Traditional Shanghainese dim sum is surprisingly hard to find in Shanghai, thanks to the ever increasing popularity of Cantonese style yum cha. It’s a shame, because Shanghai cuisine has many fine dim sum dishes in its repertoire, the most famous being xialongbao (those delectable little soup-filled dumplings) and shengjianbao (their bigger, meatier cousins). Many Shanghai locals are nostalgic for the foods their grandmothers made, foods they could buy readily on the street as kids, but aren’t so easy to find nowadays.
Last weekend I had a chance to try the Classic Shanghainese dim sum at the Whampoa Club at Three on the Bund, one of Shanghai’s loveliest modern Chinese restaurants, at their invitation. I like the concept behind what they’re doing, which is to say, elevating street food (you know how I love street food) into a fine dining experience, although I wondered how successful this would be, asking a premium price for what is, essentially, inexpensive snack food.
As it turns out, given Whampoa Club’s reputation and expertise, they did it very well. They’ve brought in their own specialised dim sum chef, used very high quality ingredients, and the execution is confident and finessed. I liked it. Would I still have liked it if I was paying for it? Actually, I would. And it goes to show that in the right hands, street food can be really sophicticated.
Before eating, you must first choose your tea, a difficult task given that Whampoa Club offers more than fifty varieties. They even have a tea sommelier to help you choose. Fancy, huh? I perused all fifty, and overwhelmed by choice reverted to my usual – Tie Guanyin oolong tea.
Tea poured, you can begin to eat. I’m going to have to take up marathon running (or at least riding my new bicycle everywhere, including to Beijing and back) if I am to keep this level of dumpling consumption up. And when you see all the dim sum I ate, you’ll understand!
This, a crisp radish cake (luo bo si bing), was superb. Exquisitely fine layers of crisp pastry yielded a soft, savoury centre with buttery shreds of radish. A second version also had fine specks of salted ham for added flavour. Who knew the pedestrian radish could be raised to such lofty heights?
Two types of pan-fried potsticker dumplings – on the left, a miniature version of a traditional Shanghainese shengjianbao, filled with pork and a little soup, and on the right guotie, stuffed with pork. While true to their origins, they lacked a little excitement and the normally soft skins were a bit tough.
This dish, although not the most attractive on the table, was packed with flavours of soy and star anise. The cubes are pieces of honeycomb-textured gluten starch, served with golden mushrooms, black fungus and gingko seeds. The gluten was soft and spong-like, soaking up the flavourful sauce. I feel terribly sorry for all my childhood vegetarian friends, who were eating gluten ‘nutmeat meatloaf’ when they could have been eating a gloriously satisfying vegetarian dish like this! Dr S., I’m thinking of you!
Other delicacies included sesame-coated dumplings, candied lotus root stuffed with sticky rice and flavoured with delicate osmanthus blossoms (hmm…may have wolfed that down before a photo was taken), ma lan vegetable with dry bean curd, pork and crab xiaolongbao, and deep fried squares of sticky rice.
There were more substantial dishes too – I prefer this Shanghai-style sweet and sour pork ribs, with its dark brown vinegar and malty sweet flavours, to its overly sweet Cantonese equivalent.
Even better, some of Whampoa Club’s signature dishes appear on the dim sum menu, like this chilled crystal pork jelly, served with fine aged black vinegar. You won’t find this on any street food stall, and yet the flavours are very Shanghainese, with the same kind of pork jelly used in the making of xiaolongbao.
Then the sweet dim sum dishes began to arrive:
Diamonds of steamed glutinous rice cake with osmanthus blossoms (gui hua gao).
Ice cream. Now I wondered about this, but apparently Shanghai had its own brand of icecream (GuanMing Pai) back in the day which came in small blocks you could divide in two – and this is a faithful reproduction. In fact, you can still buy it in supermarkets here, but Whampoa Club makes their own.
I have tasted this dish of pearls of glutinous rice in a rice wine broth (jiu niang yuan zhi) at the end of many a banquet shared with Chinese friends, served hot in winter and cold in summer, and I have yet to enjoy it until now. The broth, made with sweetened fermented rice wine, is often unpleasantly sour tasting, verging on ‘gone off’. Whampoa’s was a revelation – light, clear and sweet with plump pearls and a hint of osmanthus. After all that food, I surprised myself by draining the bowl. A first. (ah…not the ‘draining the bowl’ part. Definitely not a first. The ‘finishing a bowl of rice wine broth’ part).
All told, a lovely local twist to the dim sum experience. To add to the nostalgia, Whampoa Club have even hired a sugar artist, who will fashion your zodiac animal or a fine pheonix out of nothing but toffee, as an after-lunch treat.
5F, 3 Zhongshan Dongyi Lu, near Guangdong Lu Shanghai
Classic Shanghainese dim sum brunch every weekend from 11am