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Master of Noodles

Meet master noodle maker Ma Dai Cai. He’s the boss at my favourite noodle joint on Fangbang Lu in the Old City. We’ve been going to his hand-pulled noodle restaurant for nearly three years now and he always greets us like old friends, shuffling everyone around so the four of us can sit and eat together.
My life is full of noodles right now – I’m writing a magazine article about Chinese noodles, and I thought it would be an ideal opportunity to formally interview Ma Dai Cai for the piece and have a bowl of his great niu rou la mian (beef hand pulled noodle soup) at the same time. His story is probably familiar to noodle makers seeking their fortune in every big city in China.
His restaurant – all of two metres wide – sits right opposite the temple shop on Fangbang Lu, wedged in a row between two other small food joints. What sets Ma Dai Cai’s restaurant apart is the steaming cauldron of bubbling soup sitting just outside the entrance, steaming away day and night. Walk through the plastic strip curtains and you’ll find yourself in a very small room lit by a pair of fluorescent lights, a total of six tables and sixteen small orange stools crowding the floor, and at the rear a tiny kitchen where all the wok cooking takes place. Ma proudly showed me his most recent acquisition – a pink electric chopstick sterilizer and dispenser, about the size and shape of a rice cooker. 
On one wall of the restaurant is a huge pictorial menu, and on the opposite wall a map of China and a giant blue written menu. (I believe these menus are absolutely identical in every la mian restaurant in China. I have a theory that there is a national la mian menu centre where all the food photography is carefully standardized and they print cloned blue, white and green menu posters.)
The table closest to the noodle-making work bench is a hazardous place to sit because of the swinging arms of the noodle makers, and you can’t sit at the table closest to the kitchen because that’s where a step ladder leads through a hole cut in the ceiling to the cramped living and sleeping quarters above. Ma and his family – his wife, wearing traditional Muslim dress, his teenage daughter and his three year-old son all live together with the apprentice noodle-maker in the tiny space.
Ma came to Shanghai eight years ago from Xining in Gansu Province. He had been working in noodle restaurants since in his early twenties, initially apprenticing then working his way up to full noodle-making. He soon realized he needed to own and run his own restaurant to get ahead, so he came to Shanghai and pulled noodles in other people’s restaurants until he could afford to open his own place three years ago. The work is tiring, particularly because the restaurant never ever closes. Keen to capture every last shred of business, you can knock on the door at 3am and Ma will get up and fix you a steaming bowl of freshly-pulled noodles. He never takes a day off and weekends are meaningless to him.
It took Ma two or three months to learn how to master all the different noodle varieties – hand-pulled noodles thick and thin, hand-cut noodles, and torn noodle pieces. I asked if it perished his shoulders after so many years but he said they he never had any problems. Even so, Ma always has an apprentice now with much younger arms to do most of the noodle-pulling, and Ma is in charge of cooking and serving the noodles and handling the cash. His wife takes care of all the stir-fry dishes, and his fourteen year-old daughter serves and cleans up. The three year old? Mostly he causes trouble and keeps the customers entertained with some lively antics.
For those of you not familiar with the theatre of hand-pulled noodles, here’s how it works (thanks to Ma’s apprentice noodle-maker) :

A length of wheat flour and water dough is taken and twisted, stretched, twisted again, then doubled back on itself. This pulling and twisting action is repeated over and over again until dozens of fine long strands have been stretched into shape. The noodles receive a quick cooking in the cauldron of lightly spiced beef stock, then are served in a bowl along with a ladle of stock and a handful of coriander and beef slices. You can add chili paste or vinegar to taste. Here’s how they look:
Ma’s noodles are really tasty and his restaurant is almost always full, all sixteen seats. It’s tiring, back-breaking work but he has high hopes for his family and their future here – I can only hope Shanghai delivers on its promise.

Hand-pulled Noodles
638 Fangbang Lu near Luxiangyuan Lu
Open 24 hours, 7 days


Shanghai Street Food #23 Scallion Oil Noodles: Cōng Yóu Bàn Miàn 葱油拌面

Scallion oil noodles (cōng yóu bàn miàn 葱油拌面, literally scallion oil tossed noodles) are a deceptively simple street food packing a powerful flavour punch. I dare you to try eating only half a bowl, even when you’re already full! This morning I ate breakfast at home, then went straight out to shoot some noodle photos and I only planned to have a few mouthfuls….but there you go, three minutes later I could see the bottom of the bowl. 
Scallion oil noodles are one street food you could reproduce quite easily at home (I like this recipe from Cecilia Chiang, minus the shrimp). The finest hand-pulled noodles are quickly blanched for a minute in boiling stock or water then rinsed, cooling them to room temperature. Earlier, a simple sauce has been made by frying julienned scallions until they are dark and crisped, removing them, then adding salt and soy sauce to the hot oil. A bowl is prepared by being filled with a couple of spoonfuls of the scallion oil/soy sauce mixture, on top of which goes a tangle of noodles then a small handful of crispy fried green scallions. As you mix the noodles they become coated with the oil and soy, giving each strand a slippery tasty covering of sauce – a lovely contrast to the sweetness and crispness of the fried scallions. Add black vinegar to taste as you eat for extra flavour.
This classic Shanghai home-style dish is often the cheapest bowl in any street-side noodle restaurant at around 5 yuan (80 cents) but is also served in upmarket Shanghainese restaurants towards the end of a meal. When sharing, the waitress will bring a large bowl of cong you ban mian and tosses the noodles tableside, serving everyone with individual smaller bowls. 
In my local noodle shop, the cong you ban mian are one of seventeen different noodle dishes you can order from the vast wall menu, which runs to a total of eighty-seven dishes. I can’t vouch for the other eight-six dishes because I’m usually just there for the noodles, but all of them are produced in a kitchen the size of a closet. A-stounding.
The Shanghai Street Food 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

Criticizing Lin Piao and Confucius – Greetings from 1975

Take a step back to a happier age – what were you doing in 1975? In 1975 I was six years old, and had just learned to rollerskate using old-fashoned tie-on rollerskates. I had permanently skinned knees.
On the other hand, things weren’t so free In China in 1975 – Mao was still alive and the Cultural Revolution wasn’t to end for another year. These six year olds, pictured on the front of a 1975 calendar card I picked up in an antique market last week, were studiously ‘criticizing’ those old communist humbugs Lin Piao and Confucius. Confucius I’m sure you all know, the lucky ancient is now riding a new wave of popularity in China (again), having taken a dip during the 60s and 70s. Poor old Lin Piao (usually known as Lin Biao) was a communist military leader who died in a plane crash in Mongolia allegedly following a failed attempted coup and assassination attempt on Mao in 1971. Sadly his lost popularity hasn’t been successfully regained.
I found this tiny little piece of history at a wonderful early morning antique market.  Calendar cards, smaller than a playing card, were given away in the New Year by companies, businesses and government departments (the names of which are often priceless, like the Zhejiang Province Epidemic Prevention Branch). The earliest I’ve found date to 1974, and they continued to be popular for ten years or so. Often printed with happy politically correct scenes (for the time), they came in sets like these from the Shanghai Ocean Shiping Voyage-Repair Dockyard, with a picture on the front and a miniature calendar on the reverse.
I have amassed quite a collection of these little calendar cards, but my favourites by far are from the Gangu County Printing Ink Factory, 1975. They are delightfully retro but with a dark and slightly disturbing edge, like the ‘Criticizing Lin Piao and Confucius’ card at top.
‘Sentry on the East Sea’

‘Voice from Peking’ once again shows children in ethnic minority dress listening with rapt attention to the national radio broadcast.
‘Study Hard’
‘Red Flowers Facing the Sun’ 
‘Let’s Share the Toys’ I found this card the most bizarre, with a child holding a very western-looking round-eyed doll while children frolic in the background in what could well be a housing estate in England.
‘Friendship First’
Untitled. Loving the green full body cable-knit sweater.

Lingshi Lu Antique Market

The antique market is fabulous, but is not easy to find hidden away behind a regular bird and flower market. It operates mainly on Friday mornings when people start arriving at 4am, (closing at 6pm) but is also open at weekends, although fewer vendors show up. On Fridays vendors set up in the building’s forecourt too. It’s the place to find old books, maps, coins, toys, porcelain and jade (last time I went I picked up five old recipe books for 10-15 yuan each). The calendar cards are plentiful and sell for 4-5 yuan each.

Lingshi Lu Antique Market
behind Lanling Bird and Flower Market 
1539 Lingshi Lu, near Xincun Lu
Fridays from 4am
Weekends from 10am
To get there by metro: 
Line 7 Xincun Station (metro map here)
Take  Exit 1 – walk north along Lingshi Lu, where the Bird and Flower Market is at number 1539. Walk all the way through the market to the pink coloured building at the rear and go up to the second and third floors to find the antique market. 

Eight Shanghai Hairy Crabs, One Ethical Dilemma.

Today is the day I am going to tackle two things I’ve never done before.
1. I’m planning to cook my own Shanghai hairy crab for lunch, because reader Adeline suggested it and she is a woman full of good ideas.
2. I will tackle my slight phobia about cooking live crustaceans. For good.
This should be interesting.
8.10am. I cycle to the wet market to choose my hairy crabs. We’re in the second half of the annual three month long hairy crab-eating festival here in Shanghai – a magical time of late autumn when the click-clack of little claws can be heard on every pavement as the crabs try to make their unsuccessful escapes from tubs and buckets, having made the pilgrimage to Shanghai from nearby shallow lakes to fulfill every foodie’s dream – a feast of hairy crab.
Last week I dropped by the old-fashioned wet market on the corner of Taiyuan Lu and Jianguo Lu to check out their hairy crabs and ask a few questions ahead of today’s purchase. The crabs certainly looked the business – lovely olive green shells, shiny bright eyes on stalks, nice little furry mittens on their claws, very lively. Having totally given up on the idea of buying the famed Yancheng Lake hairy crabs because there are so many fakes and imposters around, I have opted instead for regular old unmarked, unbranded, un-microchipped hairy crabs, four boys and four girls.

The crab lady helps me choose by easing up the breast plate of each crab to show that the females are full of yolky orange roe, and the males are full of….something. Crab sperm? I nod sagely as she shows me the pale white underbelly. 

Once chosen the eight crabs get a thorough going over with a rough scrubbing brush, an action that has the effect of subduing them sufficiently so they can be concertina folded into a small tight bundle and wrapped with twine, a feat the crab lady achieves by holding one end of the twine between her teeth for tension.
8.56am. I cycle back to the wet market to take photographs of the crabs being tied up. Can’t believe I forgot my camera the first time.
Girls on the left, boys on the right
9.20am. Once back home I put the crabs in the coldest part of the refrigerator to help them have a nice little sleep and go back out buy a winter coat for myself. Today the temperature has suddenly plunged and I know if I don’t get one today they’ll all be gone and I’ll end up with a hideous shiny purple puffa coat. I’ve calculated that by the time I get home in two hours all eight crabs will be snoring away in a sort of crustacean suspended animation, making their subsequent cooking as painless as possible. 
12.40pm. Arrive home, ravenous. Coat purchasing took a lot longer than expected because every other person in Shanghai has had the same idea. Buggers. The thought of ten minutes’ wait for the crabs to cook seems so long! I put the water for the steamer on to boil and pull the crabs, hopefully blissfully unconscious, out of the refrigerator. As I open the bag they make small busy noises and eight pairs of bright little crab eyes open up and poke out at me. They’re wide awake and if they weren’t neatly tied up they would probably have made themselves a cosy home on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator using the butter dish as a sofa. I’m battling life-threatening hunger but I decide this should be done humanely, so I take the pot off the heat, put the crabs into the freezer, and eat a yoghurt.
1.12pm. I google ‘kind and fast ways to kill crabs’
1.13pm. Google replies with thousands of sites about unwanted lice and how to get rid of some garden weed called crabgrass that can apparently invade your lawn. Useless, google! Further down, I see something on the RSPCA website. Surely the RSPCA will know a thing or two about killing crabs kindly! 
It turns out they do, to the tune of a six page document titled ‘Humane electrical stun/killing of crustacea’. It makes for horrific reading and I feel guilty just skimming over it, with its underlying judgmental tones. In fact, I’m probably right now on some international register of crustacea-vores just for downloading the PDF. I bet they’re all vegetarians. 
If you must kill a crustacean, the RSPCA suggests using a Crustastun™ humane shellfish electro-stun/kill machine. That’s its real name too. It looks a little like a sandwich toaster or a panini press, with a lot more voltage.  I go to their website but can’t figure out how much one costs, or whether they deliver to China.
Not having immediate and ready access to a Crustastun™ I read pages four, five and six of the RSPCA document. For those unfortunate enough not to have a Crustastun™in the cupboard next to the sausage machine and the olive pitter, they suggest the ‘mechanical destruction technique’, involving the use of a long sharp knife and a detailed anatomical diagram identifying the crab’s two main nerve centres. They also mention having ‘dedicated trained competent operatives’ perform this task. I decide I am only slightly dedicated and definitely untrained and incompetent, so not up to the task. 
I read on. Lunch is looking further and further away every minute. The RSPCA throws me a small tattered lifeline. As a third, very poor option, the crabs can be rendered ‘insensible’ by freezing them for two hours ‘gradually’ to ‘avoid osmotic shock.’
1.22pm. I put the crabs in the freezer.
2.17pm. I’m very, very hungry and the rest of the family is taunting me with fresh crusty bread and cheese. I resist. I take the crabs back out of the freezer to check for signs of insensibility. They poke their eyes out brightly as if to say ‘godDAMM it’s cold in there! No! Don’t put us back! No!’
I put them back in the freezer.
3pm. I’ve just finished a banana with a TimTam chocolate biscuit chaser. I’m feeling a bit less light-headed and have resolved some of my inner ethical dilemmas so I go to work on the dipping sauce mandatory with hairy crab. I check the crabs again. Only two of the eight fulfil the RSPCAs criteria for ‘insensible’, meaning that when I tap on the shell they don’t move or open their eyes. Bloody Chinese freezers. Bloody RSPCA. Back they go. 
3.46pm. Desperation. I try the crabs one last time. By now they’re probably frozen solid. Certainly all the meat I’ve had to remove from the freezer to make way for the hairy crabs has completely defrosted, so at least I’ll have a back-up plan if the crabs don’t work out.
They look asleep. I tap the shells and one of the eight drowsily pokes his eyes out. Bugger. Back he goes in the freezer, and I crank up the heat on the steamer and put the other seven in the steamer basket, on their backs as advised, on a comfortable bed of ginger slices and scallion leaves, also as advised. I clamp the lid on and worry slightly about their insensible nerve centres as I race to the next room for ten minutes’ respectful silence. Also, the rest of the family have left the house so there’s no-one to talk to.
3.56pm I tentatively lift the lid. The crabs come out of the steamer a deep orange. Wafts of ginger and sweet crab smell. No discernible movement.
I cut the strings off and apart from a small terrifying moment where one claw springs out at me and my inner 10 year old girl screams, while my inner 42 year old says ‘for gawd’s sake it’s DEAD’ they look and smell perfectly cooked. I retrieve the silver hairy crab tools purchased specially for this occasion – a pair of pliers and cutters in one, and an elegant double ended tool for retrieving the tiniest bits of meat.

4.06pm. Lunch. I tie a tea towel around my neck. On my left, a plate with seven hairy crab, four girls, three boys. In front, a dish of sweet vinegar and ginger dipping sauce. I crack open the first crab, revealing the sweet shards of white flesh and the golden, oily, buttery roe. I remove the feathery gills then eat the meat bit by bit. Unbelievably good. The clean fresh crab taste is so perfect I hardly use the dipping sauce at all.

4.41pm. On my left, a pile of detritus. In front, a pile of detritus and a very dirty camera. On my right, a pile of crablegs and claws too small to get anything out of. I can barely move and there are smears of crab roe all over my hands, clothes, and face. I didn’t actually intend to eat all seven hairy crabs but they are really truly quite small. And I only do it once a year…..
Wonder which cupboard I could squeeze that Crustastun™ into??
Tips for cooking hairy crab

  • Unless you want an Annie Hall moment, keep them tied up until after they’re cooked
  • Lay them on their backs during cooking to keep the delcious juices in
  • Steam for ten to thirteen minutes in a bamboo steamer depending on weight
  • Cut the strings and serve while still hot, with a side dish of ginger vinegar dipping sauce and a finger bowl
  • Consider serving the traditional accompaniment to hairy crab – warmed Shaoxing wine
Dipping Sauce for Hairy Crab


  • 50 ml Zhenjiang vinegar
  • 100ml water
  • 4 tsp sugar
  • pinch salt
  • 2 tablespoons very finely shredded ginger

  • Gently heat ingredients until sugar is dissolved
  • Cool before serving

Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper

Fuchsia Dunlop a woman with a wonderfully exciting depth of knowledge about Chinese food, is now officially my favourite food writer (apologies, Jeffrey Steingarten and the two Elizabeths, David and Romer). Dunlop knows her subject inside out and brings her love and passion for the food of China, and of Sichuan in particular, to a wider audience with her third book, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper.

The book chronicles Dunlop’s evolving love affair with Sichuan food, peppered with recipes and woven through with her observations on food history, language and culture. Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper won the Guild of Food Writers Kate Whiteman Award for Food and Travel and the IACP Jane Grigson Award in 2009.

Dunlop arrived in Chengdu on a British Council scholarship in 1994 (purportedly to study Chinese policy on ethnic minorities) but became entranced, captivated and totally distracted by the food of Sichuan somewhere along the way, eventually studying Sichuan cuisine at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine and mastering the intricacies of flavour combinations, cutting skills, and the mystical ‘huo hou‘, the sense of heat when cooking in a wok. She went on to write what many consider the book of Sichuan cuisine, Sichuan Cookery, and a second book on the food of Hunan, the Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, written during the terrifying SARS epidemic of 2003.

Her personal stories of culinary discovery are flavoured with the challenges of being foreign in a part of China that saw few foreigners at the time, and of coming to grips with an alien language and culture. 

“To learn the language of cookery in China was, in part, to learn the language of life. And as I went deeper into my culinary studies, I found that I was not only cooking, but also in some ways thinking, like a Chinese person.”

The book opens with a description of Dunlop’s first taste of proper Chinese food, and in stark contrast to her later lavish descriptions of Sichaun dishes, it leaves us reeling with visceral disgust –

“The preserved duck eggs were served as an hors d’oeuvre in a fashionable Hong Kong restaurant, sliced in half, with a ginger-and-vinegar dip. It was my first trip to Asia, and I had rarely seen anything so revolting on a dinner table. They leered up at me like the eyeballs of some nightmarish monster, dark and threatening. Their albumens were a filthy, translucent brown, their yolks an oozy black, ringed with a layer of greenish, mouldy grey.  About them hung a faintly sulphurous haze. I tried one, just to be polite, but ts noxious aroma made me feel nauseous and I found it hard to swallow. Afterwards, a slick of toxic black slime from the yolk clung to my chopsticks, threatening to pollute everything else I ate. Surreptitiouly I tried to wipe them on the tablecloth.”

Fortunately, her taste for Chinese food rapidly improves, as she describes one of Sichuan’s most famous street dishes, dan dan mian – dan dan noodles.

“They looked quite plain, a small bowlful of noodles topped with a spoonful of dark, crisp minced beef. But as soon as you stirred them with your chopsticks, you awakened the flavours in the slick of spicy seasonings at the base of the bowl, and coated each strand of pasta in a mix of soy sauce, chilli oil, sesame paste and Sichuan pepper. The effect was electrifying. Within seconds, your mouth was on fire, your lips quivering under the onslaught of the pepper, and your whole body radiant with heat.”

Dunlop takes us on a lip-smacking ride through Sichuan food, food history, Chinese culture and travel. My favourite chapter by far is one on which she returns to Sichuan to hunt down the best Sichuan pepper, that lip-numbing spice so intricately associated with Sichuan food. Part homage, part travelogue, she travels eight hours by long-distance bus to the remote township of Qingxi, the home of the world’s best Sichuan pepper. Dunlop doesn’t disappoint with her description of the first taste of the tiny peppercorns. 

“And then I put some pepper between my lips. In its green astringent newness, it puckers my tongue immediately, and then, a few seconds later, the tingling hits. That incomparable tongue-numbing sensation of Sichuan pepper, a fizzing that starts stealthily and rises to a mouth-streaming breathtaking crescendo that can last for twenty minutes before it slowly, gradually, dies away. It’s stronger even than I expected, and I laugh in surprise. For years I have dreamt of tasting Sichuan pepper on the tree, and here I am, in Qingxi itself, my lips singing.”

In the haphazard world of English language books in Shanghai, it took quite some time to track down a copy of Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper. In a way, though, it was important for me to find Dunlop’s book now, rather than two years ago, because it is so much more meaningful after having seen more of the country and experienced more of its food. 

Although I read and enjoyed Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper because of its food focus (and certainly the descriptions of Sichuan foods make your mouth fairly water), for me Dunlop became something of a cultural guiding light as she explained so many aspects of Chinese food culture I found intriguing and at times repulsive, like the apparently barbaric treatment of animals used for food. I recall watching with growing horror as a Shanghai market vendor plucked a young chicken while it was still alive, its eyes bulging with fear and pain as it struggled desperately to get away and blood dripped onto the woman’s jeans. All the while, she chatted with her neighbouring vendor while her toddler played with an empty plastic drink bottle nearby. Dunlop explains this seeming callousness thus –

“I’d been to many Chinese markets before that outing with Feng Rui, and had at first been amazed – and appalled- by the cruelty I witnessed. It was the sheer nonchalance of it, the way people scaled fish as though they were simply peeling potatoes, skinned live rabbits while smoking a cigarette, joked with a friend as the blood drained from the throat of a bewildered duck. They didn’t kill animals before they cooked and ate them. They simply went about the process of preparing a creature for the pot and table, and at some random point it died. But there, perhaps, is the crux of the matter, embedded almost invisibly in those last two sentences. In English…the words for the living things we eat are mostly derived from the the Latin anima, which means air, breath, life. ‘Creature’ from the latin word for ‘created’,seems to connect animals with us as human beings in some divinely fashioned univere. We too are creatures, animated. In Chinese, the word for animal is dong wu, meaning ‘moving thing’. Is it cruel to hurt something that you simply see as a ‘moving thing’, scarcely even alive?”

Dunlop also goes on to explain, among other things, the Chinese fascination with gristly and rubbery food textures, and the attraction of eating wild and endangered animals. For a foreigner like myself trying desperately to come to grips with China, the country, through Chinese food, this is a tremendously enjoyable read. I often felt Dunlop had been surreptitiously reading my thoughts, she seemed to describe my life so accurately, except that of course, she’d done it all many years before me.

“I took a few private Chinese lessons and spent the rest of my time hanging around markets and restaurants, or sitting in teahouses, poring over dictionaries and photocopies of local restaurant menus.”

Hmm. I know someone who may or may not do exactly that. 

Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper
First published 2009
Paperback edition published 2011 by Ebury Press

Reviews of other books on Chinese food and travel you might enjoy:

Serve the People by Jen Lin-Liu
The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones
My China by Kylie Kwong

naked Retreats naked Stables

Disclaimer: We paid for this weekend ourselves, and it was bloody expensive. But it was so worth it.

The people behind Moganshan’s naked Retreats have just opened a new eco-resort development nestled in a bamboo and fir tree valley between Moganshan and Anji. It’s a spectacularly beautiful piece of unspoiled nature and more importantly, feels a thousand miles from the hideous gritty gray pall of smog that passes as weather we’ve had for the last week in Shanghai.

naked Retreats began as a weekend getaway in a small village at the base of Moganshan mountain, with several village houses converted into rustic retreats complete with roast chicken dinners, fireplaces, and nature walks. A month ago, the same group opened naked Stables, a lavish spread of some 120 ‘earth huts and treetop villas’ settled between the trees of a valley that forms part of a large private nature reserve.

And for those readers outside Shanghai, when I say ‘nature reserve’ it’s not a euphemism for ‘nudist colony’, and the name naked Retreats is designed to indicate a return to nature, not a shedding of clothes. Just so you know.

To get to the new naked Stables from Shanghai you’ll need private transport, or you can take the fast train to Hangzhou (45 minutes) and have them collect you at the station for the 90 minute trip to the resort. Having just finished telling you it’s not a nudist resort, I did get a good laugh from the text message sent by the young lady arranging our pick-up from Hangzhou Train Station. It read “Ok. I will wait you at exit. And with shuttle bus come naked.” In the crowds at Hangzhou station we might well have slipped through naked relatively unnoticed, but we opted to wear clothes to avoid any difficulties.
Once you leave Hangzhou’s equally choking smog behind you drive towards the mountains, past rows of terraced tea bushes, through small towns piled to the sky with stacks of green bamboo drying in the sun, and past tiny fields of golden rice, head-heavy and ready for harvest. 

In amongst all of this is naked Stables. Soon after our arrival on Friday afternoon our ‘host’ Tornado (his real name, although he confusingly pronounces it ‘Toledo’) took us in a motorised golf buggy to our villa, Crane 1, perched on a ridge overlooking the valley. It’s all incredibly lovely – timber floors, stone walls, floor to ceiling windows looking out on to a broad deck. There are bedrooms with fluffy white quilts, bathrooms lined in slate, and a huge and comfortable living room with a full-sized kitchen, should you feel like self-catering. 

The kitchen comes equipped with local ‘white’ tea, a variety of green tea, and freshly-ground coffee. I personally think a bottle of wine would have hit the spot really well on a Friday afternoon, but there was none in the mini-bar. Tea will have to do for now.
When you’re done relaxing in your villa, you can call Tornado and he will take you to relax somewhere else. Deep, sustained relaxation is the key to getting the most out of this place, I figure. There are daily activities like mountain hikes, horse riding, pilates and mountain-biking, but why put yourself to all that trouble and perspiration when there is a perfectly good lounge to recline on down at the Clubhouse in the early winter sunshine, and snacks and drinks to be had?

When summer arrives the pools (there are three altogether) will be a great drawcard. In the meantime I try a Moganshan Spring beer and ‘Moganshan farmer’s snacks’ – dried sweetened bamboo shoots, chewy and sinewy, dried smoked green soybeans, terrifically delicious and never-before tried, and boiled peanuts (20 yuan/$3). The Clubhouse has a casual bistro decorated with terracotta lamps and carved wooden chairs where you can eat lunch and dinner. The very reasonably priced menu runs to shrimp and pomelo salad (50 yuan/$8), chicken and mushroom pot pie (75 yuan/$12), prosciutto and mozarella sandwich (50 yuan/$8), or shrimp and water chestnut pot-stickers with a garlic-lemongrass dipping sauce (45 yuan/$7). 
For breakfast and more formal evening dining, you can eat lakeside at Kikaboni Restaurant at the opposite end of the resort. In the morning sunlight streams through the restaurant windows, reflecting off the small lake. It’s a lovely space and the food reflects their philosophy of simple food, locally sourced and made.

Two full days of it round-the-clock relaxation (there’s a spa opening soon) and good food and you’re just about ready to move to naked Stables for good. The only problem will be how to explain the overdraft to your bank manager. Guess it will have to be an occasional guilty indulgence.
Currently in soft opening from now until Feb 2012
Earth huts from 2600 yuan/night, second night free until Feb 29
Villas (2-4 bedrooms) from 5800 yuan/night, second night free until Feb 29
Breakfast and Hangzhou transfers included.

Jia Jia Tang Bao – A Shanghai Xiaolongbao Classic

Xiaolongbao, Shanghai’s incredible soup-filled dumplings, don’t come any more classic than those at Jia Jia Tang Bao, eaten at the original restaurant in the back streets north of People’s Square. If you go there right now in the middle of hairy crab season, you’ll find the best hairy crab xiaolongbao you ever tasted at prices so low you’ll think they left an extra digit off the bill. Really.
Xiaolongbao come in two main varieties – pork, and pork mixed with hairy crab meat and/or crab roe. Right now, October to December, is hairy crab season, and the little dark green crustaceans with hairy black pompoms on the end of their claws have arrived in Shanghai from nearby Yangcheng Lake and surrounds. Restaurant fliers featuring eight course hairy crab feasts come through the letterbox every day. Tubs and tanks full of hairy crabs are on every street in the city, the crabs sitting mutely with their ridiculous pompom claws tied folded close to their bodies. 
A month ago my favorite dry goods shop on Wulumuqi Lu had every item temporarily removed to make way for a dozen or so glass-topped barrels full of hairy crabs. The nuts and dried fruits will make a comeback in December when crab season is over, but for now there is only one item for sale – hairy crab. Last week I walked past as a delivery of crabs was sitting in a plastic crate on the pavement. Clambering over those underneath a few brave crab souls made their escape, falling ungracefully onto the pavement before righting themselves and making off towards the traffic…..they were snatched from the jaws of certain death under the wheels of a motorcycle and plonked back in a barrel, temporarily delayed from a tasty end in someone’s kitchen.  
Jia Jia doesn’t look like much from the street but is a huge favorite of Shanghainese locals and travelling foodies alike, and in hairy crab season its popularity goes through the roof. After tasting their crab xiaolongbao you’ll know why. You’ll need to queue for a table no matter what the time of day, frequently being required to defend your queue position against stealth attacks from sneaky Chinese tourists who try and inveigle a position ahead of you. Don’t worry, the front desk inside the door is manned by an eagle-eyed woman who will yell at them and send them back to the end of the line, shame-faced.
While you wait, choose from either the outside menu or the inside menu hanging on the wall behind the counter, and when you finally make it to the front of the line order and pay before being shown to a seat with your docket. In many places – Jia Jia included – xiaolongbao are also known as tāng bāo (汤包 soup dumplings). Choose from ‘pure delicious fresh meat soup dumplings’ at 10.5 yuan ($1.50) for a dozen, shrimp, chicken, or even the luxurious ‘pure crab meat soup dumplings at 99 yuan ($16.00). I highly recommend foregoing all others for the signature dish – xièfĕn xiānròu tāngbāo (蟹粉鲜肉汤包 hairy crab and pork xiaolongbao), at 25.5 yuan ($4.00) for a dozen.
Once seated at one of only ten or so tiny formica tables, you can people-watch while you wait for your number to be called. Old Shanghainese couples sharing a steamer basket of xiaolongbao for breakfast. Trendy kids from Taiwan, with angular haircuts, outsize glasses, and harem pants with hi-tops taking iPhone photographs of one another. Somewhat disconcertingly, the hungry diners lined up outside tend to frequently press their faces to the window to check on your progress. Ignore them.  

At last! Your dozen crab meat and pork xiaolongbao arrive. The lid comes off the basket to reveal twelve fine specimens resting on a woven grass basket lining, the yellow crab roe clearly visible through the dumpling skins. There are two choices of dipping sauce – black vinegar, or golden rice vinegar with shreds of ginger. The latter goes perfectly with the more subtle flavor of the crab meat, and is the same accompaniment to steamed whole hairy crab (see this post on eating hairy crab at quirky Yong Xing Restaurant).
The xiaolongbao are perfect – strong fine translucent skins, an explosion of delicate crab meat and yolky rich crab roe, a touch of smooth pork, and a mouthful of hot broth filled with oily gold droplets of melted roe. Incredible. Before you know it all twelve dumplings are sitting happily in your stomach. Worth every minute of the half hour wait.

While you eat and enjoy you can also watch the frenetic activity in the open kitchen as a team of women work in unison to make each basket of xiaolongbao to order. Tiny nubbins of dough are rolled individually into paper thin skins, then stuffed with filling, pleated closed and placed carefully in a steamer basket. Basket after basket, all day long, from kitchen to steamer to grateful mouths. Take a big appetite when you go.
Jia Jia Tang Bao 佳家汤包

90 Huanghe Lu, near Fengyang Lu
黄河路90, 近凤阳路
Ph +86 21 6327 6878
Open 7 days, 6.30am – 10pm or until sold out

Husband Wanted.

Female. Born in 1983. Shanghai residence permit. 1.62m tall.
So begin the qualifications of a potentially marriageable young Shanghai woman. Not that she wrote her own description of course, she might not even be aware her vital statistics are being displayed every weekend in a corner of People’s Square by a marriage broker – her own mother. 
According to the sign, pegged to a shopping bag, she works in administration for a foreign enterprise with a monthly pay of 6,000 yuan (about $US1000).
She is also shanliang – good and kind-hearted, laoshi –  honest, and xiangmao jiao hao – of quite good facial appearance.
Parents already retired, living in Shanghai.
Yuqiu – wishing for – a man with a specialized field of study (bachelor degree or higher), born between 1978 and 1985, honest, dependable, and with a salary of more than 6,000 yuan per month. 
The last line, 有事业心的有房男士,as translated by two Chinese friends, basically says : ‘Have professional ambitions for a house and husband‘.

On any given Sunday in Shanghai similar testimonials in their hundreds line the paths of a particular corner of People’s Square known as the Marriage Market. Far from being a place for the young lovelorn to find girlfriends or boyfriends, this is a serious business conducted mostly by parents concerned for their children’s marriage prospects. 
There are few photographs, and character descriptions are sketchy at best, but the eligible bachelors and bachelorettes are heavy on degrees, masters degrees and PhDs. It’s all terribly pragmatic. Middle-aged mothers and fathers perch patiently on folding stools next to their child’s qualifications, and wait for interest from other parents. Should they be short on time, there are professional brokers who will hang their child’s description for them every week and take enquiries on their behalf.
Shanghai is well-known for its mercenary marriage ‘requirements’, and most young men can forget about making a good match until they have a good income, a car, and an apartment. Marriage markets and marriage brokers exist in other cities in China, but not in the same ruthlessly prescriptive way in this city where status is everything.
What I find really interesting is how very Dickensian it all is. In 2011 we’re still using essentially the same criteria to find a good husband that the Victorians used. None of these unsuitable love matches of which no good can come. Parents want their children to make a good marriage, but always on the understanding that eligible applicants for the job of future wife or husband have such and such a level of education, or income, or social standing. In all, that their prospects are good and their fortune is solid, and if love should follow, then happy days for everyone! But is not….well, at least he’s a good earner with a Masters Degree.

But it’s just not very….romantic, is it? As Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett would say:
“What is the difference, in matrimonial affairs, between the mercenary and the prudent motive?”


Shanghai Street Food #22 Honeyed Lotus Root Stuffed With Sticky Rice: Guì Huā Lián’ǒu 桂花莲藕

Welcome back to the Shanghai Street Food series! Honeyed lotus root stuffed with sticky rice – guì huā lián’ǒu 桂花莲藕 (literally osmanthus flower lotus root) is one of the most refined and aesthetically beautiful of all street foods once you slice it open and see the wonderful pattern the rice makes against the honeyed lotus root. 
In its unsliced state though, it’s rather unattractive – if you’ve walked Shanghai’s streets you may have noticed tubs full of what look like giant brown slugs with toothpick tentacles floating in non-descript syrupy liquid. These are whole lotus roots, the interior root chambers filled with sticky rice then slowly cooked so that the lotus root’s starchy sweetness fully develops, and turns from pale white to deep red-brown (much like a quince) and the rice grains plump up to fill the long tubular spaces within the lotus root, giving it that characteristic appearance when sliced.

Vendors selling the stuffed lotus roots are usually found just near the entrance to larger wet markets (9.8 yuan ($1.50) per 500g). After removing one from its syrupy bath the vendor will remove the toothpicks holding the end of the lotus root closed, then slice it for you into centimetre-thick slices. Then he’ll separately pour some syrup in a tightly knotted plastic bag for you to take home. You could, of course, eat it as a true street food as you walk but things might get pretty sticky. I usually prefer to take the lotus root home whole and slice it myself, adding the syrup just before eating. Despite its sweetness this dish can be eaten cold as an entree at the start of a meal, as well as a dessert.

The stuffed lotus roots are apparently easy to make it home, although I’m yet to give it a try because it’s just so easy to buy one on the street. Simply soak some glutinous rice in water for two hours, then slice the end of a short, plump lotus root and fill the holes wth the rice, using a chopstick to help the grains into the holes,  tapping the tuber’s outside with a rolling pin or stick to help the rice get all the way to the bottom. Reattach the lid with toothpicks, then cook at a slow boil for 2 hours in a light sugar syrup. Once cooled, slice and drizzle with osmanthus syrup or osmanthus honey.

The Shanghai Street Food 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

Laundry Airing, in Public

You thought I had some juicy gossip today, right? Well, sort of…Life on Nanchang Lu is featured in the November issue of Shanghai’s best glossy monthly, Shanghai Talk Magazine (shorter online version here) in an article on Shanghai food blogs. Exciting stuff! They also featured two blogging friends who have great food blogs worth checking out: The Shanghai Foodist, and Wok With Me Baby, in which MaryAnne cooks familiar foods using only Chinese ingredients she can source locally.
Other than this news, today probably qualifies as the shortest post ever because tomorrow I have a Chinese test. I should be studying right this second but I loved these photos so much I had to post them. Many of my favourite images never make it into a post of their own – they’re just things I’ve snapped on the street, often pictures without a story. 
So invent your own story for these frothy confections of wedding dresses. It was a lovely sunny day yesterday and they were being hung outside a store on Jiashan Lu to air….I think. I certainly can’t explain the chef’s whites hanging alongside, or the random bra and pair of red underpants.
Wish me luck for tomorrow!