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25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 15 Xiaolongbao the Movie!

The excitement! The first ever Life On Nanchang Lu video!!   Before you get too excited, I should warn you that I opened iMovie for the first time about 24 minutes ago. Seems pretty user friendly, but if there is a way to have a technological meltdown, I’ll sure find it.  Somehow, for example, I managed to record three separate audio tracks one on top of the other, resulting in a pretty confusing noise sort of like voices in your head. I wasn’t intending to record an audio voiceover, until I realised I had committed the first crime of video recording, which is, don’t carry on a brainless conversation with your friends while recording said video.  It doesn’t add to the ambience.   Enjoy the xiaolongbao!    

25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 14 The Spiritual Home of Xiaolongbao

You all love xiaolongbao right? But those small and miraculous soup-filled dumplings Shanghai is famous for probably didn’t ever originate in Shanghai. They came from a place called Nanxiang, considered by many to be the ancestral home, even the spiritual home of xiaolongbao. Once, long ago, Nanxiang was a happily separate little town south-west of Shanghai, but as the city sent out tentacles of roads, factories and apartment blocks in every direction it choked and then digested many smaller towns in its wake. Nanxiang was completely subsumed into the super-uber-mega-lopolis that is modern-day Shanghai, and is now relegated to the status of outer suburb. It even has its own stop on the Shanghai subway system.


But Nanxiang doesn’t feel like the outer something of somewhere, in fact it feels like the centre of somewhere. This is because Nanxiang holds tight to one important quality that sets it apart from all the other grey and gritty outer suburbs. It is still a major mecca for xiaolongbao lovers, who make the pilgrimage from all over China to get to the source. Whole streets are lined with dumpling shops rolling, stuffing and twisting xialongbao into shape. 


If you’re reading this and wondering what on earth I’m talking about, xiaolongbao are a type of Chinese dumpling filled with a savoury mixture of pork and gelatinised stock, which melts on cooking to form the famous soup inside. Whole websites and forums are given over to arguing the finer points of particular xiaolongbao from different restaurants all over the world who all claim to have the best xiaolongbao. But you can’t fully understand a food, I think, until you’ve eaten it in its original form at its source. It certainly adds to the appreciation, doesn’t it, of eating more ‘evolved’ versions and makes for an interesting comparison. 



So today I took a trip to Nanxiang to experience the home of xiaolongbao for myself. With dozens of xiaolongbao restaurants to choose from it was never going to be an easy choice, so I suggested an old-fashioned pub crawl, only involving dumpling houses, to last all afternoon until we were filled to busting. My friends, sadly, thought we might save The Great Dumpling Crawl for another day because they also wanted to see temples and gardens and the old town. Oh well. 


The original plan had been to try the Gulong Restaurant inside Nanxiang’s Guyi Gardens, but incredibly, Nanxiang’s most famous xialongbao shop was closed, shut up and gone. Possible relocated, but who knows. I had already tried the hideous thick-skinned, doughy, greasy atrocities of the Nanxiang Mantou Dian (Nanxiang Steamed Bun Shop, originally from Nanxiang but now inside the Yu Gardens in Shanghai, where a long queue of tourists, both Chinese and foreign, wait to be fed absolute rubbish) and I wasn’t going to repeat the experience. So the two most famous xiaolongbao restaurants were crossed off the list. Luckily, we had some local know-how in the form of Kevin (not his real name, but he chose it) who had driven us to Nanxiang. In his view, there was only one place to try and it was Song Ji at 210 Guyiyuan Lu.

Outside, stacks of steamer baskets full of plump xialongbao were waiting to be cooked in the giant outdoor steamer. Inside, round wooden tables were filled with people dipping their xiaolongbao in dark vinegar then slurping up the filling. The menu ran to two choices of xiaolongbao – pork, or pork and crab, and five extras, all soups. The pork xiaolongbao cost 20 yuan for a steamer basket of twenty, and the pork and crab 30 yuan for twenty. That’s about 16 cents each. 



And the taste? These xiaolongbao are justifiably famous, but they have a simple, homemade quality. The skins are thicker than those at say, Din Tai Fung, because they’re hand pressed rather than rolled, and the filling is simpler and More rustic with less seasoning and more meat. The soup, particularly of the pork and crab xiaolongbao, was delicious and dangerously hot. We tried two of the five soups on offer, a tofu and vermicelli soup, and a beef stock soup. The first wasn’t really memorable, and the second we will never forget because in the bottom of the bowl were cubes of cooked congealed blood. I think we’ll stick with the xiaolongbao!


After eating 60 xiaolongbao between five of us, I realised the Dumpling Crawl was nothing but a pipe dream. There is no way I could eat my way through Nanxiang in a day! Good excuse to come back now that I know I can get there by subway…

Take-away packs were available too, cooked then packed inside two bamboo shells to protect them, like a giant clam. They re-heated pretty well in the steamer at home, but had less soup inside than the restaurant xiaolongbao.

If all this has left you desperate to try your own xiaolongbao at home, you can read up on my recipe for the soup jelly, and the xiaolongbao recipe.


Tomorrow: more on Nanxiang – and a xiaolongbao video!



Song Ji Nanxiang Xiaolongbao
210 Guyiyuan Lu
Jiading District,
Shanghai


Nearest Metro stop Nanxiang, Line 11 (Line 11 commences at Jiangsu Lu, on Line 2, and Nanxiang is 10 stops from there)

25 Days of Shanghai Christmas Dec 13 Prepare for Hibernation

Could it have been any wetter today? Could the day have started any more miserably, darker or colder? Winter is surely on its way, although according to the government winter hasn’t even officially begun, and won’t begin until we have five days below 10 degrees. Shanghai, meantime, can’t decide what it’s doing – I mean, there’s blizzards and such in the UK, and parts of North America, but two days ago it was a kind of balmy 20 degrees, and I sat outside drinking coffee and admiring the falling leaves on Anfu Lu. Well, it couldn’t last, and today the first day of our cold snap arrived, with a steel-grey sky, ice-edged wind, cold, cold rain and more leaves falling than the street-sweepers could possibly keep up with. Winter is coming, sometime soon, and there are preparations going on everywhere for the cold times ahead.  Take this guy…he’s already into the turtlenecks and quilted winter street pyjamas. And there’s also….

….furry motorbike hand warmers are appearing back on handlebars…..

….and knitted bike seat-covers, good for keeping your rear warmed….
…despite supermarkets and such, lots of Shanghai locals like to preserve their own winter food stores – 
fish heads, chickens, bits of ham, sausages…..conveniently located right outside your window and next to the power lines…..

And everyone is taking advantage of the last bits of sun to air the winter bedding……
….or just sit outside and enjoy themselves. As soon as the sun comes back out, I’m joining him.

25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 12 Fruit Mince Tarts and the Chinese Furnace



Are you baking up a frenzy for Christmas? Same here. Only I bet your oven actually, you know, works. That is, you can turn it on, set a temperature, and be reasonably sure that that temperature you dialled up will be delivered. On the other hand, I am dealing with the Chinese Furnace from Hell, known to turn cakes to charcoal in under 45 seconds. So the Christmas baking is not going quite as smoothly as I’d like.

You see, Chinese people don’t do a lot of home baking, so to them, ovens are a mystery – they’re expensive, they take up a lot of space, and foreigners use them to cook odd foods, very, very slowly (according to my landlord). The gas oven that came with our house looked the business, very new, very silver, and went by the name of The Gold System. Promising, I thought. But the first time I used it the knobs melted, then the heat-resistant seal around the door caught fire. Not a good sign.  

So I asked the lovely landlord to fix it, if he could. He was totally perplexed about my need to have more than one temperature setting, but he humoured me and replaced a few parts, but no improvement

I called him back to demonstrate, with the help of an oven thermometer, that in fact 410C was a little too hot for baking, and also posed some sort of fire risk to the wooden cupboards either side of the oven. And the rest of the house, for that matter. No problem! He said. He simply pulled the oven out from the wall and turned the gas supply down with a large,red lever. Well, why didn’t I think of just pulling the half-ton oven out from the wall and turning a big fat gas lever to control the temperature, huh?

But I have finally mastered the bastard. Now I have my own Gold System for temperature control, settings 1-3:

1. Full blast – just turn it on and go. Great for pizzas, which cook in 1.2 minutes, or for heating the house.

2. Medium blast – this can be achieved by turning the oven to full blast, and then lighting one of the large hotplates on the stovetop, thus diverting gas from the oven, without pulling it out from the wall. Pretty good for cakes, but requires a vigilant eye and frequent door opening.

3. Low blast – as for medium blast, but this time light two hotplates on the stove top. Slow braises cook like a dream, and you can use the stovetop to make 10 litres of soup while you wait.

Thank god the fruit mince tarts survived the furnace, is all I can say.




Fruit Mince Tarts

Shortcrust Pastry

Ingredients 

  • 180g butter, chilled
  • 240g plain flour
  • 3 tablespoons caster sugar
  • 3 tablespoons cold water

Method
  • coarsely grate chilled butter
  • combine with flour and castor sugar, then gradually add water to form a dough
  • refrigerate for 30 minutes before using

To Assemble Fruit Mince Tarts

Ingredients 

  • 1 quantity of sweet shortcrust pastry
  • 400g fruit mince (recipe here)

Method

  • preheat oven to 180C (medium blast)
  • roll pastry to 3mm thickness
  • using a 6cm circular cutter, cut pastry circles and line an individual tart tray
  • fill each tart with 1-2 tsp fruit mince
  • top with a pastry star if desired
  • bake for 12-15minutes, until lightly browned
  • when cooled, dust with icing sugar
  • makes 40 tarts


25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 11 Mao-ry Christmas!

I doubt that Chairman Mao ever celebrated Christmas, and yet here he is today, hanging on my tree with a bunch of mistletoe on the back of his head. How did this happen? How did this revered father of the Republic go from national hero to Christmas parody? Personally, I’m quite excited that China has come far enough that it’s now possible to poke fun at the good Chairman without feeling threatened by, say, imprisonment. Or re-education in Wuhan.   He looks a little thin, don’t you think? But jolly all the same with his red stars for buttons.  And in case you’re wondering if the Chinese characters say some subversive message, they do…..’Sheng Dan Kuai Le!’ (Wish You Merry Christmas!).  Just waiting for the knock on the door now………

(now available at Taikang Lu 50 yuan each)

25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 10 Count to Ten in Chinese!

Stand in any busy market in Shanghai and you will notice a hundred different ways to bargain your way down to a good price. In markets, whether they sell handbags or vegetables, there is no such thing as a fixed price! Figures fly back and forth in Chinese and Shanghainese, calculators pass back and forth with numbers displayed, and there are a whole lot of strange hand signals going on around you.   What are those hand signals, and what do they mean??  Here’s my gift to you, then, a step-by-step guide to teach you how to count to ten in Mandarin, Shanghainese, and twenty-eight different regional dialects. And no, you don’t need a flair for languages, all you need is one hand. Watch.    (I’ve included pinyin too, and a pronunciation guide, in case you do want to know the mandarin chinese). Use these in the markets, or when you walk into a restaurant to tell the door person how many are in your party, and people will assume you’re a long-time local.  For numbers larger than ten, just use the numbers in succession – 48 becomes the signal for 4, followed by the signal for 8, for example.
One:  yī   (eee)                Two:  èr  二 (arr)   

Three:  sān  三 (san)           Four:  sì  四 (suh) 

 Five:  wǔ  五 (woo)             Six:  liù  六  (leo)

Seven:  qī  七 (chee)             Eight:  bā  八 (ba)

Nine:  jiǔ  九 (geo)             Ten:  shí  十 (shuh)

Ten: shí 十 (two-handed)


25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 9 Made in China Gift Guide


Stuck for Christmas gifts here in Shanghai? It’s been a wonderful discovery that not everything ‘made in China’ is easily broken, cheap, nasty rubbish. Shanghai is brimming with unique finds just waiting to be added to your Christmas list. Whether you’re looking for something tasteful, something interesting, or something just very, very Chinese, there are plenty of ideas on this page. The markets at Hongqiao International Pearl City, the Ghost Market, the Bird and Insect Market and the Dongtai Lu antiques market are great sources of interesting and inexpensive gifts, and all Made in China! For something more up-market or hand-made, Taikang Lu is the best place to start, and with so many small shops in one location you’re bound to find something wonderful.    Everything here is less than 120 yuan too!
(L) porcelein tea cups 15 yuan each, oolong tea 58 yuan/50g available at tea shops across Shanghai
(R) hand-made unbleached cotton doll, 118 yuan, Chuqibuyi, Lane 248 Taikang Lu
(L) 1960s Shanghai textile factory designs, 40 yuan/sheet, Ghost Market, Fangbang Lu
(R) Worker sneakers, size 40-46, 20 yuan/pair, hardware shops everywhere 
(L) miniature porcelain dishes, used for feeding crickets, perfect for trinkets or display, 2 yuan each, Bird and Insect Market, 405 Xizang Nan Lu
(R) Chinese kitchen elasticized sleeve covers, 5 yuan/pair, convenience stores across Shanghai

(L) Beautifully designed china cups, 100 yuan each, Platane, Taikang Lu
(R) Santa in a snowstorm musical toy, 98 yuan, Hongqiao International Pearl City
(L) Mahjong set, 50-120 yuan depending on tile size, Commodities Market, 223 Fuyou Lu
(R) Penchaolin lanolin hand cream in tin, 3 yuan each, convenience stores everywhere

(L) Notebook with hand-painted cover, 58 yuan, Taikang Lu
(R) Business cards printed with Chinese designs, 25 yuan/box of 100, Taikang Lu
(L) mei yang-yang ear muffs, 4 yuan, convenience stores
(R) Santa romper suit, 58 yuan, Pu’an Lu Children’s Market, near People’s Square
(L) 2011 tear-off Chinese calender, 5 yuan small, 8 yuan large, convenience stores and newsagents
(R) Chinese knot hair bands, 10 yuan each, Taikang Lu

25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 8 Amelia, Queen of Jams

Have you met the lovely Amelia, Queen of Jams, and maker of amazing marmalades, chutneys and fudges? if you live here in Shanghai then you are in for a Christmas treat. I met Amelia at a Chinese cooking class not long after I arrived in Shanghai, and at that point she had decided to take the leap from working as an engineer, to making jam. Luckily for all of us she gave up the engineering lark, because she knows a thing or two about how to make really good jams. Our pantry is well-stocked now with her great spreads made from fresh in-season local produce, made to traditional English recipes. Raspberry, fig, organic blueberry, yangmei, rhubarb and ginger, apricot, chestnut, hawthorn jelly, cumquat marmalade, beetroot and onion relish and mango chutney are just a few of the delights. She also makes fudge, a rare commodity here, and at Christmas time it quickly sells out!
My favourite is her sweet onion relish, eaten with sharp cheddar and oatcakes, and the rhubarb and ginger jam, used to top vanilla ice-cream. 

Amelia will be at a number of Christmas markets this coming weekend, December 11 and 12.
For more information see her market list at Amelias Marketplace.

You can also buy Amelia’s jams from:
The Lady at 274 Wulumuqi Lu – she has a wide selection and you can take your old jars back for recycling.
Cafe de Village Jinfeng Lu, near Baole Lu.
Online at:


25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 7 Christmas Windows, Shanghai Style

Shops in China must be the envy of retailers everywhere, because their festive season runs straight from Christmas, through the western New Year, and all the way to the big cash kahuna, Chinese New Year, in early February. A three month buying bonanza!!  $$$!!!   Tricky for shop window decorations though. The majority of stores think it best to have a sort of secular celebration theme without any overt stable and manger references. No-one would have a clue what it means anyway. This usually equates to a cheerful red and gold theme, with Christmas trees festooned with money bags and symbols of prosperity. Fish and the like.    Others….well others can’t quite decide how to successfully combine the two, and opt for either Christmas, or Chinese New Year, but not both. Which is quite fair enough and easier to pull off.    Still others go off on some psychedelic acid tangent that is meaningful only to themselves. Take this cracker of a window, on Shanghai’s main shopping street, Huai Hai Lu, for example.

The gifts, OK, Christmas time, gifts, yes, very understandable. And next Chinese New Year will be the Year of the Rabbit. So I get the rabbit, too, I really do, even though it has freaky pink eyes and that blank zombie look as it stretches out its evil stubby arms towards you. And the metallic inflatable kiddie pool around its neck looks very uncomfortable. But would someone please explain the windmill?? Would they?  


25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 6 Make Your Own Fruit Mince

Fruit mince pies are an unbreakable Christmas tradition in our house, but although I make the pastry myself, I have always relied on very expensive jars of Robertsons Fruit Mince (imported from England!) for the filling. I always wanted to make my own, but somehow the thought of having to grate suet – beef fat – really turned me off. Enter Australian food-writer Matthew Evans, who, last Christmas, published this incredibly easy, suet-free recipe in The Sydney Morning Herald  as one of his ‘Any Fool Can Cook…..’ series. It’s so easy, and so delicious, I’m kicking myself for never having explored home-made fruit mince before. The flavour will improve with time, so I’m making the mince now and the tarts next week. On a cold winter’s day there is nothing that feels more like Christmas than biting into a hot, fragrant fruit mince tart fresh from the oven. 





Modern Fruit Mince
Recipe by Matthew Evans 

Ingredients

  • 100g currants
  • 100g sultanas
  • 100g brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons Grand Marnier or brandy
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 apple
  • 100g walnuts, finely chopped
  • 1-2 teaspoons mixed spice

Method

  • Wash and scrub the lemon. Squeeze, reserving the juice.
  • Place the lemon skin in a saucepan of cold water, bring to the boil.
  • Simmer until soft enough to puree, about 45-60 minutes, changing water twice.
  • Drain well and puree in a blender/food processor until smooth.
  • Toss the currants, sultanas and sugar with the Grand Marnier or brandy, then warm gently in a low oven to plump up the fruit. (or heat together in the microwave for 1-2 minutes covered with plastic wrap, and allow to sit for 20 minutes)
  • Grate the apple coarsely into a bowl and add the reserved lemon juice.
  • Combine all the ingredients and allow to sit overnight in the fridge.
  • Add more Grand Marnier or brandy if it looks dry (especially if storing).
  • Although not in the recipe, Matthew Evans advises adding a good lug of extra virgin olive oil at the end. I’m going to try half with, and half without.
  • Can be stored in sterilised jars for several months.