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25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 1 Five Spice Gingerbread

First of December already! As a special Life on Nanchang Lu Christmas treat I’m sending you on a Chinese Christmas journey for the next 25 days. Every day will be different – sometimes funny, sometimes serious, very often about food; all in all a bit like a typical month for me here in China.  Christmas time is when I miss home the most – for me, it’s the memory of the sun, the heat, the beach and seafood, Christmas the Aussie way. And despite the heat, I make gingerbread every single Christmas without fail, ironically with a snowflake-shaped cookie cutter. In the intense heat I have to freeze the gingerbread dough for an hour between batches so it doesn’t turn into a molten buttery disaster, and carry out the whole process on a slab of super-chilled marble. The heat of the oven can be unbearable when it’s 35 degrees inside the house and I swear that next year, I am bloody well not making gingerbread for Christmas! But I always do……
This year I’m baking it the proper way, in the proper season. It’s cold and rainy outside, so the gingerbread barely needs to be chilled at all in order to keep its shape, and the oven gives the kitchen a wonderful warm cosy feel. This is my favourite, and very easy gingerbread recipe, with the addition of Chinese Five Spice rather than mixed spice. Five spice is an intoxicating mixture of ground star-anise, cloves, cassia, sichuan pepper and fennel seeds with the exact proportions of each spice designed to keep yin and yang in balance. It’s used predominately in Chinese savoury dishes, but I find it works very successfuly in sweet dishes too – poached pears, spiced cumquats, and spicy fruit cake. It gives the gingerbread more depth of flavour, and don’t worry, the sichuan pepper is aromatic rather than hot when used in these small quantities.

Five Spice Gingerbread

Ingredients
  • 125g butter
  • 1/4 cup soft brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup golden syrup
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 2 1/2cups plain flour
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon Chinese Five Spice powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon bicarb of soda

Glaze
  • 200g icing sugar
  • juice of half a lemon
  • water

Method
  • preheat oven to 180C
  • cream together butter, sugar and golden syrup
  • add egg and beat well
  • add dry ingredients and mix well
  • turn onto a floured surface and knead until smooth
  • wrap dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30minutes
  • roll out dough to to 4mm thickness and cut into desired shape with a cookie cutter
  • bake on trays lined with baking paper for 12 minutes or until golden
  • cool for five minutes before icing


For Glaze
  • mix together icing sugar and lemon juice until glaze has a runny consistency
  • add water if necessary to achieve desired consistency
  • drizzle over cookies
  • relax! have a cuppa! eat! 

Sunday Brunch: A Shanghai Institution

There’s seafood, more than you could ever eat in a single sitting, and your own pesonalised sushi chef; a guy is manning the Peking duck counter just hoping you’ll stop by, plus someone is waiting to cook you any kind of pasta dish you might be craving. Then there’s cooked-to-order souffle and a Haagen Dazs icecream bar to follow. Did I mention free-flow Mumm champagne? Welcome to Shanghai Sunday brunch, the city’s favourite way to spend a cold, grey Sunday. The Marriott at Tomorrow Square has, in addition to all of this, an Indian curry smorgasbord with eight kinds of pickles and chutneys, and a spectacular view over People’s Square from its 38th floor location. We had a wonderful afternoon meeting new people from all over the globe, and a few from our own backyard (including a fellow Aussie who kept us updated with the cricket scores for The Ashes throughout the afternoon). 
Brunch has become so popular, and there is so much competition for the brunch dollar amongst the big hotels in Shanghai, that they have gone totally over the top in outdoing each other to win your business.  Who has a foie gras station? Who can offer the best selection of freshest oysters? Who will make you a cocktail to suit your mood? Who grills fresh Tasmanian salmon or New Zealand lamb racks while you wait? And chocolate fountains? And caviar? And? And? And?
They usually operate on an all-you-can-eat basis, with complete run of everything on the floor, and often with free-flow champagne included. Nearly every big hotel in Shanghai offers one. Personally, I can only cope with about one brunch a month, because they have just become so decadent, and I always drink way too much champagne, and can’t resist the foie gras even though I know I should, so the hangover starts to kick in before I’ve even gone to bed. Evil, evil, evil. Good thing the holiday season is coming up so I can really slow down on all the eating and drinking, right??
JW Marriott Tomorrow Square
399 Nanjing Xi Lu
南京西路399号
Ph +86 21 53594969
Weekend brunch 558 yuan per person

Shanghai Street Food #14 Bào Mǐ Huā 爆米花 Exploding Rice Flowers


It’s 5pm and already dusk in the warren of streets down behind the fabric market on Lujiabang Lu. Autumn is fading fast and soon winter’s short days and long cold nights will be creeping in. Ahead, in the darkening light, I can see an orange glow coming from a strange set-up on the pavement. There’s a crouched figure, surrounded by sacks of grain, and bags of what look like….like puffed rice breakfast cereal. He’s slowly rotating the strangest looking medieval cast-iron device over a naked flame, powered by a gas cylinder sitting next to his legs. Smoking a cigarette, he turns the handle of the black contraption, and I notice a pressure gauge near it’s neck. The needle is pointing to the red. The whole thing looks kind of dangerous. 

Then, the explosion occurs. I’m not expecting it, so there is no photograph of the actual moment and I may or may not have slightly screamed, and/or flung my hands over my head to protect me from the shrapnel. He has directed the neck of the iron chamber into the mouth of a big wide rubber tub to his left, which empties into a sack. A lever is quickly pushed, and BANG! white puffed rice explodes spectacularly into the tub with a giant cloud of black smoke, puffing dramatically in size as soon as it leaves the pressurised confines of the iron chamber. Around us, the force of the explosion has set off car-alarms all down the street, but hungry buyers are already pushing forward to get a bag of the still hot puffed rice. 

I only learn afterwards that the name of this street snack is bao mi hua – which translates poetically as ‘exploding rice flowers’. If I’d known that beforehand I might have stood a little further back… The rice is heated under pressure until it reaches the right point for puffing (that would be pressure gauge in the red), then the sudden release of super-high pressure causes the rice grains to explode into light white puffs. Just like popcorn really, but you can’t make this one at home. As well as puffed rice this vendor also puffs other grains, like millet. It is most commonly eaten as a snack on its own, or you can add hot water and eat it for breafast. 3 yuan a bag, two bags for 5 yuan.


In a nod to OHS, notice the flimsy piece of plywood protecting passing pedestrians and shiny black cars from exploding rice.


Catch up here on the other street foods you’ve missed!

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

Taxi Driver Dictionary

Let me introduce Shanghai Da Zhong Taxi Driver Number 178824. He’s a chap with a nervous smile and a slightly anxious disposition, and he passes the time at traffic lights and between fares by studying a bit of English. Like many taxi drivers, he figures that learning English could potentially make his life easier with all those foreign passengers and even bring about unexpected opportunities. English is seen as a kind of passport to better work and higher pay, perhaps as a private driver.
But driver 178824 isn’t interested in any old basic ‘hello, goodbye, turn left, turn right’ English. He has decided to concentrate only on words that he finds intensely interesting. Written on flash cards, in alphabetic order, the English word is followed by the Chinese equivalent, and the phonetic pronunciation. Not quite what I was expecting when he handed them over for me to see. 
His lists run to the medical (haemuresis, myocarditis, hepatitis), the political (Hague, hakenkreuz – the German word meaning swastika, American consulate) and the esoteric (hanky-panky, mercurial).
Other than the listed words, which he read phonetically and slowly, he spoke not a single word of English. I was both intrigued and enormously impressed. Unlike most language students, he had decided to just jump right in at the deep end, and see where it led him.
I gave him a short list of H words of my own – hocus pocus, hoi polloi, hurricane and hegemony. And another of M words – mysterious, mythical, mercenary and machiavellian. Wonder what he’ll make of those?

Tofu and Chips: Surprisingly Delicious

I was never a fan of tofu. I think the problem is that in the west, it’s often used as a meat, egg or dairy substitute. Scrambled tofu? Tofu panacotta? Tofu chocolate mousse? Wrong, wrong, wrong. 
But in China, tofu has a life of its own. It even has a whole supermarket aisle of its own. There are more tofu products here than there are cuts of meat at my regular supermarket. Accordingly, in Chinese recipes, tofu is given the respect it deserves, with dishes dedicated to bringing out the best of its characteristics, not designed to fool you into thinking that you could be eating meat. 
I often see street vendors selling squares of fried tofu, seasoned with chili salt. They come with long toothpicks so you can eat them without getting messy. This was something new though – tofu with chips! An east meets west stroke of brilliance. The crinkle cut potatoes were first deep fried in the street-side wok, then drained and tipped onto the grill plate to get really delicious, along with some chili flakes, chopped spring onions, and  pepper. (That will be my family in the background, loking sceptical. But it only took one taste to win them over.) Yum! 5 yuan (80c) per dish. 

Episode 8: In Which Fiona Watches a LOT of TV



Do you know what that is? That’s a TV show about the Industrial Revolution, and it was riveting. Know why? Notice there’s no subtitles on the screen there? Huh? Yep. It’s in ENGLISH.

After nearly 18 months of pretending I didn’t care a hoot that I never saw any English language TV programmes, I caved. In fact we couldn’t even get Chinese TV at our house, thanks to the telephone installation guy accidentally cutting the cable from the aerial the month before we moved in. Plus we were still in our high and mighty ‘No, we won’t watch any TV when we live in China! We’ll…..read books…….and talk to each other…….and make sure we email and skype our friends!’. Well how the mighty have fallen. I caved. After watching yet another pirated DVD from Big Movie on the 4 inch screen of my laptop, requiring both supersonic eyesight and hearing, I caved.
A phonecall to Mr Zhang, our kind landlord, proved he was a man of action. No aerial cable? No satellite dish? No problem! He knew a guy who knew a guy who could get us English language channels via our ADSL connection. The next day, zap! English language TV! Pirated illegally from the Phillipines! For the last three days we have done no reading of books, or skyping of friends, or even talking to one another. No. We have just watched 56 channels of really bad TV, every waking hour. 
There is an Australia Channel, playing non-stop re-runs of a lame action 90s gameshow called Wipeout!, and nothing else. We also have a channel that plays NOTHING BUT episodes of So You Think You Can Dance, Season 5, US version. So depending on the time of day you watch it, it could be the Top 10, or the Seattle auditions, or the Final 3. In no particular order apparently. We don’t care. It’s in ENGLSH. Sorry, I mean, ENGLISH. 
Gotta go. Nigel Lithgoe is about to give his verdict on the cha-cha. 

Wet Market Karaoke

Wet markets are where you buy fresh veggies, right? Why not buy your bok choy and your bean sprouts with a bit of backing music, just like the canned music at the supermarket? My wet market now has a new attraction every Saturday morning – The Karaoke Recycler. We first noticed him last week, belting out an accompaniment to a Chinese pop song blaring distordedly from his battery-operated speaker-on-wheels. It was his khaki green sneakers that gave his real profession away – they are compulsory footwear for the Recycling Guys of Shanghai, trundling along on their tricycles with a little bell ting-ting-ting-ing to tell you to bring out your tin cans, polystyrene and cardboard boxes.
It must be dull work, and the pay is no doubt woeful. So this fellow has decided, every week, to ditch the tricycle for the morning and take up the microphone, to follow his dream of performing for an adoring public outside the doors to the wet market. OK, OK, so they’re not adoring yet, and there isn’t a collection box full of cash yet, but you know, this is just week two. He certainly sings his heart out and he has a lot of good John Farnham type moves.
Look, I wish I could tell you he has enormous untapped singing potential, the new China Idol and all that, but without being too blunt, his singing, sadly, is crap. But he has passion. And I think if we could work some sequins into the outfit we’d really be on to something. It sure makes shopping for veggies a lot more interesting.

Shanghai Street Food #13 Shāo Kǎo 烧烤 Street Barbecue

Time for another instalment of Shanghai Street Food! After being in Xi’an and eating every amazing thing on offer there I’m on a street food high – the more the better. 

Street barbecue (shao kao 烧烤) vendors are a great way to have a whole pile of food you like cooked to lip-smacking perfection right in front of you on the street grill. Walk up, and choose any mouth-watering combo from the bamboo skewers of raw foods laid out on a long table – there are mushrooms (shitake, oyster, enoki), meats (pork, fish, prawn, squid, sausage) and vegetables (lotus root, spring onions, peppers), plus some unidentified tofu-type things. Now line up behind the other hungry punters to wait your turn grill-side.

The vendor will beckon you over, put all your skewers on to the smoking grill plate, and then season them to your liking – any combination of salt, soy sauce, spice mix, chili and vinegar, shaken and splashed in a perfect symphony of flavours. He’ll take what looks like a bricklaying trowel, and in fact, in all likelihood, is a bricklaying trowel, and with it press your meats firmly into the grill to really get those flavours mingling. The smell of the smoke mingled with the smell of spiced barbecuing meat is like torture for your hungry stomach while you wait. Skewers 2-6 yuan (30c – $1) each. 

Need more? For more street food than you could possibly handle in one sitting, take a look at the rest of the series!
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

Maybe Not What The Doctor Ordered…


The doctor in me never quite goes away, and even though I’m off-duty in Shanghai, I still notice odd afflictions, undiagnosed diseases and hidden illnesses as I walk the streets and look into faces on the subway. It’s in the blood, can’t help it. But even a half-blind First Year would have thought there was something strange about this street scene. 

Standing at a pedestrian crossing near the fabric market on Lujiabang Lu, I noticed this old fellow apparently slumped in the seat of his motorbike. You will have no trouble recognising the contraption around his neck as a Philadelphia Collar, a device to stabilise the neck after it’s…..broken. Or maybe he’d just had an operation and the specialist put it round his neck so he wouldn’t lick his stitches. Who knows.

From his slumped appearance, I wondered if his spinal cord had finally, you know, finally kinked, and he’d lost use of his arms and legs at the traffic lights. Tragic. His hands got stuck in his pockets right at the moment C5 stopped sending signals for good. 

I am pretty sure, from a doctor point of view, that when this guy broke his neck, and was finally released from hospital on the condition that he wear the collar at all times and rest, his spinal specialist probably had something kind of more horizontal in mind. Napping at the traffic lights while sitting astride a motorbike is probably not the kind of rest he was thinking of. 

I needn’t have worried though, it turns out he was just catching up on a few zzzs, like all typical Shanghainese drivers do at traffic lights. As soon as the lights turned green, he woke with a start, twisted that collar around fully 360 degrees til it was comfortable, and then sped off into the distance. Not once looking back. Or left. Or right.

A Super Secret Shanghai Hairy Crab Find

I heard about this secret restaurant location from a Chinese friend of a friend. Pressed to spill the beans on the best place in Shanghai to eat hairy crab (a late autumn seasonal delicacy in Shanghai), she offered up the names of all the fancy and well-known restaurants, exactly the kind of recommendations you give to people you’ve never met, because they’re safe and reliable. 
But I was looking for something a little different. ‘Where would you go to eat hairy crab?’ she was pressured. So she gave me this name. Only five tables and fifteen seats in all, with a wait of two weeks for a booking. Japanese businessmen apparently fly in to Shanghai for a morning ‘meeting’, spend all afternoon eating hairy crab here, then fly back to Tokyo in the evening. Sounds promising.
We phoned four days in a row with absolutely no luck, only to have fortune smile on us when, on the fifth try, I happened to phone just after a cancellation. Of course at first I mistrusted my translation of what I’d heard. Tonight? Yes. At 7.30? Yes. Crikey, that was in thirty minutes and my dinner friends hadn’t even been told the good news yet. One thing you cannot be in China is fashionably late. They are sticklers for punctuality – being on time means arriving fifteen minutes early. I once had a popular and busy restaurant phone me at 6.20 to say ‘Where are you??’ For a 6.30 reservation!
So I sweated it in the back of the taxi, but thank god those Shanghai taxi drivers can make double quick time when they feel like it, and we arrived at the street address with one minute to spare. The restaurant is on the ground floor of an old lane house on Fuxing Lu, tucked towards the back. When you open the small door it feels exactly like you’ve just stepped into someone’s living room, circa 1975. 
The restaurant is some sort of warped Chinese time capsule from my childhood – twin living rooms, separated by an archway papered in faux red-brick wallpaper, fake petunias in a window box below the arch, and a stuccoed ceiling. Decoration is…um…..eclectic, with a chandelier, a cuckoo clock, a waving Lucky Cat, a small temple to the Town God, a lucky fish and a TV showing Chinese soap operas. The dark swirly carpet looks just the same as the one in my best friend Delena’s house, 1978, and the owner has a perm exactly like her mum did back then. A sort of Chinese Afro. 
So I’m thinking, this is either going to be mind-blowingly good, or very, very, very bad. But at least the decor has been entertaining. Luckily, it’s the former. We choose a variety of dishes from the pictureless Chinese menu by doing a round of the other four tables and pointing to what we like the look of, and then surveying the two fishtanks in the corner of the room and choosing the fattest bullfrog, and the healthiest looking fish swimming in it. 
The cold dishes arrive first – duck breast wrapped around duck yolks (a sort of Chinese Sotch egg), followed by the whole fish – baked with a smothering of crisped and sweetened chopped garlic, it’s easily one of the best fish dishes I’ve eaten. Then comes eggplant, Shanghai style – sweet and soy braised, and the bullfrog, very tender but a little bland with a sauce very heavy on onions and little else. 
This is all by way of preparation for the hairy crabs – so-called because of the pompoms the male crab has on each claw. The males are larger, with more meat, but the females are sweeter with their rich roe. They are served steamed, with a light, sweet, vinegar and garlic dipping sauce, a perfect foil to the richness of the crabmeat. After looking clueless, all four of us, about how to dismember the small crabs, our waitress offers to cut them up for us with tiny scissors, separating the body from the legs and claws, and serving the legs neatly snipped down each side so we can open them easily.
Well, they are good. Really, really good. For twenty minutes our raucous table turns to silent reverie as we extract every last morsel of that crab meat from the shells. The roe is so delicious, and so rich, it’s lucky the crabs are small. When there seems to be no more meat to prise from the pincers, our waitress brings us a huge, steaming glass bowl filled with chryanthemum tea – our finger bowl, to leave our hands smelling sweet when we leave. The owner smiles benevolently from under her perm as we head back out into the night. What a tip-off!
Yong Xing Restaurant
House 1, 626 Fuxing Zhong Lu, near Ruijin Er Lu
Ph +86 21 64733780