The sign on the door said simply: “Cold Wontons.” Hardly an appetising name.
My Chinese friend had described it to me like this:
“Near the corner of Changhua Lu and Changping Lu there are two noodles shops on opposite sides of the street – one does hot noodles. One does cold noodles. Neither have a name. But they’re really, really good. You should go.”
“Cold Wontons” turned out to be the de facto name of this totally nameless noodle joint in Shanghai’s Jing’an District, undistinguishable – from the outside at least – from other noodle joints in the area.
But what every customer knew is that this place cooked very authentic, very high quality Shanghainese cold noodles. The cold wontons? Just a side dish. Lord knows how it came to be spelled out in fat red Chinese characters on the door.
I walked in and tried to order at the small cashier’s desk near the door, behind which was seated a lady in her early sixties with a wide smile and very permed hair. She spoke barely a word of Chinese, and not even a skerrick of English. This was a Shanghainese noodle joint, and Shanghainese was the language spoken. I failed to understand a thing she said.
The menu, otherwise known as the jiàmùbiǎo 价目表 or price list, was pinned to the wall behind her, and detailed all the dishes or toppings available to eat with cold noodles – fried pork cutlets, spicy meat, spicy sauce, bean sprouts, white chicken. You chose a topping, a bowl of cold noodles, and as many side dishes as you liked, and paid at the counter before taking a seat.
My friend had told me what to try – the eel noodles, specialty of the house.
The only problem for me and my very Australian-accented Chinese was that the ‘eel thread cold noodles’ – shànsī lěngmiàn 鳝丝冷面 , a dish of fine eel slivers, sounded exactly the same to the cashier as the ‘three thread cold noodles’ – sānsī lěngmiàn 三丝冷面, a totally different dish of shreds of bamboo shoot, pork and green pepper.
Our confused encounter went like this:
“I’ll have the eel thread cold noodles.”
“Three thread cold noodles?”
“No, no, eel thread.”
“Yes, I understand, three thread.”
“No! No….EEL thread.”
I was obviously struggling until a customer, bilingual in Chinese and Shanghainese, came to my aid.
“What do you want to eat?” he asked.
“I want the eel noodles” I told him. He smiled.
“And how many liang of noodles do you want? Two or three?”
“Three” I said, feeling hungry (a liang
两 is a Chinese measure of weight, about 50g, often used for noodles and also dumplings
– a standard serve is two to three liang
He turned to the cashier and in rapid Shanghainese told her what I wanted.
“Aaah!” she said, smiling even more widely. She clearly approved of my choice. Or maybe she was just pleased to get me out of the queue and into a seat.
Clearly I needed assistance with every step of my lunch, and so the cashier assigned a matronly aunty to help me. She took my ticket from me and passed it through the small window to the staff in the glassed-in kitchen, a metre away.
Then while I waited she interrogated me with the help of the bilingual customer, who, like the relaxed Shanghainese gentleman he was, had come out for lunch in his pyjamas.
“How long have you lived in Shanghai?”
“Are you married?”
“How many children?”
At my answer – two daughters – the aunty, our translator and everyone else in the cramped space made appreciative noises.
“How come you can’t speak Shanghainese?”
A fair question. But after four years of struggling with Chinese, Shanghainese still eluded me.
Then, thank goodness, the noodles arrived.
Slivers of sweet ginger. Pieces of tasty, soft, oily eel. Shreds of bamboo shoot. Little wilted, caramelised pieces of scallion. All swimming in the most marvellous sweet, oily, gingery, soy braised sauce.
And the noodles – fine wheat noodles, a little flat rather than round, cold and firm to the bite, served in a dish with a splash of light brown vinegar in the bottom and a slick of sesame sauce on the top.
Aunty came and sat next to me, and told me I could eat the two dishes separately or mix them together. Up to me.
I tried the eels first – soft, salty, sweet and gingery all at once with the wonderful richness of the eel. Magnificent. Then I tried it mixed with the cold noodles, and the firm bite of the noodles gave each mouthful a contrast in textures. Amazing.
All around me conversations in Shanghainese were being carried out to the enjoyable slurp of really great noodles.
On my next visit I had more time to study the menu and figure out the other noodle toppings and extra dishes available.
From front to back:
dòuyár lěngmiàn 豆芽冷面 – shreds of green pepper and pork with bean sprouts 3 yuan
ròuwán 肉丸 meatballs 5 yuan
dàpái 大排 big crispy fried pork chops 7.5 yuan
sùjī 素鸡 white chicken 2 yuan
lěng húntun 冷馄饨 cold wontons 4 yuan/liang
hébāodàn 荷包蛋 fried egg 2 yuan
sāndélì 三得利 suntory beer 3 yuan san
kělè 可乐 cola 2 yuan
I tried the three thread noodles just for fun (nice, but not as good as the eel noodles) and the cold wontons. The wontons, at least, were utterly fabulous, full of chives and pork and served firm and cold with vinegar and sesame sauce.
Aunty even let me give my ticket to the kitchen all by myself.
Cold Wontons (um, not it’s real name)
379 Changhua Lu, near Changping Lu, Jing’an District, Shanghai
Signature dish: shànsī lěngmiàn 鳝丝冷面 eel thread cold noodles
Order as ‘shan si liang liang’ for two liang of noodles (18 yuan) or ‘shan si san liang’ for three liang of noodles (20 yuan)
Open 7 days. No phone.