Local man fails to enjoy Tanea’s punning efforts
Nearly a week in and we’re still only marginally in control of our own destinies here. It doesn’t help that our Chinese is limited to the (very) basics and that in general there’s no expectation that your shop person or taxi driver speaks a word of English. Add the fact that we can’t even decipher Chinese characters and you can imagine we’re pretty much relying on hand gestures and handing over large denominations in the hope that they’ll cover the cost of whatever it is we’re trying to purchase.
James attempts to communicate with a local, only for his rudimentary Chinese to let him down, again.
Still, we’re doing our intrepid bests to do justice to this great city, though the desire to get into the more appalling looking food options is somewhat tempered by having an early teen in tow.
James does his best to convince disaffected teenager that those are not the characters for “horse meat”
That said, we’re all pretty comfortable with breakfast options, although the amount of fried food we’re consuming is pretty alarming. It turns out there are quite a few pretty decent coffee options about, so we haven’t had to go without on that front. To the two morning flat whites I usually add any number of the following:
- Bing: this is the general term for round things, and these are generally some kind of fried bread, either plain or stuffed with chopped vegetables (think Chinese greens, garlic and tofu), bean paste or general and assorted meats (don’t ask; they all taste fine). Some are like pizza bread full of scallions and sesame seeds, others are more like giant dumplings. But the king of bing is surely the dry fried pancake (jianbing) that gets spread with an egg, sprinkled with fried garlic, spread with a hoisin/chilli mix, handfuls of corriander and spring onions, then gets a fried bread (technically another bing, so bing on bing!) then all wrapped up and served. A bit like a masala dosa really. One of these will generally keep you going until the first morning tea time.
- Bao: dumplings either steamed or fried, including the ubiquitous pork bun (though again, there are a range of other fillings including shrimp, bean and vege). There’s even a steamed dumpling skin just full of rice for the purists. These are all great value (about three for a dollar) and offer a welcome relief from the relentlessness of fried everything. I usually eat a couple while I’m waiting for my bing and coffee order.
- Xiao Long Bao: technically a member of the bao family, these deserve a special mention because they are so damn good. Known in English as the Shanghai soup dumpling, they’re usually about the size of a golf-ball, though there are several that are super-sized, presumably for competition eating purposes. I don’t know if these are endemic to Shanghai, but they do seem to be especially identified with the place. These are not the simple dumplings floating in soup that are available at every other hole in the wall, but a tough-skinned dumpling, fried on the bottom to a sticky chewy crisp with a small nugget of filling (generally pork or a pork-based mixture) as well as a decent amount of hot juice (the “soup”). You need to nibble through the skin on top and drink the soup carefully through the hole, a) to prevent scalding your tongue, and b) so you don’t send a jet of soup over onto the person sitting opposite you as Tanea did. Laughter did not ensue.
A hearty breakfast: bing und bao.
Lunchtime seems more suited to noodle or wonton soups as, being early spring, the weather can still be a bit cool (we’re generally oscillating between tee shirt and tee-shirt plus light top) and it’s quite often spitting. I haven’t learned to differentiate between these nearly so thoroughly; it’s generally just a case of going up to the soup dude and pointing, before raising the appropriate number of fingers to signal how many servings you’re after. The broth is generally clear and subtle, though the best ones still manage to stand out with quite detailed flavours. Not as many condiment/sauces on the table as we’re used to back home: chiu chow chilli oil, and maybe just some brown vinegar.
One of many noodle soups. At about $2.50 a pop that’s a cheap stonking.
Anticipating Betty’s picky standards, they even offer a bing burger with nothing but pork inside.
Our dinner options have been quite varied, and everyone’s preferences seem to vary too. Not speaking the lingo’s a real curse, as we’re flying blind apart from the (often minimal) cues offered by menus. Photos are best as the English translations can be hilarious but unhelpful (“three kinds of baby food with liver as centre”?). But even the photos can’t tell you that that duck is insanely sweet and served cold.
Insanely sweet duck, served cold. But otherwise looking pretty much exactly as it did on the menu.
Also I don’t really know my arse from my elbow when it comes to differentiating, say, Xian from Cantonese from Sichuan cuisines, except in the most rudimentary ways. This is possibly compounded by the fact that cooking in Shanghai seems to be immensely progressive, with some restaurants very plainly modifying their styles based on other influences. The result is that each restaurant we’ve tried has had a distinctly different feel.
Pricing is also wildly varied, with most restaurants offering filling but standard dishes for between 20-30 yuan ($5-6). Then there’ll be somewhere that mucks around with your food and wants to slap a 200 yuan price tag on a dish ($45 odd dollars). Generally though we can eat ourselves to a standstill for between $30-60 so even when we go overboard the water’s not that deep.
Betty and Tanea’s favourite was, predictably, at the upper end of cheap and featured a grand dining room, opulent seats that were impossible to manoeuvre around and all the complimentary smoke you could inhale courtesy of surrounding tables (though in truth this is absolutely everywhere). I think it seemed Cantonese in style though what would I know? It reminded me a bit of the old Wellington favourite Uncle Changs (it even had orange beef!) although the fish in the tanks here were more for eating than decoration. Here’s a brief tour:
Betty rushes to get her order in before the place completely packs out and we are thenceforth studiously ignored.
Everything from the classics (the hard boiled eggs are underneath)
To the mango salad on loan from the seventies (that’s Kewpie mayo strewn across the top)
And rarest of all treats: fresh greens!
My favourite was probably a joint just around the corner that cuts back on the intensity of sugar and oil and lets the basic flavours do the talking. That said, it’s not exactly a health spa either. I ordered a pork hock in broth, a large basin of lightly vinegared stock with cabbage, ginger and a whole enormous hock cooked to silken perfection. No sign of soy sauce, it felt almost Germanic in its disposition of elements. Tanea’s tofu-skinned dumplings were similarly light and delicate.
It’s light, and it’s tasty. That’s right: it’s light and tasty
Then there’s the place a few doors down our road that looks kind of swanky from the street. That is until you’re inside and the pull back the sliding doors from the dining room to the kitchen to reveal that the kitchen has them cooking around a great big boiler (as in: the boiler that heats the whole building) on some fairly rudimentary facilities.
The food here had some quite different, distinctive flavours, and there were some suspicious beans that reminded me of the petai beans they used in sambal petai at Satay Kampong, and which lend an indescribable (but partly metallic) flavour to the food. The soup Tanea ordered was once again big enough to feed a family, fiery hot with a bit of the Szechuan pepper effect, numbing the mouth. I ordered deep fried smoked fish which like all the fish I’ve eaten was full of fine bones which you just have to man up and chomp through. But my mouth does feel a bit like I’ve eaten a whole porcupine, and the chilli from Tanea’s soup really made the most of the contusions.
A fiesty, plentiful soup, dwarfing a plate of spiny smoked fish in the background
Well, the research continues. Through it all there’s one constant: cheap, watery beer of which Tsingtao seems to be the pick of the bunch. You have to be careful here as many of them have less than 2% alc, completely defeating the point (especially since there’s no flavour to be considered). It’s cheap and refreshing though and once we learned to stop trying to pronounce it “Tsingtao” and instead say “Chingdow” we have no trouble lining the bottles up on our tables.
Expect us to go on one of our insane health/weightloss kicks when we return.