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Lost Heaven

Yunnan sounds like one of China’s most interesting provinces, tucked away in a corner of this vast country between the borders of Burma, Laos, Vietnam and Tibet and the enormous province of Sichuan.  I’ve never been there, but if the food at Yunnanese restauarant Lost Heaven is anything to go by, I’m missing out on a major culinary adventure if I don’t go. Soon.
The food of Lost Heaven is layered with geographical clues. Some of it barely resembles Chinese food at all – take a prawn curry in the style of the miao ethnic group for example. Large, sweet, tender prawns are surrounded by a fresh-flavoured tomato, ginger and garlic sauce very reminiscent of Indian tamatar shorba. A Burmese inspired aromatic beef shank curry is full of the scents of cumin, coriander seed and a touch of cassia, flavours not commonly found in Chinese dishes. Other dishes feel more familiar – a whole black cod steamed in a table top fish steamer and covered with a layer of crispy fried garlic, black beans and shallots, or pork-flavoured rice wrapped in a banana leaf.
Their specialty dishes include ingredients unique to Yunnan – dried Yunnan fungus, preserved banana flowers, Yunnan pu’er tea and pomegranate flowers. This last looked spectacular served in a cold shredded vegetable dish, and the flowers have an interesting texture. 
Since the weather has turned attractively warm Lost Heaven have opened a rooftop terrace looking out towards the Bund. So may I recommend you start there with a refreshing cocktail before making your way downstairs for an incredible meal. Start with Yunnan herb flatbreads with tomato chutney, then just work your way through the menu, tasting Burma, Vietnam, Tibet and Sichuan as you go.
Lost Heaven at the Bund, 17 Yan’an Dong Lu, near Sichaun Lu

Forbidden Black Rice

This stuff is black gold – sticky black rice with sesame seeds. You won’t find these hand-woven parcels everywhere on the street but from time to time you might see a street-side steamer basket full of odd-looking black packages. You can expect to pay about 5 yuan for the rice, its basket, and a cute little fork. 

The glutinous black rice – once called ‘Forbidden Rice’ because it was served only to Emperors and forbidden to mere mortals – is naturally slightly sweet and cooked here with toasted sesame seeds for texture and flavour. Savoury versions are also sold, usually with pork, chinese sausage or mushrooms. The bamboo basket adds a unique aroma and flavour of its own, woody and grassy, enhancing the natural nuttiness of the black rice. 

As for myself, I was ridiculously impressed by the handiwork of the basket maker, and if it had been made by the same ancient lady selling them, she must have nimble fingers indeed. Suddenly, I wanted small collared plaited grass baskets around my coffee cups, my rice bowls, my drinking glasses, my vinegar bottle…..then I realised that the charm of these small things is that they are not seen everywhere. 

Chinese for Dummies

So… update on my progress in the Chinese language – and it’s not pretty. Chinese is the most difficult language I’ve ever studied, and my brain was 24 years younger the last time I learnt a language. When I took French and German at school I had three lessons each week, but as soon as I left the classroom the pressure was off – I reverted to speaking English like everyone else around me. Here, the pressure starts the moment I step out the door and rarely lets up. I have even started dreaming in Chinese, although I can’t understand a damn thing they’re saying. I wake up as confused as ever.

The best antidote to feeling depressed about my lack of progress is to go and buy another Chinese textbook in the hope that this will be the one book that finally unlocks the secrets of the language. The Mandarin Holy Grail has thus far escaped me, and as you can see I’ve tried pretty hard to find it. 

I got really hopeful after buying ‘Chinese for Dummies’, but all the characters in the book were named Barbara, Iris and Beverley. I couldn’t bear it. I don’t want to do Chinese conversation practice with someone called Iris, it’s all wrong. So then I bought ‘Chinese in Ten Minutes A Day!’ which is great if you have a spare 3000 days. I don’t. 

My favourite so far has been ‘Easy Peasy Chinese’ because it’s geared towards children and that suits my abilities quite well. When I go to the supermarket though, I find it’s less practical to know the names of all the zoo animals when all you want is some cheese.

While searching for the perfect textbook I still take Chinese lessons twice a week, and each week for homework my lovely Chinese teacher sets me a short essay in pinyin (the anglicised written version of spoken Chinese) which I then read aloud the following week. Here is last week’s effort, not in its original pinyin (how could you read that?) but translated by my teacher back into English to show where I’m going wrong. As it turns out, I’m going wrong in about a hundred different ways – judge for yourself.

Living in China and Eating Chinese Food. By Fiona.

I have lived in Shanghai for eleven years (actually I mean months). 

Before come to China I have never study Chinese (really??)

 I now have one Chinese teacher, she very patient, very kind. (this is going well – my teacher smiles benevolently)

My Chinese can hardly make progress very slowly. 
(at this point, my Chinese teacher looks very hurt. ‘You think I’m not teaching you well?’ she asks. 
‘Of course not!’ I reply, ‘I’m trying to say ‘little by little I’m making progress” 
‘Oh…it’s just that the way you wrote it, it’s quite insulting’)

After coming to China, I want to eat Chinese dishes. my most love is snacks – I most like jian bing and also Langzhou noodles.  

Before coming to China I have never see hand-pulled noodles! Really interesting. 

I have also been Sichuan dishes, Hunan dishes, Yunnan dishes and Shanghai dishes. (I think I may mean tasted,not been)

My friends and children really like Shanghai dishes, tastes soup (I mean sweet, I think), not spicy. I also like Shanghai dishes but now I prefer like Yunnan and Hunan dishes. 

I think Shanghai dishes compared to Hunan dishes bland. I like heavy flavour dish.

So it’s going pretty well, hey?

Taikang Lu 泰康路 – Tianzifang 田子坊

Shanghai’s most popular art, design and cafe precinct is off Taikang Lu in the French Concession, between Ruijin Lu and Sinan Lu. Five years ago, this place was home to just a meagre handful of photographers, artists, and shops. Now, it’s a scene. Lane 210, Tianzifang, is the most well known. Come for a wander!

First stop is the photography gallery of Deke Erh, one of Tianzifang’s earliest residents, who specialises in black and white photography of Shanghai’s architecture, and also photographs city’s human side. His long term collaborations with people like historian and writer Tess Johnstone have given Shanghai an incredible legacy of books about Shanghai’s last century.
Adjacent to the gallery is an antique filled cafe, the Old China Hand Reading Room and Cafe, a quiet spot to sit and think, and read one of their many Erh/Johnstone publications.

The intertwining lanes are best explored slowly and patiently, because there are many other treasures to be found. The whole block was an old sweets factory once, and some of the original residents remain, although how they cope with the constant stream of art and design tourists I have no idea.

Further down Tianzifang is a branch of Woo scarves – whether you need a stunning cashmere wrap, a hand-embroidered silk throw or an affordable cotton sarong, it’s all here at Woo. I love the black cashmere opera scarf embroidered with peonies, and when I’ve saved a gazillion yuan I’ll buy it. 

The lanes are packed with restaurants and bars too, and on a warm evening there is nothing better than hopping from one to another for a glass of riesling or shiraz and a good sticky beak at the passing human traffic. It’s always entertaining, because Tianzifang seems to attract the most avant-garde fashion tourists in all of China, who have rightly heard that this is the place to see and be seen. While you sip there will always be a fashion shoot or wedding being photographed to keep your eyes busy.

I feel reluctant to recommend a single place to eat or drink, because restaurants come and go in this precinct just like the changing tides of fashion. As they say in Shanghai, don’t get too attached to a place, because it might be gone tomorrow. For sheer longevity and consistency though, you’d be hard pressed to find better than Kommune – it has an open air courtyard, a great barrista, an excellent breakfast menu and the friendliest waiters ever. You can find it just off to one side of Tianzifang. 

Oh! On your way out have a wander around the Taikang Lu wet market, a small but perfectly formed version of Shanghai’s bigger wet markets. That’ll bring you down to earth with a thud after all that art, design, shopping and coffee. Would you like a freshly skinned bull frog with your latte?

The Basket Maker

I find it impossible to resist anything that has been made by hand, particularly if it involves an unusual skill, like shoemaking, or constructing wooden birdcages; or if I can sit and watch someone at work, seeing something unfold piece by piece before my eyes.

Every time I visit Tongli I stand and watch this clever basket-maker. He is about sixty years old, with a little grey hair coming in, but with the hands of a much younger man – fast, deft, and unwavering. He takes a long quiver of split bamboo, and starting at the base he folds and weaves a hexagonal pattern that brings each basket into existence. They are simple household objects, yet true things of beauty – all over Tongli I see his handiwork, holding goose eggs, filled to the brim with vegetables straight from the garden, or overflowing with washing.

Of course I buy several. I take two flat woven bamboo mats, for placing in the tray of my steamer, a basket in which to keep my collection of small Chinese hand-made shoes, and two large, flat woven six-sided trays about a metre across. These are used for drying and preserving vegetables, or drying tea, and they have a 6-pointed bamboo star on their underside as reinforcing. There won’t be a lot of vegetable drying going on in my house in Shanghai, but I buy them anyway. Too beautiful to pass up, the locals think it hilarious that a foreigner has burdened herself with these large unwieldy bamboo trays, as I struggle with them back to the car. I wonder I could make my own dried vegetable pickles….?

This is one of many posts about the water town of Tongli outside Shanghai.
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Take-Away Chicken, Tongli

Gives a new meaning to plastic-wrapped chicken, doesn’t it? What amazes me is that the chicken seemed quite unbothered by the indignity of being trussed up in a green plastic bag on a scooter. I guess half an hour after this photo was taken it would pale into insignificance compared with the indignity of having your head chopped off. Chicken hot-pot anyone?

Tongli Farm House Food

One side effect of Shanghai Expo is that I’m having loads of visitors from home. Usually, once they realise what a behemoth the Expo actually is, they decide not to attend and are left with a one-day hole in their itinerary. 

How to fill it? You could go shopping, but often, exhausted by constant, heart-stopping, life-changing shopping, they need a breather and request somewhere quiet and a bit, well, cultured. They often want to visit a water-town, and I have found that Tongli never disappoints. It is small, quaint and quiet, has beautiful scenery and canals, a few small museums (including the famous museum of Sex Culture), wonderful food and is only an hour and a half from Shanghai.

So yesterday I was back in Tongli, where the locals are beginning to wonder if I’m some sort of covert tour guide. They eye me suspiciously as I follow a now well-worn path from the Pearl Pagoda to the Garden of Seclusion and Meditation, on to the Gengle Hall, then straight to my favourite canal-side restauarant, Farm House Food. That’s the proprietor above, watching over proceedings from a comfortable chair. To be honest most of the canal restaurants are almost identical, but Farm House Food has three important things that set it apart from the others.

Firstly, the location is prime – it sits alongside the junction of two canals so all the pleasure boats pass by right next to your table, with blue nankeen coated boat-women on board rhythmically pulling at the single oar.
Secondly, the food is pretty delicious. They of course serve up Tongli’s famous special dish, Wan san pork – a softer-than-pate slow-braised pork shank everyone on the planet, even vegetarians, should have a chance to try, and a favourite only those with a taste for adventure should try – the whole fried small fish. Their cute little eyes stare at you as you bite off their delicious heads, and their salty, crunchy bones go well with a long cold beer.
Lastly, this lovely lady will serenade you with Chinese folk songs as you eat, for the princely sum of 10 kuai. Many would pay more than that to have her go away and let them eat in peace, but I love her warbling vice, her heart-felt rendition of Moli Hua, and her towel. 

Last Night of the Cangelosi Cards

Remember the fabulous New York jazz band I wrote about a few weeks ago? Those old-time jazz talents The Cangelosi Cards had their last gig at the House of Blues and Jazz last night before heading home to the US, and some night it was.

The house was packed with an eclectic mix of locals, travellers, musicians, jazz lovers and dancers. People from all over the world. If you have ever seen the film ‘The White Countess’, set in Shanghai bars in the 1930s, you’ll know what I’m talking about – Ralph Fiennes’ character strives for a bar with the right mix of cosmopolitan sophistication, politics, innuendo and danger. The House of Blues and Jazz has it all, although the only danger likely to befall you is that you will spend too much money on strange green drinks that will make you quite ill the next day……

Not long after arriving we met a Russian firecracker called Rowena who had stepped off a plane from Moscow not three hours ago, and was putting her own unique style of dance out there on the dance floor. It was really unique, with feet, arms and head apparently all dancing to different music genres, an amazing talent. Her feet thought they were doing classical ballet, her arms had touches of Bollywood, her hips were into swing, but her head seemed to have a life of its own and at random points she shook it wildly back and forth. Genre unknown.

The Cards played on regardless, and in a brilliant touch they had invited all the musicians who have played with them for the last three months along for the night – each took it in turns to play a number with the band, from the inspiring African singer who joined them for a languid ‘Summertime’ to a wickedly talented Chinese harmonica player who filled the room with energy. Everyone had a grand old time, and we all felt Shanghai to be the most wonderful place in the world. Thanks fellas, we’ll sure miss you.

Cold and Crunchy

Imagine a sultry, hot, sweaty Shanghai summer day. Like today. Thirty degrees and 98% humidity. You’re sweating without even moving, and when you do move, it ain’t pretty. Looking for relief from the heat, you sit down at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and order. The waitress brings you a long, tall chilled bottle of Tsing Tao beer, already frosted on the outside from the sudden temperature change from the refrigerator to your table; and a dish of cold cucumber.

Cucumber??! What the….??? Cucumber was never my favourite vegetable, at least it wasn’t until I came to China. In Australia, cucumber has garnish status only, and there are no cucumber-only dishes on any menu at any restaurant I’ve ever eaten at. 

The Chinese though, have a summer love affair with cucumber. It features on the menus of practically every cuisine across China. Why have I never eaten it like this until now? Broken or cut into chunks, doused with garlic, oil and salt, or sliced into thick rounds and dressed with a mixture of dark vinegar, sesame oil, garlic and chili – divine. Those combinations just make the cold, crunchy cucumber sing. On a hot day, this is the best accompaniment to a cold beer you can imagine. 

Suzhou Cobblers

Down Fuzhou Lu way, just off the Bund is one of Shanghai’s hidden shoe treasures, and believe me when I say there aren’t many. Unless your taste runs to vinyl flip-flops, that is. If you’re interested in having hand-made shoes, you could read about Will’s hand-made shoes, but if you need an off-the-shelf instant purchase then Suzhou Cobblers is the place.

Their shop is like an exquisite jewel box filled with rainbow coloured silk slippers, hand-embroidered in Suzhou style (Suzhou, not far from Shanghai, was once the centre of China’s silk industry). I love this chartreuse pair with peonies, but they also do gold fish, chinese vegetables, birds and lucky numbers. 

Find them at 17 Fuzhou Lu, 10am to 6.30pm every day.