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Shanghai’s Kitchen Market – The Other, Bigger, Better One

Last year I visited the Shanghai Kitchen Market at Aomen Lu in Putuo District, a giant warehouse full of everything you might need to open a Chinese restaurant, from waitress uniforms, menu folders, to a whole department of rows and rows of lazy Susans. At the time, I couldn’t imagine that a better place for buying a wok, or a cleaver, or some hard-to-find baking items could exist. Well, was I ever wrong!
Thanks to sleuthing by a friend who needed to buy a giant ice bucket for a party, we trekked out to Tong Chuan Lu (the same street the Shanghai Seafood Market lies on) to find a giant restaurant supplies market with even more specialised goods and wider variety. They sell everything from fine crystal stemware to hoptpot setups, bakeware, jelly molds, and a vast array of dinnerware and cutlery. It’s just as interesting for the home cook, as the owner of a big restaurant or hotel and only a little further away from downtown than the Aomen Lu market. You could make a day of it with a kitchenware warehouse crawl…..or maybe that’s not something with very broad appeal…..
Unlike this giant jar of ‘colorful jelly’ which is very, very appealing in an off kind of way. Just what do you plan on doing with this, I wonder? I have a strong suspicion these colored jelly cubes end up in the bottom of bubble tea drinks, slurped up the straw along with the tapioca pearls….
First stop was the tinware and wok shop (don’t worry about specifics, there ten or more of these shops in the market). Woks range in size from domestic to something you could stirfry a whole tuna in. They also stock a whole range of pastry cutters (35 yuan ($5) for a graduated set of 12 circular cutters), baking dishes, cake tins, molds and cleavers. In other words, anything made from metal you might use in the kitchen.

I really loved this set of little brass spice scales for 32 yuan ($4.50). But given I’m not setting up a spice dealership anytime soon, I left them behind.

And next door, I couldn’t decide between the plate of plastic sushi or plastic noodles, all realistic and fresh looking. This market is also a great place to find Japanese style serving dishes, sake cups and platters (try Shop 148, the surprisingly named Cabaret Thing Company).

For beautiful copper and brass hotpots from Xinjiang in far western China, Shop 103 has an amazing selection, including these stunning enameled hotpots. I think I need to hold a hotpot party!

The inside of the market looks a little grim and industrial, but don’t be disappointed….

….because at Shop 176 you can buy everything you need to hold your own super fancy high tea, and should you be needing a chocolate fountain, well…they have those too. I’m pretty sure I’d win Mother of the Year if I came home from the shops with a chocolate fountain one day……

It’s surprisingly difficult to buy large flat white plates in Shanghai, and dinner sets are practically impossible. Bowls? No problem. But western-style plates are tricky. Not here though! They have dozens of styles lining the walls, all in matching seats with bowls, sideplates and serving dishes. So if you’re looking for a complete dinner set, this is the place to buy one.
The market also stocks espresso machines (from domestic to cafe size), proper kebeb skewers with wooden handles, juicers, blenders, food processors and KitchenAid mixers, baking trays, oven thermometers, sweets thermometers, cake decorating supplies, Esky brand eskies, aprons, napery, tea towels, and all kinds of professional kitchen equipment I can’t even tell you the names for. 
If you’re starving after covering what seems like several kilometres of shops, there is a great street food stall outside the entrance to the market. They sell a mutton bone broth with vegetables and tofu puffs served with a side of Shanghai style fried rice with finely chopped greens, 12 yuan ($1.80) for both. Simple, hearty, delicious. 

Shanghai Kitchen Market. The Big One.
QiLong Jiu Dian Yong Pin Shi Chang
(Qilong Hotel Equipment Market)

185 Tong Chuan Lu, near Lan Gao Lu

Open 7 days
Closest metro: Line 7 Lan Gao Lu Station

Street Food Breakfast Extravaganza!

Eleven am, and I’ve already eaten eight different street foods and seen parts of my own neighbourhood I didn’t know existed until today. What a great morning!
When our friend M visited last week I knew she’d be game for a morning dedicated to street food, and I had recently heard that Untour Shanghai was offering small group street food breakfast tours. Shanghai is the sort of city that attracts a lot of visitors when you live there (we’re up to a hundred so far), and I’m always on the lookout for new and interesting things for them to do. It’s largely selfish, but a person can only visit the Pearl Tower so many times before feeling a certain creeping ennui at the mention of the place. Untour seem to have the edge in terms of tours that might actually be interesting, even for a local. I’m dying to try their ‘Weird Meat’ tour, and I have quite a few friends who would enjoy the ‘Gay Asian Adventure’ or the ‘Chinglish Quest’. Sounds more enticing than ‘Highlights of the Bund and People’s Square’ doesn’t it?
We began the day early in Xiangyang Park, a shady spot just off Huai Hai Lu, to see rows of elderly Tai Qi practioners gracefully step in perfect unison, and a small group of women practicing with flowing silk fans. The burst of turquoise betwen the trees was  spectacular. Nearby, two elderly women were stripping leaves from a small tree, they explained that the leaves had an essential oil which, when crushed and rubbed over your fingers, nourished fingernails and cuticles.
Very interesting, but we were starved, and food was nearby.
The intersection of Xiang Yang Lu and Changle Lu is an early morning street food bonanza. Every stall is sizzling, steaming, frying or stirring the breakfast for hundreds and hundreds of hungry customers. We began with a crisp savoury bing, a griddle-fried flat savoury pancake sprinkled with sesame seeds, or spice. It’s a filling breakfast, and the spiced version with chili, cumin and scallions is flavoursome enough to eat on its own.
Or for something more substantial this huge, fluffy egg bing is like a cross between an omelette and a pancake – the egg bubbles away on the griddle then the edges are folded over until it reaches its final, much smaller size.

Small bing, large bing, plain bing, spiced bing. All here.

The next stall sold Shanghai potsticker dumplings, fried on the base, steamed on the top. The round dumplings with balck sesame seeds and scallions are shengjian bao, filled with soup and pork. The folded dumplings are guotie, filled with pork. To stop them sticking to the pan, the vendor grabs the edges of the pan with a pair of hefty pliers and gives it an almighty spin every minute or so. Towards the end, he pours water in the pan and covers the whole thing with a heavy wooden lid to let the steam finish the cooking.
First delicious round of breakfast over, we took a walk through a hidden lane I’d never noticed, full of washing, and balcony gardens in pots, and good cooking smells. The local ladies are just returning from the wet market with their shopping.

We had several more food stops – local hand-pulled noodles with scallion oil, the wet market, a much-needed coffee stop, xiaolongbao – before heading over to Nanchang Lu, and reputedly Shanghai’s best cong you bing maker. Cong you bing are flat scallion pancakes flavoured with little pieces of salted fatty pork, and simply one of the most delicous foods in the city. 
I’m really embarrassed to say, I had never been to this cong you bing vendor, even though he is right on Nanchang Lu. There was always a long, long queue (a sure sign of good food) and I was always hurrying out of the house and running too late, as usual, to stop. By the time I got home his tiny shop was closed. So the tour was a wonderful opportunity to see what I’d been missing, and as it turns out I had the best bing in Shanghai right on my doorstep all along. I’ll be making up for the disappointment of lost opportunity, don’t worry!
The shop sign. The’shop’ is run from the vendor’s tiny ground floor kitchen, opening onto a small lane. Three yuan for 1 piece (about 50c), considered a bargain by everyone in the queue.
The crowds subside just enough to get a better view. Inside the tiny dark kitchen, one bent and elderly man is running a military bing operation. The dough is rolled and folded in a special way to ensure a flaky finish, and on a griddle dough is first fried, then finished off inside a 44-gallon drum kiln, to give them the essential crisp that distinguishes these cong you bing from all others.
The outside – buttery, salty, and crisp. Take a bite and the inside yields soft flaky dough studded with sweet scallions and salted nubs of pork. Incredibly rich and very satisfying, it would be challenging to eat more than one. At least now I can die happy having at last tasted the cong you bing of Nanchang Lu.

My Seal of Approval

In China, it’s not really official unless it has a red stamp on it. Taxi receipts have red stamps. Electricity bills have red stamps. Cheques cannot be cashed unless they carry an official stamp of your name (somehow safer, apparently, than an old-fashioned signature). In fact, when I buy totally illegal pirated DVDs the store receipt has an official stamp on it. Well, now I’m official too – I have my own yìnzhāng 印章 or seal. 

Until quite recently I didn’t have a Chinese name, and it seemed senseless to go to all the trouble of having a seal carved for me without a Chinese name to carve into it. Finding a Chinese name is harder than it sounds – names are deeply meaningful portents of your fortune, your character, and your future, and having met young Chinese people armed with unlikely and slightly mad names like Batman, Bacon and Panda, I wanted to make sure my Chinese name didn’t sound like something I’d read on a packet of snacks. 

But how exactly do you go about getting a Chinese name? I decided to ask my Chinese friends how their own English names came about. Generally, it seemed, by one of three methods:

Firstly, their school English teacher might have just given them a name sounding phonetically similar to their own (‘Helen’ for ‘Hairong’ ‘Julie’ for ‘Zhu Li’ for example), to make it easy to remember.

Secondly, they might simply be assigned a name, apparently from the Home Companion’s Book of Baby Names, 1972. This might account for the vast numbers of hip young Chinese people with names that sound like characters in my old Grade Three reader – Kevin, Susan, Steven, Judy and Bruce. One friend described sitting in a classroom at the age of twelve as the teacher wrote twenty English names on the blackboard and then passed them out one by one to the students in random order. She was named Maria, which she eventually grew to like.  

Lastly, they might have chosen their own English names, either as an assertion of individuality, or after living wth an assigned name they didn’t like. A lot of consideration goes into this self-naming, not that you’d know it by the number of Echos, Leafs, Cherrys and Sunnys I’ve met. I recently came across a young man called J’Adore, presumably after the Dior perfume of the same name whose ads are on high rotation all over Shanghai. Or perhaps he just really adores everything and everybody.

After due consideration, I decided that ‘Fiona’ spelled phonetically in Chinese came out badly (‘Fay-ah-na’), it was highly unlikely I would successfully choose my own name without stuffing it up, and so I opted for an expert opinion and asked my Chinese teacher to choose one for me. 

She chose Bái Ruì Lì 白瑞丽, on the basis that ‘Bai’ means white in Chinese (Fiona means ‘white’ or ‘fair’) and ‘Rui Li’ sounds like ‘Reilly’ but also carries auspicious connotations of luck and beauty. Ruili, also a border town in southern Yunnan, is famous for drug smuggling, prostitution, and general lawlessness, but I’m sure she didn’t have that in mind when was thinking of a name to match my personality.

Having chosen a name, now I just needed my seal carved, a job done by a specialised craftsman. It’s all very involved, and many people spend longer choosing the stone and style of their seal than they do choosing a wife, but being an impetuous type, after mere minutes of contemplation I came up with the brilliant idea of having a dumpling right in the centre (because I love dumplings!) and my name around the outside. I’m so happy with the result, even though I had asked for a xiaolongbao and he gave me a baozi instead – ‘plumper and happier-looking’, he said.
Wait until I turn up at the bank with a cheque signed with a dumpling! In the mean time, I’m happily stamping the frontspiece of all of my books, stamping any flat thing with a spare blank space, and stamping just to practice stamping stuff. I might even carry it around in my handbag along with the ink and its special box, just in case my signature is required. It would be pretty cool to whip out my seal at the Post Office to sign for a parcel. Or to sign in at the swimming pool. This thing is gonna come in so handy.

Whampoa Club Classic Shanghai Dimsum

Traditional Shanghainese dim sum is surprisingly hard to find in Shanghai, thanks to the ever increasing popularity of Cantonese style yum cha. It’s a shame, because Shanghai cuisine has many fine dim sum dishes in its repertoire, the most famous being xialongbao (those delectable little soup-filled dumplings) and shengjianbao (their bigger, meatier cousins). Many Shanghai locals are nostalgic for the foods their grandmothers made, foods they could buy readily on the street as kids, but aren’t so easy to find nowadays.
Last weekend I had a chance to try the Classic Shanghainese dim sum at the Whampoa Club at Three on the Bund, one of Shanghai’s loveliest modern Chinese restaurants, at their invitation. I like the concept behind what they’re doing, which is to say, elevating street food (you know how I love street food) into a fine dining experience, although I wondered how successful this would be, asking a premium price for what is, essentially, inexpensive snack food.
As it turns out, given Whampoa Club’s reputation and expertise, they did it very well. They’ve brought in their own specialised dim sum chef, used very high quality ingredients, and the execution is confident and finessed. I liked it. Would I still have liked it if I was paying for it? Actually, I would. And it goes to show that in the right hands, street food can be really sophicticated.

Before eating, you must first choose your tea, a difficult task given that Whampoa Club offers more than fifty varieties. They even have a tea sommelier to help you choose. Fancy, huh? I perused all fifty, and overwhelmed by choice reverted to my usual – Tie Guanyin oolong tea.

Tea poured, you can begin to eat. I’m going to have to take up marathon running (or at least riding my new bicycle everywhere, including to Beijing and back) if I am to keep this level of dumpling consumption up. And when you see all the dim sum I ate, you’ll understand!

This, a crisp radish cake (luo bo si bing), was superb. Exquisitely fine layers of crisp pastry yielded a soft, savoury centre with buttery shreds of radish. A second version also had fine specks of salted ham for added flavour. Who knew the pedestrian radish could be raised to such lofty heights?

Two types of pan-fried potsticker dumplings – on the left, a miniature version of a traditional Shanghainese shengjianbao, filled with pork and a little soup, and on the right guotie, stuffed with pork. While true to their origins, they lacked a little excitement and the normally soft skins were a bit tough. 
This dish, although not the most attractive on the table, was packed with flavours of soy and star anise. The cubes are pieces of honeycomb-textured gluten starch, served with golden mushrooms, black fungus and gingko seeds. The gluten was soft and spong-like, soaking up the flavourful sauce. I feel terribly sorry for all my childhood vegetarian friends, who were eating gluten ‘nutmeat meatloaf’ when they could have been eating a gloriously satisfying vegetarian dish like this! Dr S., I’m thinking of you!

Miniature suzhou-style mooncakes (suzhou shi yue bing), with fried bread sticks (you tiao) behind.
Other delicacies included sesame-coated dumplings, candied lotus root stuffed with sticky rice and flavoured with delicate osmanthus blossoms (hmm…may have wolfed that down before a photo was taken), ma lan vegetable with dry bean curd, pork and crab xiaolongbao, and deep fried squares of sticky rice.

There were more substantial dishes too – I prefer this Shanghai-style sweet and sour pork ribs, with its dark brown vinegar and malty sweet flavours, to its overly sweet Cantonese equivalent.

Even better, some of Whampoa Club’s signature dishes appear on the dim sum menu, like this chilled crystal pork jelly, served with fine aged black vinegar. You won’t find this on any street food stall, and yet the flavours are very Shanghainese, with the same kind of pork jelly used in the making of xiaolongbao.

Then the sweet dim sum dishes began to arrive:

Diamonds of steamed glutinous rice cake with osmanthus blossoms (gui hua gao).

Ice cream. Now I wondered about this, but apparently Shanghai had its own brand of icecream (GuanMing Pai) back in the day which came in small blocks you could divide in two – and this is a faithful reproduction. In fact, you can still buy it in supermarkets here, but Whampoa Club makes their own.

I have tasted this dish of pearls of glutinous rice in a rice wine broth (jiu niang yuan zhi) at the end of many a banquet shared with Chinese friends, served hot in winter and cold in summer, and I have yet to enjoy it until now. The broth, made with sweetened fermented rice wine, is often unpleasantly sour tasting, verging on ‘gone off’. Whampoa’s was a revelation – light, clear and sweet with plump pearls and a hint of osmanthus. After all that food, I surprised myself by draining the bowl. A first. (ah…not the ‘draining the bowl’ part. Definitely not a first. The ‘finishing a bowl of rice wine broth’ part).
All told, a lovely local twist to the dim sum experience. To add to the nostalgia, Whampoa Club have even hired a sugar artist, who will fashion your zodiac animal or a fine pheonix out of nothing but toffee, as an after-lunch treat.

Three on the Bund
5F, 3 Zhongshan Dongyi Lu, near Guangdong Lu Shanghai
中山一路3 (靠近广)
Ph +8621 6321 3737
Classic Shanghainese dim sum brunch every weekend from 11am
218 yuan per person