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Shanghai Cuisine

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Food in China, Hong Kong, and/or Taiwan

Fall Volume: 1999 Issue: 6(3) page(s): 19, 20, and 28

Shanghai, China’s largest and most famous seaport, is a city teeming with life. Social life in this metropolis revolves around family, friends, eating and drinking, mixing with foreigners, and trying things foreign. There are many theaters, cinemas, bars, discotheques, and places to grab a bite, a meal, or a banquet. Many ingredients and many ideas are available, too.

On the commercial food scene, seafood comes in through the port, and fruits and vegetables from the farms nearby. Market and even supermarkets sell them and other foods, and should you go, be sure to visit the two floors of the food market of Hongkou, the city’s largest. Also see the traditional small food stalls on Yunnan Street, others in other local neighborhoods, and the fast food and foreign food near the Pingan Cinema and in other popular spots.

Foreign presence in Shanghai dates from 1842 and the end of the Opium War. Then the Treaty of Nanjing required China to open five ports to international trade, Shanghai among them. Shortly thereafter, foreign enclaves were leased along the waterfront. In 1863, the British and the American enclaves amalgamated and became known as The International Settlement.

On the culinary scene, Shanghai has enormous variety but few dishes to call its own. There are specialities for sure, but not many. Like any metropolis with considerable access to other areas, the Shanghainese have absorbed foods and techniques of the entire country. However, there are differences because people here are known to like things sweet. That means that sugar is used more generously than in any other region of China. People also like many of their foods long-cooked in soy sauce; they call this preparation style ''red-cooking.'' Also enjoyed are foods cooked in Shaoxing and other wines, foods cooked with vinegar, particularly local black varieties, and fish served at almost all meals.

People from Shanghai enjoy preserved foods such as salted fish, dried bamboo shoots, and many mushroom varieties. They also enjoy meals with favorite dishes such as Lion’s Head, Drunken Chicken or Drunken Shrimp, Honeyed Ham, Salt Cured Chicken, and Preserved Mustard Green and other soups. And, to satisfy that love of the sweet, they eat many small delicate pastries, sweet and savory, some the size of a mouthful and in the thinnest of pastry skins.

Eels and the green crabs of Shanghai deserve special mention. Ask about special meals had in Shanghai, and time after time people recount dishes made with these foods. They also describe subtleties of the vinegars, oil, and alcoholic liquids used to make them, and the various types of soy sauce they were cooked in.

For more than a thousand years, much land around the city is designated for producing the vegetables consumed here. An account of a market day in 1907 lists fifty-seven different vegetables for sale. Three-quarters of a century later, a commune boasted growing almost four times that number. Between these, particularly in the early 1960''s, there was a period when only a handful of vegetables were for sale at any market. Today there are hundreds to choose from and people select from a large variety of vegetables, fruits, and other food items in the large and small market places.

When they can afford to, the Shanghainese love to eat a lot and they love to eat it out. Very popular is Stir-fry Fresh Water Eel which comes to the table with a ladle of boiling oil ready to pour on, and a dash of fresh ground white pepper to top it off. Try it and be prepared for a treat. It is very special when very hot but loses some of that appeal as it cools down. Another beloved item is Drunken Chicken, also Drunken Shrimp. The chicken gets its name as it is soaked in Shaoxing wine overnight. The shrimp are put live into boiling wine at the table. Another very popular dish is Red-stewed Fish; it is prepared in a soy-vinegar sauce.

Foods of Shanghai are considered Eastern cuisine. Availability of fresh foodstuffs, the cosmopolitan nature of the city, and the influence of outstanding culinary neighbors, Hangzhou and Nanjing, add greatness to Shanghai cuisine; it is one that you should get to know.

In Shanghai, rice is the main grain, consumed daily and often many times in a day, both plain and white and in stuffings and pastries, also in the form of rice flour. Shanghainese people also eat a lot of noodles and they adore steamed dumplings called Soup Dumplings, but not always served in soup. These dumplings are made with a jellied concentrated soup stock mixed with or put next to meat or meat and crab filling. Later when steamed, the jellied soup becomes a liquid and awaits the diner inside a dumpling skin. Those who eat them know that they can scald. Some restaurants serve these dumplings in a bowl of soup to minimize the spurting and hope the diner will break into them in the additional stock they have provided in the bowl. But that loses the intended impact and the intensive taste; they are better fresh and just having been cooked in the steamer.

Other dishes well-known in Shanghai are casseroles and cold appetizer dishes. The first, though eaten by some as a one-dish-meal, was never so intended. Several in the second grouping can be served as the meal’s first course or can punctuate the meal at various times. Should you see a refrigerator case of cold dishes such as Wine-flavored Jelly Fish, Braised Sliced Beef, and Aromatic Cold Fish, chances are you are in a restaurant serving foods of Shanghai.

Several Shanghai restaurants in New York’s Manhattan that we recommend include
Shanghai Cuisine at 89 Bayard Street; phone: 212/732-8988
Shanghai Garden at 14A Elizabeth Street; phone: 212/964-5640, and the
Evergreen Shanghai Restaurant at 10 East 38th Street; phone: 212/448-1199.
This latter establishment originated in Chinatown, is still great there, and it has another branch in Murray Hill, New Jersey.

In Flushing Queens, we recommend:
No.1 People''s and People''s Restaurant at 38-06 Prince Street; phone: 718/460-8686
Jai Xiang Lo at 135-25A 40th Road; phone: 718/886-8829
Yuen Kee Restaurant at 135-25 Roosevelt Avenue; phone: 718/939-0967, and
Shanghai Tang at 135-20 40th Road; phone: 718/661-4234
The order of listing is by region and the author’s order of choice in each area, respectively.

In other cities, ask around and you will probably find a great one, too. I did just that in San Francisco and was feted by a subscriber to a fantastic, rather expensive meal at Shanghai 1930. There, food had the retro taste of the city at that time with share of fusion with tastes learned in the International Settlement mentioned before. Should you find a great Shanghainese restaurant, advise and we’ll advise others; invite us, too!

For wonderful soup dumplings try Shanghai Tang on 40th Road in Flushing or Joe’s Shanghai on Pell Street in Manhattan or their restaurant on 39th Avenue in Flushing. The soup dumplings in these places are the best! And if you are in San Francisco, do visit Shanghai 1930''s. Recreating the ambiance of those days at this up-scale eatery with very fine food is worth the effort, economic and otherwise. The otherwise is that getting a reservation here is a difficult task.
Stewed Eel Shanghai Style
1 pound eel, or more
1 teaspoon coarse salt or one-half teaspoon table salt
6 Tablespoons soy sauce, half light and half dark
2 Tablespoons rice wine
2 cups corn oil
3 ounces pork
6 cloves garlic
6 pieces tangerine peel or one teaspoon tangerine or orange juice
6 scallions
6 shiitake mushrooms, soaked twenty minutes, then drained
1 Tablespoon sugar
dash ground white pepper
3 cups chicken stock
2 Tablespoons cornstarch in like amount of cold water
1. Rub eel with salt inside and out, then rinse in cold water and blanch in boiling water for one minute, then drain.
2. Mix eel with soy sauces and wine and set aside in the refrigerator for half an hour, then drain and reserve marinade.
3. Heat oil, remove eel from refrigerator and deep fry the drained eel for one minute, drain and set on paper towels to drain, and remove oil from pan and set aside.
4. Heat two tablespoons of the reserved oil and fry the pork for one minute, then add garlic, scallions, tangerine peel, and mushrooms and fry for another minute, remove from the pan.
5. In stove-top casserole or heavy pan, put in eel, reserved marinade, vegetable ingredients with what they were cooked in, the sugar, pepper, and stock and bring to the boil then simmer for half an hour (more if eel is not yet tender). Remove the eel to a serving dish.
6. Bring remaining liquid back to the boil, then add cornstarch and water mixture and thicken, pour over the eel and serve.
Red-cooked Ham
3 to 6 pounds fresh ham, shoulder, or pork butt
1 cup dark soy sauce
1/2 cup sugar
2 Tablespoons rice wine or dry sherry
8 slices fresh ginger
2 scallions, tied in a knot
6 star anise
1. Bring four cups water to boil, blanch the meat for three to five minutes, then drain, rinse in cold water, and wipe dry with paper towels.
2. Bring one cup cold water and the soy sauce to the boil, put in the meat and all the other ingredients, cover the pot, then reduce to a simmer and cook for two hours and fifteen minutes. Turn the meat every half hour.
3. Remove the cover, bring back to the boil and boil and baste until there is about-quarter or half cup left. Be patient, this may take quarter of an hour or so.
4. Skim the fat, slice and serve.
Drunken Chicken III
1 broiler of frying chicken, about three pounds
1 Tablespoon coarse salt or one teaspoon table salt
2 scallions, tied in a knot
2 slices fresh ginger
1 cup dry rice wine or dry sherry
1. Rinse chicken and dry with paper towels.. Rub with salt, put scallions and ginger in the cavity; then put it in a steamer, cover and steam it for twenty minute. Remove and cool for half an hour.
2. Put chicken in a bowl, cover with wine and put in to the refrigerator. Turn it twice every day. It is best left marinating two to five days, the longer the better.
3. Remove from the refrigerator, chop it into bite-sized pieces, plate and serve.

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