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A Delightful Day in Scotland with Snow, Sleet, and Gale Force Winds

Apologies for this being a short post but frankly, I’m knackered. I’m nodding off as I write this and keep waking with a jolt to find a long line of mmmmmmms typed inadvertently across the page. This week my travels have taken me to London and then north to Scotland, where I’ve wrung every last minute out of every day spending time with the Scottish side of my family before flying back to Shanghai first thing tomorrow morning.
Scotland is where my father was born, later following his thirst for adventure all the way to Australia at the age of eighteen, before marrying an Australian, having three daughters and eventually five grandchildren. His mother, my only surviving grandparent, still lives here as does my delightful middle sister, and my father’s younger brother.
A little bit of me still feels very Scottish, the part that loves being outdoors no matter what the weather, the part that loves bacon sandwiches and strong tea and black pudding (if you’re not familiar with this last one it’s a famed Scottish blood sausage – intensely flavoured), and the part that loves history and stories, because Scotland is full of all of these.
Today was my last day here, and knowing I’d be going back to the dense urbanization of Shanghai I was dying to get outside and get some exercise in the fresh air. I asked my uncle and aunt if they would fancy a hill walk somewhere and they suggested The Pentlands, a row of heavy-set hills just south of Edinburgh covered with yellow-flowering gorse and heather, and populated by a herd of lowland-dwelling highland cows. 
“Should be a lovely bright day” they said. Scottish weather talk is full of euphemisms – “bright” usually means the cloud cover will be so dense you’ll never see the sun, and “bright patches” means it will rain all day except for five minutes here and there. Still, I was desperate to get outside.
When they arrived they took one look at what I was wearing (long-sleeved t-shirt, fleece, corduroy jeans, thick socks, borrowed hiking shoes, and weatherproof jacket) and added all of the following to my person – a wool beanie, gloves, a second t-shirt, and double-layered waterproof trousers. I began to worry that we were also going to need an emergency GPS beacon and a space blanket to prevent hypothermia, but they said not to worry, they were just being prepared for “a change in the weather”. This also sounded like a euphemism for something unpleasant but I decided to ignore it and go anyway.
We started off at the base of the Pentlands near a copse, the rolling green lower hills an easy climb, giving way to steeper terrain covered with dark patches of the winter’s heather, yet to sprout again this spring. Our reward for the first steep hill was a spectacular view over Edinburgh, the Firth of Forth, and beyond.

Just as we were enjoying the view the weather, as they say, “set in” which is a euphemism for “turned bloody awful”. What began as a pleasant outdoor walk on a coolish April day turned out a battle against the elements as the wind picked up speed and brought with it dark, low clouds, rain, and then quite unexpectedly sleet, hail, and half an hour of driving snow. It was all very challenging for a sun-worshipping Antipodean like myself, but I braced myself, pulled up my metaphorical socks and soldiered on, because it had been my idea after all.
The weather didn’t improve enormously over the next two hours but there were some “bright patches” between gales of wind and scudding low clouds.

On the very last hill, and soon after the snow stopped, we found the highland cows at last grazing in the strong wind and completely ignoring us. I never, ever get tired of meeting these wonderful animals, long shaggy coats hiding their large brown eyes. A iconic as pandas in China, flamingoes in Florida and kangaroos in Australia, they aren’t often seen this far south, preferring the colder northern parts of Scotland. What a treat!
Seeing them seemed a fitting end to a fabulous week and a happy bonus on the long list of “Things to do in Scotland” which included – walk on the beach, eat home-made cake, have black pudding for breakfast, visit Edinburgh Castle, drink a pint of beer in a pub with a roaring fire, see my grandmother, have coffee in Morningside and buy enough Mackie’s Salt and Vinegar Crisps and Rowntree’s Jelly Babies to last me a few months in China. All of which I managed to do, making the week wonderful, and exhausting all at once. And now – back East.
What’s on your list when you visit a much-loved place? 

London, the Pink Lady Food Photography Awards, and AA Gill.

Here I am in London, and it’s been an exciting and whirlwind 36 hours since I touched down at Heathrow near midnight on Monday night. So what am I doing here, other than enjoying some very briskly cold and wet British April weather? 
You might remember in early March I was named as one of sixty or so finalists in the inaugural international Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year Awards, for not just one but three of my photographs. This was an enormously exciting honour for a passionate amateur like myself, and last night I attended the awards ceremony at the Mall Galleries in London. 
The quality of the final photographs was absolutely awe-inspiring and truly international, featuring some of the best professional food photographers alive today. I was very humbled to have been chosen from amongst more than three thousand entries from sixty-one countries around the world. Wow! 
To be amongst photographs of this standard was a joy in itself, but to my great surprise I was also named third in the category of ‘Food for Sale’ for the image below of fat-tailed sheep at the Sunday animal market in Kashgar. Woohoo!
What was even more inspiring to me though was the extraordinary level of excitement and support I’ve received from all of you readers and fellow food-lovers. I can’t thank you enough for the good wishes and congratulations you’ve sent by email, twitter and facebook, and it meant such a lot to me. You’re the people who inspire me to get out there every day and do what I love – find great food stories, write about them, and photograph them. So thank you all!
I do also need to give credit for the photos above to my sister – she lives in Scotland and joined me as my date for the night in London. She found it a bit stressful trying to take photos with an iPhone in a room full of photographers while also juggling a glass of champagne, which would explain the blurriness. 
All over the gallery photographers were handing their complicated cameras to their very non-photographer friends and families so they could be snapped next to their beautifully framed entries. I heard the same conversation quite a few times during the evening.
“Which button do I push? Is it this one?”
“No, that’s the ISO. Let me see the picture – Oh that’s terrible! Can you take another one? Try and get my head in the frame this time.”
“Which button is it again?”
“No! No! That activates the flash!”
We’re a difficult perfectionist bunch, aren’t we?
So here at last are my three finalist photographs:

‘Food for Sale’ – Fat-tailed Sheep, Kashgar
‘Food for Sale’ – Pigs’ Heads, Yunnan
‘Food in the Field’ – Sea of Spice, Taklamikan Desert

If you’d like to see the winning photographs, there’s an online article in today’s Guardian newspaper with a photo gallery of the winners and Pink Lady now has a gallery of all the finalist images including mine. I adored the winning photograph of black pigs foraging in long green grass by French food photographer Jean Cazals – breathtaking.
Later in the evening, as if the awards themselves weren’t enough excitement for one night, my sister had made a late reservation for dinner at The Wolseley in London. A gorgeous vaulted marble dining room next door to the Ritz Hotel in Piccadilly, The Wolseley was originally the Wolseley Motors showroom in the 1920s and is now one of London’s most popular restaurants.
The Wolseley was chosen by my sister for its celebrity spotting potential, and the place didn’t disappoint. We’d only just walked in the door when she said –
“There’s Dale Winton”
“What? Who’s he?”
“On the telly. Camp.”
“Oh. Should I know who he is?” I asked, feeling like I could be living in a British pop culture vacuum in China.
“No, not really.”
It wasn’t the level of celebrity she’d promised, but no sooner had we ordered from the quirky brasserie menu (chopped liver? really?) than Twiggy sat down at the next table but one, looking gorgeous and elegant. 
“See?” said my sister, triumphantly.
I was more convinced now, and spent the rest of the entree course (crispy whitebait, sauce tartare, lemon) glancing furtively around the room for possible celebrities sitting in private corners.
That’s when I spotted him, over by the grand staircase arching gracefully to the upper floor – Dustin Hoffman. At least, in the low lighting and without my glasses I thought it was Dustin Hoffman. Increasingly convinced during main course and wine (Scottish salmon, broad beans and peas, mint, Chablis) I casually sauntered past his table on my way to the ladies’ room (down a perilously narrow spiral staircase to the basement). Imposter. Italian Dustin Hoffman look-alike with identical hair. Bugger.
We were just putting on our coats to leave when my sister whispered under her breath 
“Behind me. AA Gill.”
I looked in the general direction to see one of the world’s most famous food writers and critics looking old and grey, wearing a cardigan and hunched over his plate. 
“He’s looking old, isn’t he?” I said.
My sister glanced again. “No not the old geezer, you idiot! Behind him!”
And there he was. AA Gill, bow-tied and ramrod-backed with that instantly recognisable posture. Not looking old at all. 
What a great night.
The Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year Awards Exhibition continues until Sunday April 29th at The Mall Galleries, London. 
You can view the final images online at anytime here.
Prints of all the finalist photographs, including mine, are now available online. Printed by One Vision Imaging, Britain’s leading art photography printer, prices start at £11.40 and international shipping is available.

Shanghai Street Food #27 Breakfast Boules: Cí Fàn 糍饭

Thanks to a reader who once lived in Shanghai I was alerted to the existence of this great street breakfast food. She told me of wonderful balls of sticky rice stuffed with a crunchy stick of deep fried dough (yóu tiáo) and salty sour pickles, made on the spot to order.

I looked and looked for these, yet for weeks didn’t see them anywhere and I began to wonder whether they just weren’t sold in my neighbourhood. It turns out, however, they were right under my nose the whole time. At my local breakfast stalls I had seen tall heavy wooden pails lined with a cloth and assumed that they contained freshly made soft tofu. Wrong. 

They’re actually filled with steamed fragrant sticky rice used to make what I like to call Breakfast Boules (they’re round and heavy) or cí fàn 糍饭, literally ‘sticky rice meal’. This is a typical Shanghainese breakfast food, and the Shanghai name for it is slightly different – cí vèh. 

(Just as an aside, there is no pinyin (the standard romanised way of writing Chinese words so that pronunciation and tones can be reproduced by non-Chinese speakers) for the Shanghai dialect, so it is more difficult to approximate these very local names. I spent an hour with three Shanghainese foodie friends trying to pin down the Shanghai names for local street foods, and they all came up with something slightly different. Very confusing!)

When you order ci fan, The first thing the stall-holder does is put on a pair of white cotton gloves and take a clean white cloth from the side of the wooden pail. The gloves and cloth have been moistened by the steam of the cooked rice, important so the sticky rice doesn’t stick to her hands. 
The sticky rice inside the wooden pail is a colourful combination of white, black and purple grains. I like to have a combination of both in a sort of yin-yang arrangement which looks pretty, and tastes nuttier. The balls look heavy, and they are – these rice doorstops will keep you going all day.

To make ci fan she flattens a handful of sticky rice onto the moistened white cloth, then takes a freshly deep-fried you tiao and bends it in half in the centre of the rice.

Next comes a spoonful of finely chopped pickles and another spoonful of sweet dried pork floss, with granulated white sugar as an optional extra.
Then she crushes and folds the you tiao even more until it is scrunched into a small ball, and the sticky rice is folded around the whole pickled-crunchy-salty-sweet filling and shaped into a ball. 

To eat ci fan neatly it should be kept in the plastic bag in which it is delivered to stop your hands from getting too sticky.

The first bites are all sticky rice, nutty and sweet, but soon after your teeth sink into a wonderful contrast of textures and flavours – the crispy crunch of the you tiao, the salty sourness of the pickles, and the sweetness of the pork floss. Delicious to a lover of savoury breakfast foods, like myself. But just try and finish a whole one – I challenge you!

Ci fan 3-4 yuan (50-60c) each, sold at most stalls where there are also fried you tiao.

The Shanghai Street Food Series
Now in its third year!

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

Life (Back) on Nanchang Lu

It’s a quarter to six in the morning and from my window I’m watching the street food vendors down on the corner feed their first customers. 
There’s the steamed bun stall, with a row of three bamboo steamer baskets each stacked three or four high, each basket holding thirty buns. The steamer baskets are as wide as the vendor’s arm is long and he reaches across to the handle on the far side of the basket to lift it up off the steamer, sending a cloud of steam billowing into the air above his head. He disappears momentarily from sight then brings back another full basket of freshly risen buns, white and plump, and places it down firmly on the steamer, cutting off the flow of steam. 
Next door, the most popular stall in the row of six shops already has a short queue for the array of fried goods they offer. The fried food stall is always the busiest for breakfast, and clearly locals love a bit of oiliness first thing in the morning. There are deep fried you tiao (oil sticks), squares of pressed rice, deep fried to give them crunch, and an enormous saucepan of hot fresh soy milk.
On the very corner itself is the congee stall with pots full of six simmering varieties of rice porridge. An early morning customer walks past in his pyjamas along all six stalls before deciding on an oil stick and cup of soy milk.

We moved house this week, back to a very quirky old apartment on Nanchang Lu overlooking one of the best street food spots in the city and I couldn’t be happier.
Some of you know that two years ago our stay in our original house on Nanchang Lu came to an unexpected and abrupt end when the landlady increased the rent by 250% in at the end of our lease. Seriously. (She mistakenly thought Shanghai Expo would bring a flood of rich foreigners to Shanghai and she would get wealthy. Instead, we moved out and the house remained empty for the next 14 months. There’s no accounting for how often greed and stupidity go hand in hand.) 
We then spent the next two years in a wonderful old lane house on Huai Hai Zhong Lu and I agonized over whether to change the name of this blog to suit, but somehow ‘Life on Huai Hai Zhong Lu’ didn’t quite sound right, was hard to pronounce for most people and the original title stuck. Which in retrospect, was very lucky indeed as we now find ourselves back on Nanchang Lu for our last year here in China. It’s as though it was meant to be.
In an effort to downsize our lives in preparation for living in a campervan for the last six months of this year, we’ve moved into a smaller old apartment. It’s rather quirky, with an odd layout and a glorious view of a decaying concrete wall from most of the side windows, but one aspect really sold it to us. 
The kitchen is enormous, lit by a wall of enormous arched windows which look directly down on to the street food corner. Every morning this week I’ve risen early and stood at the windows, drinking my morning cup of tea and watching the street come to life below. It’s the most enjoyable part of my day.

Of course, living in an old place on such a busy corner has its disadvantages – the afternoon traffic is gridlocked on the street below and accompanied by orchestral arrangements of horn-honking, bell-ringing and tooting. But I quite like the bustle and noise.
And there are the old house issues. We come off the street into a little alcove at the bottom of the aged stairwell, a space packed with drying washing, bicycles, plastic bottles, unwanted bits of furniture and a motorbike. The wiring in the alcove, supplying the whole building, is interesting to say the least, and we have already formulated our family fire escape plan. Mind you, the building has been there since the 1930s and hasn’t caught fire yet, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too paranoid.

There is space to leave Big Red up on the first floor landing, but she weighs a tonne and when I tried to get her back down the stairs I lost my grip coming down the last four steps and caused something of a chain reaction/avalanche involving a bamboo ladder, the bedhead of an ancient Chinese wedding bed covered with a blanket, a whole pile of washing, a stack of newspapers and another bicycle. Once the dust had settled there was a large hole in the wall, but I can’t be entirely sure it wasn’t already there….
From now on I’m going to shove her into a small space in that already very crowded alcove to avoid further disasters.

Despite all this there are so many wonderful things about being back on Nanchang Lu:
My corner store. He arrives with it every day at six am, and from the bicycle tray a miraculous arrangement of hats, brooms, carpet beaters, toilet plungers and aprons unfolds itself. Nothing is priced over ten yuan ($1.30) and he also sells sewing needles, tape measures, washing up gloves, spare plugs, toilet brushes and plastic bags. Very convenient.

And Nanchang Lu itself – on one of Shanghai’s most beautiful quiet streets the plane trees, bare for so many months, have just started budding this week, their leaves an extraordinary bright pale green. In no time at all the street will be one long, green archway perfect for cycling along. Can’t wait.

Chinese Funeral Traditions at the Shanghai Funeral Museum

Do you know anyone who doesn’t have a slightly morbid fascination with the rituals surrounding death in other cultures?
My interest in death customs in other cultures and religions was first piqued when, as a medical student working in the remote Thai town of Khon Kaen, I was invited to the funeral of the town’s only and very elderly foreigner. I had never met him while he was living, and knew nothing of him other than that he had lived in that remote and beautiful place for many years.  The funeral was so different from the oppressively sombre church funerals I had attended in the past, with mourners dressed in black.
The funeral prayers were conducted by Buddhist monks in an open air pavilion within a luch tropical garden. The body was laid under a heavy white sheet in the very centre of the pavilion, not visible, but the tips of his fingers rested gently in a bowl filled with water lilies and lotus blossoms at his side as though he had just placed it there himself. Friends and family walked by, one by one, and taking a small brass cup, poured water over his hand and into the bowl. It was an act of such gentle elegance and respect and there was a pervasive feeling of lightness.
Then, two years ago, I witnessed a Chinese funeral near Dragon’s Backbone rice terraces. It was completely different again and at first I thought I had come across a wedding procession – there were firecrackers, loud music, and raucous singing, but in the centre of the procession were white-clad coffin bearers carrying a brightly painted wooden coffin on poles to the burial ground. Afterwards a massive feast took place in the village with the slaughter of a pig, and much drinking of the local firebrand rice wine. The firecrackers and music continued all through the night.
Witnessing that Chinese funeral raised so many questions about Chinese death customs, so a chance arose to visit the impossible-to-get-into Shanghai Funeral Museum this week, I cancelled everything else to get there. Call me morbid, but it was absolutely fascinating!
A pair of lions, their eyes closed, guard the entrance to the underworld
Chinese people believe that when you die, your spirit is transported across a river to the underworld by underworld spirits (is any of this sounding familiar?). These spirits are terrified of the color red (explaining why, in your Chinese zodiac birth year, you’ll be needing to wear red underwear for protection from said spirits) which means you should be dressed for your funeral in blue or yellow. If you wear red, the spirits will be unable to bear you across the river and you’ll remain on earth, forever unable to rest.
Funeral robes, Imperial yellow, 10,380 yuan ($1750)
The only exceptions to the burial in red rules are these. Firstly, if you die beyond the age of eighty and have lived a good life, you are considered exempt from first visiting the underworld, and have a celestial ‘free pass’ straight to heaven. The second exception is rather more macabre – if you die a violent death and your family, mad with grief, wish to seek revenge, they will bury you in red deliberately, so that your spirit will never be able to enter the underworld and you will haunt the earth as a ghost for all eternity, searching for those who harmed you. Gives me goosebumps.
The Funeral Museum is housed in Shanghai’s largest and state-run funeral home – pragmatically named Shanghai Funeral Industries. Nowadays, every Shanghai resident is cremated, by law, and the funeral process is very similar to our own. Once a death occurs, you can call the SFI hotline and they will send a pair of mobile funeral consultants to your home to arrange the funeral service. Funeral services can be Taoist, Buddhist or non-religious, and the funeral home provides reception rooms which can be rented by the hour (four hours average) for prices from 50 to 1900 yuan/hr for the VIP room ($8 to $315/hr).
The funeral reception is not a standard service, as we have, but rather a period of time during which guests can visit the family to pay their respects. Sometimes the body is laid out, sometimes not. During the reception monks may offer prayers and chants, and music is usually played (kū chànggē 哭唱歌 - crying songs). We visited a traditionally decorated funeral reception room at the museum.

Vases decorate either side of the table because the word for vase (ping) has the same sound as the word for peace. An offering of fruit, candles and incense is made to the deceased and there are arrangements of white and yellow chrysanthemums. The oldest son will sit on the right side of the room to receive guests, and on the left side of the room musicians will be seated and play traditional instruments.
Once the funeral reception is over, the body is taken away to a secret off-site location to be cremated. I asked why it was secret, thinking that it may have been for spiritual purposes, but the answer was that it would be considered bad luck to live nearby, so the location is kept hidden to protect property prices.
Most people are now cremated in a simple coffin made from bamboo or lacquered compressed paper. Both versions look remarkably like lacquered wood but are more environmentally friendly and apparently preferred. Of course it wasn’t always so streamlined. In the past, coffins were elaborate and expensive, according to one’s status and wealth, and were often chosen long before old age. I’ve visited homes in tiny villages where a highly decorative coffin has already been bought sits up on the rafters, waiting for the time it will be needed.
Coffins beraers were known as ‘hóng bái gàng’ 红白杠 and these ‘red white pole-bearers’ were skilled at playing musical instruments and carrying palanquins for ‘red’ occasions like weddings, as well as ‘white’ occasions like funerals. According to custom the number of coffin-bearers ranged from four to sixteen depending on the social status of the deceased.
Dragon coffin with sixteen bearers
Traditionally the mourning period was long – forty-nine  days – and during the first seven days the family stayed at home and tried not to move anything in the house so when the spirit returned briefly on the seventh day it would recognize the house. 
Mao considered these old customs outdated and China was faced with the increasing problem of a lack of available space for tombs, so under the auspices of the ‘Destroy the Four Olds’ campaign he just made it law that everyone had to be cremated, and the traditional mourning period was abolished.
It seems it may not have been quite so easy to change entrenched traditions like these, because propoganda posters promoting the benefits of cremation still exist in the museum.
 “The Benefits of Cremation” (huǒzàng de hăochu)
If you choose burial, it will cost this much money – two large bundles of notes.

If, on the other hand, you choose cremation it will cost only this much – three notes. 
The poster goes on to promote the additional communal benefits of cremation – more farmland, and more communal money to purchase tractors and food.
The law was eventually passed in 1964, and since then burial is permitted only for those belonging to ethnic minorities (like that of the funeral I observed in the rice terrace village) and foreigners.  
After cremation, the ashes of the deceased are placed in a decorative wooden box, often decorated with carving, jade, or inlays, and with a small frame where the photograph of the deceased is placed. This box is never brought into the home but remains in thebcare of the funeral home (for a small fee) until the tomb can be purchased.
Now comes the difficult part for most families – in Shanghai and Beijing, the price of tomb sites (tiny plots of ground where the deceased’s ashes are interred) has risen so astronomically they are now three times more expensive per square metre than apartments in the Shanghai or Beijing city centre. A Shanghai man created a storm of controversy last year when he decided to inter his parents’ ashes in the courtyard of his apartment building – much to the dismay of his neighbours – because he simply couldn’t afford a plot.
As a compromise, many people choose a burial site where land is cheaper, like in Hunan Province, or increasingly opt for a scattering of ashes at sea. You can’t just take off in any old boat to do this, as we would, but have to book a berth on a Shanghai Funeral Industries Cruise. The waiting time is several months and the cost is high, but cheaper than a tomb site (you’re beginning to see why it’s called Shanghai Funeral Industries, aren’t you? They even have their own magazine.)  
The museum has loads of other fascinating trivia, including the history of the funeral industry for foreigners living in Shanghai, and maps of all the orignal cemeteries in the city, as well as the solid brass coffin chosen by Song Qing Ling (one of the fables Song sisters) then rejected in favour of cremation in the weeks before her death.

Of course, it wouldn’t be China, the land of pragmatic commerce, if there wasn’t also a museum shop where Funeral Merchandise can be purchased – clothes for the deceased, good wishes cards, white envelopes (for giving a cash gift to the deceased’s family). My favourite item has to be the one below, a modern interpretation of a very old funeral custom in the way of a funeral souvenir box, to be handed out to funeral guests.

It contains a bowl and spoon, to commemorate the deceased when family meals are taken together. A towel, to dry your tears. And a Snickers or Dove chocolate bar, to sweeten your grief.

The Shanghai Funeral Museum
Shanghai Bìnzàng Bówùguăn 

210 Caoxi Lu, Xuhui District

Entrance to the museum is by appointment only.

Tongli’s Champion Trotters 状元蹄

 I’m floating down a narrow canal on a broad, flat wooden boat, a gondolier standing behind me using a sturdy single oar to guide along the waterways. The water is a deep dark green, reflecting the weeping willows and cherry trees blossoming along the banks as we pass under ancient stone bridges. 
I’m back in the quiet, relaxing canal town of Tongli, having a post-lunch boat ride down some of Tongli’s tree-lined waterways. My younger sister and her family are visiting China for a couple of weeks, and Tongli seemed like the perfect short break – an hour and a half from Shanghai and you feel like you’ve entered an ancient world of cobblestone lanes and life more simply lived.

For me, the other major attraction of a visit to Tongli is the zhuàngyuan tí 状元蹄 or “champion trotter” – Tongli’s main attraction for food-lovers. I appreciate any food that’s been given the name of “champion”although I would probably call it something more poetic, like “five-spice braised pork shank”, just to avoid confusion and whet your appetite.
A whole pork shank, skin on, is gently braised until it is as tender as butter, then served up in a large bowl with a generous ladle of the sweet aromatic soy and star anise sauce. The meat, being cooked on the bone, is intensely flavoured and rich, but falls away at the slightest touch. 
The best way to eat a champion trotter is sitting by the water in one of the many tiny open-air restaurants lining the two main canals. Don’t worry about which one is best – they are all essentially identical with their indigo blue tablecloths, old wicker chairs, and a menu of local specialty dishes including crispy fried river fish, and cucumber with garlic. The best accompaniment to a whole trotter is cold beer and a big appetite.
As you eat the boats ply up and down and the gondoliers occasionally break into song, with a rendition of old favourite “Moli Hua” or a “Welcome to Tongli” song. 

After lunch, wander through the town’s many small lanes or beautiful gardens and buy yourself a little something – it’s a food tourist’s kind of place, and all the souvenirs you can buy are of the edible kind – a box of home-made sesame brittle toffees, a basket of local goose eggs, or another couple of champion trotters, vacuum sealed, ready to eat.
Tongli is best reached by private car (one and a half hours from Shanghai), although a bus leaves several times daily from Shanghai Indoor Stadium.
We have stayed more than a dozen times now at the Gufeng Yuan Guest House (Gufeng Yuan Kezhan 古风园客栈) which is clean, quiet and looks onto a beautiful garden courtyard. It has lovely old furniture in the rooms and starts at 100 yuan/night ($16/night) for an ensuite room. 
Tongli Champion Trotters (zhuàngyuan tí 状元蹄) start at 48 – 58 yuan each for takeaway, expect to pay 60-70 yuan in local restaurants.

The Shanghai Xiaolongbao iPhone App Launches!

There’s one food every single one of our visitors to Shanghai goes home dreaming about – xiaolongbao – those addictive little soup-filled Shanghai dumplings. I could eat them all day, slurping one after another of the delicious morsels straight from a hot steamer basket.

Late last year I was approached with an intriguing offer from the people at Rama Tours – famous for their unique and innovative iPhone history tour apps – to write an iPhone app for foodies visiting Shanghai, giving them an insider’s knowledge about specific local foods. I immediately knew that it should be a xiaolongbao app, my own homage to Shanghai’s most famous snack food.

The Rama people agreed, having apparently heard that after eating my body weight in xiaolongbao I could now be considered something of an expert on them, and just the right person to spread the word about the finest places in the city to get your fill of xiaolongbao!

For the tour I really wanted to give foodie visitors to Shanghai the inside scoop on where to go for not only the best xiaolongbao, but also the most innovative, the most historically authentic, and the most fun xiaolongbao, along with insider tips, maps, and Chinese text to make ordering a breeze for non-Chinese speakers.

The Shanghai Xiaolongbao iPhone app launched a few days ago along with the worldwide launch of Rama Food – iPhone apps from 22 cities around the world, written by local experts, and designed for traveling foodies like me and you who want to know the best local places to find great food when we travel. I can’t wait to get to Chengdu later this year and try food blogger Jenny Gao of Jing Theory’s Chengdu Street Snacks, or New Yorker James Boo‘s take on NYC barbecue, and Nausheen Noor‘s Snack Food Tour of Dubai.

To see the Shanghai Xiaolongbao Tour, and all the other worldwide foodie tours on offer, you can visit the Rama iTunes page, download the free Rama App, then browse in-app for individual food tours. The Rama app is free, but individual tours are priced separately from $0.99. For a limited time in celebration of the Rama Food launch, you can try the food tours “Istanbul in Berlin” and “Dubai: Ethnic Eats” for free, should you be traveling to either of those spots!

As you can imagine, researching this app was a lot of fun! Take my visit to modern xiaolongbao eatery Simon’s Kitchen for example, where ex-Din Tai Fung chefs have set up their own xiaolongbao restaurant and added very individual features like create-your-own xiaolongbao, choosing from different flavoured and coloured dumpling wrappers and a choice of innovative fillings. I was of course, forced to eat one of every possible combination, you know, for research purposes.

A great feature of Rama’s tours is that you have the ability to view the tour information and all the maps even when offline, so you won’t incur costly roaming charges when travelling.

I had a load of fun writing the Shanghai Xiaolongbao app, and I hope you’ll share it with any traveling foodies you know who might be swinging by Shanghai anytime soon!

Some frequently asked questions about the tours:

Is Rama available for platforms other than iPhone, like Android?
The Android version is slated for early 2012. Get updated as soon as it’s out by following @Rama_Food or
Does Rama work for iPad?
Yes! The app is not “native” to iPad, yet, but will be soon.
Does Rama work on an iPod Touch?
You bet! Because Rama accommodates offline maps, it’s one of the few apps you can use when you travel, without a 3G or wifi connection.
How do I find your tour on the app?
When you’ve downloaded the (free) Rama app to your phone, just search by my name, the title, or the city and— voila!
Can I use your tour when I travel? I won’t have access to a wifi or 3G connection on my phone, since I live overseas and don’t want to pay expensive data roaming fees.
Yes! Rama offers tour saving. Once you download a tour you will be able to use it without an Internet connection. 

Blood, Guts and Frogs – Food Shopping in Shanghai

Wet markets are visceral, bloody places. 
Small deaths happen every minute as live fish, ducks, chickens, frogs meet their end, necks neatly snipped with a strong pair of scissors, blood dripping on to the floor. I can’t recall that ever happening in Woolworths. As I walked the brightly-lit neon aisles of my local supermarkets in Australia last week, marvelling at the clearly displayed prices and the general orderliness and lack of shoving amongst my fellow customers, I couldn’t help feeling a pang of nostalgia for my local wet market here in Shanghai.
Let me introduce you to the way I shop for food every day. There’s no barcode-scanner, no chocolates and lollies aisle, and no set prices. Everything – from the tiniest mushroom to a hindquarter of sheep – is up for negotiation on price, which can be exhausting or exhilarating, depending on your mindset and level of energy that day. When I walk through the doors of the market into the huge, dimly lit space, full of noise, movement, energy and interesting smells, I feel excited about food, and excited about cooking. Supermarkets don’t give me the same level of buzz, and never have – you’re never as close to your food as you are in the wet market, whether you like that feeling or not.
So what can you buy in a wet market? Wet markets are where you go for the best, freshest food, delivered in the dark before the day has even started from smaller farms, wholesalers, and guys on motorbikes with sacks of vegetables stacked to handlebar level. Mushrooms, bamboo shoots, meats, live ducks, chickens, pigeons and geese, frogs and eels, seafood, river fish, snails, cockles, and a hundred varieties of tofu and home-made pickles, duck eggs, quail eggs, free-range eggs – they’re all here, fresh today.
Meet the bamboo shoot and mushroom lady – her hands are covered with nicks and cuts covered with small bandages – the result of day after day of peeling the tough outer layers of the winter bamboo shoots off with a huge sharp cleaver. It’s not that she’s especially careless, it’s just a really difficult job and she’s always doing it in a hurry, with a big smile. 
She sells an incredible array of mushrooms too – cloud ear, oyster, enoki, shitake – in little red plastic baskets neatly lined up on her stall.
I have a soft spot for the eel lady, even though I don’t really love cooking eels – she’s shy and had to be coaxed to have her photo taken. Her hands move fast and skilfully, killing, gutting and splitting the eels. Friends at nearby stalls tease her remorselessly – “She’s so fat! Look at her face! Why do you want to take her photo?” but she ignores them and smiles a quiet smile.
Banter, kind or otherwise, is an integral part of going to the wet market. Vendors banter with one another, customers banter with vendors, and with each other. There is a constant back-and-forth discussion on prices and freshness and quality, interspersed with jokes, and teasing, and people develop close relationships with their favourite vendors, greeting them like old friends. Ot at least, old friends who might be known to cheat you from time to time.

Vegetable sellers are the market’s mainstay – selling only produce that has been picked that day. For freshness, wet markets beat supermarkets hands down, and the very fussy Chinese customers will quickly boycott any stall that tries to sell less than premium fresh produce – I’ve witnessed many stand-up arguments over the age of freshly-picked beans.
I found the meat sections of the wet market quite confronting at first, all those slabs of glistening fatty pork and pieces of beef tendon hanging on hooks, Sweeney Todd style. But now I like walking the rows, looking at the interesting cuts of meat and asking for something particular. 
The chicken/duck/pigeon coops are a different matter. The birds are chosen by the buyer, weighed first and paid for, then taken to a glass-fronted room where the buyer can watch as their chosen bird is killed, dipped in a vat of boiling water to loosen the feathers, plucked, gutted and cleaned before being passed through the window, limp and pink, into a plastic bag. I’m working my way up to buying chicken this way.

There are bullfrogs too, also sold alive and killed, skinned and trimmed to order.

And every wet market has a dry goods stall, filled to bursting with dried beans, rice, dried mushrooms, dried berries, cooking oil, spices, sauces and condiments.

It’s a totally involving way to shop. No two days are ever the same in the market, as foods come in to season and go out of season.What will I find today? To walk in and find the first spring bamboo shoots, the autumn hairy crabs, to enjoy the brief, sweet, week-long season of yang mei in mid-summer, or the last of the winter bamboo shoots, the wet market marks the passing of the seasons, and the bounty of nature.
If you have a favourite market where you live, I want to hear about it!
Jiashan Wet Market
Corner Taiyuan Lu and Jianguo Lu
Open 7 days from 5am til dark
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