|Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park street food night market|
Dou hua 豆花 (literally ‘bean bloom’) is made by pouring hot fresh soy milk into a dish containing a coagulant (usually gypsum – calcium sulfate) and dissolved corn starch. The starch gives duo hua its silken, just-set texture. After a few minutes, the tofu ‘blooms’, setting in the centre of the bowl in a quivering flower surrounded by yellow whey.
They’re mysterious places, Chinese specialty food stores. But if you’re interested in Chinese food you will inevitably find yourself wandering into one and contemplating the rows of strange foodstuffs and intriguing smells, wondering where to begin.
Most specialty food stores have a similar range – cured, dried and preserved goods; baked goods and confectionary; fresh foods, and freshly-prepared meals to eat at home.
It was a rainy day like this when I visited the site of what was once the Shanghai Watch Factory (Shanghai Shoubiao Chang 上海手表厂)
The Shanghai Watch Factory was the very first in China, founded in 1958. Watches became important status symbols, one of the ‘Three Bigs’ (san da jian 三大件) necessary for a groom to bring to a marriage. The evolution of the ‘Three Bigs’ over time is a telling narrative on the startling development of China’s market economy and the sophistication of its consumers. In the 1970s the three desirables were a watch, a sewing machine (or radio), and a bicycle. In the 1980s this became a watch, a television, and a refrigerator, and in the 1990s a television, a refrigerator and a car. By the 2000s a wedding in Shanghai was unlikely to proceed unless the groom could deliver a car, an apartment and a computer.
“Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.” So goes advice for a long life from American writer and nutritionist Adelle Davis (1904-1974).
It’s a guilty pleasure of mine, to dine out often for breakfast, and I always think of Adelle’s quote as I do so, tucking into a steamer basket full of dumplings, or scrambled eggs and hot tea. If it’s a cold day or I’m very hungry, I usually have a bowl of comforting wonton soup at the breakfast shop Fujian Dumpling Soup King on Xiangyang Lu. I like Dumpling Soup King because it has proper tables and chairs and sometimes I just want to sit for breakfast, rather than standing and walking with my food. Can you imagine trying to eat a bowl of wonton soup while walking? Messy.
The other nice thing about Dumpling Soup King is they don’t mind if you bring food from any of the other breakfast shops alongside. Many customers like to eat something with crunch (like youtiao fried dough sticks, or crispy rice squares, or crisp-bottomed shengjianbao dumplings) with their soft, slippery soup.
Behind a yellow lane house on Changle Lu is a garden filled with swathes of printed indigo cloth drying gently in the breeze. The house is home to the Shanghai Blue Nankeen Museum, originally just one small dark room dedicated to this traditional indigo nankeen fabric that has its roots in Shanghai.
Making Blue Nankeen
If you’d like to learn more about blue nankeen you could visit one of these two small museums, both with attached shops. Blue nankeen is often available in souvenir shops in Shanghai but take care – most of this nankeen is machine-printed using commercial dyes. Traditional nankeen has a stiffness and a slightly rough finish, as well as a typical indigo smell. Expect to pay about 60-90RMB ($11-$16) per metre for fabric – anything cheaper than this is unlikely to be handmade.
These five restaurants exemplify Shanghai cuisine at its best – laid back, local, and hospitable. Now that you know all about Shanghai cuisine thanks to last week’s Shanghai Food Primer, here’s where to try it out for yourself.
Be sure to let me know your favourites too!
1. Qiao Family Gate Restaurant 乔家栅食府 QiaoJiaZhaShiFu
I have a soft spot for this little place on the corner of Xiangyang Lu and Yongjia Lu. It’s a very old-fashioned Shanghai restaurant, full of locals eating lunch after finishing their morning errands and elderly friends getting together once a week for a meal and a gossip.
It’s not a destination restaurant, and there’s no hype or advertising. What you see is what you get. The most expensive dish on the menu is less than $US10 and most are $US3-4.
Every time I eat there one of the chefs will come out to the dining room to ask what I thought of the meal – not in a western celebrity-chef-meets-lowly-diner moment, just in a curious, never-seen-many-foreigners-eat-here kind of way. They always seem pleased I enjoyed the food, and I love that they come and chat.
On Dianping (China’s behemoth restaurant review website), frequent mention is made of the waitstaff’s ‘bad’ and ‘indifferent’ attitudes – you’ll have to decide for yourself. I’ve always found them consistently surly, in a good-natured sort of way.
Downstairs is just for noodles and Shanghai snacks, upstairs is a la carte.
Stand Out Dish:
Their Drunken Chicken is, in my books, the best in Shanghai. A whole young tender chicken is presented peacefully asleep in a broth of clear chicken stock and Shaoxing wine, its meat suffused with the clear, mellow flavour of the wine and garnished with finely chopped chives. RMB 32.
336 Xiangyang Lu, corner Yongjia Lu
English Menu: No
Picture Menu: Yes
2. Jian Guo 328 建国328
When Jian Guo 328 opened in 2012 there was a sudden realisation that this at last was the Shanghainese restaurant everyone had been looking for.
Lao Zheng Xing
English Menu: No
Picture Menu: Yes
5. Dianshi Zhai Small Feast 点石斋小宴 Dianshi Zhai Xiao Yan
Housed in a beautiful old restored 1930s mansion on Yongjia Lu, the winding wooden staircase takes you upstairs to several different but equally charming dining rooms looking over the street. Consistently well-executed Shanghai classics with great service.
Stand Out Dishes:
Dong Po Pork 东坡肉 (dong po rou) This single piece of slow-cooked pork belly glistens like a jewel in its tiny dish, sitting in a tarry black sweet soy sauce. Perfection in pork.
English Menu: No
Picture Menu: Yes
And Five Honourable Mentions:
Five more places to get your fix of Shanghai cuisine. Are they on your top five list?
Shanghai Club 上海会馆 (shanghai huiguan)
5th Floor, 489 Henan Nan Lu, Huangpu District (near Fuxing Lu)
Same delicious Shanghai classics, but with modern presentation.
Yuan Yuan 圆苑酒家 (yuan yuan jiu jia)
108 Xiangyang Lu, near Huai Hai Zhong Lu, Xuhui District
A more upmarket dining experience, Yuan Yuan has some beautiful private rooms ideal for large groups, and an extensive and thoughtful menu.
New Jesse 新吉士(xin jishi)
28 Taojiang Lu, Xuhui District
It’s great, but relatively expensive. A nice space on Taojiang Lu, there are another five locations including Xintiandi, and the new IAPM mall on Huai Hai Lu.
Old Jesse 老吉士上海菜 (lao jishi shanghai cai)
41 Tianping Lu, near Huai Hai Zhong Lu, Xuhui District
The original but sadly no longer the best. It’s on a lot of ‘best of’ lists, which means tables are hard to nab and they make you wait outside until yours is ready.
Lu Bo Lang 绿波廊
Yu Gardens, near Bridge of Nine Turnings
Bill Clinton ate there, along with every dignitary in the world. This doesn’t necessarily mean the food is good, but if you spend the whole day taking visitors around Yu Gardens, it’s a great place to put your feet up for an hour.
Wild vegetables with tofu
马兰头香干 ma lan tou xiang gan
This dish consists of a steamed leafy green wild vegetable (kalimeris indica) similar to clover or alfalfa that is then steamed, finely chopped, and mixed with diced smoked tofu. It has a light and refreshing grassy taste that perfectly complements sauce-heavy dishes.
老醋海蜇头 lao cu hai zhe tuo
Drunken Chicken – Chicken Poached in Shaoxing wine
醉鸡 zui ji
This is a quintessential Shanghai dish with a clear, light flavour achieved by steeping white-poached chicken in Shaoxing wine, then slicing it on the bone and serving it cold with the full-flavoured steeping liquid. Head optional. It’s a triumphant dish where simplicity wins over complexity.
Gluten – a bread-like cooking ingredient – is braised with soy sauce, ginger, five spice, sugar, peanuts and wood ear mushrooms in this vegetarian dish that is usually served as an appetiser, although warm rather than cold. For those who have never tasted gluten, its spongy texture has little taste on its own but absorbs the richness of the fragrant sauce.
Shanghai Style Crisp-fried Fish with Sweet Soy Sauce
上海烤子鱼 shanghai kao zi yu
No larger than sardines, these crispy little fish are deep fried to within an inch of their lives, then served drizzled with a sweet soy dressing. A perfect accompaniment to cold Qingdao beer.
Steamed Hairy Crab
清蒸大闸蟹 qingzheng da zha xie
锅烧河鳗 guo shao he man
This dish is not for the faint-hearted, and it’s neither light nor mildly flavoured. Shanghai freshwater eels have an intense oiliness and strong fish taste that needs the robust flavours in this braise – soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, sugar, oil, and ginger.
Silken Tofu with Crab Meat
蟹粉豆腐 xie fen doufu
I sincerely hope my last meal on earth includes this extraordinary dish. Silken tofu cubes, warm and soft, swim in a thick braise of rich crab meat seasoned with pepper. It’s divine.
Braised Pork with Chestnuts in Soy Sauce
栗子红烧肉 li zi hong shao rou
Essentially a variation of hong shao rou with autumn chestnuts and boiled quail eggs added, sometimes with soft yellow gingko nuts.
本帮小排 ben bang xiao pai
Forget what you think you knew about sweet and sour pork. There is no deep frying in batter here, no tart orange sauce made with pineapple juice and ketchup. This is real sweet and sour – soy sauce, dark vinegar, brown sugar, coating pieces of pork rib on the bone. A great eating experience of chewing, gnawing, and spitting out the bony bits.
Shanghai Soup Dumplings
小笼包 xiao long bao
The best dumplings in the world, filled with fragrant pork meat and hot broth. I think I might have said enough about them already here, in Shanghai Xiaolongbao – The Complete Guide. You must eat these in Shanghai, as often as possible. All good Shanghainese restaurants serve their own version.
Fried and crispy on the bottom, steamed and pillowy on the top, these much heartier dumplings are also filled with pork and soup.
Fermented Rice Wine Soup with Sticky Rice Balls
酒酿圆子 jiu niang yuanzi
A very traditional dish, served warm or cold. The soup is made with sweetened fermented rice, giving it a slightly tangy, zesty flavour. The little soft sticky rice balls may be plain or filled with a sweet filling, like black sesame or red bean paste.