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Shanghai (Part 2)

by Harley Spiller

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

Spring Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(1) page(s): 5, 10, 14, 36, 37, and 38

(continued from Shanghai Part 1)

Oogling the infinite foods of Shanghai is mind boggling. The only way to make sense of the dozens of new things I see is to make a list, so forthwith then, with this bill of the fair of fare that is Shanghai, a list of things this writer has never seen before, on Mulberry Street, in Hong Kong, in Taipei, in Guangzhou, or anywhere else on earth for that matter:

1. Fish stir-fried with fresh corn and pine nuts
2. More than a hundred whole legs of cured Yunnan ham piled like a log cabin on the sidewalk
3. Crabs that must be eaten in pairs, in the Fall season only, one male and one female at a time
4. Different types of scallion pancakes (a Shanghai classic) at one vendor
5. Mantou, steamed bread as big as a baby's head, for a nickel
6. Jianbing, egg and spring onion omelettes
7. Cho dofu, fried fermented tofu, with brown bean sauce brushed on, for twelve cents
8. Uncooked, thoroughly-blackened cho dofu (who needs Paul Prudhomme anyway?)
9. Wuxi pickled pork
10. Apricot kernels soup
11. Pre-packaged bubble teas with nicknames like 'frog eggs' and 'dragon eyes'
12. An entire adult eel deboned in three strokes of the monger's knife
13. Crullers wrapped in gooey rice dough with a choice of pickled cabbages and sprouts
14. Thin scallion egg omelets wrapped around long crullers
15. Mung bean jelly shaved off a giant block with a choice of brine shrimp, mustard, ground peanut, soy, vinegar, chile, coriander, and/or oil
16. A large dog being boiled for skin removal in front of a dozen curious onlookers
17. Scallops and kidney plated together
18. Pong (sticky rice packets) being filled to order
19. Thin clear noodle fried with thick rice noodle
20. Skinned whole frog cold appetizer
21. A wood vice pressing a ball of sticky rice dough bigger than a giant wheel of Parmigiana-Reggiano
22. Chicken heads and tails being sold as a set
23. Bigger-than-a-banana hunks of melon and pineapple on sticks like lollipops
24. Super-thin toasted black sesame seeded wafers
25. Stem lettuce with no brown spots
26. Amazingly fat and bulbous ginger
27. Bundles of celery so big they permanently bowed the farmers back
28. Five hudred pounds of rice and a few sacks of mushrooms being ridden on a regular bike
29. Cleaned crabs the size of your thumbnail
30. A pile of roast gizzard slices, skewered on the selfsame toothpicks required later for flossing action
31. Powdered seasonings like msg and chile powder on a tray for easy rolling and spicing of your fresh hot steamed sausage
32. A bowl of plain rice porridge with one big whole fresh hot pepper
33. A one- by two-foot by one-quarter-inch crispy deep-fried noodles shaped like a harp
34. Giant tea roasting woks and their calloused hand operators
35. Chocolate and strawberry flavored corn puff snacks
36. Dry salted headless gamebird with feathers intact (natural packaging!)
37. Salty pickled crosnes (little, crispy Michelin-men looking veggies I had presumed were French) for breakfast
38. Super fresh white bamboo shoots and even whiter bamboo pith
39. Five quail eggs on a stick, with salt dip
40. One market stall with nine kinds of lop cherng (sausage)
41. Tiny, skinny, purple eggplants as twisted as hot peppers
42. Stalls with ladies braiding and procuring over two dozen different kinds of tofu
43. Pickled spinach and watercress sold by the wet, leafy bunch, new, medium or sour
44. Displays of actual cello wrapped foods to be steamed (like a fishhead, ginger, scallion and hot pepper intended for soup).
45. Unlicensed wild animal bits outside the market (such as tiger’s arm, with claws)
46. An intact deer scrotum that smells camphorous and is assuredly good for men
47. Tiger 'P' (a long, thin, knotted yellow-brown pizzle tipped like the Chrysler building)
48. Pricey Tibetan worm plant (looks like a worm but is actually an aphrodisiacal plant); and
49. A store specializing in 'Chicken and Cake'--good for birthday parties?

No eater’s guide to Shanghai could be complete without discussion of the wondrous specialities of nearby Hongzhou, home to China’s most famous natural setting, West Lake. If you have ever seen a Chinese painting of boats afloat in a misty flat lake filled with islands and surrounded by lush rolling hills, chances are it is Xi Hu. There are thirty-six other 'West Lakes' throughout China, each vainly and unsuccessfully trying to steal the thunder of the original, which Marco Polo described as one of the loveliest places on earth. Xi Hu is also home to the revered Shao Lin monks.

West Lake's fresh waters and gorgeous gardens and temples are nearly spoiled by over-anxious Chinese tourists. I see people picking greens from around the lake and thought they are taking plant cuttings but later learned they are going to 'wok up' the famous local watershield. I try the dark green tendrils in a soup that is mauve-colored and can report they have a bland flavor with the consistency of some of the chewier plant life found in hot-and-sour soup.

The most famous of many West Lake specialties is Xi Hu Su Yu (sweet and sour brown-sauce carp) also called 'Delicacy Created by a Sister-in-Law for Her Brother.' This legendary dish is named for a complicated story involving a government official who is a jealous and unsuccessful suitor of another man’s wife. The relatives reunited many years later when the unique taste of the Sister-in-Law’s special fish dish is recognized.

Locals say there is no special skill required for this steamed, sauced fish that is crab-like in texture and taste, just the luscious Xi Hu carp and extra sugar and vinegar, to remind you of both good and bad times. I eat it in a restaurant on a mid-lake island and enjoy the duel between the supple fish and the superbly sour sauce. The sauce wins by a fin.

I also try the prized local white bamboo shoots, cut to a standard french-fry shape and tossed in the pan with diced pickled cabbage. My meal is completed with shrimp fried rice with loads of fresh peas, corn, and a tiny bit of ham and pork. It is fully oiled.

Regretfully, I have no room for the other local Chinese magnum opus Jow Wa Gee, the famous 'Beggar's Chicken,' a whole roast bird clad in mud and lotus leaves. The creamy tan colored flesh looks tender to the melting point and as each clay shell is cracked open with a wooden hammer, a scintillating fragrance fills the dining room. The legend goes that a starving beggar steals a chicken and bakes it underground, both to keep his prize hidden and to make full use of the one piece of charcoal he acquired. He is found out because of the wondrous aroma, but the recipe tastes so good that the beggar is made a restaurateur rather than a convict.

Seems every West Lake restaurant serves these same dishes, and ever party orders the same assortment. Yes, a lot of photographs are shot and a lot of souvenirs purchased, but the legendary foods are far and away the number one reason most Chinese tourists eventually make the pilgrimage to the real Xi Hu.

Shanghai, a city of simple pleasures and big smiles, brings back pangs of hunger for the dearly departed Little Shanghai, an East Broadway restaurant in Manhattan which introduced many New Yorkers to their first bites of Shanghainese food. Once you have had the real deal, though, the failings of exported cuisine reveal themselves. Still, Shanghai food in New York is better than American food in Shanghai. Red-white-and-blue Bags of 'Mankattan (sic) USA style hot dog' sit in a quickie marts, un-refrigerated. The label informs us that they are made of 'chicken sausage flavored with tomato sauce. Can be eaten directly or microwaved for twenty-eight seconds!' It smells so rancid I can not bite in and have to put it outside the room immediately. Well ensconced near busy subway stations, the Subway chain, which claims to be the world’s second largest fast food franchise with over fourteen thousand seven hundred stores in seventy-five countries, is popular with youth. The lunch special is a choice of pizza, ham and cheese, blt or bbq pork sandwich, with coffee or tea and potato chips, for just over two bucks.

There are a handful of Shanghainese restaurants on and around Mulberry Street in Manhattan, none providing as authentically translated a dish as Carp Three-ways except at NO. 1 PEOPLE AND PEOPLE'S CHINESE RESTAURANT at 38-06 Prince Street; Flushing. Although there is no Oz, no perfect blend of East and West named Shanghattan, you can try accurate Northern-style (Beijing) dumplings and noodles at nearly Chinese prices in the basement of the mall on East Broadway under the Manhattan Bridge; at DUMPLING HOUSE at 118A Eldridge Street; and her sister restaurant TASTY DUMPLING on Baxter Street; and at a nondescript hole-in-the-wall on 39th Road: west of Main in Flushing.

Shanghai food is so great I want to quit New York altogether, and set my stomach down smack in the middle of Shanghai. Almost. But New York City is still the 'heidiheidiheidiho-est,' so I am gonna stay put and satiate myself for now with dreams of the next junket to Shanghai on the sea.
The author thanks Lonely Planet’s Shanghai Guidebook, Cab Calloway and Irving Mills for the Minnie The Moocher Musik, Marya McQuirter, Isabel Li, Lenny and Leah Douglas, and the Pin Family. Be sure read his article on Shanghai Jews in this issue. And, do stay subscribed for his next article which reports on the exhibition of his collection of Chinese menus at the Museu de Bellas Artes in Caracas, Venezuela, a country with thirty thousand Chinese residents.

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