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Shanghai and Beijing – one mouthful at a time

October 12, 2009

I always forget to take a notebook with me when I go on holidays. This means that one of the first essentials once a destination is reached is to find a stationery shop (the others being eat and find some tonic. The latter proved difficult for the second time in as many holidays – we need to rethink our duty free purchases). Travelling in Korea, Japan and Malaysia has raised my expectations of stationery but it soon became clear that I wasn’t going to find anything as cute as “Pochi and Mongi together forever, happiness always” in Shanghai (try a Morning Glory shop near you). After the supermarket in the basement at Times Square managed to achieve the ultimate disappointment – instead of not stocking tonic, it only stocked diet tonic – I realised I was going to have to settle compromise and bought a serviceable but mostly unremarkable exercise book1.

Flipping through my notes from the trip, I am struck by the contrast in detail. Each dish in every meal is recorded, but a whole morning in the Forbidden City is noted in two lines:

– eggy pancake b/fast on the run towards Forbidden City
– lots of ppl but many areas deserted – so huge

Clearly the most important aspect of our visit to the Forbidden City was the breakfast en route. No wonder Mao didn’t care to visit2.

So the highs, and not-so-highs, of the food in China…

Shanghainese

The food of Shanghai, according to guidebooks and websources, is characterised by sweetness and oiliness. Funnily enough, “Shanghai” food wasn’t ubiquitous in Shanghai – that honour is probably shared between Sichuanese and Cantonese food. With a bit of effort, and some mis-steps due to the abysmal directions/datedness of our guide books, we did manage to track some down.

Near Shimen No.1 Rd metro – un-named (at least, name un-noted!) restaurant. We headed out on a rainy night, in search of a Xiao Nan Guo and found something that looked like a cheesy “gentlemen’s” club. (As it turns out, I think it was the place we were searching for – we found another branch of it when wandering around the French Concession a few nights later and it had the same cheesy logo). Our mission had been to try Shanghainese food, so we were determined. We eventually found a place that identified itself as having local food so we ate there on the basis of that criteria. We ordered a yellow croaker, which came in a sticky, sweet (but not too oily) brown sauce, gorgeously silky eggplant, pork and peanuts and some green vegies. Sounds like a lot of food for two people, doesn’t it? The difficulty in travelling somewhere like China as a couple is that you either order what you can eat and miss out on trying a lot, or you order more than you can eat and waste food. Given how cheap food was, we tended to stick with the latter, making sure not to order rice (who needs filler?). Oh, and we ate all of what we ordered at this place…

Xinjishi – again, not the restaurant we’d planned to eat at. This time, we’d managed to find a cab and headed for the Ruijin Guesthouse, to eat at their branch of Xiao Nan Guo. It had gone – moved to Donghu Road, as we discovered later. It was packed, but the waiters found us a little alcove off the main part of the upstairs dining room, so we wedged ourselves in and proceeded to order up a storm. We started with some cold dishes: the salted chicken (good, but I really struggle with the shards of chicken bone that seem to break off and pierce my gums whenever I get chopped poultry on the bone), five spice beef slices (delicious), and shredded radish (surprisingly more-ish). Onto the hot dishes, and we felt we had to take advantage of being in Shanghai during hairy crab season. The waiter recommended the crab and bean curd and it was lovely. We couldn’t go past Grandma’s braised pork, which was rich, dark, sweet, and we felt we’d ordered so much we could leave the offally bits. To maintain some western semblance of balance – eat your vegies! – we ordered some greens, and some corn with pine nuts. Amazing food.

Xiao Nan Guo – yes, we did finally get there… in Beijing. The drunken chicken was so-so (I think my shard tolerance was even lower than usual) and the claypot eggplant was silky but had a little too much dried prawn for my liking. I’d chosen the lotus root stuffed with glutinous rice, so I persevered with it for longer than I would have usually. It would have made quite an interesting dessert, or perhaps we needed more diners at the table so share the joy. On the upside, the braised trotter was sublime and the snowpea and bamboo shoots were fresh, crunchy and a perfect balance to the trotter.

Xiao long bao

These delicious, but dangerous, dumplings deserve their own heading. They are native to Shanghai and I’m not ashamed to say that we ate them wherever and whenever we could over the first week. On our first morning, once we cottoned on to the fact that it was two hours earlier than we’d thought, we stepped into the only foodery that seemed to be open on East Nanjing Road. The waitress, clearly fearing that we would take forever to choose, rather forcefully suggested the crab xiao long bao and a couple of bowls of noodle soup with pork and mushroom slivers. I’m not sure whether it was the fact that they were our first XLBs in Shanghai, but I still think they were the best. The version we tried in Old Town – again for breakfast, this time with congee and char siew bao – were good; the Crystal Jade ones were very good; but the fast food joint near Shanghai Station and the cafe at Hongqiao airport proved that it was possible to make average xiao long bao. Even so, they were probably on a par with those at Hutong here in Melbourne, if you’re benchmarking.

Beijing

Well, of course, there was the duck. We didn’t get nearly as much of it as we’d planned – the restrictions and security checks around the Forbidden City/Tiananmen Square/Chang’An Ave precinct ahead of the 60th birthday celebrations led us to rule a couple of places out. Still, we had two ducks, and both were lovely. The first one was at the Wangfujing location of Quanjude and it was very good. The skin was perfectly crispy, the duck was tender, the pancakes and sauces were tasty. Despite mastering the art of not filling up on unnecessary starches, I couldn’t help but eat my way through my entire steamer of pancakes. C was more sensible and left some of his.

Carving the duck

Carving the duck

Our second duck was at a place in Dongzhimennei Daijie. This was better than the first duck. The skin seemed even crispier and more of the fat had rendered off. There was also a sweeter – perhaps slightly smokier? – flavour to the bird. Added to that, the service was much friendlier and the atmosphere was nicer – the section at the back of the restaurant looked like the House of Blue Leaves from Kill Bill.

Dig into some ducky goodness

Dig into some ducky goodness

“Homestyle” cuisine was what was on offer at many local neighbourhood restaurants. It’s hard to define, but was generally hearty and flavoursome. At one place we had beef balls in a sweet sauce – the sauce definitely reminded me of a Sichuanese sauce but without the sichuan pepper. We also had a lovely dish of tofu braised with a range of mushrooms and the sorts of brackeny shoots you sometimes get in Korean food.

Sichuanese

When it was good, it was very, very good. Even when it wasn’t good, it wasn’t dreadful. And it did seem to be everywhere.

First, the not-so-good. Exhibit A was a meal of fish-flavoured pork slivers on rice at a fast-food style place near Shanghai Station. Cheap, filling, just not exceptionally tasty. Still, what do you expect for about $1.50?

Moving up the scale was the restaurant in Shatan Houjie in Beijing. Just down the road from our hotel and a cheap and cheerful place to grab lunch whilst our room was being readied. Ordering gong bao chicken is a bit of a cliche, and their rendition was fairly pedestrian – a little too close to inspiring a chorus of “mama’s making Kantong, doesn’t take long for the word to get around” for the Sichuan hall of fame. On the bright side, the cumin lamb was lovely – salty and spicy with the kind of rich muttony smell and flavour that we don’t get with our sheep meat here anymore. Mmmm.

In less salubrious surroundings, in a little street near the Lama temple in Beijing, we fanned away the cigarette smoke and enjoyed a very good fish-flavoured pork dish and savoured the peculiar sensation of fresh sichuan peppercorns in our fried beans with dried chilli.

Our best Sichuanese experience came at Sichuan Citizen in Shanghai. Naturally, we over-ordered like fiends, choosing a range of cold and hot dishes. The cold sliced beef shank with cucumbers was phenomenally spicy. Not exactly what I was expecting, but delicious nonetheless. The sea bass was lovely but the star was the pork ribs with eggplant. This was my first experience of really good quality sichuan pepper and it seriously blew my mind. When I bit the first peppercorn, there was a burst of heat, and then a tingling feeling began right down the back of my jaw. After a few seconds, the entire left side of my mouth was buzzing. A really odd sensation, but it’s amazing how it seems to take away the heat of the chillies, leaving just the flavour. We are desperate to get our hands on some good stuff now that we are back…

Other regional cuisines

Dong Bei

Zhapu Road, which is lined with restaurants for a number of blocks, was close to our hotel in Shanghai. The problem with a street like this is that it’s very difficult to make a decision on where to eat. We finally managed to settle on a small place that specialised in Dong Bei cuisine. The Lonely Planet doesn’t provide maps of China in its city guides (how stupid!) but we managed to figure out that Dong Bei means North West and was therefore pretty close to Korea. As was the food. We had an amazingly fresh, custard-like tofu in sauce and some cold sliced duck to start, then followed it up with a kimchi-esque twice cooked pork (lots of cabbage, naturally) and a dish of fried pork pieces in a crispy rice crust, with a sort of sweet/sour sauce. That wasn’t quite what we were expecting – we thought it was going to be those little fried rice cakes that go all crispy and puffy and then crackle like demon Rice Bubbles when the sauce is poured over. What we got wasn’t so theatrical, but it was still delicious. Look out for Dong Bei food!

Yunnan

Yunnan borders Burma, Laos and Vietnam and the food certainly had similarities with those cuisines – lots of tangy fish-sauce/limey flavours with fresh chillies and coriander. We had a lovely baked fish, some Dai-style eggplant and a rather unusual potato dish that resembled a rosti in lovely surroundings right on the lake. Mmmm, fried potato!

Cantonese

Always reliable, verging on boring as a result of familiarity, but it came to our rescue a few times when we needed to find a place for a late lunch. We had some delicious roast pigeon in Yunnan Road, but our worst restaurant meal was at a Hong Kong place in Pudong – nothing particularly wrong with it, just boring. Made me feel as though I’d missed an opportunity. Still, the Cantonese dumplings we ordered at Crystal Jade almost made up for that.

Others

We had a noodle soup from a place that identified itself as serving “Shandong” cuisine. Shandong is a province not far to the south of Beijing. The soup was nice – I guess what separated it from other, similar dishes was that the noodles resembled linguine. We also had the trusty Lanzhou noodles, which I love, and were so desperate when one of our duck quests failed that we ended up at a restaurant in a mall where I had some Hainan Chicken Rice and C had a claypot chicken rice with mushrooms. Okay, so they were more Malaysia than China, but they were unexpectedly good.

= = = = = = = = = = = =

It does seem as though all we did in China was eat, doesn’t it?  We actually did a lot of exploring that wasn’t food-related and I’ll get to that.

After I cover the snacks…

1. It came in a plastic sleeve which, for some unfathomable reason, has a ziplock-style open/close on the back cover.

2. No, really, the Forbidden City was amazing.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 12, 2009 7:46 pm

    1. Obviously that’s so you can reuse the bag for something else… sandwiches perhaps? hah! Are you sure you’re supposed to bite in to Sichuan peppercorns? That sounds a bit freaky. Nice photo – the dude looks cheekily suspicious.

  2. October 12, 2009 11:18 pm

    Oh wow – delicious, delicious, delicious,and that duck was devine. What about beverages with the meal. Just tea or beer? I cannot believe you guys ate so much in two weeks.

  3. October 13, 2009 8:26 am

    I miss Shanghai & Beijing and alwaats envious when I hear of people coming back from China. I had so much fun exploring and eating in China. Did you try the fresh yoghurt that they sell on the streets in Beijing? Best Best ever! I tried the duck ta LiQun Roast Duck that is situated in the hutong area. And I have to agree the best dumpling is from Cystal Jade. The egg custard was to die for as well!!

    Gosh… I must make my way back to China soon!

    • injera permalink*
      October 13, 2009 8:34 am

      Jeroxie – we did see the yoghurt in little brown pots! Now I’m really really regretful that we didn’t try it, but it wasn’t until we were almost ready to leave that we figured out what it was. We REALLY wanted to go to LiQun but it was one of the places that we’d have to go through too many scanners to get to due to the tight security.

      I’m really keen to go back! Two weeks just isn’t long enough…

  4. injera permalink*
    October 13, 2009 8:30 am

    SJ – didn’t think of sandwiches… it’s probably a little tight for that, but would possibly fit some white rabbit toffees, as long as the melamine problem has been ironed out. As for eating the peppercorns, they’re used in such quantities that it’s impossible to avoid! And the sensation is amazing.

    RR – As far as beverages go, we pretty much stuck to beer and tea. There were some little yoghurty looking pots around Beijing but I’m not sure whether they were for eating or drinking. C was keen to try some of the local spirit and bought a little flask. You can see why it’s drunk in one gulp – not a sipping drink! We were encouraged to try some local wine by a woman at a supermarket in Shanghai. After not hating the Grand Dragon cab sauv, we tried a number of other wines. Drinkable (some only just) but I won’t be seeking an import license!

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