seats, four people rush to take their place. There are no drinks, no napkins, and no second chances. Take your chopsticks from the communal tub on each table. 
Now you need to listen really hard for your number being called.  This is an exercise in intense concentration for me, because if you miss your number some other hungry bugger will likely grab your bowl. It doesn’t help that the waitresses all use their own way of number-calling (Number one hundred and ninety! One-nine-zero! A hundred ninety! Number one ninety! In Chinese they sound even more different). Wave your arms enthusiastically when yours is called!
You now have your bowl. Despite the crushing crowds at your table, envelop yourself in a little cloud. Smell the fragrant steam from the tea coloured broth. Admire the plump sweet fillets of fish sitting on top of the glistening fresh noodles. Savour the sweet, briny taste of the pickled greens on the side. Raise a hank of noodles to your mouth and slurp them in noisily. Tip the bowl and drink the soup from the edge. Aaahh…..
A Niang Noodles, 36 Sinan Lu, near Huai Hai Lu in the French Concession.
Open from 7am daily.

A Funny Thing Happened to my Blog…

You have no doubt noticed that Life on Nanchang Lu now looks completely different. I’d love to say I had a team of web designers give it a makeover, but actually it was a complete accident, of the kind that only happens to really tech-savvy people like myself. I managed to vanish the old blog with a single click, and in its place, got something horrifically bright pink and splashed with paint. Bugger.

A few hours later and the pink paint has evolved into this, I think it’s much less frightening to look at. What do you think?

There have been some other less accidental developments too….I’m excited to be a featured publisher on Foodbuzz, a giant food blogging website. They’re even sponsoring a bowl of noodles a month in the way of ad revenue – thanks! Shortly, a really exciting competition will be starting up in which I’ll be one of two thousand competitors. It’s called Project Food Blog. Project Runway it ain’t, but there will edge of the seat voting and cruel knockouts every week from September 12.

I’m hoping to make it past Round 1, but that seems unlikely unless my technical skills improve….

I’ll keep you all updated. 

The Shanghai Fabric Market Part 2



Welcome to Part 2 of Fiona’s Guide to Shanghai’s Fabric Market. In Part 1 you can read a step-by-step guide to having something tailor-made and details of five stores I have recommended. Today I’ll cover another five stores.

Shop 374

There are very few tailors in the fabric market who will make simple, unfussy children’s clothes,  so when Shop 374 opened it was long overdue. Catering primarily to girls, they make dresses, tops and skirts in Liberty-style prints, but can also make boys’ shirts in checks or plains, and women’s dresses and tops. Nothing over 200 yuan ($34). Allow 5 days.



Shop 355  Cashmere Haute Couture

I had never worn cashmere knits before coming here, but having them made-to-measure is so reasonable compared with what I would pay in Australia it suddenly seems affordable. For 800-1200 yuan ($130-200), choose a shade from any of the hundred on offer and then browse through the racks of men’s and women’s knitwear to choose a style. Allow 7-10 days.



Shop 160 ‘Ping’


Ping’s shop is a recent discovery, but I wish I had seen past the not-overly-exciting samples outside and taken a look in before now. Ping is a great copyist, and can reproduce practically anything in the way of womenswear, and she also makes fabulous lightweight cotton/silk summer maxi dresses in a flattering tiered bias cut (about 480 yuan, $80) and similar skirts. In the hot weather it’s exactly what you feel like wearing. Allow 5-7 days.



Shop 145 ‘Chinese Style Dress Shop’

Exactly as the name implies, these tailors specialize in everything Chinese – qipaos (cheongsams) with contrasting piped froggings, silk brocade jackets, and Chinese style silk blouses. They are also happy to make their dresses and jackets in children’s sizes. This is still the only shop I’ve come across whose overnight service can be trusted. Usually though, allow 3 days. Prices vary with most items less than 300 yuan ($50). Their brocades can be bought by the metre (45 yuan, $8) and make great cushions.



Shop 195

For tailoring, I find it very helpful to have someone who speaks excellent English to help with subtleties of fit or style. Angela works here with her father, and together they make a great team – one a top-class English speaker and fitter, the other a top-notch tailor. Business suits, business shirts and sports jackets are their specialty, primarily for men, but their womenswear is also excellent. Expect to pay 100 yuan for a shirt ($16), and 600 yuan ($100) up for a suit, depending on the grade of wool suiting chosen. Allow 5-7 days.



The South Bund Soft Spinning Material Market
399 Lujiabang Lu
上海南外轻纺面料市场, 399陆家浜路

Open 10am-6pm seven days