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Farm to Table Feast, Miao Style

Farm to table. It’s an well-worn phrase on city restaurant menus, but what does it really mean?
 
Many would say it means using seasonal ingredients, with the fewest delays and distance possible between farm and plate, and a high degree of transparency in this process. Others would say it means local farmers deliver directly to restaurants. In rare cases, it means that some items on the menu are actually grown in the restaurant’s own kitchen garden. But that’s pretty uncommon.
 
The appeal of farm to table is obvious – the food is fresh, local, and has maximum flavour because it’s at its seasonal peak. I would argue almost all our food should be ‘farm to table. The disadvantages of our current food supply are that we don’t know exactly where our food comes from, how long it took to get to us, or what was done to it along the way.
 

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Nine Famous Noodles You Need To Know



There are almost as many famous noodles in China as there are cities in which to eat them, and they’re all good – believe me, I’ve tried most of them.

Traditionally, five noodles were named as China’s Five Famous Noodles, considered the pinnacle of noodle eating. They were Shanxi’s hand cut noodles dao xiao mian 山西刀削面, Beijing’s zhajiang noodles zhajiang mian 北京炸酱面, Guangdong and Guangxi’s fried noodles, Sichuan’s dan dan noodles dan dan mian 四川担担面 and Wuhan’s hot, dry noodles re gan mian 武汉热干面.


Earlier this year the China Ministry of Commerce and the China Hotel Association expanded this list of five to China’s Top Ten Noodles but caused no end of controversy when the list failed to include, for example, any of Shanxi Province’s hundred types of noodles. What? No cat’s ear, willow leaf or scissor-cut noodles? And how about the noodle dishes of China’s far west?None of them made the list either. 

It got me thinking – which noodles would I list as the best, and why? Here are nine favourites I’ve chosen from all over China.

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Shanghai Specialty Food Stores: The Insider’s Guide to Chinese Delicatessens

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.

For a long time living in Shanghai I felt depressed about the lack of a really good European delicatessen, the sort of place where I would go back home to look at acres of cheese and sample four kinds of prosciutto. The great news is that the  equivalent does exist – think Harrod’s food hall and Dean and DeLuca with Chinese characteristics.

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.

Here are three of Shanghai’s best:
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Old Fashioned Tofu at Kung Woo Beancurd

Tofu pudding, silken tofu, firm tofu, golden tofu puffs, folded tofu skins, spindly white soy bean sprouts, hot sweet soy milk,  red fermented tofu, tofu knots.  
 
Kung Woo Beancurd in Sham Shui Po illustrated the soy bean in all its manifest expressions. 
After I learned to make soy milk in the traditional way with a grindstone, and then learned (often disastrously) what was involved in making tofu at home, I was fascinated to search out places in China still making old fashioned tofu. You know, the kind that’s made for taste; not for shelf life or low cost, using beans, water, a grindstone, and wooden molds that impart the faintest flavour to the curd.
What I have discovered is there aren’t many of them left – traditional tofu makers are a threatened species and the last are disappearing fast.
So when I heard about Kung Woo Beancurd from Hong Kong food writer e_ting I knew I had to visit on my recent trip to Hong Kong.

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Nanchang Lu Abroad in Hong Kong: An Eating Tour of Sheung Wan

Nanchang Lu is abroad, and my first stop is Hong Kong! (en route to Paris, London, Scotland and then Champagne)
I love Hong Kong. I love the noise, the vibrant colours, the smells, the heat and humidity. And above all – the food. Oh, the glorious, abundant food!
Thanks to the handy timing of a medical conference, my friend Doctor S. and I spent a whole week in Hong Kong staying in Sheung Wan District on Hong Kong Island, eating our way around the area each morning and evening.
Sheung Wan is just one stop west of Central on the MTR, but it feels like a regular Hong Kong neighbourhood with its local wet market and dried seafood purveyors lining Des Voeux Street West. The eats are much more local too, with fewer fancy restaurants and lots of small wonton noodle shops and old style Hong Kong eateries.
Here’s a whistle stop tour of my five favourite spots:

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My Top Five: Shanghainese Restaurants in Shanghai

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.

Details:
336 Xiangyang Lu, corner Yongjia Lu
Xuhui District
Shanghai
021-64374174

乔家栅食府

徐汇区 襄阳南路336号(近永嘉路)

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.

For a start, the emphasis was very firmly on the best and freshest produce sourced cleanly. Secondly (and most controversially), the restaurant enforced a strict no-smoking policy, unheard of in Shanghai and the source of much initial anger as the smokers huddled together outside, complaining and puffing, before going back inside to finish their meal. 
Shanghai’s restaurant anti-smoking laws were actually introduced two years before Jian Guo 328 opened but were rarely enforced and certainly never by a restaurant proprietor, who might lose business by pushing smokers outside. But non-smoking diners embraced the restaurant enthusiastically, enjoying the consistently well-cooked food without a cloud of dense smoke affecting the flavour. Lovely staff too – not a surly one amongst them.
Stand Out Dishes:
Jian Guo 328 has a very extensive menu, and I’ve yet to find a disappointing dish among it. Their food is terrific.
The ‘Yellow Fish with Scallion’ 竹网葱香小鱼 (zhuwang cong xiang xiao yu ) shown above, is a nest of five sweet-fleshed freshwater fish) wrapped in caramelised scallions and served in a woven bamboo ‘net’. The fish are crispy and salty, and the scallions are smoky and sweet. RMB 58.
‘Eight Treasures Duck’ 私房八宝全鸭 (sifang babao quan ya) is a whole boned duck, marinated and stuffed with rice and smoky ham, dried scallops, and black dates amongst other aromatic delicacies, then wrapped and cooked in dried lotus leaves, imparting a fragrant herb flavour. RMB298, feeds 4-6 people.
‘Braised Pork in Shanghai Grandma Recipe’ 恃色红烧肉 (shi se hong shao rou) is a traditional red-braised pork belly, succulent and sweet, served in a terracotta dish. RMB 58
‘Black Mushroom in Soy Sauce’ 卤水大花蘑菇 (lushui dahua mogu) is a cold dish, an entire giant mushroom head served in a small bowl, dressed with a vinegar and soy dressing. RMB 16.
Details:
Jian Guo 328
328 Jian Guo Lu, near south Xiangyang Lu
021-64713819
Open 7 days for lunch and dinner

建国328
徐汇区 建国西路328号(近襄阳南路)

English Menu: Yes
Picture Menu: No
3. Guang Ming Village 光明邨 Guang Ming Cun
This famous Shanghai restaurant is just around the corner from our first house on Nanchang Lu, but I was always way too intimidated to ever try it out because of the long queue and my lack of Chinese.
Now I understand how it works – the ground floor sells traditional Shanghai snacks and pastries, including famous savoury pork moon cakes, and upstairs is the a la carte restaurant.
There are no reservations except for the top floor private rooms, but don’t worry – you can just turn up and try your luck at table-hovering like everyone else. Walk around the restaurant until you find a group who have almost finished their meal, then hover patiently very close to their elbows. As soon as they stand up, sit down.
If your group doesn’t fill up all the seats on your table, expect to share it with strangers who will be absolutely delighted you like Shanghainese food.
Stand Out Dishes:
River Shrimp with Preserved Vegetables 梅菜干煸白米虾 (mei cai gan bian baimi xis)(above). A wonderful combination of tastes and textures exists together in this dish – crisp-skinned fried river shrimp, with soft, salty preserved vegetable. RMB32.
Scallion Oil Noodles 葱油拌面 (cong you ban mian) – fine wheat noodles topped with caramelised-to-a-crisp scallions. RMB22.
SilkenTofu with Crabmeat 蟹粉豆腐 (xiefen doufu) (below). Best in show. The best version of this classic Shanghai dish in the city – rich and luscious, thick with crabmeat and roe. RMB39.
Details:
588 Middle Huai Hai Lu, near Chengdu Nan Lu
Luwan District

021-53067878 
53061200
Restaurant open 11am-2pm and 5pm-9pm, seven days
Ground floor snacks open 8am to 9pm,seven days

光明邨
卢湾区
 淮海中路588号(近成都南路)
English Menu: No
Picture Menu: Partial
4. Old Zheng Xing 老正興 Lao Zheng Xing
This old Shanghainese restaurant on Fuzhou Lu is the place you would take your grandparents to eat – reliable and unpretentious, but always good. Excellent service.
Stand Out Dishes:
Braised Gluten 烤夫(kaofu) – spiced with star anise, cassia and ginger, this sweet, soft dish is Lao Zheng Xing’s version of gluten cooked together with black wood ear mushrooms and peanuts.


Fried Eel 油爆鳝丝 (you bao shansi) – a predictably good dish. 


Details:
Lao Zheng Xing

556 Fuzhou Lu
Huangpu  District
+86 21 63222624

Open seven days for lunch and dinner

老正興菜馆
上海市黄浦区福州路556号


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.

Poached Whole Fish with Shaoxing Wine 酒香鰣魚 (jiu xiang shiyu) – a whole poached shad with Shaoxing wine – the wine’s delicate flavour complements the light taste of the fish.

Details:

Dianshi Zhai Small Feast
320 Yongjia Lu, Xuhui District, Shanghai

Open for lunch 11am-2pm
Dinner 5.30pm -9.30pm, seven days

021-54650270 54650271


English Menu: No
Picture Menu: Yes


点石斋小宴 
徐汇区
 永嘉路320号(近襄阳南路)


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)
021-63357779 
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
021 51083377
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
021-6445 0068
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
021-62829260
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
021-63280602
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.

A Shanghai Food Primer

An understanding of Shanghai’s cuisine has come to me only very slowly over the last five years. In fact, all of the individual Chinese cuisines took some time to differentiate themselves from the overwhelming flood of new tastes I experienced – what was the difference between food from Guangdong, for example, and from Fujian? Sichuan food, with its blast of heat and numbing spice, was relatively easy to figure, but Shanghai cuisine was more subtle, more difficult to tease out. 
Shanghai’s cuisine is known for its abundance of freshwater and saltwater produce, and also for the use of wine from nearby Shaoxing in many dishes, an aged rice wine with a rounded, mellow flavour. In Shanghai cuisine sweetness and saltiness often occur together, sometimes with vinegar (like sweet and sour pork ribs), but almost never with chili spice. Those who struggle with spicy food will be pleased to find Shanghai’s cuisine contains little of it. 

Often criticised for being too sweet and too oily compared with other Chinese cuisines, in the wrong hands this can certainly be true. But in Shanghainese food cooked the right way, these ingredients are in perfect balance with all other flavours in a dish and never overwhelm the overall taste. Braising, steaming, and poaching are common cooking techniques. 
Below is a primer on Shanghai’s cuisine – a beginner’s guide. Judging by the number of emails I’ve received from travellers asking for tips on eating Shanghainese food in Shanghai it’s long overdue! 
It broadly reflects what you will find on the menu in a Shanghainese restaurant, divided into the following categories: 
1. Cold Dishes
2. Hot Dishes
3. Noodles and Dumplings
4. Sweets
It doesn’t include street foods, or the type of noodle dishes you would go to a stand-alone noodle restaurant to eat, and is, of course, far from comprehensive. It’s just a beginning – so dip your toe in, and  enjoy eating out in Shanghai!
1. Cold Dishes 涼菜 liang cai

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.

Vinegar Jellyfish
老醋海蜇头 lao cu hai zhe tuo 

Jellyfish is, I admit, an acquired taste, with a look on the plate only a mother could love. But prepared this way, sliced into thin slivers dressed with sweet local vinegar and sesame oil, the jellyfish is cool and slippery with a squeaky, chewy texture. Magnificent – a must-try.

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.

Braised gluten
烤夫 kaofu 

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.

Jujubes Stuffed with Sticky Rice
糯米红枣 nuomi hong zao / 心太軟 xin tai ruan

DO NOT LEAVE SHANGHAI without trying this dish. I’m SERIOUS. Honey-flavoured jujubes (also known as red dates 红枣 hong zao) are stuffed with soft, pillowy sticky rice, steamed, and then smothered in warm osmanthus blossom syrup. The unusual Chinese name, xin tai ruan, means soft-hearted. For reasons unclear to me you will find it at the front of the menu, along with the cold dishes.
2. Hot Dishes 热炒 re chao
Braised Pork Belly
红烧肉 hong shao rou 
‘Hong shao’ literally means ‘red-braised’, referring to the colour of the sauce made with soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, soft brown sugar, ginger, cassia bark and star anise. The pork belly is cooked slowly in this aromatic mixture until the skin and fat become translucent and gelatinous and the sauce is treacle-thick and utterly luscious.

Steamed Hairy Crab
清蒸大闸蟹 qingzheng da zha xie

Natives of Yangcheng Lake near Shanghai, these sweet and delicate hairy crab are available only in autumn from September to December, a much-anticipated delicacy for Shanghai locals. They are best eaten simply steamed, with a   ginger and vinegar dipping sauce and a cup of warmed Shaoxing wine on the side.
Steamed Shad
清蒸鲥鱼 qing zheng shi yu
This whole river fish, steamed gently in its own juices, then has a light soy sauce with fresh green soybeans poured over before serving. This is the best way possible to preserve the superb natural sweet taste of the fish with a light fresh-flavoured sauce.

Braised Eel
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.

Rice Cake Stir-Fried with Pork and Shepherd’s Purse
荠菜肉丝炒年糕 ji cai rou si chao nian gao

Shpeherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) is a flowering plant cultivated outside Shanghai, used to give a burst of leafy flavour to this very textural dish. The soft, pleasantly chewy rounds of rice cake are sliced from long cakes of compressed rice starch.

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.

Salty-Boiled River Shrimp
盐水河虾 yan shui he xia

Not fussy, not fancy. Just very fresh shrimp cooked in salted boiling water for long enough that they turn lobster pink.


Sweet and Sour Pork, Shanghai Style
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.

3. Noodles and Dumplings

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 Shanghai Dumplings
生煎包 shengjian bao

Fried and crispy on the bottom, steamed and pillowy on the top, these much heartier dumplings are also filled with pork and soup.

Scallion Oil Noodles
葱油拌面 cong you ban mian
Slow cook scallions in oil until they turn a dark caramel colour, then add soy sauce and dried shrimp and mix through freshly cooked wheat noodles. Lip-smacking. 
4. Sweets 点心 dianxin
Just a note here – most Chinese menus don’t list noodles, dumplings and sweets separately, but put them together in one large category called dianxin, to be eaten at the end of a meal. This category includes both savoury and sweet dishes, mostly starch based. I have separated them here, only because I still tend to finish with savoury foods first before ending the meal with something sweet.

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.


Osmanthus Rice Cake
桂花糕 gui hua gao 
Usually made with sticky rice flour and scented with delicate osmanthus blossoms, the version shown here is more upmarket with an osmanthus-scented jelly on top of a red bean and sticky rice base. 
Over to you now: what’s your favourite Shanghai dish, and how far would you go to get some?
Next post: My Top Five Shanghainese Restaurants in Shanghai

Shanghai Dumpling Wars: A New Contender Emerges in Paradise Dynasty

There’s an open battle being waged, probably for centuries now, over who makes Shanghai’s best xiaolongbao
Not sure what xiaolongbao are? They’re Shanghai’s famous soup-filled dumplings, small steamed dumpling miracles that defy the laws of nature by having hot soup held delicately inside them, along with a fragrant mix of pork and seasonings. And Shanghai locals feel very, very passionate about their xiaolongbao and who makes the best ones.
(If you’re still not sure you could check out Xiaolongbao – The Complete Guide)
The battle really comes down to what you, as an eater, prefer.
Do you crave authenticity or novelty? 
Do you like your dumpling skins rolled or hand-flattened?
Do Shanghainese people make the best xiaolongbao? Or can anyone do it?
Paradise Dynasty challenges all these assumptions. Coming from Singapore, where they are already an established brand, they have gone straight for the jugular by opening their flagship Chinese store in Shanghai and – wait for it – calling it Paradise Dynasty: Legend of Xiaolongbao. Cheeky. That’s like opening your first macaron shop in Paris, right next to Laduree, and calling it Fiona: Legend of Macarons
Just a little bit self-indulgent, but why shouldn’t you be when you have the behemoth Paradise restaurant group behind you?
  

Their signature dish is a basket of eight rainbow-hued xiaolongbao (RMB 68) with novel fillings:

Foie Gras (tan)
Black truffle (black)
Crab Roe (orange)
Ginseng (green)
Mozzarella (yellow)
Garlic (grey)
Szechuan (sic) (dark pink)
Original Pork (white)

The dumpling wrappers are very fine, soft, and strong, and the eight colours looked beautiful sitting on their linen cloth inside the basket.

I tried the original steamed pork flavour first, as a true test of xiaolongbao-ness. It was good – plenty of fragrant soup, a little ginger, a smooth pork filling. The ‘szechuan’ dumpling was an explosion of chili and flowery Sichuan pepper, although the pepper made the filling a little gritty. The foie gras and crab roe dumplings were rich and full of flavour, the garlic and ginseng dumplings more subtle but still tasty. I wouldn’t revisit the mozzarella dumpling though, with its very odd taste and texture, but my girls like it the best of all of them.

The stand out for me was the black truffle xiaolongbao, rich, dark, deeply truffley and intensely satisfying. After trying just one I ordered a whole extra basket of (RMB 65). Any flavour can be ordered separately as a basket of six or ten dumplings.

Paradise Dynasty serves other dishes too – la mian or pulled noodles, which seems odd (given that la mian originated in central China, a Hui Muslim dish, and xiaolongbao are from eastern China’s Nanxiang village, now part of Shanghai). But the menu tells us that Executive Chef Ge Sheng is a specialty la mian chef, and it’s the female sous chef, Yan Wei, who knows a thing or two about xiaolongbao.
While waiting for our table I watched the chefs in the kitchen making the dumplings, and was amazed to see that they weighed the filling for every single dumpling on a digital scale. That exactitude is rare and spoke of very high standards in the kitchen.

It’s a shame then that the same care and attention isn’t taken in the dining room – we waited 45 minutes for a table on a regular weekday lunchtime and when we did arrive at our table it was full of dirty dishes from the previous diners and took fifteen minutes to be cleared after three requests from me and one from a neighbouring diner. The restaurant is always this busy, so I’m told, so it should be staffed accordingly. 
The xiaolongbao were delicious, but hard to eat without chopsticks, a spoon, a dish for vinegar, or a bowl. These arrived on request, one at a time, five minutes apart, so by the time we had all the necessary eating utensils the dumplings were cold. A great shame.
So are these Shanghai’s best xiaolongbao? You’ll have to decide for yourself.
Paradise Dynasty: Legend of Xiaolongbao – Details
IFC Mall, Lujiazui, Pudong
Level Three, Shop 36
Ph +86 21 58342291
Open 7 days for lunch and dinner, last orders 9.30pm.

Feeding Four Hundred For Lunch In Guizhou

The first thing I noticed as we came over the rise was a crowd of people all over the road, most with bowls and chopsticks in hand, eating.
There must have been another two hundred people sitting outdoors at round tables on a terrace in front of a new-looking house. Dozens of motorbikes, the local transport of choice, lined both sides of the road. Was it a wedding? A funeral? Some other kind of celebration?
“It’s a new house party” said our driver. “Very auspicious day for it.”
It was late afternoon, just at that golden hour when the sun is slipping low into the hills and a chill is creeping back into the air from the lengthening shadows. Perfect light for photographers. 
My flight had landed in Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou Province, less than an hour before, and I was travelling to Kaili to do more work on a project involving Miao artisans, a project my husband and I have been working on together for the last half year, when the driver suggested we take the scenic road instead of the highway. Of course, I agreed immediately. Who wouldn’t? 
When we reached the house we were already deep into the countryside, in the midst of tiny villages smelling deliciously of woodsmoke and winter. 
“Can you stop?” I asked the driver. I thought I might be able to take some photos, as long as the house’s new owner approved and the light lasted.
The house, a two story building facing the road, was painted in white with grey trimming, and festooned with auspicious red ribbons and lanterns. It was built in the simple modern style common to all of rural China – two large rooms on the lower floor for storing farming equipment and produce, with a central staircase leading to the upper floor with bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen. The flat roof meant that if the family continued to prosper a third floor could be readily added, but for now housed a brand new satellite dish.
The guests, initially a little surprised at seeing a stranger (especially a foreign stranger), soon pointed me in the direction of the home’s owner, a woman my age, who welcomed us like long lost friends, agreed without hesitation to my taking photographs, and insisted with some forcefulness that we stay to eat. When we thanked her for her kind offer but began to decline, she laughed, took me by the elbow and said:
“No, no! You must stay to eat!” and sat us on two empty stools. “Just wait!” she said. “More food is coming soon.”
Around me two hundred men, women and children were at the tail end of what looked to have been a long and tasty meal. Empty red and white enamel platters covered every table, food scraps covered the ground and the rosy flushed faces of the guests were reflected in rows of empty beer and baijiu bottles. Cigarettes were being smoked, jokes were being told, and legs were being stretched.
As we sat, the tables nearest to us began emptying out. Was the party already over?
I sat and watched as two hundred guests took leave of their lady host, two hundred plates were cleared from tables, and countless empty bottles were gathered up and taken away.
It was over. I felt a sense of disappointment – we’d arrived just a little too late.
But then our lady host rushed over and said, full of smiles: “Now the food is coming! Please enjoy yourselves!”
I looked about, confused – the tables had all been cleared and emptied, the guests all gone bar a few stalwarts – wondering if we were to have a small meal by ourselves. 
But now a small army of men and women appeared with fresh table covers, bowls, chopsticks, glasses and napkins, and began laying each of the twenty tables, again.
Within minutes more people began to arrive – by motorbike, by minivan, and on foot, a second wave of two hundred guests who now sat in every single empty place. I was astounded. This woman was about to feed four hundred people in celebration of her new house. 

We were joined at our table by an old man, his son, two granddaughters, his nephew, sister-in-law, and a couple of his friends. Out came the beer. Out came the baijiu. Cigarettes were handed around the table.

And then the food: the food was being cooked in a makeshift outdoor kitchen by a battalion of cooks, with steamers the size of hula hoops resting on wood-fired boilers, and two of the largest woks I had ever seen. The food began to arrive on great heavy trays.

There was roast crispy chicken, spicy pickled pig’s ear, translucent preserved quail eggs with fermented chili sauce, a fiery braise of pork and chitterlings in the centre of the table, and bowls of noodles and pickles. There was whole fried fish with sour chilies, mountain mushrooms, and plates of slow-cooked fat pork slices with mei gan cai, a salt-preserved green vegetable.
It was the tastiest food I’d eaten since my last trip to Guizhou. Every time I stopped chewing momentarily one of my fellow guests would urge me on.
 “Eat up! Have some more! Taste a little of this!”

While we ate I asked them about the house party. They told me in this part of the world it was considered very good luck to ‘christen’ your new house by having a celebration with all your family. And all of your friends. And your neighbours. And your neighbours’ friends. And anyone else you could think of, including a random foreigner. (Foreigners were considered to be especially lucky for the house, should one happen along at the right time, they told me. I felt incredibly auspicious for the first time in my life.)

When I asked my fellow guests how they knew our lady host they made vague mentions of living “over the hill” and “in the next village”.

“Not related?” I asked.

“Er…no.”

“So do you actually, like, know her?” I asked.

Chabuduo” came the hilarious reply. Sort of. Approximately. Kinda.

We all toasted her anyway.

“To the new house! Ganbei!”

Chinese Soul Food: Homestyle Cooking From the Heart – Jiachang Cai 家常菜

Happy New Year to everyone! I’m feeling certain 2014 is going to be an exciting and adventurous year, and I hope it will be for you as well.

Never one to back away from a challenge, my ever-patient husband and children and I will spend much of this year restoring a decrepit, beautiful heritage house built in 1891 which will become our new home. I’m just jumping to get started, but there will be plenty of travel too – I leave for China next week to travel to Beijing, Guizhou, Yunnan and Shanghai, and April will see me attending the Miao Sister’s Meal Festival in Guizhou for the second time. A greatly anticipated trip to Sweden, Scotland and France is planned for mid-summer.

And of course, The Book. The book of our travels in China I’ve been writing for a year now, a struggle and a joy in equal measure but still a fledgling, will, I hope, find wings and take flight this coming year.

I’d love to know of your plans this year for food, travel and creative projects too – please fill me in!

I want to start the year with a post I’ve been planning to write for a long time. It’s all about Chinese home style cooking, known as jiachang cai 家常菜, a style of simple and unpretentious food made at home for those close to the cook – loved ones, friends, and guests.

Jiachang cai is bangers and mash, it’s southern fried chicken, it’s coq au vin, it’s black pudding and tatties. It’s a sticky plate of pulled pork or a fragrant bowl of herby chicken soup. It’s cheesecake and apple cake and red velvet cake, and all the kinds of cake that make you think of home.

It’s the food your mother makes when you come home for the holidays, it’s the food you cook your children every day.

It’s soul food, straight from the heart.

If you were to ask someone for their definition of jiachang cai it would probably vary enormously according to their culinary postcode and family history, but a few things are essential: the food must be simply prepared, simply presented, without fancy or hard-to-find ingredients. 

It has much in common with it’s country cousin, nongjia cai 农家菜 or peasant food, which is also simply prepared and presented, but is typically eaten on location at the farm where the food is grown, prepared and butchered by the farmer herself, right beside the table. I’ll write a more detailed post on nongjia cai in coming months.


Jiachang cai, on the other hand, can be eaten in in a simple restaurant or in someone’s home, and the ingredients bought rather than grown.
A typical jiachang cai restaurant, Qinghai Province

There are dishes ubiquitous to every jiachang cai menu – sour shredded potato with chill (suan la tudou si 酸辣土豆丝), smashed cucumber with garlic and vinegar (liang ban huang gua 凉拌黄瓜), tomato stir-fried with egg (fan qie chao ji dan 番茄炒鸡蛋), and fish-fragrant pork (yu xiang rou si 鱼香肉丝) to name just a few, yet even these very popular jiachang dishes vary enormously from place to place, reflecting local tastes, ingredient availability and cooking styles.


Take sour shredded potato, for example – suan la tudou si 酸辣土豆丝 - a dish of finely shredded potato stir-fried with dried chill, a little shredded green pepper, and a splash of vinegar until the potato slivers have just softened. 

Every Chinese cook has their own version of this dish – in Guizhou the dried chillies are kept hanging over the cooking fire so they impart a rich smokiness to the dish, and in the east a little sugar sometimes makes its way into the dish to counteract the sourness of the vinegar. In Sichuan chili becomes the dominant flavour, and in parts of Yunnan the dish has metamorphosed into a fried cake made of potato shreds studded with flecks of chill – as though the cook just dashed out of the kitchen for five minutes while cooking and came back to find the entire thing melted together into a wonderful crisp-bottomed potato cake.   

Here’s a taste of jia chang cai from all points of the compass in China – taste the diversity for yourself.

NORTH

  • Sour shredded potato with chili and peppers
  • Smashed cucumber with garlic and vinegar
  • Stir-fried green peppers with pork

In Inner Mongolia the bitter cold means hotpot is a popular homestyle dish, served with (clockwise from top)
  • finely sliced mutton
  • pickled chilies
  • chive flower paste
  • red fermented tofu
  • pickled garlic
NORTH-EAST
  • Boiled peanuts with soy beans 
  • Chitterlings fried with peppers and black wood ear fungus

EAST

From Shanghai and Zhejiang province homestyle dishes are cooked with a light touch:

  • Sliced wawa vegetable stems steamed then stir-fried with a dash of baijiu liquor
  • Tofu strips fried with pork and wilted greens
  • Soy cooked chicken
  • White-poached Chicken  
  • Steamed freshwater shrimp
  • Smoked dried carp
SOUTH-EAST
Many jia chang restaurants, like this one in southern Hunan, have no written menu but allow you to choose from what is fresh that day and have it cooked to order (any way you like, as long as it’s with a handful of sharp, searing fresh red chili) :
  • sliced pig’s ear
  • fat pork
  • pork ribs
  • squid
  • shrimp
  • fresh pork intestines
  • chicken gizzards

Guizhou jiachang cai, clockwise from top:
  •  egg fried with chives (also at bottom)
  • fish-fragrant eggplant, Guizhou style
  • plain fried potato
  • sour shredded potato with smoked chili
  • fried greens
  • home-smoked bacon slices – la rou

SOUTH
In the far south of Yunnan the dishes begin to look very different – inspired by local Dai culture and the hot, tropical climate.
  • fried pork intestine with local herbs and chill
  • fermented chill sauce
  • wild herb and peanut sauce
  • cold vegetables
  • wilted greens
  • crunchy fried pig skin
  • fermented chill with local herbs
  • assorted meats – chicken, fish, pork, pig’s ear

CENTRAL CHINA
Sichuan food has a deserved reputation for heat, but homestyle Sichuan food is often a different story:
  • pork bone broth
  • baked yam
  • pickled green chilies
  • fat pork slices
  • poached chicken
  • pickled vegetables
  • rice steamed with jujubes
  • steamed squash


WEST
The arid lands of Xinjiang produce few vegetables, and so mutton with bread is a staple. Served here with clear broth and tea scented with cinnamon and saffron.

NORTH-WEST

In the sparsely populated north-west homestyle means one thing – noodles. Served here with cold sliced beef, la jiao chili paste, cilantro and shallots. A dish of clear soup is usually served alongside.

That’s all on our culinary tour of jiachang cai – I don’t know about you but now I’m really, really hungry. Let’s eat!