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Shanghai Cuisine Revisited

by Jacqueline M. Newman

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

Winter Volume: 2001 Issue: 8(4) page(s): 5, 7, and 22

Called Hu by the Chinese, this is a city of long summers and long winters. Then there is the three-part rainy/flood season from May through September called 'Spring Rains,' 'Plum Rains,' and 'Autumn Rains.' Weathering it all, Shanghai--the largest city in China--with its suburbs, boasts a population that exceeds fourteen million. Some say several million more inhabit China’s most cosmopolitan center for business and finance with a very active sea port.

This city also boasts the third largest island in China, Chongming Island, a land mass of about six hundred twenty-five square miles. Sitting at the mouth of the Suzhou Creek and the Huangpo River, it is close to, that is about twenty-five miles, to the river’s delta. Fertile land at the mouth of the river feeds this huge city and environs. Daily, an abundance of crops roll in, in small trucks, smaller three-wheel gasoline-motorized wagons, and pushed by men and women in nothing more than wheel-barrows. Less and less food comes from the Pudong district, which is across the river, because land there is rapidly being used for huge hi-rise buildings and lower-rise industrial complexes. These days, Pudong is new, different, and home to many multi-national companies and a growing 'China’s own' industry

In the old town, the 16th century Yuyuan Gardens has colorful pavilions and stone dragons, and a delightful zig-zag bridge which is a Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE) treasure. These days, Shanghai is very much a city of old and new. In the old part of the city itself are a plethora of winding alleys giving way to newer and bigger buildings, some with tiny eateries worth exploring; these feature Shanghai food and that of other provinces. Also worth exploring is the Temple of the Jade Buddha where a pair of white jade statues are enshrined.

This city is near the Province of Kiangsu and since the early 1950's has its own administrative district, one of three in China. On the culinary front, Kiangsu, Chekiang, Fujian, Anhuei, Kiangsi, and adjacent provinces make up what some call the 'Eastern School of Chinese cuisine.' Other speak of this cuisine as Eastern but including Hangzhou, Suzhou, Wuhsi, Nanjing, Tsingtao, and Tientsin. All are right and wrong because years ago foods and tastes were local but every city, certainly this one, incorporated foods from all of China and called them their own.

Shanghai has incorporated more foods than most into its own. What probably began as a fishing village sometime from the Warring States (475 - 221 BCE) until at least 1100 CE, saw people coming there from all over China. In the mid-eighteen hundreds, Europeans arrived and the then large city was divided into French, United States, British, and Japanese areas. These were called 'The French Quarter, etc. The foods from outside of China then began to influence those already there. These additional influences had a lot to do with the fact that the city is now known for its elegant presentation of foods, its animal and vegetable carvings, and its sweet tooth.

In 1978, when we were there for the first time, it was still a center for cash and caché. However, at that time it was gray a 'has-been.' There were few fine restaurants and reservations required knowing someone; fortunately we did. We also knew ordinary folk and, they too, took us to where remnants of Shanghai's excellent cuisine prevailed. Some of these fine people were family of dear friends. In their home we can still taste the twenty course meal their cousin, an amateur cook and gourmand, cooked for us. When asking to see the kitchen where this repast was prepared, we were taken to a dark closet-sized room where a single charcoal brazier sat. Through efforts and expertise such as exhibited there, Shanghai maintained its fine food traditions. That meal was one of the best we have ever eaten. Though times were tough, the family had help in acquiring phenomenal ingredients. The government even donated new dishes and several large electric fans so he and we were comfortable as well as well fed.

That family and folks on the street were all dressed in blue, gray, or khaki. People looked wan and many shelves were barren. We did feel lots of guilt as our table in their tiny piece of a home that had been a gate-house was laden with dish after dish, none drab, as was the cramped environment we ate it in. We feasted, as they and then many of their neighbors fif as we left over lots for all to share. The evening had little relation to the outside environment, and the meal reflected the three days our cook and family gourmand did not work in order to prepare it. His time off was also a gift of the government. Thanks to them, we ate fresh-water shrimp for the first time, likewise fresh-water eel, and we fell in love with both of them and the steamed crab and Shanghai pancakes. Our cook’s uncle had been a shipping magnate and in some ways that meal was reparation for the house and property taken from him during the Cultural Revolution. The gate house they were assigned to live in, with three other families watching there every move, is no longer. Instead, they live in one of the new hi-rise apartments not too far away.

When we inquired as to where the seafoods came from, they told us that outside of Shanghai are hundreds of shallow lakes, streams, rivers, and canals. These waters provided us and others in the city with an almost limitless amount of food from the sea; that is, when and if they found it for sale. They said that these waters and the land around them also provided lots of sea vegetables. They even gave us some hair vegetable which we brought home and gave to their New York relatives who had made this connection for us. People from this region know how to use these vegetables in many ways. Use of sea vegetable, which many outside of China refer to as seaweed, is now popular in many regions of China and abroad. For information about some of them, their uses, and several recipes, see Flavor and Fortune's Volume 8(3) on pages 9 and 10, and on page 30.

It is said that Shanghainese cuisine is probably the most diverse in all of China. There are hundreds of different regional and village recipes for sea and land foods brought into this port city daily. Some of them have been adopted as their own. While it may not be easy to know where a dish originated, everyone would agree that dishes with ‘hairy’ crabs belong to Shanghai. Should you be lucky enough to visit in the fall, look out for them because they are popular in October and November during their annual season.

These crabs are succulent and best if steamed or braised, but foods here are not limited to that type of cooking. As a matter of fact, in Shanghai lots of foods are made bt steaming them or braising, frying, and stewing. These cookery techniques are the most popular forms of cooking in this region. Those dishes stewed with soy sauce are usually called ‘red cooked’ and they are made with lots of that liquid. Some say the foods here are also oily, but that comment is only accurate in a few instances.

This city has wonderful food and a vibrant night life. It has a beautifully lit skyline, and lots of clubs and disco parlors. We mention them particularly, because some of them serve the best food in the city. So do some of the restaurants and small eateries near the Bund or waterfront. The Chinese name for this avenue is Chung Shan Lu, the last word means street. Actually, most of the restaurants are on streets making right angles with the Bund. Indulge in Shanghai cuisine there or anywhere where fine foods of this cuisine are served. Keep in mind that some are a little saltier because they use not only salted fish, but also many preserved vegetables, pickled and soaked meats, soy sauce, and preserved eggs. Those eggs are known in this country as 'one hundred year' eggs. Also taste Drunken Chicken, Drunken Shrimp cooked live in an alcohol-water mixture, and Braised Fresh Water Eel. There are many other braised dishes and many dishes made with black or other vinegars. This ancient condiment was discussed in Flavor and Fortune in Volume 8(3) on pages 21 and 22.

Many Shanghainese foods come cooked in rich sauces that beg for rice, noodles, even breads to assure consuming every drop of them. This region obliges. There is one wonderful bread that is crispy on the outside and flaky in the interior. Though we’ve tasted many varieties, one of the best is loaded with scallions, some have cilantro, and all are usually topped with sesame seeds. Look for them flat and rectangular, square, round, even in knots. You see a few rolled snake-like, coiled then re-rolled before pan-frying. Breads, noodles, and dumplings are adored in this area, perhaps consumed as much as if not more than rice.

Shanghai is an eat-eat-eat, then eat some more city. People love to eat at home and they like to go out to eat. That means many large and small restaurants to enjoy. It also means lots of street vendors selling buns, dumplings, fried dough sticks, meat on skewers, fried or steamed sausages, even noodle dishes. In markets on the side streets and in food stores, the assortment of fruits and vegetables is impressive. What is also impressive is the plethora of meatless dishes made from tofu to wheat gluten and the huge variety of soups and stew-like dishes consumed no matter the season. Once again, Shanghai can be considered one if not the top of the gastronomic revolution. Should you visit there, eat a wonderful congee to start your day, go to the museum and see the wine and food vessels from the Shang Dynasty circa 13th century BCE, wander about and be sure to visit Nanjing and Huaihai Roads, and the shopping streets and places already mentioned. Take tea at the Huxing Tea House or another, go to the Shanghai Museum in People’s Square, and take an evening stroll around the majestic seaport on the Bund. Cross the river by tunnel, bridge or boat, and get a look at the urban sprawl atop the Oriental Pearl Tower.

After you descend, visit the food stalls, gaze into the baskets of eels wiggling all over the place, watch a vendor attach one to a nail on a board and skin then remove the center bone in a flash. Watch shoppers buy silk, woks, snakes, and scorpions, and most of all, enjoy eating, eating, and eating in this wonderful city.

Should you live in or near New York City, wonderful dumplings can be had at Dumpling House at 118A Eldridge Street in the borough of Manhattan. If you want pre-war cuisine, try the Shanghai 1930 Restaurant at 133 Stuart Street in San Francisco. And for those who crave Shanghai sesame bread, hasten to Duitru Restaurant, at 135-11 40th Road in Flushing, New York. There are many dozens of other Shanghai places in many cities in the United States and other countries, too.

Should you want to try your own hand at that wonderful bread, you can use the recipe below. It may not have the flavor of the ones we bought on a street in Shanghai because that one, and the likeness on the cover of this issue, were made inside a tandoori-fashioned old oil-type can. The one we saw was covered with wood planks so that the man making then by the dozens did not get burned accidentally leaning too close when putting in or removing the breads. As the following recipe indicates, we make ours in a fry-pan. You can make yours either way or any other creative way you can think of. Do enjoy the rewards of the following recipe.
Shanghai Sesame Bread
2 cups flour plus few tablespoons for flouring the board
2 Tablespoons sesame oil
1 teaspoon coarse salt
4 teaspoons chopped cilantro
4 teaspoons chopped scallions
2 teaspoons sesame seeds, put on large a flat plate
4 teaspoons corn oil
1. Put flour in bowl and add three-quarters of a cup of boiling water and stir for three minutes, then turn out on a floured board and knead about ten minutes or until soft and no longer sticky, then cover the dough and let it rest for half an hour, uncover and knead again about ten times.
2. Roll the dough into a thick snake and cut it into four equal-sized pieces. , Make a ball then roll this out into a five-inch circle and brush the top with sesame oil and evenly sprinkle one-quarter teaspoon of the salt and a teaspoon each of the cilantro and scallions over the surface.
3. Roll the circle up cigar-shaped, then re-roll the dough into another circle the same size as before. Brush the top with sesame oil and dip the top into the sesame seeds.
4. Heat a fry pan or wok, then add one teaspoon of the oil and fry the bread, bottom or non-scallion side first, until crisp, about three minutes., turn it over and fry another two minutes, then remove and remove until all four are made. Serve hot or warm, but not cold.

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