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China: Twenty Places, Twenty Faces

Just a week from today, I’m going on another adventure. Not a big one, or a particularly long one, but my family and I are heading to China for a couple of weeks and we’ve mapped ourselves a road trip to a remote corner of beautiful Qinghai Province, to visit the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, part of the Tibetan Kham region. 
Forests, hills, monasteries, mountains – it sounds peaceful and idyllic, although Yushu township was largely destroyed in a massive earthquake three years ago. After years of rebuilding it seems the area is ready to welcome back visitors like us, keen to explore the area’s natural beauty.
Yushu only became our first choice after hours of deliberation – China is full of places we have yet to see, and places we’ve already seen but want to return to visit. For inspiration, I looked through all of the photos from our epic road trip around China last year – more than 6,500 of them! 
I realized how many there were that had never seen the light of day – random shots, places I didn’t write about, people we met on the road.
So in celebration of an imminent return to adventuring I thought you might enjoy a virtual flying tour of China’s most interesting places and faces. I’ve tried, as much as possible, to include only photographs I haven’t posted here before – let me know which one is your favourite!

1. Inner Mongolia – grasslands
2.  Gansu Province: “Accelerating Reforestation Will Promote Ecological Balance”
3. Shanxi Province: Crossing the Yellow River
4. Tianjin Province: The Great Wall at Huangyaguan
5. Gansu Province: The Singing Sand Dunes
6. Fujian Province: Wuyi Shan Unesco Natural Heritage Site – if you look closely, you can see a man on a ladder repainting the words of an ancient poem carved into the cliff.

7. Gansu Province: wind farm. These windmills are simply massive – the small red dot raising dust in the lower left of the photo is a semi-trailer.
8. Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region: Yurt at Lake Karakul
9. Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region: Kashgar old city
10. Shanxi Province: Loess cliff cave-dwellings
11. Anhui Province: Hongcun village’s Moon Pond in the rain
12. Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region: broken bridge, from a flash flood some years before
13. Yunnan Province: Hui village mosque
14. Gansu Province: river valley camping spot
15. Guizhou Province: Ancient wind and rain bridge of Zhaoxing village
16. Anhui Province: Huangshan, morning mist
17. Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region: bringing electricity
18. Guangdong Province: early morning smoke and mist
19. Yunnan Province: Yuanyang rice terraces
20. Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region
1. Yunnan Province: The rascal and his unwitting accomplice
2. Qinghai Province: Tibetan girl
3. Yunnan Province: Street dentist

4. Xinjiang: Three generations
5. Yunnan: Grandmother and grandson
6. Xinjiang: young shepherdess, and one of only a small handful of women, at Kashgar’s Sunday Animal Market
7. Yunnan: Pipa sellers
8. Yunnan: old friends
9. Guizhou province: Miao boy, silver head-dress protects against evil spirits
10. Yunnan Province: Dai woman pressing Pu’er tea cakes beneath the stones
11. Fujian Province: roadside mechanic
12. Qinghai Province: boy monks
13. Guizhou province: Miao elder
14. Sichuan Province: Yi elder

15. Fujian Province: Peeling a crate of garlic

16. Xinjiang: Niya farmer

17. Xinjiang: Kyrgyz woman
18. Guizhou: Farmer

19. Guizhou: Miao women

20. Xinjiang: Uyghur boy

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 
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
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. 
  • 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.
  • 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.
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. 
Asian Tofu by Andrea Nguyen – my tofu bible, with recipes and detailed directions
Online tutorials:

Shanghai Street Food #33 Three Delicacies Wrapped in Tofu Skin: San Xian Dou Pi 三鲜豆皮

Here’s hoping you weren’t all terrified by Dr Fiona’s Street Food Survival Guide to the point of swearing off street food altogether. Because it’s time to eat some great street food again!

This month’s street snack hails from Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province. According to Wuhan’s own government website, Wuhan is a magical place where…

‘…you’ll find a distinctive flavor and perceive an unimaginable feeling.’ 

Having never been to Wuhan I can’t imagine what that unimaginable feeling might be, but I do know you can sample the aforementioned distinctive flavor of one of Wuhan’s most famous street foods in Shanghai, while imagining the unimaginable.

三鲜豆皮 San Xian Doupi is translated as Three Delicacies Tofu Skin – a layer of sticky rice studded with small pieces of three different savoury flavoured foods, pan-fried between two sheets of tofu skin or doupi, the skin from the surface of boiled soy milk (also known by its Japanese name, yuba). 

Like many street foods, there are individual variations from cook to cook. The three delicacies, for example, can be any of the following: pork, bamboo shoot, shrimp, egg, mushroom, or marinated tofu, and the tofu skin might be replaced with a fine mung bean and wheat flour pancake spread with egg, like the vendor below. Ultimately what matters most is the special method of construction:

The tofu skin or pancake is spread on the inside of a hot wok. Using a square metal frame for reference, the inside of the frame is filled with a compressed layer of cooked sticky rice.
The edges of the tofu skin are trimmed, the frame removed, and now the rice is layers with the three delicacies – here finely diced mushrooms, dried bamboo shoot, and xiang gao, a type of firm tofu flavoured with soy and five spice, braised in a gravy. 

The square sheet of rice is now gently spun in the hot oiled wok to stop it sticking. When the underside tofu skin is golden and well-crisped, the entire square is flipped over to allow the rice layer to become very crispy. Some cooks add a second layer of tofu skin so that the rice cooks between two sheets.

Once cooked, the san xian doupi is cut into small squares, sprinkled with chopped scallions and served in a small bowl to eat with chopsticks. 

This is one snack where texture is as important as taste – the crunch of crisp fried tofu skin, with little grains of toasted rice around the edges and chewy sticky rice inside, with a flavorful combination of the three delicacies – little nubbins of savoury taste that all together combine in one famous mouthful. After all, when tasting this very snack in 1958 Chairman Mao said “San Xian Doupi is a Hubei local delicacy that needs to be preserved. You create a name for Hubei snacks, and the people thank you.”

Where to find San Xian Dou Pi in Shanghai:
“Genuine San Xian Doupi!” reads the sign, and you can find it in many locations across Shanghai and in every Chinese city.
This particular san xian doupi vendor is located in Sipailou Lu Food Street, on the corner of Sipailou Lu and Fangbang Lu, near Yu Gardens. Open daily from mid-morning until late.
上海市四牌楼路, 近放榜路。

More Street Foods of Shanghai – It’s a Long List!

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

And The Winners Are….!

Congratulations to all ten winners in the magazine subscription give away!
The Tibetan Sorting Hat has spoken, thanks to my youngest daughter who picked out these ten names:
1. Deb Armstrong – Feast
2. Kristy – Saveur or Bon Appetit
3. Mela 
4. Carlotta 
5. Robyn Smith – Delicious, Saveur or Digital Photography
6. Michael Czyzewski
7. Kylie – Lonely Planet Traveller or Delicious
8. Kris Flint – Lonely Planet Traveller, Feast, or Delicious
9. Christian and Tian Melby
10. Casyn from Malaysia – Cuisine
Note: The ten winners need to email me at by this Friday May 28 with 
– your full name 
– your final magazine choice from the magazines on offer at (feel free to change your mind from your original choice if you wish!)
so that your subscription can be activated.
Thanks to everyone who entered. Congratulations to the winners and happy reading!

Ten Free Magazine Subscriptions to Give Away to Ten Readers!

I’m a magazine junkie. One of the things I most missed while living in China were my favourite magazines and despite subscribing to two before I left home, Australia Post and China Post somehow conspired to lose most of my issues of Delicious and Feast. I could just imagine the China Post guys smoking heavily and discussing how that recipe for pear upside down cake turned out.

What I wish I’d discovered long ago is that almost all magazines now offer digital subscriptions through magazine sites like zinio that can be read on any device. Ha! Fancy being able to get an overseas magazine at the same time it’s published, rather than waiting six weeks for the thing and then paying $25 for it? Genius.
Zinio decided – dearest food-loving readers – or reading-loving foodies – that because you are all smart, funny and well-read you should have a FREE magazine subscription of your choice, and have given me TEN subscriptions to give away to you, each for a half- or full-year subscription (depending on the magazine title chosen – they have loads of other titles in addition to Food and Travel….like Sport  and Science). 
Wonderful! What are you waiting for? Enter!! (see below)
Here’s How to Enter:
Entry is free of charge.
1. In the comments section below tell me your name (an alias or blog name is fine, although you will need to email me your full name if chosen as a winner) and your favourite magazine title from zinio
2. Entries close this Friday May 17, 8pm Shanghai time (10pm Australian EST, 5am Saturday May 18 Pacific Daylight Time)  
3. I will randomly choose ten winners using an old fashioned hat filled with your names. I bought the hat in Tibetan Gansu, it’s very cool and I can’t wait for the weather to get cold enough to start wearing it again.
4. Winners will be announced Monday May 20 
5. The ten winners have until Friday May 24 to email me their full name and preferred magazine title – this information will be used only for the purposes of activating the subscription.
Disclaimer: I have received no financial compensation from zinio for holding this competition. 
Zinio’s Mother’s Day promotion ends tomorrow, May 15 – see here for details

Dr Fiona’s Street Food Survival Guide: How To Eat Street Food and Stay Healthy

I watch with uneasiness as my friend, on his first visit to China, bites into a crunchy crisp-coated chicken drumstick bought on the street near my house in Shanghai.

“You might want to reconsider that chicken…” I’m about to say, when I think to myself that no-one likes a naysayer, or a know-it-all. So I don’t say anything. He’s enjoying himself, and his joy is infectious.

“I LOVE Shanghai!” he exclaims, licking his lips. “This is delicious!”

He spends the next two days no more than 3 steps from our bathroom, and never eats street food again.


Many people feel a very natural trepidation towards street food, some avoid it altogether, still others relish that tiny frisson of risk, the Russian roulette excitement that perhaps this will be the morsel that does you in, anxiously waiting for the sweats, the cramps, and the heaves to follow.

But the reality is that 2.5 billion people around the world eat street food every single day, many of them for everyday sustenance, and most of it is perfectly safe.

Most. But for those of us who have a choice about where we eat, and eat street food for the enjoyment and taste rather than for necessary nutrition, just how do you tell the difference between the safe and the harmful?

Well, read through this guide and you’ll have a much better idea, and stick to the Five Street Food Rules at the bottom of the page.
The rules are not designed to be a 100% guarantee against what the Chinese delightfully call la duzi (拉肚子 a ‘pulled stomach’), but can help you make sensible choices about what to eat and reduce your risk of becoming ill from eating street food.

Why trust me? I’m a doctor addicted to street food.  What people regard as my ‘sixth sense’ for street food is actually nothing more than years spent studying microbiology and pathology and treating thousands of cases of food poisoning over the years. When my patients tell me what they’ve eaten in the days before getting sick, I alway listen.

And now I’m passing the knowledge onto you – how food poisoning happens, what causes it, and how to avoid it.

How Do You Get Food Poisoning?

Food-borne illnesses come from germs (bacteria and viruses) arising from two sources: contaminated food, or contaminated people preparing food.

Foods can become contaminated by germs in water or soil, or from germs present in an animal’s gut while it is still alive. Once slaughtered, the germs contaminate the animal’s meat or eggs and once in food, these germs continue to multiply until you eat the food and get sick.

When a food-borne germ enters your system – usually through your mouth – you become potentially infectious to others. This can happen even before you become ill, as well as during the actual illness, and sometimes for weeks afterwards.

The most common way you can infect another person is by ‘faecal-oral transmission’. In short, this means the germ is in your gut and your faeces, so when you go to the bathroom the bug can contaminate your hands. If you then prepare food the bug transfers from your hands to food or to objects like eating utensils and cups, which go into someone’s mouth and then infect them.

The other factors peculiar to street food are a lack of sanitation, and a lack of refrigeration. Sanitation can be improved by handwashing with household soap and water, but many street food vendors lack a source of running water. Refrigeration kills some germs and slows other germs from multiplying, but in the absence of refrigeration in the outdoor environment where most street food is found, the rate at which food spoils and bacteria multiply will depend on the ambient temperature – warm days will cause food to spoil faster and germs to multiply faster.

The final factor increasing the risk of street food is you – you’re travelling, you’re in crowded places, you’re touching railings, door knobs, and money that have all been handled by many, many other pairs of hands. The number of germs on your hands accumulates, and you then touch your mouth, or touch utensils you put in your mouth, and as my mum used to say “You might as well have licked the toilet door handle”. Eww.

Do you think he washed his hands with soap and water before he picked up that hunk of meat??

Foodborne Illness – The Top 8 Culprits

Most food poisoning is caused by just a handful of nasties, and it’s worth knowing a little about their habits and what foods they like to hangout in so you can avoid them.

These eight organisms, one virus and seven bacteria, cause the vast majority of food-borne illness around the world. As you read through you’ll begin to see some trends developing: undercooked chicken, minced meat, seafood, unpasteurised milk, uncooked vegetables. Take note.

1. Norovirus
Otherwise known as the ‘cruise ship virus’,  this highly contagious virus is the cause of more cases of foodborne illness than all other germs combined, accounting for more than 20 million illnesses and about 800 deaths annually in the USA.

Those 63 unlucky diners at Noma in Copenhagen? Norovirus. The food handler responsible showed no symptoms.

276 travellers on board the Ruby Princess? Norovirus.

Part of the problem is that you can become infectious several days before you get sick and up to 2 weeks after you’re completely recovered. Norovirus can also survive relatively cold temperatures – down to zero degrees.

Sources: Human to human (faecal-oral transmission), touching contaminated surfaces, leafy greens, fruit, shellfish. 
Incubation period: 12-48 hours
Symptoms: Abdominal cramps, vomiting, diarrhoea, fever
Duration: 1-3 days
Vaccine: nil
Treatment: no specific treatment available, treat dehydration

2. Campylobacter
The second most common cause of food borne illness, campylobacter infections are still outnumbered by norovirus infections twenty cases to one.

Sources: Undercooked/raw chicken (campylobacter can infect chickens without making them sick), raw milk, contaminated water
Incubation period: 2-5 days

Symptoms: Diarrhoea (sometimes bloody), fever, vomiting, abdominal cramps
Duration: 2-10 days

Vaccine: nil
Treatment: some cases will require antibiotics

3. Salmonella
Most infections are caused by two strains, one of which is salmonella typhi, otherwise known as typhoid fever. It’s a very common cause of traveller’s diarrhoea.

The name has nothing to do with fish – the bacteria was named after scientist Daniel Elmer Salmon.

Sources:  Undercooked/raw chicken, undercooked egg whites and yolks, minced meat, raw milk, unpasteurised fruit juice, contaminated water, contaminated raw fruits and vegetables, spices, nuts. Salmonella outbreaks are most often linked to poultry but have occurred in sources as diverse as peanut butter, mangoes, alfalfa, pine nuts and cucumber.  
Small animals including well-looking chicks, ducklings and turtles can also harbour salmonella and spread it to humans.
Incubation period: 12-72 hours
Symptoms: fever, vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal cramps
Duration: 4-7 days
Vaccine: Typhoid vaccine provides protection against salmonella typhi but not other salmonella strains. Given two weeks before travel, with a booster every two years. There is also an oral live vaccine, four doses (capsules) commenced two weeks before travel.
Treatment: some cases will require antibiotics, treat dehydration
4. Clostridum
More accurately known as clostrdium perfringens, clostridium lives in the soil as well as the intestines of humans and animals. The bacteria produces a toxin that causes illness, and is most commonly found in foods that have been sitting at low temperatures after cooking, allowing the bacteria to multiply.

Sources: Chicken, beef, gravy, stews 
Incubation period: 6-24 hours
Symptoms: abdominal cramps, diarrhoea, fever
Duration: less than 24 hours
Vaccine: nil
Treatment: treatment is not normally required, other than to treat dehydration

5. Listeria

Anyone who has ever been pregnant will be very familiar with the sources of listeria infection – pregnant women are at particular risk.

Sources: Uncooked chicken and other meats, vegetables, processed foods inlcuding soft cheese, processed meats, smoked seafood, raw sprouts

Incubation period: 3-70 days (that’s not a typo – listeria can make you ill long after you’ve returned home from your travels)
Symptoms: vomiting, fever, headaches, some diarrhoea
Duration: days to weeks
Vaccine: nil
Treatment: antibiotics 

6. E Coli

E coli is a bacteria found in every human being’s intestines, and the intestines of many animals. Some varieties of E coli (O157:H7) produce a severe toxin that rarely can damage the kidneys and blood – a serious illness known as haemolytic-uraemic syndrome or HUS.
Sources: undercooked ground beef, undercooked poultry, raw milk, soft cheeses, raw fruits and vegetables, sprouts
Incubation period: 1-10 days
Symptoms: Severe diarrhoea (often bloody) abdominal pain, vomiting. Fever may be absent.
Duration: 5-10 days
Vaccine: nil
Treatment: treatment of uncomplicated E coli infection is simply treatment of dehydration. HUS is fortunately rare but requires specific specialist treatment in hospital.
7. Vibrio
There are several types of vibrio: two species occur naturally in warm waters and cause illness in people consuming raw oysters. In Asia, Africa and parts of South America another type, vibrio cholerae, is instantly recognisable as the cause of cholera.
Sources: oysters, other shellfish, shrimp, faeces-contaminated water. WHO’s motto is ‘Boil it, Cook it, Peel it, or Leave it’.
Incubation period: from several hours to several days
Symptoms: severe watery diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, vomiting
Duration: 2-8 days
Vaccine: the cholera vaccine, an oral vaccine, currently offers only limited protection for a short period of time and is not recommended for travellers. It is not available in the USA.
Treatment: treatment of dehydration is extremely important. Antibiotics can help but are less important than rehydration.

8. Staph Aureus
That same old bug that causes skin infections and boils can also fester away in foods, causing a food poisoning of uncommon speed and severity.

Sources: contaminated persons preparing uncooked foods such as sandwiches and salads, meat, poultry, eggs
Incubation period: 1-6 hours
Symptoms: diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, mild fever
Duration: 24-48 hours
Vaccine: nil
Treatment: treatment of dehydration

Questions to Ask Yourself Before Eating Street Food
Is this a high risk food?
You have a better idea now of the foods on this list: chicken, raw or undercooked eggs, minced meat, oysters, other shellfish, salads. I rarely eat any of these on the street, and always feel nervous if I do.
Is this a local food?
It’s worth asking yourself whether the food on offer is local, and commonly eaten by locals. Long transport and storage times are all chances to allow bacteria to multiply, particularly in places where refrigeration is a rarity, so the further a food is from where it was grown or caught the more likely it is to be contaminated. For example, eating seafood far inland is high risk – you can’t be confident it remained refrigerated as it moved from boat to processing factory to truck to train to truck to shop to vendor.

If the food is not commonly eaten by locals, the turnover of food may be slower, with a consequently higher chance of spoilage. For example, in China beef is less commonly eaten and more expensive than pork or chicken – so if a street food vendor has paid a higher price for a piece of beef he is less likely to discard it at the earliest sign of spoilage.

How was this cooked?
Cooking temperatures are crucial to the killing of bacteria and viruses. The temperature ‘danger zone’ for bacterial growth in food is 5-60C (40-140F). Most cooking methods have higher temperatures than this:

Poaching 70-85C (160-185F)

Simmering 80-90C (175-195F)
Steaming 100C (212F)

Boiling 100C (212F)

Stir frying/pan frying 150-165C (300-330F)

Deep-frying 175-190C (350-375F)
Grilling up to 260C (500F)

Larger cuts of meat and large whole fish are more risky because they need to reach a core temp of 74C (165F) for safety – the outside of the meat may be well cooked, but the inside may not. If meat is pink or raw looking, it’s at risk. For this reason, smaller pieces of meat are less risky because they’re more likely to be cooked all the way through.

How long has it been sitting here?
Food begins to spoil the moment it ceases being alive. Refrigeration will slow this process, but not prevent it.
Foods spoil in the following order (from shortest to longest spoilage times): shellfish, fish, chicken, turkey, duck, pork, beef/lamb.

In addition, once food is cooked it needs to be kept hot – well above 60C, or cooled down rapidly and refrigerated. Hence the risk associated with pre-cooked foods like stews, sauces and braises that are inadequately reheated.

Who is preparing my food?
Do they look healthy? Are their hands clean? 
Is the food environment clean?
Because germs can live on other surfaces like tabletops, poorly washed eating utensils, and chairs, street food restaurants with filthy table tops and dirty dishes are best avoided. Look for a place that has some pride in its appearance. 

Problem: Beef mince wrapped in tofu skin. Steamer barely simmering, so low cooking heat. Beef was only partly cooked when I took a bite: I discarded the rest.
Problem: Handling of raw pork mince, no access to water or handwashing. However: long queue (popular with locals) and pork pancake was then cooked on a very hot griddle, and eaten straight away wrapped in paper to keep it clean from my dirty hands. I ate it – no problems.
Problem: cold noodles (usually safe) mixed with raw vegetables (potentially unsafe). However: the vendor’s set up is clean and tidy, her hands are clean and don’t touch the food as she mixes it. I ate it – no problems.
Problem: skewers of raw chicken, marinated chicken, and squid approx 2000km inland, waiting to be grilled. No refrigeration, and a very warm night after a hot day. I gave it a miss.

The Five Street Food Rules
Based on all of this information, here are five simple street food rules that will stand you in good stead anywhere in the world.

Please once again note: They apply to healthy adults, not high risk groups such as very young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with chronic illness.

1. Always wash your hands before eating. If you cannot, use chopsticks or a fork.

2. Avoid chicken, seafood and salads

3. Eat what’s locally popular

4. Eat what’s hot

5. Eat with an adventurous spirit, but be prepared just in case.

Happy eating!

The Island of Small Delights: San Shan Dao 三山岛

As island hamlets go, San Shan Dao is at the humbler end of the remote-island-getaway spectrum. It’s not like Mustique, say, where you might have once seen Princess Margaret walking along the beach in a silk caftan with a gin and tonic in hand. Because there isn’t a beach on San Shan Dao, or any gin and tonics either. And as far as I can tell it’s not a favoured hideaway of the British royal family.

But you know, it is really pretty and everyone living on the tiny island seems to be in ridiculously rude good health and having a lovely time, spending all day outdoors in the blossoms of spring, tinkering about with boats through the summer, harvesting the tart orange fruits of the pipa trees in early autumn then hunkering down for winter with the sole task of catching enough fish to make dried fish snacks. 
We had a wonderful low key vacation there a few weeks ago – the girls and I flew in to Shanghai to join my husband and some old Shanghai friends for the annual Tomb Sweeping Festival (Qing Ming 清明). We were fast threatening to become one of those long-distance families so often seen in China, with parents working in different cities or even countries. I was in China, my husband in Australia, then we did a tag-team switch and he came to China to work like a maniac on projects to keep his public art business running smoothly, then we all finally re-united in Shanghai. It’s not exactly what we had in mind when we went back to Australia, but it is the reality of running a business in more than one country. 

San Shan Dao (rather ambitiously named Three Mountain Island) is one of ninety nine islands – all small – in the middle of vast Tai Lake in Jiangsu Province. It’s a few hours’ drive west of Shanghai and a perfect place for winding-down. There’s bugger all to do except drink tea, play mahjong, and eat dried fish snacks. I’ve heard they’re truly delicious.

When I asked a Chinese friend what he knew about San Shan Dao he immediately rattled off its ‘Three Whites’, that is, the three famous foods the lake and islands are known for – bai yu (white fish), yin yu (whitebait), and bai xia (white shrimp). 
I never cease to be amazed by this secret skill of every Chinese person I know. Mention a place, any place in China, and they can tell you its most famous foods. 
“Huangshan Maofeng Tea. Dried mountain bamboo shoots.”
“Pixian bean paste. Too easy. Give me something harder.”
“Shaxian then.”
“Shaxian? Well, there are 240 Shaxian snacks of which 39 are designated national delicacies: salted pressed duck, willow leaf steamed dumplings, Shaxian noodles with sesame paste…”
“Stop! OK! I give up. Here’s one for you: name three famous people buried in Père Lachaise cemetery? Ha! Got you!”
It’s like a local-specialty-foods DNA sequence built into the Chinese genome, which the rest of us disappointingly lack.
But back to San Shan Dao – arriving at the ferry terminal on the shores of Lake Tai we ditched the slower ferry (half an hour) in favour of a faster speedboat (ten minutes) that could hold all eight of us. By the time I’d figured out how to fasten the complicated orange life jacket we’d arrived, right on sunset. From a distance San Shan Dao’s three small hills were visible along with a protected wetland area near the shore, and hundreds of pink-blossoming cherry trees.
We were collected from the jetty by Farmer Xue in his electric tricycle, who piled our bags and children into the tricycle’s tray and asked us to follow him to his guesthouse. We immediately settled into the slow rhythm of the island – there are no cars on San Shan Dao so everything is conveyed by bicycle or tricycle via one small road running around the island’s perimeter. Nothing happens fast.
The view from our simple, clean room in Farmer Xue’s house was delightful, looking over the black-tiled rooftops of the village towards one of San Shan Dao’s three ‘mountains’.

Before dinner we took a walk around the village, golden in the setting sun. Narrow paths led between old trees to stone farmhouses and walled gardens full of cherry and pipa trees. The broad green leaves of the pipa trees hid clusters of soft velvety brown pipa flowers, which would turn into small tart juicy orange fruit by late summer. There was a tiny harbour for fishing boats with steps leading down to the lake’s edge for washing or collecting water. The children rescued a baby hedgehog they found trapped in a dicarded fishing net. 

Hunger called us back to Farmer Xue’s house, where his wife, mother and mother-in-law were in charge of cooking. 

“Come into the kitchen and choose what you’d like to eat!” called Mrs Xue. The kitchen made me faint with pleasure, housed in a low stone building to the side of the guesthouse and reached through a moss-covered open air courtyard with a slab table for chopping and preparing. Baskets of fresh greens from the garden were waiting to be washed and trimmed alongside a deep water-filled dish holding two plump fish. 

The kitchen itself was dominated by an old wood-fired three wok cooker manned by Farmer Xue’s mother, wearing a Burberry-checked hat I never saw her remove, indoors or out. There was a mesh-fronted cupboard full of freshly-cooked food – poached chicken, roast duck, crispy fried small fish, bowls of peanuts, a basket of eggs, a bunch of trimmed scallions.
Everything on offer had come from the garden or the lake just hours before and was spanking fresh. I loved this kind of nong jia cai 农家菜 – farm-style food, freshly picked, simply cooked, and eaten immediately with an appetite made sharper by fresh air and long walks.
We chose lacquered mahogony roast duck, a poached fish with vinegar and soy, lake snails braised with chili and garlic, fresh bamboo shoots cooked with rice and local ham, stir-fried baby celery, strips of dried tofu braised with sweet green peppers, and most delicious of all, eggs fried with whitebait. 
We drank glasses of the local green tea, biluo chun, the dark jade spirals of the dried leaves unfurling in hot water. As the dishes arrived at our table one by one, intoxicating smells filling the dining room. Not a scrap was left at the end of the meal, after which we sighed, patted our bellies, and went to bed.
We spent the next two days exploring every corner of the island, between trips back to Mrs Xue’s kitchen for our next meal. The tiny fishing harbour, the cherry orchards, the Niang Niang Temple, the ancient stone well – we visited all the island’s attractions on foot or by bicycle (singles, tandems, or four-person bicycles can be rented near the jetty). The children roamed in a tight gang of four, having a Swallows and Amazons adventure in the small wild woods between the farms.
Everywhere we walked were trees in blossom, wildflowers blooming, and hardy wild spring onions growing between the rocks, lending a pungent smell to every step. We collected a basketful for our dinner that night, and the children spent an hour trimming and peeling them squatted on their heels like a clutch of old Chinese ladies. Mrs Xue fried them until they were caramelised and sweet, then tossed them with whisked egg that puffed in the heat of the wok. 
We even, eventually, found an old couple selling dried fish snacks, dried whitebait and dried pipa flowers (a remedy for cough, steeped in hot water and drunk as a tea). The fish snacks, flattened and cut into circles or squares, had a curiously sweet taste and a chewy texture. I bought some for Chinese friends but was, curiously, never tempted to keep them for myself.

Island specialties: dried white fish, dried white bait, dried fish snacks. Not as tasty as they look. Below: freshly picked spring onions from the hill behind Farmer Xue’s home.

On our last day, having filled ourselves with the simple and all too rarely enjoyed pleasures of fresh air, farm food, too much sleep and laughter, and time with our children just rambling and roaming, we took the slow ferry back to what I now thought of us ‘the mainland’. 
What a wonderful place! I thought, finding a space for my feet on the ferry between a basket of spring onions and a bag of dried pipa flowers. 

Getting to San Shan Dao
The island is reached by boat from the eastern shores of Lake Tai.

Island admission: 60rmb per person (adults) 30rmb (children over 1.2m), free for children under 1.2m.

By private vehicle:
We hired a minibus and driver from Shanghai who took us directly to the Shatan Shan Wharf (approx three hours’ drive) and collected us again three days later – 1780 rmb total fee.

By public transport:
From Shanghai: Take the fast train to Suzhou station
From Suzhou Station: Take Bus 69 to Dongshan Area Gongshan Wharf. Take the kuaiting (motor boat) to San Shan Dao or take Bus 502 to Dongshan, then Bus 627 to Shatan Shan Wharf, then take the kuaiting(motor boat) or the duchuan (ferry boat) to San Shan Dao

Motorboat: 180 rmb one way for up to 8 people
Ferry: 15rmb one way per person

See Farmer Xue’s instructions below (with a list of famous foods and specialty food products!)

Staying on San Shan Dao
The island more than a dozen small farm stay guest houses. You could quite reasonably just turn up and find a bed without any problem, weekends included.
We stayed at Farmer Xue’s place, The Nan Feng Shan Zhuang 南峰山庄 (South Peak Mountain Villa)
Rooms sleeping 2-3 with private bathroom and shower are 150 rmb/night. 
All meals are cooked on the premises from fresh ingredients grown on the island. Our total food bill for six meals for a family of four came to around 400 rmb ($60).
+86 13861303825

Uncharacteristic Pessimism: The Kind of Personal Post I Never Write

I’m waiting for my daughter to wake up from her anaesthetic, sitting in the kind of parents’ waiting room I walk through every single day in my work as a childrens’ emergency doctor, but not often as a parent looking in from the other side. There’s a television playing Sesame Street on loop and a bunch of other parents pretending not to be anxious by reading gossip magazines, but I see them looking at the clock every three minutes as we wait to hear it’s our turn to go to the recovery room. It’s an uncomfortable place to be.

I don’t normally write intensely personal posts like this one, because it has never seemed the right fit for me. I like to write about the things that make life so very enjoyable – great food, interesting places, fascinating people – and I write best from a happy place, feeling optimistic about life and the world around me.

But I’ve struggled with one of my regular posts for the last three weeks, trying to recreate the happy memories of an island we visited earlier this month on our family trip to Shanghai, and wondering why I just can’t seem to get the darn thing finished.

I write, and erase, and re-write, then find myself changing the topic, fiddling with the photos, deciding on yet another topic with better photos. I keep procrastinating, finding other tasks to do, putting it off.

‘It’s writer’s block’ I think to myself, ‘It will pass.’

Then the answer eventually came to me today as I sat in that waiting room – it’s not writer’s block, it’s mental exhaustion. It’s been building for months. 

The thing is, as a blogger it can be very easy to have everyone believe your life consists of nothing but eating good food, visiting exciting and adventurous locations, and feasting on street food. And sometimes it is, but only a bit of the time.

You can conveniently leave out the boring bits – paying bills, juggling childcare arrangements, working in an actual money-paying job that pays actual bills. I don’t often write about the bad stuff in life, perhaps from a misplaced belief that many people read blogs as an escape from all of that…drudgery.

But I should let you know that just like everyone I also have days of drudgery where I seem to do nothing but repeated loads of washing and emptying the cat litter tray. I have black days, messy days, chaotic days and days when it just seems too much. And although some people can tap into that deep, dark river and write wonderfully about it, usually I can’t.

Lately there haven’t been too many shiny, happy days though.

Combined with tragic events unfolding this week around the world, my own world is now also often filled with sad and tragic events – parents who harm their children, children who harm themselves, families who deal daily with a seriously ill or disabled child. It didn’t seem to bother me as much before I went to China – I thought I coped with the stress of it all quite well – but it bothers me a great deal now. I appear to have lost my immunity to that kind of heartache and I’m no longer a hardened ER doctor (actually, in all truthfulness I never was – only ever so slightly toughened). I’ve gone soft.

It can be inspiring too – children who overcome illness against the odds, happy faces after a broken arm is fixed, a look of incredulity when I extract a bright pink bead from a small boy’s nose. It’s a fine balance between ups and downs when you work with sick children, but lately the downs have been out-scoring the ups by a long way.
To add to the burden we’re all still, in our own way, homesick for China and the relatively carefree life we had there. 

I can’t identify completely what made it so carefree (well, yes, six months in a campervan), but I can say it had a lot to do with not owning a house or car, and not having to think about insurance, school meetings or mobile phone plans. Life back in Australia has been surprisingly complicated and difficult and we don’t seem to be having much fun. The writing isn’t coming as easily as it did.

As I write this I’m called into the recovery room. My daughter is lying flushed and asleep, an oxygen mask on her swollen little face. It’s nothing major or life-threatening, just the draining of a big ugly tooth abscess that reared up overnight last night, and the removal of the guilty molar that caused it all. She’ll be fine in a few days.

She frowns and struggles wildly as she emerges from the anaesthetic, distressed and crying, disoriented. Yet I’m so glad it’s safely over. I can deal with the night ahead knowing the worst is past.

She drifts back into a restless sleep and I think about all the reasons my brain is too full to write. A sick child. The emotionally draining encounters with stressed parents I think about for days afterwards. The complicated schedules of four family members that takes up more brain space than it should. The increasing difficulty of squeezing freelance writing into the existing list of tasks. The parking tickets and speeding fines I keep getting because I still drive and park like I live in China.

The poor old think-box is just too exhausted. Too used up. I need to stop thinking for a while, stop cogitating, stop struggling, and give it a rest. 

Then I think about how very lucky I am to have two happy and (usually) healthy children, and to live in a place where safe healthcare is readily available. Lucky to have children and a husband who I love as hugely and passionately as they love me. Lucky to have the chance to write with complete freedom about whatever I want. 

I resolve to be less hard on myself. The writing will come when it comes, sometimes at surprising times like this, in an operating theatre recovery room. 

I look forward to a return to normal optimistic functioning very soon, and in the meanwhile my heart is with my American friends and readers – as many of you are. Sending the few good thoughts left in this poor tired head your way.

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). 


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)

Jia Jia Tang Bao  佳家汤包
90 Huanghe Lu, near Fengyang Lu
+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)

Loushi Tangbao Guan 陋室汤包馆
601 Nanchang Lu, near Xiangyang Lu
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

Din Tai Fung Xintiandi  鼎泰震新天地店

2F, House 6, South Block Xintiandi,
Lane 123 Xinye Lu, Shanghai
+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.
Nanxiang Mantou Dian 南翔馒頭店
Branches all over Shanghai including:
2nd Floor, 269 Wujiang Lu, Jing’an District
+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.

Song Ji Nanxiang Xiaolongbao 南翔小笼馆
210 Guyiyuan Lu, Jiading District

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!

Shanghai Street Food #32 Salt and Pepper Fried Chicken 椒盐排条

Excited as a small child I flew into Shanghai last week on a whirlwind five day visit for the Shanghai International Literary Festival, and of course squeezed in a great deal of street food during my stay – starting with xiaolongbao, and fried radish cakes topped with chili sauce, and ending with these crispy, spicy fried chicken strips.

I was invited to moderate a Literary Lunch session at this year’s festival with author Audra Ang and her recently released book To The People Food Is Heavena memoir of her years as an Associated Press journalist in China covering major stories like the Sichuan earthquake, the outbreak of SARS and the plight of pro-democracy dissidents, while connecting with the people she met through memorable shared meals.

The invitation came at a perfect moment, lifting me out of a dreadful bout of homesickness (for China) and an increasing and confusing sense of ‘What am I doing here?’ (in Australia). By going back to Shanghai for a visit I could avoid thinking about that question for a while longer and just enjoy good food and the company of friends without a head filled with the complications and daily grind of getting our lives in order after moving houses, countries, schools and jobs.

It was a great honour to participate in the festival and meet the author whose book I had enjoyed reading so much. As it turns out, Audra and I are equally passionate about food in general and about street food in particular, and following the Literary Lunch (where seventy of us listened to Audra read from her book and I asked her questions about it) we led a street food tour for a group of twelve hungry and adventurous festival attendees.

In preparation, as soon as Audra touched down from the USA we headed straight to Sipailou Lu for an afternoon of ‘research’ for our tour the following day. I’ve done so much research on street food I truly think they’re going to give me a professorship quite soon.

This Sichuan salt and pepper fried chicken was one of the first foods we ‘researched’ and hell it was good.

I confess I rarely eat chicken on the street because it breaks one of my Dr Fiona Street Food Safety Rules. These rules are entirely in my head, mind you, and I’ll be writing about them in an upcoming post, but they’re all about getting the maximum enjoyment from street foods, with minimum risk. Chicken is often too close to the risky side for my liking, but as I smelled the tantalising smell and saw the crisp golden pieces, my resolve collapsed. What are rules for if not to break now and again?

The tiny open air stall on Guangqi Lu was nothing more than a table filled with ingredients, a gas-powered wok, and a sign that detailed all the possible permutations of fried chicken you could order – chicken strips, legs or wings, all with Sichuan pepper and salt. There was a naked light bulb on a wire so cooking could continue after dark, and the husband and wife team manning the stall had the division of labour completely sorted – he cooked, she took the orders and the money.

The smells coming from the fried chicken were intoxicating, and there was already a long queue of locals eager for a plate of the crispy spicy chicken strips.

Most customers ordered the jiaoyan pai tiao 椒盐排条 – Sichuan pepper and salt chicken sticks. Strips of boneless chicken were crumbed, and thrown into a wok of boiling oil where they sizzled, crisped and browned. While they cooked, the flavoursome salt and pepper mixture was cooked in a second wok – finely sliced scallions and red onion, chopped garlic, and dried chilli flakes were thrown in by the handful and fried up with ground Sichuan pepper and salt.

The seasoned aroma made all of us impatient for our turn. The fried chicken, drained of oil, was now tossed with this salty, spicy, garlicky mixture to coat it with plenty of flavour, and handed to us in a bowl with toothpicks to daintily pick up the pieces.

One serve cost an unbelievable 5 yuan (80 cents), and many of those lining up were taking the chicken home for dinner.

I bit into a piece – at once crunchy, salty, oily and spiced, it was the intense hit of salty garlic I loved, little crackly bits of garlic and fried scallion amongst the crunchy outide of the chicken.

The next day we took our crowd of hungry food-lovers along the same street and fed them spicy fried chicken, dumplings, stinky tofu, three delicacies rice, wonton soup, sweet treats and freshly peeled pineapple wedges. They were an incredibly adventurous group of women, trying everything on offer – we had a ball eating our way through two long streets over several hours, with Audra and I explaining each food they tried. No better way to spend a day really!

Street Foods of Shanghai!

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