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Unlocking Dianping: An English Guide to China’s Biggest Restaurant Review Site

Shanghai has around 80,000 restaurants. Eighty thousand.

How on earth do you find out what’s good? Do you rely on the tiny sliver of those 80,000 reviewed in English, reviews that tend to be very light on quality Chinese restaurants? Or is there a better way? 
And what if you’re visiting a Chinese city where you can’t find any restaurant recommendations in English? What do you do then?
You do what every Chinese person does – use Dianping, China’s largest user-driven dining review website. Those 80,000 Shanghai restaurants are just as confusing for a Chinese gourmand as for anyone else, so they turn to a site where they can read other diners’ candid opinions, eventually building an aggregate score for each restaurant based on hundreds or even thousands of reviews.
Dianping is no secret, but because it doesn’t have an English language interface many first-time users find it too daunting. 
Since I started using Dianping regularly I’ve unearthed some of the best food I’ve ever eaten in my life, in places I would never, ever have found on my own. 
I think Dianping is a great resource, so I’ve written a step-by-step screenshot guide to using it on your computer or your mobile device. 
If you have Google Chrome, use it, and if you don’t, install it. It has an auto translate feature that will help.
To make things easy, I’ll show screenshots with and without Google Chrome.
A Step-by-Step English Guide to Using Dianping

Part 1: For Desktop/laptop Users

Dianping Homepage
Searching on Dianping
  1. Choose your Location City
  2. Select Cuisine Type
  3. Narrow your Search by Locality
  4. Review on Map
  5. Review Restaurant Details

Part 2: For Mobile Device Users
  1. Install the Dianping app
  2. Choose Food/Restaurant Type
  3. Narrow the Search by Distance
  4. Narrow the Search by Cuisine Type
  5. Choose a Restaurant
  6. Review Restaurant Details
  7. Review on Map

Part 1: Desktop/Laptop Users

Dianping Homepage
Here’s Dianping‘s Home Page. 
It looks utterly confusing. It is. That’s because Dianping offers much more than food reviews – you can book hotels, plan your wedding, and buy products. 
We’re not interested in any of these, because after all, Dianping started as a restaurant review site and it’s still what they do best. It’s full name, dazhong dianping 大众点评 means ‘The People Comment’.
Here’s the page again, with two important things circled –  location and food. Ignore everything else. 

And here’s the GOOGLE CHROME ENGLISH VERSION:
Searching on Dianping
Let’s do a search – I’m going to Hangzhou, and I want to find restaurants near West Lake serving local Hangzhou cuisine.
1. Choose your Location
Click on the location box, top left, and a drop down menu appears with major cities, divided by area. 
Click on Hangzhou. 
Your page should now have ‘Hangzhou Station’ in the location box, top left. This does not mean an actual railway station, it just means ‘Hangzhou Area’.
GOOGLE CHROME ENGLISH VERSION:
In the English version, whatever city you choose will come up as a ‘Station’ and sometimes as ‘Railway Station’. Ignore the station part.
Tip: If you are in a city that’s not on the list, click on the bottom right of the cities box where it says ‘More Cities’ in blue type. You can then search alphabetically for the city or type the city/town or village name into the search box at the top of the page. You can type it in English, no problem.
2. Choose Cuisine Type
Now click ‘Food’, also top left, and you will have a drop down menu of cuisine styles. 
As a general rule, local cuisines of an area are usually first on the list of foods, followed by other Chinese regional cuisines (Sichuan, Cantonese), snacks and street foods, and foreign cuisines (Japanese, Korean, Western)
Click ‘hangbang jiangzhe cai‘ 杭帮江浙菜 which is Hangzhou’s local cuisine. 
Here’s a breakdown of the styles with translations:
The cuisine styles presented will vary somewhat with the location, so in Beijing for example, you will also have dongbei or northeastern cuisine on the list.

GOOGLE CHROME ENGLISH VERSION

Please note in the English version there are several nonsense translations. ‘Chafing dish’ is hotpot.
Click on Food
Click on Hang help/Jiangzhe – again a nonsense translation of the local cuisine
3. Narrow Your Search by Locality

My search for ‘Hangzhou Cuisine’ restaurants in Hangzhou has netted 4226 restaurants. I need to narrow it down more, and limiting the search by locality (region) will help do this.
Click on the Region/Locality tab, top left, and you will see a list of areas within Hangzhou, usually most popular first – here the first on the list is ‘West Lake’.
GOOGLE CHROME ENGLISH VERSION












4. Review on Map

Rather than scroll through 4226 restaurants, I can narrow my search further by using the map view tab, particularly if I’m not familiar with names of the localities.
Click Map view tab.
Zoom in to desired area on map.
Click on individual restaurants according to location.
I’m going to click number 13, because it’s a 4 star restaurant right on the lake’s edge.
GOOGLE CHROME ENGLISH VERSION

5. Review Restaurant Details

What comes up now is an overview of this particular restaurant, Lou Wai Lou, one of Hangzhou’s oldest and most famous.
Each restaurant overview has the following:
  • a score out of five stars
  • the number of people who have reviewed the restaurant
  • the average price per person, in CNY
  • ratings for taste, environment, and service, out of 10
  • the address and phone number
  • the most popular dishes, with photos taken by real diners. This section is vastly helpful if you don’t want to miss out on a restaurant’s specialties, but don’t know how to ask. 
I usually save this page on my iPhone or print it out so I have the address, and dishes I want to order, written in Chinese. Very, very useful.

GOOGLE CHROME ENGLISH VERSION
Sometimes the English translations of the dishes can get wildly unappetising. Fried rings?

Tips:
If you don’t mind what type of food you want, and would rather know what’s close by, start your search with the map view tab and narrow it down by zooming in on the map to your location.

The number of reviewers helps you to know how popular a restaurant is, but be open to new restaurants too.

Like any review site, there are crazies who love to complain about everything. Take what you read with a grain of salt.

Dianping can get it wrong. Restaurant ownership changes, menus change, chefs change. Chinese diners are not Western diners. They often value price above service and cleanliness in their reviews, so a restaurant can get a high rating based on taste and price. 

Use the Snacks/Street Foods 小吃快餐 choice on the cuisines menu to find good, cheap, local street food. It has to have a bricks and mortar address, so it won’t be a mobile cart, but at least you know where to find it.


Part 2: Mobile Users


1. Install the App

The great news is that Dianping has a very easy-to-use app available for iOS and Android, although again, there is no English language interface. By using your phone’s location services you can easily search for restaurants in your locality – superb for travelling.
The iPhone and iPad apps are free, through the app store.
The Android app is free.
2. Choose Food/Restaurant Type
Open the app on your phone and this home page page appears.
Click on Food/Restaurants, Snacks/Streetfood or Cafes according to your preference. Or KTV Karaoke bars. Whatever.
You will now get a list like this of all restaurants/establishments in your vicinity.

 3. Narrow the Search by Distance

If you want to narrow your search to only restaurants close to you:
Click on the 1000m tab (top left) and choose the radius from your current location: all restaurants within 500m, 1000m or more.

4. Narrow the Search by Cuisine Type 
If you still have too many choices or you want to eat a particular kind of food:
Click the Food tab on the left of the screen, and choose a cuisine type.
Tip: Cuisine choices will vary by location.
5. Choose a Restaurant
You will now have a new list using your particular search criteria.
Click on any individual restaurant to get details.
6. Review Restaurant Details
You should have now have all the details you need on this overview screen (my translations in red).
Click on the image if you want to see more photos.
Click on the ‘link to map’ icon to show the location.
7. Review on Map
The map view tab on the right of the restaurant review screen takes you to an interactive map view.
Your location is in blue.
The restaurant is in red.
Other nearby restaurants are also shown.

Tip: If you want to search only by location, return to the home screen and click the map view icon on the bottom of the screen.
You will then get a view of all restaurants in your local vicinity. Click on any green pin for details.
And that’s it. It looks complicated, but once you have located the food tab, the location tab, and the map view tab, it couldn’t be easier.

Congratulations! You’re now ready to go forth and find gourmet treasures!

 

Five Great Chinese Food Apps for Gourmet Travellers to China

“I’m travelling to China for the first time next March, and I want to know where I should eat. I love  Chinese food and street food and I want to be adventurous, but I don’t speak Chinese and I don’t know where to start. Can you offer any suggestions?”
Every week, readers send me questions like this.

So I’ve put together a list of the five apps I find most helpful when travelling in China. I use all five regularly. Without being able to speak or read a word of Chinese, with the help of these apps you’ll be able to find the best street foods and restaurants, translate menus, and order food.

Disclaimer: I have not been paid to write about any of these apps. Damn.

1. Finding a Place to Eat: Dianping

How it works: Dianping is China’s largest restaurant review site, for eaters, by eaters. It has a staggering 75 million users per month, and works much the same way as Yelp. For travellers hunting for culinary lost treasure, Dianping is like being handed the map with a great big X marks the spot. It’s just that the map is totally in Chinese.
Pros: 
  • Dianping works in every single huge metropolis and tiny backwater in China. No matter where you are, someone has already been there and written a review about the local eateries. That’s China for you.
  • You can narrow your searches to just local cuisine, or just street food/snacks, or just a particular area.
  • There is a handy map feature showing all options within a set radius from your current position, handy if you know nothing about the area where you’re staying.
  • You can use it to search for hotels.

Cons:

  • There’s no getting around this – it’s in Chinese. My next post will give you a step-by-step guide to navigating Dianping for non-Chinese speakers. Believe me, it’s absolutely worth the effort.
iPhone: Yes
Android: Yes
Cost: Free

2. Translating the Menu: Waygo
How it works: Once you’ve used Dianping to find that amazing hole-in-the-wall that only locals know about, you discover the menu is entirely, completely in Chinese. Rather than adopt the ‘point and hope’ method, use Waygo. You hover the box over the Chinese text, and hey presto, a translation appears instantly.

Pros:

  • Fast optical recognition
  • Pinyin pronunciation provided
  • Light to illuminate menus in dark restaurants – genius
  • You can freeze the screen to show the waitress
  • It’s works even with my shaky hands
  • You can actually use it for any Chinese text, although the translations are not as finessed

Cons:

  • It has trouble with coloured text – but black and white text works a dream
iPhone: Yes
Android: Yes – launches in two weeks
Cost: Free for up to ten translations/day. Unlimited translations $6.99

3. Ordering Shanghainese Food: SH Cuisine

The inimitable Gary from Full Noodle Frontity put me on to this app. I absolutely love it and I can’t wait ’til the developers bring out a Beijing version.
How it works: This is a comprehensive guide to Shanghainese restaurant food, with hundreds of dishes divided into groups like soups, noodles, and hot dishes. It is my go-to guide for all things related to Shanghai cuisine.

Pros:

  • search by type of dish, or ingredient
  • as you find dishes, add them to your virtual order
  • display your order summary and show it to your waitress
  • listen to audio in Shanghai dialect
  • handy comprehensive food allergy section
  • list of other helpful phrases

Cons:

  • It has no restaurant listings – but it will be useful for Shanghainese restaurants anywhere in the world.

iPhone: Yes

Android: No
Cost: $2.99
4. Learn Food Words: Chinese Foodie Flashcards

How it works: This is a very simple app for learning Chinese food vocabulary, but it doubles as a handy tool for buying fresh food in shops and wet markets. Can’t find the potatoes? Show the vendor the picture with accompanying text.

Pros:

  • super easy to use

Cons:

  • not comprehensive, so for hard to find foods you will still need a dictionary

iPhone: Yes

Android: No
Cost: Free

5. Make Food Beautiful: GourmetCam 食日谈

How it works: This is a photo editing app that allows you to apply filters, then text in either Chinese or English to your shots. The results look great, and although it is Chinese only, it will be completely intuitive to users who are accustomed to Instagram. Once edited with text, the photos are saved automatically to your phone.

Pros:

  • Intuitive to use
  • Simple
  • For frequent food snappers like myself, I have found the filters are superior to either Instagram or Hipstamatic

Cons:

  • It’s in Chinese, with no English interface

iPhone: Yes

Android: No
Cost: Free

And one more: Chinese Food Quiz
Now you have those five apps under your belt you’re a bona fide Chinese food expert! Test yourself with this fun Chinese food character quiz.
iPhone: Yes
Android: No
Cost: Free

Woohoo! I’m an EXPERT!!

Got any other great food apps to share? Let me know!

Ten Must-Try Foods in Xiamen 十大不容错过的厦门美食

Mangoes, mangosteens, melons, star fruit, star fish, abalone, mussels, oysters, whelks, cockles and lobster – Xiamen is a subtropical island in the South China Sea and its foods reflect all the bounty and diversity of the sea and the warm, languid climate.

In order to retain the natural flavour of foods the cuisine of Fujian Province places emphasis on cooking methods like braising and steaming. Soups, soupy stews and soupy noodles feature heavily and are considered an ideal way to highlight the inherent flavour of ingredients. In Xiamen, the local saying  不汤不行 bù tāng bù xíng means “It is unacceptable for a meal not to have soup” but translates literally as “No soup, no go.”

I ate very well in Xiamen, a place that once again highlights the vast regional differences in Chinese cuisine. Here are ten foods from Xiamen, far from an exhaustive list, and places where you can try them.

1. Seafood Satay Noodle Soup 沙茶面 Shacha Mian  
Arguably Xiamen’s most famous dish, sha cha main is a base of rich, creamy, nutty curry satay soup with the addition of wheat noodles and seafood and meats of the diner’s choice. 
Sha cha mian restaurants display trays of squid, shrimp, oysters, cockles, and baby octopus alongside cooked pork intestines and fat pork which you add as you wish, the final price of your soup reflecting the number of ingredients you add. The result is a heady and fragrant meal with whispers of laksa, which it most closely resembles.
353 Zhongshan Lu, Xiamen
Open 7 days
About 12 yuan ($2) per bowl
1980烧肉粽
中山路353号
2. Gold Wraps Silver 金包银 Jin Bao Yin
These street snacks have a wonderful name, a reference to the treasure within and without. They are common on Gulang Yu island, where a steamer full of the plump little buns can be found on every corner. 
The outer wrapper is made from sticky rice and arrowroot flour, soft, warm and pleasantly chewy. The inside is a rich, dark mixture of finely shredded mushrooms, bamboo shoots and pickles, sometimes with a little meat added.
Try at: Gulang Yu street stalls
4 yuan (65cents) each
3. Tu Sun Dong 土笋冻 Sea Worm Jelly
How can I describe this in a way that sounds anything other than off-putting?
A popular cold dish with pride of place at every banquet dinner in Xiamen, tu sun dong is made using a short marine mud worm – the ‘bamboo shoot of the earth’ (tu sun 土笋 , actually the sipunculid worm, 星虫). After being washed clean of any residual mud the worms are set in a light vinegar aspic.
Yet for the adventurous eater this little dish is a masterpiece of textures and distinctive and novel flavours – the cold vinegar aspic is cool and smooth on the tongue, and as you bite in there is a rush of briny saltiness then the pleasant chewiness of the worms themselves. The accompanying sauces – horseradish, satay, and chill, with cold shreds of lightly pickled radish, add more layers of flavour as you eat.
Try at: Lujiang Harbourview Restaurant
7th Floor, 54 Lujiang Dao, corner Zhongshan Lu, Xiamen
The restaurant is on the waterfront overlooking Gulang Yu, and has incredible views. Thank you to one of my readers for the great recommendation!

鹭江宾馆观海厅

鹭江道54号鹭江宾馆7楼

4. Popiah 薄饼 Baobing
These Fujian-style fresh spring rolls have different filling variations according to where they originate. In Xiamen they are made with a very fine wheat pancake spread with a sweet red sauce and fine sprinkles of dried seaweed, then filled with a cooked mixture of carrot, radish, pork and sometimes seafood. 
Try at: Hao Qingxiang Restaurant – A clean and inexpensive eatery selling local Xiamen foods from a picture menu
200 Hubin Nan Lu, Xiamen
Open 7 days
Popiah 4 yuan each
好清香美食中心
湖滨南路200号
5. Oyster Omelette 蚝仔煎 Haozi Jian
Green shallots are mixed with tiny brown haozi (oysters) and fried until they brown before being surrounded by a halo of golden omelette. The tangy red sauce is optional. 
I must admit I ate this famed Xiamen street food with some trepidation because it broke one of my tried and tested Street Food Survival Rules – to never eat seafood on the street, especially when the weather is warm. But hey, I figured I was working in a hospital all week anyway, so if I ran into trouble help wasn’t far away.
As it turns out, the oyster omelette did me no harm. Was it fabulous enough I would risk it a second time? Probably not.
Try at: 189 Longtou Lu, Gulang Yu. Be prepared to join a long, hungry queue!
鼓浪屿龙头路189号
6. Zongzi 粽子
No ordinary zongzi, Xiamen’s sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaf rises up from the plate like the snout of a sea beast, its severed head resting in a puddle of what are by now a familiar trio of chili sauce, horseradish and satay sauce.
The zongzi in Xiamen are large and filled with a tasty combination of fat pork, chestnuts, mushrooms, shrimp and small pieces of other seafoods. Each one is an entire meal in itself.
Try at: 1980 Shao Rou Zong Restaurant (see also – 1. Shacha Mian)
353 Zhongshan Lu, Xiamen
Open 7 days
5 yuan (80 cents) each
1980烧肉粽
中山路353号
7. Peanut Soup 花生汤 Huasheng Tang
Peanuts are commonly used in Xiamen’s cuisine, and locals love to eat bowls of warm, sweet peanut soup. The peanuts are soaked and boiled before being cooked into a thick sweetened soup. Rather bland on its own, the soup is often served with crunchy youtiao fried bread sticks, fried dumplings or steamed pork buns.
Try at: Huang Zehe Peanut Soup Restaurant, Xiamen’s most famous. They also serve local snacks.
22 Zhongshan Lu, Xiamen
Open 7 days
3 yuan (50 cents) bowl
黄则和花生汤店
厦门中山路22号
8. Zhan Sanfeng’s Milk Tea 张三疯奶茶
The island of Gulangyu is famous for its beautiful old buildings, its pianos, and apparently also a portly cat called Zhang SanFeng. He has his own milk tea shop there, and his story is explained on the wall outside (transposed verbatim):
“Zhang SanFeng is a cat lives on Gulang Yu, Xiamen. He lives leisurely andcarefree. He acted crazily in his chilhood while he is now thinking deeper. He has many romantic stories. Sometimes he elopes with the dog of next door in Gulangyu a few days. If there is no interval of sea around this island, they’ve already travelled around the world.”
His motto: Be yourself. Enjoy life. Sweet home.
A trip to Xiamen wouldn’t be complete without trying the wares at Zhang Sanfeng’s milk tea shop. The milk tea (hot or cold) isn’t bad – it’s milky, it’s tea, and it has added sultanas and flaked almonds – either delicious or alarming, depending on your viewpoint. There is also milk tea flavoured nougat, and jars of Zhang Sanfeng’s favourite snack – dried shrimp with peanuts. 
Try at: Zhang Sanfeng Milk Tea Shop
Gulangyu - main square
or 35 Zhongshan Lu, Xiamen
张三疯欧式奶茶铺
鼓浪屿
厦门中山路35号
9. Mango Ice
The warm, humid sub-tropical climate of Xiamen means icy desserts are hugely popular in flavours of green tea, red bean and purple taro. Xiamen’s mangoes, as big as footballs, are available almost all year round and are one of the most popular flavours for juices and ices.
This delectable dessert is a mango parfait with layers of diced mango in syrup, mango jelly, shaved frozen mango (like a sorbet, made on the spot from chunks of frozen mango flesh) served up topped with sweet biscuity crumbs.
Try at: Ice Leisure
Zhongshan Lu Pedestrian Street, Xiamen
Open 7 days
Mango Parfait 18 yuan ($3)
冰帝
厦门中山路
10. Fresh Seafood 海鲜 Haixian
Fresh seafood is Xiamen’s trademark, and it’s difficult to go twenty four hours without having a shrimp, scallop, or piece if fish pop up in your meal.
Small seafood restaurants and stalls abound, with some seafood available live in tanks (and therefore fresh), and some on ice (and alarmingly, some not on ice). You choose your seafood – shrimp, langoustine, lobster, ten kinds of crab, fish, shellfish – pay by weight, then have it cooked to order.
The seafood is plentiful and the choice on offer utterly staggering, but a word of caution from the head nurse at Xiamen No 1 Hospital:
I asked if she was preparing for the usual winter surge in patient numbers, the same as hospitals everywhere.
“Hah! No!” she said. “Winter is my heaven! Summer is my hell!”
“But why?” I asked. “Everywhere else in the world winter viruses and illnesses outnumber summer’s two to one…”
“Well,” she replied, “Firstly there’s the tourists – they mostly come in the summer, and they all do stupid things outdoors and injure themselves. Secondly, there’s the typhoons – we have many, many of those through summer. And lastly….well, lastly there’s the seafood.”
“The seafood?” I said.
“The seafood” she confirmed. “All those street seafood vendors, no refrigeration, the hot, humid weather. Food poisoning is rife.”
So there you go. If you visit Xiamen in the summer, check the weather report, don’t do anything stupid, and steer clear of the seafood on the streets.

All of China, Food by Food:




Shanghai Street Food #34 Egg Puffs: Jidan Bing 鸡蛋饼

Breakfast is when street food always beckons me – the early morning life of the streets is just beginning but already the street food vendors have lifted their awnings and are doing a brisk trade in hot soy milk, steaming baozi and crispy you tiao. So many people buy breakfast on the street I actually wonder if any Shanghai locals breakfast at home.
This street food treat hails from Nanjing, but you’ll find it on many early morning street food corners in Shanghai and Beijing. 
It’s one of many kinds of bing 饼 – meaning it’s flat and round. You’re probably already familiar with jian bing (rolled savoury breakfast pancakes) and cong you bing (scallion oil pancakes).
This one’s a little different – it’s made of the same yeast dough as you tiao crispy fried dough sticks, so as soon as it hits the oil on the griddle the dough puffs up with big bubbles of air that are trapped as it cooks, giving it a texture like fried sourdough bread.
On top of this an egg is cracked, scallions added and the egg yolk broken. Then the whole thing is flipped so both sides get a crisp finish.
To serve, the vendor will add some hoisin sauce and fold the bing in half to make it easier to eat. Eggy, chewy, light and puffy.

How Many of These Shanghai Street Foods Have You Tried?

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
Number 32  Salt and Pepper Fried Chicken
Number 33  San Xian Doupi – Three Delicacies Wrapped in Tofu Skin


Some Like it Hot! Food Adventures in Central Guizhou

‘Do you eat chili Fiona?’ asked our local Miao guide Billy, as we watched a young woman trimming four enormous baskets of chilies outside a restaurant. It was the restaurant’s daily chili delivery.
He looked slightly defeated in advance, as though he already knew the answer was likely to be no. He often took small groups of foreigners around central Guizhou, but they all found the hot, sour local food intolerable and Billy was thwarted, yet again, from showing them the delights of Guizhou’s cuisine, also known as qián cài 黔菜。
We had been driving since early morning on bumpy back roads, the car expertly handled through mud bogs, deep ruts and climbing mountain switchbacks by our driver, who appeared to be fourteen years old. A Miao himself, and therefore small of build, I’m sure he was actually about twenty-two but with a soft baby face. He was carefully cultivating two things – a long whisker on his chin that stubbornly resisted being joined by any others in the way of a beard, and a nonchalant attitude whilst smoking. Both looked oddly out of place on one so young.
‘Of course I eat chili’ I replied. ‘I enjoy it very much.’
‘Really?’ asked Billy and the driver together.
‘Really.’  A love of all things spicy had served me well on past travels through India and Thailand, and I loved all of China’s spicy cuisines – from Sichuan, Hunan, Yunnan and Guangxi, and now Guizhou. 
Billy and the driver smiled. And so began four days of Guizhou food adventures, guided by Billy, and fitted in around finding weavers, silversmiths and traditional indigo dye artisans. 
I can’t claim to be any kind of expert on Guizhou’s foods (you can read about Ten Must Try Foods in Guizhou and Guangxi), but after four trips to the same area in central Guizhou I am beginning to understand the Miao-influenced local cuisine better. 
Guizhou’s cuisine is characterised as suānlà 酸辣 – hot and sour. It feels rustic, but is far from simple  and dishes are rich in a complexity of both taste, colour and texture. Wild ingredients are commonly used – wild peppers, wild herbs, water roots, and fruits – which lend the food an exotic and unusual edge.
We began with the area’s most famous dish, synonymous with the Miao people:
Sour Fish Soup Hotpot 酸汤鱼火锅 Suan Tang Yu Huo Guo
The saying goes that, due to the cool damp weather in Guizhou, the Miao people are unable to go more than three days without sour soup or their legs become unsteady.
You must try this dish, if you ever get the chance – it is unbelievably rich, flavourful, nourishing and addictive. 
The soup is a complex blend of sour tastes – the lemony sourness of a clear base of lightly pickled bean sprouts, tomato slices and cucumbers, the clean acidity of fresh tomatoes, the sweet sourness of fermented sticky rice and the kicking hot sourness of fermented fresh mashed chilies – mixed together with wild herbs and spices – Guizhou ‘mint’ resting on top, mu jiang zi or tree ginger seeds (a kind of tart peppercorn), and finely chopped and spiced water root zhe ergen 折耳根 (known as yuxingcao 鱼腥草 in other parts of China), ginger and fermented soybeans.
Added to all of this are six or so uncooked freshwater carp. The best versions of the dish are found in smaller villages where the carp are grown in the water of the rice paddies, small but sweet of flesh. 
The whole pot then bubbles away at the table, cooking the fish and the fresh tomatoes and filling the room with steam and wonderful smells.
In front of each diner is a small dish of diced garlic, chopped fresh chillies, chopped cilantro and dried chili flakes. Once the soup is cooking you add a small ladle of liquid to this dry mixture and use it as a dipping sauce for your fish.
Once the fish have been eaten, heads and all, the real ‘hotpot’ begins – fresh cabbage leaves, fresh spindly bean sprouts, and white enoki mushrooms are added to the remaining soup to cook.
(If you read Chinese there’s a clear and concise recipe here)

Bracken Root Starch Fried with Smoked Bacon 腊肉炒蕨粑 larou chao jueba

Billy told me during China’s three years of Great Famine (1958-1961) the local Miao people survived on wits and instinct by eating wild plants like this. 
Bracken fern roots are pounded to release the starch, which is then steamed into a heavy ‘cake’ that can be cut into pieces and cooked. The bracken root cake (jueba 蕨粑) is fried, rendering the outside crispy and the inside dense and chewy, with a texture like bacon rind, mixed together with smoked chilies and slices of la rou smoked bacon. 
Guizhou Beef Hotpot 贵州牛肉火锅 guizhou niurou huo guo

A slightly different style of sour hotpot, this one functioned more like regular hot pot from other parts of China – we started with a fairly clear, sour, hot-as-hades soup base, and then added all the other ingredients ourselves – pieces of beef, lengths of chive stalk, slices of firm tofu, mushrooms, bean sprouts and cabbage.
The heat from the soup base was amplified by then dipping each piece of meat into a mixture of dried and fresh chill mixed with salt, until none of us could speak and sweat literally dripped from our brows. But still we kept eating.

 We finished the meal with a bowl of the clear, slightly sour pickled vegetable ‘starter soup’ that is the hotpot base, which restored some much-needed coolness to our mouths.

Filled Rice Rolls 卷粉 juanfen
Minutes after I tried juan fen for the first time I jotted down a page of frantic notes, determined to capture the essence of its amazing taste. (Doesn’t everyone write notes about what they eat?) 
‘A completely textural dish. Soft pillows of rice sheet rolled with sliced fresh green beans, tiny cubes of tofu and slivers of mushroom. The beans give a squeaky crunch. Topped with guizhou water root zhe ergen, scallions, lajiao chill paste, peanuts, fresh tomato sauce, Guizhou pickled greens, whole garlic cloves and chopped green chili.’
It was a revelation – the soft smoothness and relative blandness of the rice sheets gave way to more than ten different flavours and textures on the tongue. 
It’s often eaten as a breakfast food or mid-morning snack.
Rice noodles 米线 mi xian and Rice tofu 米豆腐mi doufu
All over central Guizhou are small food stalls like this, typified by a row of enamel bowls and plates filled with condiments. 
To one side are the starches: large platters of cold rice noodle sheets cut into broad or narrow strips, deep bowls filled with cubes of soft rice-starch known as rice tofu, or cubes of mung bean jelly or sweet potato starch jelly.
The diner chooses a cold starchy base – noodles or cubes – and to this is added a mixture of textures and tastes from the many bowls. These include dried chill, fried peanuts, diced garlic with coriander stalk, hot spiced water root, finely chopped shallots, pickled spiced beans, pickled green vegetables, fresh chopped chilies (red and green), fermented chili sauce, pork mince, soy sauce, mild vinegar, or oil.
The result is fresh, tasty, cold and spicy all at the same time, the intense chili heat balanced by the soft coolness of the starch.
I suspect you could go an entire year without eating the same combination twice!

‘Cold Wontons’ Noodle Shop – One of Shanghai’s Best Noodle Joints

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.”

“Huh?”

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
Sides:

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.
冷馄饨
上海市静安区昌化路379号, 近昌平路。

Ten Must Try Foods in Qinghai 十大不容错过的青海美食

Travelling to Qinghai? Want to know what to eat there?

Qinghai is one of China’s most wild, remote and beautiful provinces. Due north of Tibet, the western desert gives way to high grasslands in the east and south, bordered by snow-capped mountains and deep river valleys filled with forests. 

In the summer nomadic Tibetan yak and goat herders bring their flocks to the lower pastures to feed, establishing summer camps of white tents in the grasslands, but in winter the snows come early and last for a long, long time.

Many areas of Qinghai are predominately Tibetan, others mostly Hui Muslim, with many towns and villages an apparently well-balanced mixture of both ethic groups and a mosque alongside a monastery to prove it. 

The food of Qinghai reflects the high-altitude, rugged landscape that can sustain only a limited choice of vegetables and few fruits, and yet is perfect for growing barley and raising yaks (who thrive on the cold climate and high altitude).  The food is simple and sustaining, with a unique blend of Tibetan and Hui Muslim influences.

1. Hui style dumplings huíshì jiǎozi回式饺子

There are dumplings, then there are these dumplings. Plump to the point of corpulence they are bursting with unexpected flavours – like carrot shreds and tiny cubes of potato spiced with mustard seed and cumin; or meat spiced with cassia bark, cardamon, pepper, and sugar mixed through with a tiny soft local root tuber called droma.

The shapes are beautiful and give a clue to what filling is inside, but don’t be tempted to over-order – two or three dumplings are enough for a meal.




2. Blood sausage xiěcháng血肠 

Blood sausage may not sound like something you’re dying to sink your teeth into, but the flavour is rich, mildly spiced, pleasingly savoury and strong.

Similar to Scottish black pudding, xiechang is made from peppered and spiced sheep’s blood and roast barley. A white version contains the same ingredients save for the sheep’s blood.

Xiechang is sold in markets coiled length on length like a snake, or sliced and fried on a griddle as a side dish.

3. Spicy mung bean starch noodles liáng fěn 凉粉

Liang fen is Qinghai’s most famous street snack, sold from tiny shop fronts and market stalls (you’ll know which ones by the quivering yellow dome of jelly surrounded by ten bowls of different sauces and condiments). It’s a cold dish with a spicy kick, perfect for the summer months.

The base looks a lot like noodles but is actually shaved mung bean or pea jelly topped with a mysterious blend of vinegar, garlic and sauces, with a healthy serve of chili la jiao on top. There are ground peanuts and sesame seeds mixed through the la jiao to give it textural contrast and nuttiness against the cold, slippery ‘noodles’.

4. Yak milk yoghurt líniú suānnǎi 犛牛酸奶




Yak milk, yak yoghurt and bright yellow yak butter are everyday staples in Qinghai. The yak butter is used in cooking and making tea but is also used in monasteries to make coloured yak butter devotional sculptures or burnt as a votive offering.

Yoghurt made with yak milk is set in the bowl and is creamy with a soft tartness and a fine sheen of yellow cream on top. Many people eat it as is, straight from the bowl, or sprinkle it with a teaspoon of sugar first.

5. Shining Cooking Pot Bread kūn guō mómó 焜锅馍馍

What a glorious name for a loaf of bread! Wheat bread dough is rolled up with oil and turmeric, a popular food colouring in Qinghai (see the yellow mantou steamed buns below) and layer by layer placed in a deep cooking pot or tin, taking the shape of the pot as it cooks.

The bread is light and crusty, with flavour coming from the seeds (sesame, caraway and others) sprinkled on the surface. It’s usually eaten with meat, soup or noodles.

6. Flag Flower Noodles qíhuā tāng miàn 旗花汤面

Another poetically named dish, wheat noodle dough is rolled thin then cut into tiny diamond flag shapes before being added at the last minute to a clear broth flavoured with tomato, squash, carrot, celery, white radish, spinach and tiny pieces of mutton.

The soup has a very light, fresh taste and is often eaten with steamed mantou bread coloured with turmeric.







7. Deep fried dough twists sǎnzi 馓子



Sanzi are a popular street snack and also a traditional festival food for both Hui Muslims and Salar Muslims. Made by deep-frying wheat noodles, they are neither sweet nor salty, but loved for their crisp crunchiness.

8. Hand pulled lamb shōu zhuā yángròu 手抓羊肉

Don’t leave Qinghai without eating this tender and tasty lamb dish. Warmed pieces of lamb on the bone are served with a dish of spicy lajiao on the side. Shou zhua yangrou is one of the few dishes in China eaten entirely with the hands and it does get to be a messy business as the bones piles up on the table.

Just a note: the price of your dish is based on the weight of lamb sold, so tell the waiter whether you want enough for one, two or ten people.

9. Yak butter tea pocha བོད་ཇ་ sūyóuchá 酥油茶

Perhaps more of an acquired taste than any other of Qinghai’s foods, yak butter tea (called pocha in Tibetan) is oily, strongly flavoured and salty. A daily Tibetan staple, yak butter is churned together with strong brewed black tea and some salt, with or without the addition of milk and barley flour. 
But make no mistake – if you are suffering from altitude sickness yak butter tea is the best tonic and seems to help enormously with the symptoms.

10. Rice cakes mǐgāo 米糕

Walking through one of Xining’s largest street markets I noticed every single person carrying a bag filled with small snow-white balls. I tracked them down to this stall, doing a roaring trade in a local specialty – a soft rice steamed cake with a sweet treat inside each one – a rich red honey-flavoured jujube, a cluster of sweet sultanas, or some sweet red beans.

Light as air, the cakes are delicious eaten warm, fresh from the steamer.

Travel China, dish by dish!






Ten Must Try Foods in Guizhou and Guangxi

Adventures in Tofu Part Two: Making Your Own Tofu

After resounding success making your own soy milk I know you’ll want to crack right on and get to making your own tofu.
Tofu is made of just three ingredients – soy beans, water, and a coagulating agent (more on that below).
It’s way easier than you imagine so let’s get started!
Equipment
  1. Tofu mould – you’ll need a square or rectangular tofu mould, or you can use a strainer, sieve or basket to set your tofu in. See Resources section below for more details.
  2. Muslin or cheesecloth approximately 40cm square, to line your tofu mould
  3. Cloth bag to strain your soy milk
  4. 8 litre stock pot
  5. Coagulating agent of your choice
Coagulating Agents
Tofu is simply curdled soy milk, with watery whey separated from the solid curds, and the curds compressed into blocks. Conventionally, an acid is used to transform the milk into curds and whey.
Although any acid can be used – even acetic acid (vinegar), citric acid (lemon or lime juice), or epsom salts – tofu makers commonly use one of three coagulants:
1. Gypsum – calcium sulphate – a fine white powder with a chalky taste. When used to make tofu it provides an important source of dietary calcium. Most commonly used in China.
2. Nigari – magnesium chloride – a crystalline substance also known as bittern or yánlu 盐卤 – incredibly bitter, it is commonly used by Japanese tofu makers. Available as crystals or as a concentrated liquid.
3. Glucono delta lactone – a very fine white crystalline substance with a slightly sweet taste, derived from fermentation of corn sugar. When added to water it forms gluconic acid. It is used to make silken tofu and tofu pudding.
Which of these coagulating agents you use will probably largely depend on what you can easily buy. Gypsum and nigari make a very similar tofu with no discernible taste attributable to the agent itself. All three agents are inexpensive to buy.
Ingredients
Makes 1000g medium firm tofu
  • 4 litres soy milk, as per this recipe
  • 3 metric teaspoons of gypsum or nigari coagulant, dissolved in one cup (250ml) of water
Method
Allow one hour from start to finish
1. Strain 4 litres of soy milk through a cloth bag (or strainer lined with a cloth) into an 8 litre pot. Squeeze the bag to release all the soy milk.
2. Heat the soy milk on a medium heat until simmering. Continue to simmer for five minutes, stirring to prevent a skin forming.
3. Turn off the heat and wait a couple of minutes for the soy milk to cool slightly
4. Give the soy milk a vigorous stir and immediately add 1/3 cup of the dissolved coagulant. Stop stirring and sprinkle 1/3 cup of the dissolved coagulant onto the surface of the soy milk.
5. Place the lid on the pot and wait for three minutes.
6. Remove the lid and add the final 1/3 cup of the coagulant, sprinkling it across the surface of the soy milk.
7. Replace the lid and wait another five minutes.
8. Remove the lid and you should see that the milk has now separated into curds and whey, with clear liquid around the edges of the pot. If this liquid is still milky you can try one of two things – gently reheat the pot for one to two minutes without stirring, or add another 1 teaspoon of coagulant dissolved in 1/4 cup of water. Often the problem is that the soy milk was not quite hot enough to begin with for the coagulation reaction to occur, so heating a little does the trick.

9. Place the tofu mould in a large baking dish or the sink and line the mould with cheesecloth

10. Spoon the curds gently into the mould using a large spoon. I’m thrilled to finally have a regular use for my antique Christofle ladle bought in a Paris antique market about a hundred years ago.

11. Fold the cheesecloth gently over the top of the curds.

12. Place the lid on the mould and add a weight – I use a ceramic pickle jar weighing 900g. The size of the weight will determine how quickly the curds are compressed. If using two smaller moulds use a 400g tin on each as a weight. This takes approximately ten minutes in my house and with my mould. You’ll need to watch it to learn how quickly it happens with your mould (some recipes say up to 30 minutes).
13. Once the tofu has become compressed to about half its original height, remove the weight and the lid and carefully unwrap the cheesecloth. The surface should look like cream cheese and resist your finger slightly. If the cloth sticks to the curds then a little more compression is needed – wrap it back up, put the lid back on and re-weight. For a denser, firmer tofu you can continue compressing the curds until they are one third of the original height.
14. Once the tofu is compressed, remove the weight. Fill your kitchen sink with cold water and lower the entire mould gently into it. Remove the lid. Remove the sides gently and carefully and allow the tofu to sit, cooling in the water but still in its cloth and sitting on the base of the mould, for about fifteen minutes.
15. Remove the block of tofu from the water, still on its base, and invert it gently onto the lid (the same size as the base) or a wooden board.
16. A word of warning – my first ever tofu turned out almost perfectly, like the one on the left. I jumped around the kitchen with joy and dragged the children in to witness the domestic miracle that had just taken place. So for my second batch, I cut fast and loose with the instructions, and talked on the phone while adding the coagulant. The results, top right, speak for themselves – a fragile tofu filled with holes, with lumpy curds and a very inconsistent texture. Tofu is a tough mistress, but pay attention and treat her right, and she’ll turn out perfectly every time.

17. So there you have it: home made tofu, made by you! It is utterly satisfying to make it yourself and very simple. Keep it one block or cut it into smaller pieces and store in clean fresh water in a sealed container in the refrigerator. Change the water daily if not using it immediately. It lasts for about five days but tastes the best when freshly made.

18. I enjoy it best cool, dressed with soy sauce, sesame oil, and scallions. So delicious. So soft.

Let me know how your tofu adventures turn out!

Resources

Tofu Moulds
Wooden tofu mould 49rmb ($US8) plus postage on Taobao – comes with its own cloth bag and cheesecloth square
Plastic tofu mould $US9.95 plus postage on Amazon

Tofu Coagulating Agents
Gypsum
NigariNigari from UK
Glucono delta lactone

Books

Asian Tofu by Andrea Nguyen – my tofu bible, with recipes and detailed directions

Adventures in Tofu, Part One: Making Soy Milk (Disastrous, Messy, But Ultimately Successful)

This is Part One of a two part series on making soy milk and tofu at home. You can read Part Two here.

I’ve been reading Jeremy Clarkson’s book “How Hard Can It Be?” He’s the funny guy from Top Gear, the massively popular British car show in which a bunch of middle-aged boys test drive a variety of very fast cars while keeping up a pretty solid banter in the background.

In the world according to Clarkson, he solves topics as diverse as global warming, summiting Everest, the British tax system, and keeping exotic birds as pets with the stroke of a pen while simultaneously ridding the world of do-gooders, politicians, and idiots. 
The book’s (and show’s) catch-cry of ‘How hard can it be?’ is coincidentally the same approach I take to cooking, which tends to turn out about as well as you’d expect.

Tempering couverture chocolate? How hard can it be? 
Answer: Homemade chocolate easter eggs with a texture like ricotta cheese mixed with concrete, and about as tasty.

Homemade strawberry jam? How hard can it be? It’s just strawberries and sugar!

Answer: Favourite saucepan ruined forever, and a year’s supply of smoke-flavoured strawberry ice cream topping.

Toffee nests? Honestly, I’ve seen it on TV. Sugar. Water. A fast moving spoon.

Answer: It doesn’t count as a toffee nest if it has a lot of your hair in it. And it turns out a fast moving spoon is capable of covering pretty much everything in the kitchen in enamel-hard toffee if the spoon is not directed carefully and accurately. Wine does not improve accuracy.

Having failed to learn from my first fifty mistakes, I felt that making tofu sounded like something I could really apply myself to.

Tofu was one of my greatest culinary surprises while living in China – the variety, the freshness, the many ways in which it is used in cooking. And my greatest surprise of all – it actually tastes good. Really good.

But to make tofu, you must first learn how to make soy milk. I learnt to make it the traditional way with Ah Ping at Yangcheng Lake using a traditional stone grinder, where I was astounded to discover that soy milk, dear people, is made from just soy beans and water. Yes, beans. And water.

Only two ingredients! How hard can it…etc etc


So this week you can learn how to make soy milk, and next week, how to make tofu. Excited? Of course you are. You love a deceptively simple cooking project.

Soy milk making, at least when you first begin, is quite disastrously messy, as I discovered when I overfilled my soy milk maker (see above) and went to hang out the washing, returning to a steaming hot soy explosion all over the kitchen. The soy milk had spattered all the windows and overflowed into three open kitchen drawers full of cutlery and tea towels. Curses were heard throughout the house.

With practice though, you’ll get neater, and there will be fewer changes of clothes and swearing. Promise.

Part One: Making Your Own Soy Milk 
Ingredients:
For one litre of soy milk you’ll need:
  • 1/2 cup (85g) dried soybeans
  • water
  • blender or soy milk maker
  • fine mesh strainer or muslin cloth
  • 2 litre saucepan 
L: dried soybeans                     R: after soaking

Blender Method:
  • rinse dried soybeans, strain
  • place in bowl and cover with water, leave for 8-10 hours (soaking time needed varies according to ambient temperature, but overnight is always long enough)
  • strain
  • add soybeans to blender 
  • add one litre (4 cups) of water
  • blend on ‘high’ for one minute
  • turn off power, stir contents thoroughly to dislodge any debris from under blade
  • blend on high again for one minute
  • pour soy milk mixture through a very fine mesh sieve or muslin into saucepan
  • heat on medium high heat, stirring continuously until it begins to foam
  • continue stirring at a simmer for five minutes, removing some of the excess foam from the top of the milk
  • pour into glass jug to cool

Soy Milk Maker Method:
  • rinse dried soybeans, strain
  • place in bowl and cover with water, leave for 8-10 hours (soaking time needed varies according to ambient temperature, but overnight is always long enough)
  • strain
  • place beans in soy milk maker
  • add water to level indicated inside soy milk maker
  • use ‘soaked beans’ setting, press go
  • when cycle complete, pour soy milk through fine mesh sieve (usually provided with your maker) or muslin into a jug
  • press the sediment until no further milk released from strainer
  • drink hot or cold, as preferred
  • WASH soy milk maker immediately
L: Straining soy milk through a fine mesh sieve           R: soy sediment – okra
L: stir and press okara with a spoon to release more soy milk         R: rendering soy milk
Notes
Soy Milk Makers/Blenders:
  • Although home blenders do a great job, if you are planning on making a lot of soy milk or tofu in might be worth investing in a soy milk maker – they have the advantage of heating the milk for you, eliminating one step and one more set of pans to wash. And they’re fast – they make a litre in under fifteen minutes.
  • Soy milk makers vary from very cheap ($US25), to very expensive ($US300+), depending on what kind you buy and who you buy from. Online health food stores tend to have the most expensive machines. 
  • All soy milk makers do a similar job, but have differences in motor speed and grunt, resulting in a slightly different outcome. The more powerful motor, the finer the grind and the better the quality of the finished product. 
  • Fancy soy milk makers have added ‘features’ to help upsell the product – juicing, cooking rice, cooking pasta etc. If you don’t need these added features look for a simpler and cheaper model. 
Ingredients:
  • As with all things, the better the quality of your ingredients, the better the finished product. Using filtered water and organic or biodynamic soybeans gives a better taste.
Techniques:
  • There are many minor variations on technique, and only by experimenting yourself will you find out what works best for you
  • A richer soy milk can be made by increasing the amount of soybeans in the recipe to 3/4 cup (dried) – just take care with your soy milk maker as it may froth over, as mine did
  • Some people feel it is important to remove the skin of the soybeans once they are soaked – because it may give a slightly less bean-y taste. You can do this by rubbing them vigorously underwater and allowing the skins to float to the surface where you can skim them off. I’ve tried both, I can’t tell the difference. Seems like a lot of work for little gain.
  • Some people do not strain the soy sediment off until after heating the soy milk, because they believe by cooking the liquid and sediment together it results in a better tasting milk. Try both methods and see which you prefer.
  • Heating the soy milk, otherwise known as rendering, is essential to making soy milk because it converts (renders) some undigestible proteins into digestible ones.
  • Don’t worry of a skin forms on the surface of the hot soy milk after it has rendered – this is creamy yuba, an edible delicacy
  • Soy sediment hardens like concrete within minutes. Wash everything as soon as you use it, or spend hours scrubbing.
  • Keep the soy sediment – also known as okara – you can use it in cooking.
Resources:
Soy milk makers: 
There are many brands to choose from and all do a similar job – they grind the beans finely and heat the soy milk so it is ready to drink. Reputable brands include Joyoung, Soyajoy, Midea, Philips and Povos.
DinoDirect from $US150
Amazon from $US88
Taobao from CNY150 ($US25) – search for 豆浆机
I use a Joyoung DJ13B-C85SG (available on Taobao for CNY499 ($US85) shipping within China) which has a more powerful motor. 
Books:
Asian Tofu by Andrea Nguyen – my tofu bible, with recipes and detailed directions
Online tutorials:

Shanghai Soup Dumplings: Xiaolongbao, The Complete Guide

For foodies, Shanghai is synonymous with xiaolongbao, savory and delicious soup-filled dumplings that seem to defy culinary possibility. With this guide you’ll become an overnight expert and discover where Shanghai’s best, oldest, and most secret xiaolongbao spots can be found, and how to order and eat xiaolongbao. Ready?


1. How do you say xiaolongbao?
2. What are xiaolongbao?
3. How to eat xiaolongbao
4. How to order xiaolongbao
5. Five Shanghai xiaolongbao eateries to try
6. Where to find more information – recipes, xiaolongbao classes, more restaurant suggestions


1. How do you say xiaolongbao?
First things first. This impossible looking word is quite easy to say. 
It’s shao(rhymes with cow)-long-bao(rhymes with cow). 

Shao-long-bao.


For those studying Chinese, the tones are: xiăolóngbāo.



2. What are xiaolongbao?
Xiaolongbao 小笼包, the soup-filled dumplings Shanghai is famous for, are a miracle of creation and construction – seemingly delicate, semi-transparent dumpling skins are wrapped and neatly pleated around an aromatic filling of pork and a mouthful of hot savory broth. 

The pork filling, seasoned with a little ginger and shaoxing wine, is mixed with gelatinized pork stock that melts on cooking, transforming into a delicious soup. The addition of crab meat and crab roe from the famous Shanghai hairy crab makes for a rich but equally traditional xiaolongbao.

Many wonder how liquid soup manages to get inside a hand-wrapped dumpling. Is it somehow scooped inside as the dumpling is wrapped? Or is it injected using a syringe? The secret, of course, is that the soup is actually a solid at room temperature, melting into a liquid only when the dumplings are steamed at high heat. The soup is essentially a flavoured pork stock or aspic, made with pork skin, chicken bones, ginger, scallions and shaoxing wine, simmered for hours and hours then cooled at room temperature until it sets. Every kitchen has their own secret recipe because the quality of the soup is paramount in a good xiaolongbao.

The word xiăolóngbāo 小笼包 literally means ‘small steamer basket buns’ and is the most commonly used name for these dumplings. More traditional restaurants may also use the term tāngbāo 汤包, meaning soup dumpling. The only accompaniment needed for xiaolongbao is dark Zhejiang vinegar, although a bowl of clear soup is often eaten alongside.

When you taste a xiaolongbao, the skin or wrapper should be fine and translucent yet strong enough not to break when lifted out of the basket. The meat should be fresh tasting, smooth and savory. Lastly, the all-important soup should be hot, clear, and fragrant of pork. Enjoy!

3. How to eat xiaolongbao: A step-by-step guide

Soup-filled dumplings should be handled with care – the contents are HOT.

You will be given a small circular dish to fill with vinegar form the bottle or teapot on your table, a pair of chopsticks, and a soup spoon. You may also be given a dish of finely shredded ginger to add to the vinegar as desired.


To eat a xiaolongbao, first lift it out of the steamer basket by its strongest part, the topknot (use your spoon for support if needed), and dip it gently into the dish of vinegar.


Resting it back on your spoon, nibble a small hole to let out the steam. Slurp a little soup.


Once it’s cooled slightly, eat from the spoon using your chopsticks or throw caution to the wind and put the whole spoonful in your mouth in one go. The savory soup will be scalding hot as you eat.


4. How to order xiaolongbao
Xiaolongbao can be ordered by the basket (long 笼) or serving (fen 份) in practical terms, everyone uses ‘serving’ or fen.

The number of xiaolongbao in each serving varies with the restaurant and the size of the steamer basket, but is usually between six and twelve.

Although there are countless variations in xiaolongbao fillings, the most popular are pork (zhu rou 猪肉) or a mixture of pork with the meat and roe from Shanghai’s famed hairy crab (xiefen 蟹粉). Small street eateries may only serve pork, traditional restaurants usually have both pork and pork/crab/roe, and fancier restaurants may offer novel and non-traditional fillings like chicken, foie gras, or mushroom.

How many servings will you need? That depends entirely on your appetite, but as a guide, four to six xiaolongbao per person is plenty for a snack, and eight to ten per person makes a meal.

Here’s an easy ordering guide in English, pinyin and Chinese:

English: pork xiaolongbao
Chinese: zhūròu xiăolóngbāo 猪肉小笼包
Pronunciation: joo-ROW shao-(rhymes with cow)-long-bao (rhymes with cow)

English: crab meat xiaolongbao
Chinese: xièfĕn xiăolóngbāo  蟹粉小笼包
Pronunciation: shee-EH-fun shao-long-bao

English: One serve of xiaolongbao
Chinese: xiăolóngbāo yī fēn 猪肉小笼包一份 
Pronunciation: shao-long-bao EE-fun

English: chopsticks
Chinese: kuàizi 筷子
Pronunciation: KWHY-zuh

English: spoon
Chinese: sháozi 勺子
Pronunciation: SHAO-zuh

English: vinegar
Chinese:  cù 
Pronunciation: TSOOh




5. Where to eat xiaolongbao
1. Jia Jia Tang Bao 佳家汤包
Having been in the soup dumpling business for years, Jia Jia Tang Bao is hands down the sentimental favorite of young and old Shanghainese alike. Expect to queue at all hours of the day, but once inside on your small orange stool you can experience what life is like in a goldfish bowl as those waiting outside intermittently press their faces to the glass to see whether you’re eating fast enough. Don’t rush! Savor the homely ambience and the excellent dumplings.
Jia Jia Tang Bao offer two main types of xiaolongbao, regular pork xiaolongbao, and hairy crab meat xiaolongbao. The former are similar to those found elsewhere, but the crab xiaolongbao are exquisite, stuffed full of tiny shreds of sweet crabmeat, they explode with the flavour of the crab roe.

Price: Crabmeat xiaolongbao 25.5 rmb per serve (12 pieces)

Details:
Jia Jia Tang Bao  佳家汤包
90 Huanghe Lu, near Fengyang Lu
黄河路90近凤阳路
+86 21 6327 6878
Open 7 days, 6.30am – 10pm
English occasionally spoken, English menu (no pictures)
Cash only



2. Loushi Tangbao Guan 陋室汤包馆 The Humble Room Soup Dumpling Eatery 

Tucked away on the working end of one of the French Concession’s most beautiful streets (that would be Nanchang Lu of course!), you could well walk past The Humble Room without noticing it amongst a slew of other noodle and dumpling shops. But this place is special – it’s where local workers come to tuck into a full steamer basket of xiaolongbao for breakfast, lunch or dinner at one of only six tiny tables.

The proprietor, surly on his best days, may need to be prodded awake to serve you but the xiaolongbao are top-notch. They also serve several noodle dishes.


The Humble Room’s xiaolongbao belie the restaurant’s name – they’re sophisticated little dumplings with strong thin skins, smooth pork filling and a satisfyingly rich broth. And at 6 rmb for a basket of eight, they represent incredible value.


Price: 6 rmb per serve (8 pieces)

Details:
Loushi Tangbao Guan 陋室汤包馆
601 Nanchang Lu, near Xiangyang Lu
南昌路601
(靠近襄阳路)
Open 7 days, 6.30am – 8pm
No English spoken, no English menu
Cash only

3. Din Tai Fung Xintiandi 鼎泰震新天地店 

It’s impossible to write about Shanghai’s xiaolongbao without mentioning Din Tai Fung, where the humble xiaolongbao is elevated to a culinary art form. Don’t be put off by the fact that this chain comes from Taiwan – they have an impeccable pedigree and two of their Hong Kong restaurants were this year awarded a Michelin star. If the Michelin Guide ever makes it to China’s mainland, this branch will likely end up with one too.

For some diehard gourmands it’s sacrilege to admit you like Din Tai Fung’s xiaolongbao, as they pout “too expensive!” “too touristy!” “not Shanghainese!” but for me Din Tai Fung’s biggest drawcard has to be its consistency – consistently great xiaolongbao, consistently good service and spotlessly clean, it’s also the only place on this list where English is consistently spoken.
Din Tai Fung’s dumplings boast the finest wrappers, all rolled individually by hand so that they’re thinner at the edges and stronger in the middle, the smoothest pork filling and the most refined of all the soups. In addition, Din Tai Fung offers that rarity, a totally vegetarian xiaolongbao filled with assorted mushrooms, and some very non-traditional fillings like goose liver and chicken.
Din Tai Fung also offers a wide selection of more substantial hot and cold dishes, wine and beer, and desserts.

Price: 29 rmb for five, 58 rmb for ten pork xiaolongbao

Details:
Din Tai Fung Xintiandi  鼎泰震新天地店

2F, House 6, South Block Xintiandi,
Lane 123 Xinye Lu, Shanghai
上海市兴业路123弄新天地广场南里6号楼2-11A单元
+8621 6385 8378
Open 7 days from 10am – 12mn
English spoken, English menu with pictures
Cash, credit cards accepted

4. Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant 南翔馒頭店
With a history of over a hundred years in the xiaolongbao business, Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant now has multiple locations in multiple countries.  This restaurant is one of their nicest and its location, just a stone’s throw from the bright lights of Nanjing Xi Lu, makes it a perfect pitstop after a heavy morning of shopping.

Nanxiang is solid, clean and well-run, exactly the sort of place you might take your work colleagues or your parents-in-law for lunch.

Their crab xiaolongbao are exceptional, with the rich yellow roe clearly visible through the semi-transparent skins, and droplets of oily melted roe visible in the soup.

They also offer a full menu of non-dumpling dishes, including many Shanghainese specialties like fried glutinous rice slices with pork and ji cai vegetable – a chewy, delicious home-style dish.
Details:
Nanxiang Mantou Dian 南翔馒頭店
Branches all over Shanghai including:
2nd Floor, 269 Wujiang Lu, Jing’an District
静安区吴江路2692
+8621 6136 1428
Open 7 days from 11am – 8.30pm
English sometimes spoken, picture menu
Cash only

5. Song Ji Nanxiang Xiaolongbao 南翔小笼馆
Those small and miraculous soup-filled dumplings Shanghai is famous for probably didn’t originate in Shanghai. They came from a place called Nanxiang, considered by many to be the ancestral home, even the spiritual home of xiaolongbao. Once, long ago, Nanxiang was a happily separate little town south-west of Shanghai, but as the city sent out tentacles of roads, factories and apartment blocks in every direction it choked and then digested many smaller towns in its wake. Nanxiang was completely subsumed into modern-day Shanghai, and is now relegated to the status of an outer suburb. It even has its own stop on the Shanghai subway system (Nanxiang, Line 11).

But Nanxiang doesn’t feel like the outer something of somewhere, in fact it feels like the centre of somewhere. This is because Nanxiang holds tight to one important quality that sets it apart from all the other grey and gritty outer suburbs. It is still a major mecca for xiaolongbao lovers, who make the pilgrimage from all over China to get to the source. Whole streets are lined with dumpling shops rolling, stuffing and twisting xialongbao into shape. 

Outside Song Ji restaurant, stacks of steamer baskets full of plump xialongbao wait to be cooked in the giant outdoor steamer. Inside, round wooden tables are filled with people dipping their xiaolongbao in dark vinegar then slurping up the filling. The menu runs to two choices of xiaolongbao – pork, or pork and crab, and five extras, all soups.

These xiaolongbao are justifiably famous, but they have a simple, homemade quality. The skins are thicker than those at say, Din Tai Fung, because they’re hand pressed rather than rolled, and the filling is simpler and more rustic with less seasoning and more meat. The soup, particularly of the pork and crab xiaolongbao, is delicious and dangerously hot.

Take-away packs of pre-cooked xioalongbao are available too, packed inside two bamboo shells to protect them, like a giant clam. They re-heat pretty well in a steamer at home, but have less soup inside as it tends to absorb into the skin after the first cooking.

Details:
Song Ji Nanxiang Xiaolongbao 南翔小笼馆
210 Guyiyuan Lu, Jiading District
嘉定区古猗园路210

Approx 30 minutes by car from downtown Shanghai, or easily reached by subway Line 11 (stop: Nanxiang). The restaurants are less than five minutes’ walk from the subway.

+8621 5917 4019
Open 7 days from 8am – 8pm
No English spoken, no English menu
Cash only


6. More Information
For more Shanghai xiaolongbao eateries, or to find a xiaolongbao restaurant in other Chinese cities, try Dianping. In Shanghai, all Shanghainese restaurants serve xiaolongbao – try Old Jesse, New Jesse, or Fu Chun.

If you’d like to learn how to make your own xiaolongbao while visiting Shanghai, the Chinese Cooking Workshop runs a xiaolongbao class once a month, next on April 17th, 2013.

Xiaolongbao recipes can be found here and here and here if you’d like to try making them at home. My recipe for the pork aspic can be found here.

Got a favorite of your own? Share it in the comments below!