Sunday, 30 March 2008

Shanghainese Feasts

Back in January I made it over to Shanghai to meet up with my mum. I thought it would be a great breather from London and a lovely half way point between my trip home to Malaysia last September and another trip back this coming May. Oh...but how wrong I was. Shanghai is definitely not made for visiting in January! I had also arrived right BANG in the middle of China's big freeze. Huge snowstorms, freezing temperatures, power cuts.... However, I was mostly unaffected by all this. I was snug in my coat, warm in the cars that ferried us everywhere and only slightly irritated by the ice on the pavements that threatened me with a broken limb. I was in Shanghai and I was determined to feast on as much food as Shanghai could offer.

The famous Shanghainese xiao long bao (little basket dumplings), a ball of minced pork with a little chunk of solidified meat broth wrapped in a pleated flour dough skin and steamed in a bamboo basket. Dumpling perfection! As you bite into a freshly steamed dumpling, expect a shot of wonderfully meaty broth to fill your mouth before trickling down throat. Eaten with ginger and vinegar, these beauties make a brilliant snack or meal (snack for me, meal for others! heh) and with all the different variations - pork and crab, plain pork, pork and vegetable, plain crab, crab and crab roe - I could never get bored. Oh, I do love my dumplings! From the cheap to the expensive, I loved all of them.

I'm told that Shanghai really isn't anything else like the rest of China (not counting Hong Kong, of course). It's more cosmopolitan and modern but I won't really know since before this trip I had never ventured any further than standing on a hill in Hong Kong's New Territories and staring across the border when I was about 10. So I thought what better way to balance the old and the new of Shanghai with a few visits to Starbucks. Love it or hate it, there was no better way than to beat cold, cold Shanghai with a brew of Starbucks' finest beans. I find comfort in the familiarity of it all (and also much to my mother's relief it was the one place where she didn't have to act as translator). I have to say, I found one of the nicest Starbucks I have ever seen. Located on the ground floor of one of the hotels (the name now escapes me), it was all marble and the staff with that comforting twang of wobbly American-English. A skinny grande latte with an extra shot for me and I am ..home :D I also found these yummy cashew brittle that they had down by the counter. An excellent balance to all those salty baos.

At some point of our trip, my mother and I decided we should do the 'cultural thing' while we were in Shanghai. The only problem was finding them. The city isn't particularly known for its historical heritage. Shanghai is a city of commerce but thanks to our handy Lonely Planet guide book (which I borrowed from our hosts - the Gates) we found ourselves some temples to visit. And what is a Chinese temple without a visit to their vegetarian restaurant? At first glance, I have to admit I was a little reluctant to go in to the restaurant at the Jade Buddha Temple (Yùfó Sì). The restaurant was practically empty (it being about 3pm) and it was cold (thanks to its marble floors and the lack of heating)!! The waitresses were even wearing their coats :( But persuaded by a very hungry mother, I was treated to one of the most memorable meals in Shanghai.

I ordered the lion's head meatball and preserved vegetable soup noodles (I didn't take a photo of) and my mother settled for the mushroom noodle soup. My mother dug in as soon as the food arrived and after a few bites we both agreed that we preferred each other's noodle bowl to our own and we promptly swapped. The mushroom noodles (pictured above)- oh so ...divine. It was filled with fresh and dried mushrooms, which gave the dish a nutty earthiness. Although a little too oily (which I overcame by skimming it a little), it was full of flavour .. sigh, and I still dream about it...

We also had a few side orders - fried turnip cake (top right), steamed bao of some sort (top left) and fried sweet pastry filled with Chinese custard (bottom). I say Chinese custard because it's less creamy and a tad bit more egg-y. None of the side dishes took my breath away - in fact I won't bother if I ever went back. However, another bowl of mushroom noodles would do very nicely.

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