Monday, December 29, 2008

Only in China: Teacher Appreciation Fortune Cookie

Fortune cookies in China? It's not unthinkable. I once hauled a big bag of freshly-made fortune cookies to Shanghai, and passed them out after a big meal with my extended family. They were a big hit with the inlaws, with a lot of guffawing over the appropriateness of the fortunes (thanks to some creative translations on the part of my wife).

Thanks to Jennifer 8. Lee, whose intrepid pursuit of fortune cookie lore tracked down the only person making fortune cookies in China, I found the website of Beijinger Nana Shi. She seems to have a flair for the high end possibilities of the fortune cookie, and her website's description of her "Teacher Appreciation Fortune Cookie" is probably bookmarked in many a student's browser (not to mention the browser of his or her teacher):
"This delicious cookie is an example of the best of both worlds! This Giant Gourmet Fortune Cookie is hand-dipped in your favorite Belgian Chocolates and decorated with M&M®s candies! This confectionary colossus is an incredible combination of gourmet cookie, chocolates or caramel and melt-in-your-mouth candy! It's almost the size of a football and weighs in at just under 1lb. Your personalized message goes on the foot-long fortune inside! Confectionary Artisans hand wrap each cookie in a crisp, clear cellophane bag and tie it with a matching water-color Ombre Wire-Edged Ribbon. Fortune Message: The best teachers teach from the heart, not from the book."

Remember the simple days when a shiny apple would do?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Go for the education, stay for the beef noodles: On-campus eats in Shanghai


Fudan University cafeteria photo by Mimi Yang, dianping.com member

In Googling around in search of whatever it was in preparation for my last Shanghai trip, I stumbled across an informational website for Shanghai with something different to offer a foodie. While websites abound listing or recommending all manner of eating places in Shanghai, it wasn’t until I discovered shanghaitown, a website rich in information for overseas students, that I ever saw a guide to on-campus dining in Shanghai. This is a topic of particular interest to me, since I sometimes stay at an apartment conveniently located to both Fudan University (scrumptious beef noodles) and Tongji University (terrific T-bone steak). The full rundown, school by school, begins here; the website’s recommended list is summarized here:

Shanghai University Baoshan Campus: Xinjiang mixed Long noodle with vegetable in the Islamic Restaurant, Boiled Beef in Hot Sauce, Rice Cake with T Bone Steak, Pan Fried Beef Bun, Sandwich and Coffee in No.5 Street Restaurant.

Tongji University: T Bone Steak, Fried Egg with Tomato, Beef Noodles.

Shanghai Normal University: Saute Rice Noodles with Green Bean Sprouts on the second floor of West Restaurant, Korean Well-Done Rice by Stone Pot.

Shanghai Jiao Tong University: Beef Ramen Noodles,

Northeastern University, China: good snack bars

Shanghai Medical College Fudan University: Savoury and Crisp Chicken, Pork in Soy Sauce

East China Normal University: Earthenware Casserole, Malatang.

Fudan University: Beef Ramen Noodles

Foreign Trade College in Songjiang University-Town: Breakfast

Shanghai International Studies University: Steamed Bun

Lixin University in Songjiang University-Town: Barbecued pork, Steamed Bun

East China University of Politics and Law in Songjiang University-Town: Pan Fried Pot Sticker, Fried Egg with Tomatoes

Northeastern University in Songjiang University-Town: Spicy Chicken

The full skinny is worth reading for the pithy comments by students. One noted that there are many restaurants at Tongji University and offered these words of wisdom:

"Newly-opened restaurants are not as good as previous-opened ones in taste; restaurants with good environment are not as good as restaurants with bad environment in taste".

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Happy Dumpling Day!


Children make dumplings to celebrate the upcoming winter solstice day at a kindergarten in Hami, northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Dec. 19, 2008. As the Chinese tradition, people eat dumplings to celebrate the winter solstice day. (Xinhua/ Cai Zengle)
It's the Winter Solstice, a traditional day for eating dumplings. In most of China, this means ear-shaped jiaozi, though in the south of China and in the diaspora stuffed sweet rice dumplings (tang yuan) are substituted. I'm off to to enjoy a dumpling lunch with friends, but there are some mouth-watering dumpling photo essays from the Chinese media here, here, and here. A nice overview of Chinese winter lore can be found in the Black Dragon Press Journal.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Going out for Chinese in Shanghai, Circa 1935

Whether you were a westerner living in the International Settlement or the French Concession or a well-heeled local, if you went out for a big Chinese dinner in 1930s Shanghai, you probably headed for Sun Ya. Sun Ya, now known as Xinya, is a mammoth four-floor establishment which served the best in Cantonese cuisine. Although the quality of the food has suffered in the intervening years, Xinya remains a popular establishment for large gatherings, especially wedding parties. The seafood "hot pot" meals and the "dim sum" are still worth a visit, as is the fact that Sun Ya/Xinya is somewhat of a culinary shrine. Because Shanghai had for so long been the primary point of contact with China for resident and visiting Westerners, and because Sun Ya was the restaurant they were most likely to know, it played a large part in establishing expectations for Cantonese food throughout the Western world.

A prized possession of mione is a copy of a 28-page English-language Bill of Fare for Sun Ya, circa 1935. I don't know the exact date of the menu, though it's apparently from shortly after the restaurant moved from 579 Nanjing Rd. to its current location. It is more than a menu, but a tutorial in dining at a Chinese Restaurant. Its glosses provide an inside look Chinese Restaurants of the time, including an explanation of the strange goings-on that might have been encountered by the unaware diner. A scanned version of it is available for perusal on the eatingchinese.org website.

I'm fond of the "Miscellaneous Dishes" section of the menu on page 8. Item number 100, footnoted, is "Sweet and Sour Pork*." The footnote identifies this dish a "a very popular Cantonese dish among foreigners." That, of course was before General Tso's Chicken.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Cinema Stir-Fry: A Symphony of Cooking Utensils

This is the second post in a series I've decided to call "Cinema Stir-Fry" (Celeste Heiter's wonderul blog has bragging rights to "Chopstick Cinema"), the first being about a move called Xian Doujiang.

A Symphony of Cooking Utensils (that's a literal translation, which hopefully sounds less cumbersome in Chinese) was made in 1983 by Teng Wenji, but somewhat prophetically points to the economic reforms of the 1990's. The protagonist, Niu Hong (played by Sun Chun) is a young cooking school graduate who is made manager of the dysfunctional Chun Zheng Restaurant. The restaurant is rundown and simply drifting (it's a State Owned Enterprise) and the idealistic Niu takes it upon himeslf to shape it up. He performs miracles with apparent ease, getting bank loans for remodeling, upgrading the menu and generally gussying up the place and the employees' attitudes. Soon the place is turning a handsome profit, which he re-invests in his employees as well as catering and other related activities. Along the way he deals with petty frictions between employees, truculent customers, and ultimately Communist Party apparatchiks, who are appalled by his personal initiative and insubordination (which includes sending a representative to Party meetings he considers useless instead of attending himself). Most of all, they are miffed at his failure to turn over all his profits to the Party, and Niu's refusal to bend on the issue gets him fired.

Intertwined with the restaurant reform saga are several love interests, including a couple of triangles in which Niu is the odd man out. One of these triangles includes Liu Junying (played by Yin Tingru), who is supporting herself through art school by working at the restaurant. Niu becomes infatuated with her, but finds out she is engaged to a famous young writer (who plays a key role in saving Niu's bacon by the end of the movie).

The movie has a thin but well paced plot, with excellent cinematography, and the enigma of Niu's capacity for mismanaging love even when it's thrown in his lap keeps it from being utterly banal. Although Niu's love life doesn't pan out (so to speak), the movie ends with Communist ideology and the free enterprise spirit walking off hand in hand.

Although a majority of the movie was filmed in the restaurant, there are disappointlngly few scenes of food and food being prepared, with the highlights here being a watermelon feast that Niu treats the employees to, and a scene of Niu cooking in the busy kitchen.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Man Who Would Not Eat Chinese Food

Stephen Conroy, Australia's Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, is from Melbourne but might as well be from Mars, according to his peers: he does not eat Chinese food!

Phillip Hudson reports on this rara avis in the Sydney Morning Herald:

Robert Ray famously called him a dalek, but the faction warlords from Labor's NSW Right thought they had encountered a genuine alien in Stephen Conroy. They identified with his confidence and ferocious determination to win. They even begrudgingly tolerated his lifelong abstinence from alcohol. But how could they do business with a man who did not eat Chinese?

"One of the first right wing factional dinners I ever went to in Sydney was of course Chinese," Conroy says. Insisting he did not indulge the cuisine, his co-diners stared "at me as though I was from another planet, not just from Melbourne". That's because the real deals in the NSW Right are sealed over a good Chinatown meal, often within stumbling distance of the ALP's Sussex St headquarters.

"If you can't eat Chinese food you starve," says the former Labor leader Kim Beazley. "But I think Steve lives on adrenalin. He could quite cheerfully turn up at a Chinese restaurant for three hours on a glass of water while he pursues politics. For those who are his enemies, they always ought to be aware this bloke would rather a fight than a feed."

Fortunately, Conroy is not Minister for Dining, Catering and Carryout.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Potstickers, Pilsener Urquell and Puccini

My onetime favorite restaurant in Shanghai was a State Owned Enterprise, Yu You (越友), which roughly translates to "Yu [Shaoxing] Opera Friends." It actually started life as a gathering place for fans and performers of this musical form, and I could imagine the strains of "Dream of Red Mansions" filling the air in the main dining room, which was alway full of good cheer due in part to the tall bottles of Shanghai Beer which seemed to adorn every table. Yu You has been gone for years, progress and profit having replaced it with an upscale Japanese restaurant called Ambrosia. According to an article in The Prague Post by Wendy Leung, however, the combination of Chinese food, opera (both Western and Chinese) and beer lives on in the Czech Rebublic at a little restaurant in Vinohrady called "Dobrý den."
Have you ever been at a pub and thought, “If only I could nosh on Chinese food and listen to live opera while enjoying my beer?” Well, someone has. The Dobrý den, a little neighborhood Chinese restaurant in Vinohrady, launched its first “opera pub” night in late November, and will host another Jan. 12.Restaurateur Patty Zhu was an opera singer for four years in Beijing and Hong Kong, before finding her way into the import business in Prague and eventually opening Dobrý den last year. The restaurant soon became a hangout for professional Czech singers in the area, and the idea of pooling their talents germinated.While a pianist accompanies on a portable electric keyboard, Zhu and her friends belt out French, Italian and Chinese opera favorites in front of a jam-packed dining room, while guests drink beer and snack on tapas-style Chinese plates.If you’re looking for a surreal evening, you’ll find one here. For more information, check Dobry-den.eu.
According to Dobrý den's website, the musical offerings at the first "opera pub night" was:

Mozart: duet Don Giovanni
Cherubin
Puccini : Kalaf
Samson and Dalila
G. Verdi: Libiano
Dvorak: Rusalka
Dvorak: Princ
Why are the roses red
Weber: Memory (Cats)
Mayila
Con te partino (Bruschelli)

There's no mention of what "tapas" were served, but the restaurant's website lists the lunch menu. Did you know Sweet and Sour Pork is "Vepřové ve sladkokyselé omáčce" in Czech?

Monday, December 08, 2008

Northern Chinese food


I recently stumbled across an article about a man named Sun Jiantao, who opened a restaurant called "Chinese Dragon" in Murmansk, Russia. The article was in Chinese, but according to an automatic translation, I think it claims to be the first Chinese restaurant north of the Arctic Circle (66° N. Latitude), though you can't trust those machine translations. I knew it wasn't the only Chinese restaurant north of the Arctic Circle; my favorite Chinese restaurant that I've never been to, Misigisaq Restaurant, is in Sisimiut, Greenland, (latitude 66.93). I also knew that my daughter can claim to have been to northernmost McDonald's in the world, in Rovaniemi, Finland (lat. 66.48), and if there's a McDonald's there, there has to be a Chinese restaurant or two in the vicinity. [Edit: I recently found photographic evidence of one Chinese Restaurant in Rovaniemi, Xiang Long.}

But was the Chinese Dragon in Murmansk (lat. 68.59) the northernmost Chinese restuarant in the world? I had to know, but it didn't take long to debunk that notion. As a fan of Cheuk Kwan's Chinese Restaurants series of movies, I knew all about Michael Wong's "Lille Buddha" in Tromsø, Norway, and its competitors. A quick check revealed Tromsø's latitude to be 69.65, esily besting Murmansk. Not only that, but Tromsø may have as many as six Chinese restaurants; I can't be sure that they all are still open, but in addition to Lille Buddha, I found references to Tang's restaurant, Choi's Kjøkken, Lotus, Shanghai, and Il Mare (which doubles as a Latino dance hall on weekends), all in Tromsø.

Could
Tromsø be bested? I soon found what must be the real Heavyweight Champion of Northern Chinese food, Ny-Ålesund, Norway. At 78.93, it is so far north that it's mostly populated by staff at climate research stations, and a flickr photo displays what appears to be a nameless Chinese restaurant. Search attempts to find a name for this restaurant pricked that bubble, however. According to the account of Ship's Captain Philip Rentell of the Saga Rose
"As I walked around, tourist style, I was surprised to come across what appeared to be a Chinese restaurant. On closer observation it was, of course, the Chinese research station from Shanghai, but the large stone Chinese dragons outside were both impressive and deceiving."
The real winner? Until someone furnishes evidence of a Chinese restaurant in Longyearbyen, Norway (lat. 78.22), the northernmost place to get a Chinese restaurant meal appears to be in a town right here in the U. S. of A. (and with no funny letters in its name), Barrow AK, Latitude 71.29. That place would be Sam and Lee's Chinese Restaurant, at 1204 Agvik, next to Pepe's North of the Border, which might be the northernmost Mexican restaurant in the world.

What kind of welcome will you find at Sam & Lee's? Take it from local Floyd Davison's advice to a visitor:
"Whatever, when you get here... get settled in and then drop by Sam & Lee's Chinese Restaurant. It is possible to miss me in the evening. These days between 9 and 11 in the morning is almost a guaranteed thing though. Just look for one big fat old guy and one short fat (older) guy (me) sitting in the middle of the room downstairs acting like they own the joint. (You won't have to find us actually, as we usually latch onto every tourist who walks in, just for entertainment."

And give me a report on the Mongolian Beef, willya?

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Crime-fighting fortune cookies

Imagine opening a fortune cookie and getting a message that says "Watch out for pickpockets – mind your valuables." This might happen to you if you are dining at the Crown Buffet Chinese restaurant in Leeds, England, reports the Yorkshire Evening News. It seems that inserting anti-crime messages in fortune cookies was the bright idea of the West Yorkshire Police and Leeds City Council, and supported whole-heartedly by the restaurant owner (we don't know if there was an "or else" involved). The cookies will also be handed out in car parks. I don't know if Jennifer 8. Lee has checked in with an opinion on this, but to me it would take all the fun out of fortune cookies if you opened one and it said "Lock valuables out of sight or take them with you" -- even if you added "between the sheets."

Trading Chinese food for sex with prisoners -- Since we're on the subject of crime, I found in The Watertown Daily Times, a newspaper I grew up reading (and the long winters in its watershed area can make anyone go goofy), this article on bizarre goings-on at a "correctional facility" in Gouverneur, N.Y. It seems that a frisky female commissary worker had a few sexual favors on the menu for male inmates. Not only that, but "She also provided inmates working in the commissary with food from the outside — including McDonald's fare, Chinese food and brownies," according to the article.

I don't know about you, but if I were a male inmate, I think gettin' a little from a person of the opposite sex would be treat enough; getting some Chinese food -- even takeout Chinese -- as well would be like eating your tofu and having it too.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Children on the sauce in Shaoxing


When you think of Shaoxing, you usually think of the yellow rice wine they are famous for. Not to worry, the children in the picture aren't waiting for a new batch of Shaoxing jiu to be drinkable, they are watching the manufacturing of another kind of sauce. They're at the new National Sauce Culture Museum in Shaoxing, and according to that institution's website, the museum "digs up the profound sauce culture of Shaoxing which has famous“ three urns culture“( wine urn, sauce urn, dye urn) and extensive Chinese sauce culture." With admirable candor, the museum goes on to add "It is rooted in the background of Zhejiang province with great culture and adjust to the domestic active market economy and also the trends of building museums by big enterprises abroad .At the same time we are glad to get the support of local tourism department ." The local "big enterprise" behind it is the Shaoxing Zhewei Foods Company, but the website hastens to addthat Prof. Zhao Rongguang of Zhejiang University is in charge of designing and maintaining the museum.

I was tipped off to the existience of the National Sauce Culture Muzeum by an article in the Fall 2008 issue of Flavor & Fortune Magazine, which delivered a little more clarity than the English language component of the museum's website:

This museum tells the history of sauces beginning with the first person known in the sauce industry, Cai Yung (133 - 192 CE). His statue graces the entrance as does a wall telling about sauce culture in China. These and the museum tell, in Chinese and English, how soy sauces were taken to Japan by Monk Jianzhen in 755 CE, and lots more.

The Flavor & Fortune article was written by the magazine's founder/publisher Jacqueline M. Newman, professor and Chinese cookbook collector, who gave a plenary lecture at the 2007 China 1st Sauce Culture International Forum, which dedicated the museum. In her account she reports that "On the way home [the speakers] stopped at a Shaoxing wine factory and tasted and viewed specifics to that local fantastic fermented product."

We have no pictures of the adults on the sauce in Shaoxing.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Youdunzi, you done me good!

I was late coming to Youdunzi, long a popular Shanghai street food, but I have an excuse. Youdunzi are usually made by the same street vendors (most often women) who make chou doufu (stinky tofu) and I find it hard to pass up another rendition of stinky tofu when I come across it. After repeatedly hearing Shanghainese (including my sister-in-law, Daisy) wax rhapsodic about youdunzi, I finally got into them near the end of my Shanghai stay in October, and regretted my tardiness in doing so.

A glance at the picture above is enought to tell you that youdunzi are tasty; after all, anything coming out of a deep fryer looking golden brown and crunchy like that have got to be tasty, right? But just what are youdunzi?

Youdunzi (油墩子), if you auto-translate it will come out as "oil block." "You" means oil, and often, as in this case, signifies deep fried, and "dun" means "block." But why "block"? I don't know, but some older Shanghainese pronounce it youdengzi and insist the name should be rendered "油凳子" where the "deng" character means "stool," as in the type of stool you sit on, and the food in question does resemble a shallow stool in shape. I'd tend to agree with that theory, except searching on "油凳子" doesn't yield many results, whereas "油墩子"does.

To make our deep fried "blocks" or "stools," a flour, water and egg batter is pressed into a special long-handled mold (shown in the picture on the right), and this "skin" is stuffed with a mixture of shredded luobo (daikon) and minced green onion, then covered with more batter and lowered into boiling oil. The process is illustrated in this photo tutorial (in Chinese). What emerges from the oil is a marvel of delicate crunchiness surrounding a tangy soft inner melange of savory daikon and green onion. Some versions add white pepper for additional spiciness, and some also add shreds of carrot. There are even recollections of sweet versions, in which red bean paste is used as the stuffing.

If you are averse to street food, you'd better hope you know someone whose grandmother makes youdunzi, because you are unlikely to come across these in restaurants.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Window Shopping in Chinatown with Google Street View


View Larger Map

While most visitors to San Francisco's Chinatown know Grant Avenue and the shops vending Chinoiserie of various sorts, the real heartbeat of Chinatown is Stockton Street, where the locals shop for everything that goes into making a meal. At peak times (midday or late afternoons) on certain blocks, the pedestrian density rivals anything I've seen in Shanghai or Hong Kong, and the provender on display is nearly as exotic.

I've put this up as an experiment; elbow your way through the virtual crowds, and imagine the smell of the durians, the sounds of the live chickens and bullfrogs on display. Let me know what you think.

Din Tai Fung Trumped on Home Turf?

I've long maintained, sometimes vociferoously, that there were cheaper and better alternatives in Shanghai to vaunted Taiwan upstart Din Tai Fung's xiao long bao, even though the iconic Nanxiang has fallen from grace. Xiao long bao is, after all, a populist food, and places like Jia Jia Tang Bao and De Long Guan are just doing what comes naturally when they provide superior dumplings in a no-frills environment at a fraction of Din Tai Fung's price.

It comes as no surprise to me, therefore, that Din Tai Fung might be trumped on its own home turf (Taipei) in the xiao long bao department, and this article in The Taipei Times seems to comfirm that suspicion:

Mention xiaolongbao (小龍包), or steamed dumplings, and the name Din Tai Fung (鼎泰豐) is bound to enter the conversation. But any dumpling aficionado is just as likely to tout a cheaper and even better alternative.

One such place is Mingyue Tangbao (明月湯包, Mingyue Steamed Dumplings), which enjoys a loyal following. During busy times it’s not uncommon to find a line of people waiting outside this modest shop near the Tonghua Street (通化街) night market.... .

Both connoisseurs and newcomers should try the house specialty, mingyue tangbao (明月湯包, NT$120 per basket of eight), the shop’s name for its xiaolongbao. The marks of a good dumpling were all there: the outer flour wrap was delicate and thin but didn’t break when picked up with chopsticks; each dumpling had a good proportion of soup, meat and dough; and the minced pork was lean and tasted fresh.
Mingyue has also caught the attention of bloggers, most notably Monya, whose blog 懶洋洋胡言亂語 (roughly "Indolent Babblings") is in Chinese but whose mouthwatering pictures of the small eats offered by Mingyue are worth 10,000 words.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Gung Haggis Fat Choy Tix Soon!

I have favorite Chinese restaurants I've never been to, like Misigisaq Restaurant in Sisimiut, Greenland, and if I have favorite events I've never been to, topping the list would the annual bash in Vancouver known as Gung Haggis Fat Choy. This event features a 10-course Chinese banquet with a Haggis theme, lavish entertainment, and probably a modicum of sedate tipsiness (it being Vancouver, after all). You see, Robert Burns' Birthday usually occurs around Chinese New Year, both events feature big meals, and there's this guy named Todd Wong (sometimes a.k.a. Toddish McWong) who.... but let his website tell you all about how one logical, if goofy, idea metamorphosed into a mega social event that spun off a dragon boat racing team, promotes intercultural good will and supports the arts.

Todd's website is about to announce the availability of tickets for the 2009 event soon, and maybe it's time to push aside the specter of a bland boring turkey and smack your lips at the thought of GHFC's legendary deep-fried haggis wontons.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Shanghai: a xiao long bao report card


I recently wrapped up a 30-day visit to Shanghai in which I couldn’t resist repeated indulgence in my passion for xiao long bao. I didn’t consciously plan a systematic review of the state of the dumpling art, but there were XLB vendors of repute that I had to track down simply because I knew they were there, and there were other places I stumbled across that I couldn’t turn away from without vetting. All told, I had xiao long bao at least 15 times, at 12 different venues. If you are wondering where Din Tai Fung is in all of this, I have discussed my reaction to DTF in the past in this and other forums; in a nutshell, I found DTF’s XLB to be very good, roughly the equal to Jia Jia Tang Bao’s, but so grossly over-priced by local standards that I found no reason to return to DTF on this trip.

Here is my October, 2008, Shanghai xiao long bao report card:

A+

De Long Guan -- Jiangxi Lu

De Long Guan made its way to the head of the class by shamelessly pandering to my memories of my first xiao long bao 16 years earlier. This Proustian feat was described in an earlier post and won't be repeated here.

A

Jia Jia Tang Bao -- Huanghe Lu
Jia Jia Tang Bao -- Liyuan Lu

Despite my preference for De Long Guan's evocative product, Jia Jia Tang Bao must still be considered the King of Xiao Long Bao in Shanghai, because the former's smallness of scale and its somewhat daunting premises make it unlkely to assume the role of a destination restaurant. Jia Jia, on the other hand, has its small red-hatted armies of ingenues (see the picture art the top) well trained to turn out sizeable quantities of baozi with the speed and precision of DTF's operating theater personnel.

The xiao long bao at Jia Jia are of uniformly thin skin, carefully wrapped and filled with solid and "soup" fillings of complexity, consistency and flavor. I didn't detect a whit of difference between the two locations of Jia Jia, or between their current locations and the former location on Yunnan Nan Lu.

B

Long Pao Xie Huang Xiao Long (Qibao)
Nanjing Tang Bao (Shouning Lu)
Shang Wei Guan (Xiangshan Lu)

Of these three, Shang Wei Guan was the most frustrating. It had been given the highest rating for taste by dianping.com reviewers of any XLB specialist that had a significant number of reviews, and was the hardest for me to track down, which I did on my last day in Shanghai. The XLB had amazingly thin wrappers, the thinnest I have encountered in years, but they were a bit sloppy in construction, and also tossed casually in the steamer so that they were randomly scattered in the long rather than than nicely arranged (one was actually lying on its side). Even so, I would have ranked them higher if the soup had had the intensity of De Long Guan’s. Long Pao Xie Huang Xiao Long in Qibao (on the Qibao Old Street) and Nanjing Tang Bao on Shouning Lu (a pretty good little food street itself) were two I stumbled across. They both came close to Jia Jia perfection, failing primarily in the flavor density of the broth.

C

Fu Chun Xiao Long (Yuyuan Lu)
Nanxiang Xiaolong Mantou Dian (3rd Fl)
Shanghai Lao Cheng Huang Miao (Haichao Lu)
Yi Pin Guang Tang Bao (Guangyuan Lu)
90 Duolun Lu Tea House

Fu Chun Xiao Long also was something of a disappointment, primarily because of my expectations; it had been mentioned in the same breath as Jia Jia Tang Bao and De Long Guan in a 2007 “Best of” listing by dianping.com but it fell short of the other two, in my estimation. In particular, the wrappers were not only thick, but constructed with blow-holes on top, like the version the Taiwanese used to make and top off with a pea.


For the Nanxiang Xiaolong Mantou Dian (or whatever it’s called these days) this was the first time I’d tried the third floor XLB, though I have noted elsewhere that the second floor and the ground floor takeout XLB have fallen far from the pinnacle of excellence of the Nanxiang’s heyday. I had heard various reports on whether the third floor XLB were better than downstairs, and I found that they seemed to be a bit fresher, but with little other discernible difference. This may be due to the fact that the third floor has its own production crew and facility, while the other two levels get theirs mass produced in the highly visible ground floor kitchen, where the stockpiling is obvious to anyone who has stood in the takeout line.

Shanghai Lao Cheng Huang Miao is a chain of restaurants featuring Shanghai small eats; there happened to be a branch within short walking distance of my hotel so I was able to enjoy passable XLB for breakfast at will. They were not, however, of destination quality.

Yi Pin Guan Tang Bao is a venue I discovered when I was giving some visiting friends a walking tour of the French Concession area and they expressed a desire to try xiao long bao. Following my instincts, I left Hengshan Lu and wandered in the direction of Jiaotong University and sure enough, found Yi Pin steaming XLB on the street. They were great if you are there and hungry, but, like Lao Cheng Huang Miao’s, not something to go out of your way for.

“C” is probably a generous rating for the XLB at the tea house at 90 Duolun Lu (I never caught the actual name). They were oversized and bland, but came as an accompaniment to a lovely glass of longjing tea and I can’t think of a nobler role for xiao long bao.

Not Rated

De Xing Guan -- Zhonghua Lu

De Xing Guan’s xiao long bao are not orthodox xiao long bao, being oversized and of a different, though satisfying flavor in the filling. De Xing Guan has been around and revered for its tasty food for so long that event though what they dish out is, for lack of a better description, tantamount to a Shanghai version of a New York soup dumpling a la Joe’s Shanghai, they can call it anything they want.


Chinese Menu Translations: No more "Government Abused Chicken?"

English translations on Chinese Restaurant menus have long been a source of cheap yucks. Ludicrous, and sometimes even x-rated translations on menus have been a major component in the corpus of "Chinglish", a phenomenon that inspired web sites and picture books. Now, if the municipal government of Beijing has its way, these gaffes will become a thing of the past.

According to a China Daily article,

The Beijing municipal government's foreign affairs office and the Beijing tourism bureau have jointly published a book, Chinese Menu in English Version. It lists 170 pages of Chinese and Western dishes, and beverages. And nowhere is "chicken without a sexual life" to be found.

The book will no doubt come in handy to those restaurants that depend on translation software for the English names of dishes. "Government Abused Chicken" is now correctly rendered as Kung Pao Chicken.

The official list is published on many (mostly Chinese) websites. The most accessible source is here. I'm working on a spreadsheet version, with Pinyin Romanization included.

Thankfully,

The pamphlet does not include such items as "General Tso's (or Tsao's) Chicken" and "Singapore Fried Rice", popular mostly overseas. For that matter, Yang Chow Fried Rice and even the well-liked Egg Foo Young are not included.

Those dishes are on their own. And to correct another omission, 狗肉 on your menu is "dog."


Monday, November 17, 2008

Pinda-Pinda, Lekka-Lekka

Or, on Chinese peanut cookie vendors, Amsterdam, and the national anthem of Indonesia.



According to an article in the Hong Kong Standard, pinda-men, or peanut cookie vendors, were the first Chinese many people in Amsterdam had ever seen. At the onset of the 1930’s, Amsterdam’s small Chinese community consisted mostly of seamen, tucked way in boarding houses when not shipping out. Came the economic depression:

"Then, hard times had hit the small Chinese community. One old man, Ng Kwai, started to sell candies on the street and found that peanut cookies from southern China were a hit. Many of his compatriots soon followed, making the pinda-man into a phenomenon."


This phenomenon was noted and magnified in 1933, when an entertainer who performed under the name of Willy Derby recorded a ditty based on the chant or the pinda-men, Pinda-Pinda, Lekka-Lekka.” “Pinda” means peanut in Dutch and “lekka” means delicious (think “lekker”). This recording met with riotous success in Dutch-speaking parts of the world, including, famously (or infamously depending on where you sit), Indonesia. It is widely believed, it seems, that a little bit of plagiarism transformed this ditty's chorus into Indonesia's natonal anthem, Indonesia Raya. As one website puts it,

"The national anthem of Indonesia ‘Indonesia Raya’ composed by WR Supratman, welknown because his face is on the 50.000 Rp note, which was played for the first time in public on the [previously mentioned] Youth congress is also said to be an imitation of a Dutch song i.e. ‘Pinda, Pinda, Lekka, Lekka’ sung in the 1920’s by Willy Derby, a man who became famous in Indonesia because he is also the composer of ‘Hallo Bandoeng".

This contention is unerstandably controversial, with egos at stake. A ditty in Dutch about a poor Chinese street vendor the inspiraton for Indonesia's national anthem?? Its' been the subject of much discussion in area message boards, with some claiming there is little resemblance between the two songs. One enterprising individual even put together a video for presentation on Youtube comparing, phrase by phrase, the chorus of Pinda-Pinda Lekka-Lekka with Indonesia Raya. You be the judge.



Saturday, November 15, 2008

Xinjiang Matang -- an ancient and arty confection



Across the street from the hotel that was my home for a month in Shanghai is a mall with a plaza in front of it. This plaza, and the sidewalk along the entire block to the east, hosts an impromptu night market offering an ever-changing array of temptations ranging from knock-off handbags to stinky tofu. One night I spotted a curious sight on the plaza: a vendor with a flat-bed tricycle upon which sat what appeared to be a massive cake, partially cut away, and artfully decorated with candied fruit on the top. This sight rang a bell with me, and hastening to my computer I found a message board discussion I had seen before that identified this wonder as a Xinjiang confecton called matang (麻糖) sold by itinerant Uighur vendors.

I don't have much of a sweet tooth, but I ccoudn't resist returning and buying a hunk, meekly agreeing to the asking price and not complaining when he "accidentally" cut off a piece that was considerably heavier than the jin (0.5 Kg) I asked for. By then I was surrounded by other vendors who were either admiring my temerity or bemused by my naivete. Oh well, I ended up with a fine 20 oz. hunk of rare (and not too sweet) candy for around $5 in US money. As I found out later, the Xinjiang matang is pricey by anyone's standards because it's almost solid walnut paste in composition.

My vendor turned out to be one of a group of nine who had traveled together from Xinjiang. I found this out later from the restaurant proprietor when my Sister-in-Law and I went to dinner at our local Lanzhou La Mian joint and found four matang tricycles parked in front, their owners enjoying the fresh-pulled noodles. (Around the same time an "invasion" of another 10 or so vendors was reported by the media in Jiaxing, south of Shanghai; they were cited for lack of permits and ridden out of town on a rail, something that wouldn't happen in laissez-faire Shanghai.)

Subsequent Googling and machine translation of Chinese sources revealed the following about Xinjiang Matang: It's a specialty of the town of Hotan (or Khotan) in southwest Xinjiang, home of Xinjiang's famous thin-shelled walnuts and possessed of a large Uighur population. The basic process, passed down from generation to generation, seems to be to boil grapes (which the area is also noted for) down to a syrup, then add crushed walnuts and continue the boil. Later, when the mass achieves the right density, it is pressed into a mold and decorated with candied fruit. It's not surprising that the decoration is typically artistic, as this region is also famous for fine carpets.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

De Long Guan xiao long bao: a Proustian straight shot to 1992



I just wrapped up a month-long stay in Shanghai, no small part of which was devoted to checking out the state of xiao long bao and other small eats. I hit a total of 12 different xiao long bao venues; I'll preview the bottom 11 in a subsequent post, but Number 1 deserves its own paean.

I had my xiao long bao epiphany in early April, 1992, at Shanghai's Nanxiang Xiaolong Mantou Dian, the place that put xiao long bao on the map and established what was indisputably the gold standard for the noble dumpling. The timing of my visit was fortuitous, because less than two weeks later the Nanxiang was shut down for extensive remodeling and reconfiguration as a more tourist-oriented venue, a metamorphosis that seemed to trigger an inexorable decline in the quality of the xiao long bao served there.

Since my first xiao long bao experiences, I've been hunting down the best XLB I could find wherever I happen to be, and for the last couple of years have been flying the flag for Jia Jia Tang Bao as the best Shanghai had to offer. Visits to the two current Jia Jia locations earlier on this trip did nothing to dissuade me from that opinion, but a subsequent visit to De Long Guan did.

In truth, I had begun to doubt my memory of what I had been so excited about 16 years ago. Was I chasing a phantom, a platonic ideal that didn't exist? Not in the least, it turned out: what the woman at De Long Guan set before me was nothing less than a Proustian straight shot back to 1992 in the form of six precious dumplings. The very size seemed right for once, a millimeter of two smaller in diameter than prevails today. The wrapper was as thin as anybody else's, and the solid filling perfectly chewy, not grainy. But it was the intensity of the “soup” that brought back the flood of memories. It was an intensity that some might fault as too salty, but in reality it was the right partner leading in the irascibly Shanghainese dance of salty and sweet that serves so well to corral and deepen the flavor of a complex medium. I ordered a second steamer to make sure my taste buds weren't playing tricks on me, and the magic remained. I'll be visiting De Long Guan again before I leave town, and praying it will be there when I come back in a year's time. It's a hole-in-the-wall that certainly looks like its been there forever.

De Long Guan (德笼馆)
473 Jiangxi Zhong Lu nr. Nansuzhou Lu

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Diving into dianping.com

In the course of strategy planning for my next trip to Shanghai, I've been digging deeply into dianping.com, China's user-driven restaurant review site. If you haven't heard of it, it combines a Zagat-like scoring system with a Yelp!-like youth and enthusiasm. The full name of the organization behind it is Da Zhong Dian Ping (大众点评) which can be translated as "restaurant criticism by the masses" and massive it is, with ranked reviews of 27,777 eateries in Shanghai alone, at last count. Imaging having a ranked list of nearly 900 noodle shops reviewed by locals, or of 180 places specializing in xiao long bao (I'll try to hit them all, of course).

One difficulty with dianping.com is that it is all in Chinese and my knowledge of written chinese is scant, to say the least. However, by diligently using various machine translation tools and a little imagination, I can more or less figure out who is saying what about where. One of my discoveries was that at least one person was already writing reviews in English, so I took the time to figure out how to register at the website, post reviews, and rank and categorize my eating experiences in Shanghai. I am now proud member no. 3,043,109. I've written 9 reviews so far, and uploaded a few pictures. I've even gathered a few posies from a mini-fan club, who seem to feel grateful that a foreigner has joined the picnic. You can check me out here.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Top 10 What?

In a moment of self reflection (which, of course, is nowadays done by Googling oneself), I was startled to discover that this very blog had been listed as #5 on a list of Top 10 Asian Food blogs by an organization called "Asian Food Grocer." Truthfully, I would think the very irregular nature of this blog (read "the very laziness of its author") would disqualify it, but I'm vain enough to put this laurel crown on my head.

"blog writing at its best, from fascinating subject matter to intelligent, entertaining prose.... Culture and cuisine intersect perfectly at this cozy little blogspot, so check it out!"


I couldn't have said it better myself, heh heh.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Serving the (Chinese food obsessed) people

This book caught my eye yesterday (and how could it not?) and I knew it had to be in my library. I know of no other "insider" look at Chinese restaurants in China (unless you count Nicole Mones' novel, The Last Chinese Chef). At first look, it appears to be a Chinese Kitchen Confidential without the posturing or braggadocio. Jen Lin-Liu is a prolific young Beijing-based free-lance journalist and food writer (Time Out Beijing, Frommers', Zagat, etc.) and also happens to be an aspiring cook.

Here's a description of Serve the People from the book's official blurb:

"As a freelance journalist and food writer living in Beijing, Jen Lin-Liu already had a ringside seat for China’s exploding food scene. When she decided to enroll in a local cooking school – held in an unheated classroom with nary a measuring cup in sight – she jumped into the ring herself. In Serve the People, Lin-Liu gives a memorable and mouthwatering cook’s tour of today’s China as she progresses from cooking student to noodle-stall and dumpling-house apprentice to intern at a chic Shanghai restaurant. The characters she meets along the way include poor young men and women streaming in from the countryside in search of a “rice bowl” (living wage), a burgeoning urban middle class hungry for luxury after decades of turmoil and privation, and the mentors who take her in hand in the kitchen and beyond."

The "chic Shanghai restaurant" referred to is Jereme Leung's Whampoa Club, where Jen spent much of her time wrapping xiaolong bao. Remind me to invite her to my home!


Monday, June 16, 2008

Cinema Stir-Fry: Xian Doujiang

I love Chinese food, and I love Chinese movies. When Chinese movies feature Chinese food, what can be better than that? Sometimes the movies are great in their own right, like Eat, Drink, Man, Women. Sometimes the food steals the limelight, as in Life Show, about a single woman who operates a stall serving spicy duck necks in the Wuhan Night Market. That one actually launched a national chain of popular duck neck restaurants bearing the name of the heroine of the movie. I wouldn't be surprised if My Rice Noodle Shop led to an increase in Guilin Rice Noodle restaurants in China and Taiwan; the scenes of spicy horsemeat noodles being made and served made my mouth water. Sometimes the prominent use of a food leads me to enjoy movies more that their cinematic worth would warrant, like in Chicken and Duck Talk, where I enjoyed the efforts of that prominent thespian, Martin Yan.

Nothing, however, prepared me for the surprise that a Taiwanese move of some critical success was actually named for one of my very favorite (if somewhat obscure) snacks, xian doujiang. Xian Doujiang the movie (the English title is Brave 20) is a noire-ish story about two young men who drop out of their college exam prep class and get involved with some of the more colorful elements of Taipei society. The movie stands on its own merits (it made a few festival appearances) and xian doujiang, the food, makes only two appearances (albeit stunning ones) including during the opening titles, and following a traumatic experience by one of the youths, who takes solace in it. The message is clear, however, to anyone with a passion for this savory soymilk soup; the complex interaction of the many disparate ingredients that go into the potion and and the ritual act of stirring it is the perfect metaphor for the lives of the beleaguered protagonists.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Fuschia Does Flushing

I wasn't just jacking off when I said the 41-28 Main St. mall (a.k.a. Golden Mall) in Flushing was the closest one can come to being in China without leaving the US. This sentiment was echoed by none other than cookbook author and food writer Fuchsia Dunlop when she toured the mall with Joe DiStefano of Serious Eats (who shares my passion for Liang Pi's Xi'an snack stall:

Dunlop was amazed by the diversity of eats and gushed that it was "just like being in China."


The affable Mr. Liang, meantime, has branched out, opening a "Chinese Burger" (roujiamo) stall at the mall just down the street. If he continues cranking out the same great hand-helds at the same low price, he'll soon have an empire on his hands.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Flush in Flushing at the 41-28 Main Street Mall

I recently went on a 12-day exploratory trip of (mostly) Queens. I stayed with Rachel, my daughter, who lives hard by the first Queens stop on the 7 line, and with her being out of town five of the 12 days, I had plenty of time to graze on interesting eats on my own. I hadn’t really planned to spend most of my free meals at the Golden Mall at 41-28 Main Street in Flushing, but it was there and drew me to it like a moth to a flame. This mall has been extensively dissected on chowhound.com , particularly a Sichuan outlet, Chengdu Tian Fu. It a warren of small food stalls serving food from different regions of China; little English is evident on the premises and it is probably the closest one can come to being in China without leaving the US.

On my first walkthrough of the 41-28 Mall, at lunchtime on a Wednesday, the Xi’an stall, whose name translates as something like Xi’an Famous Eats and offers precisely that, grabbed my attention with a picture of a platter of Rou Jia Mo, or Chinese “burgers”. These, unlike meat bingzi which are stuffed before cooking, are actually prepared and assembled like burgers, with the cooked meats and seasonings placed between two toasted flatbread disks. I pointed to the picture, asked “how much” ($2.50 each) and asked for two lamb rou jia mo. They came out in classic form, with shredded lamb seasoned with cumin, jalapenos and onions. I scarfed one down on the spot, and took the other one “to go” but devoured before I got back to the 7 Train. On subsequent occasions I tried the beef and pork versions, all spiced differently. The beef version seemed to be even better spiced than the lamb version, though I couldn’t put my finger on the difference. The pulled pork Rou Jia Mo was less spicy, more “cured” (salty) tasting. All were good

I returned to the mall for lunch on Friday, and decided to try another unusual cuisine, that of Wenzhou. The easiest place to find Wenzhou cuisine outside of China is said to be Paris, due to long standing connections between Wenzhou and the French automobile industry, but I decided Flushing would do for the moment. I ordered somewhat blindly, as a couple of well-known Wenzhou dishes I had Googled up didn’t appear to be on the menu, and ended up with a big bowl of noodle soup plentifully seeded with skinny fish cakes (which themselves resembled small fish). It was subtly seasoned and tasty, but not particularly exciting.

After my noodle lunch I wandered upstairs in the mall and discovered the Shandong Dumpling stall, and couldn’t resist sitting down to a plate of freshly made shui jiao (boiled dumplings, for which Shandong is famous). They were obvious cooked to order, not par-poiled, due to the elapsed time, and the skins were classic but the filling a bit on the dry and bland side.

On Saturday my daughter left town for five days and our prior dinner commitments were completed, so I returned to the 41-28 mall for dinner. The sight and sound of the young man making la mian (hand-pulled) noodles at the Shanxi place across from Xi’an stall captured my attention, and I ordered lamb la mian in soup. I asked for it “la” (spicy) but the woman server shook her head and pointed to a pot of chili oil on the table. The freshly pulled noodles in the soup were good, perfectly al dente. (I’ve often found hand-pulled noodles too soft unless they were left to “breathe” for a while before cooking.) The “lamb” (which was probably mutton), however, was tough, gristly and bony. It was only after I started eating that I noticed from the signage that this stall’s specialty was apparently not the hand-pulled noodles, but “dao xiao” (knife-shaved) noodles. Oh well, live and learn.

By Sunday, there was no keeping me away from the mall and the Xi’an Famous Eats stall, and I decided to try the Biang Biang noodles. These hand-torn noodles “as wide and long as a belt” are listed as one of the Ten Strange Wonders of Shaanxi Province, perhaps as much for the 57-stroke Chinese character written in duplicate to name them as for anything else. The noodles were fresh and toothsome, and interestingly and deliciously seasoned with a combination of (I think) vinegar, soy sauce, chili and onion, garnished with a veritable forest of cilantro. Avoid this dish if you dislike cilantro (fortunately, I love it).

On Monday I once again hit the mall twice in the same day, feeling the need to check out the shui jiao at the Nan Bei Dumpling shop in the back. These were better than the Shandong stall’s version, with better texture and juiciness to the meat filling, though sparse on the jiu cai component, They came quickly, and obviously been cooked before I arrived, but he turnover at this shop may let them get away with it.

When I returned for dinner that day, I had made up my mind to try another iconic Xi'an dish, yang rou pao mao. Traditionally, the customer is given some hard (stale?) flatbread to break into small pieces in a bowl, which is returned to the cook to simmer the bread in mutton stock and then add the other ingredients for a hearty lamb soup. The Xi’an stall short-circuited the process, using pre-broken bread, but the results were tasty nonetheless, with the flour from the cooked bread adding a comforting thickness with a rich mouth-feel. The server asked me if I wanted garlic (yes!) and handed me a baggie containing five whole cloves of deliciously pickled garlic which I garnished the soup with, along with a little chili oil.

On Tuesday I returned for dinner still craving a satisfying bowl of spicy lamb soup with lots of lamb in it after my disappointment at the Shanxi stall The Xi’an Famous Eats stall owner accommodated me (charging an extra dollar for the extra lamb, I think). I chose the toothsome “belt” noodles I had come to love. This dish also came with a lot of cilantro garnishing, and was spicy enough that I didn’t need to add any chili oil. This was a soup I could eat every day!


Wednesday, April 30 was the last day I had available for a solo dinner in Flushing, so I returned to (guess where). By then I was greeted as an old friend by the owner and his two female assistants. I was set on ordering another Xi’an specialty, Qishan Noodles. Seeing I had brought a beer (it’s BYO) the owner suggested I order a plate of lamb bones as well, because “they’re good to eat while drinking beer”. This dish may be a byproduct, but was one of most rewarding that I ordered, because there was plenty of meat left on the bones, as savory and as falling-off-the-bone tender as from any BBQ. The Qishan noodles (named after a county) are apparently known for the quality of the noodles and the particular spicing and garnishes used, as the dish was available with thin or wide noodles, and dry or in soup. I chose the wide noodles again, in soup. The dish was pleasantly savory but milder than the Biang Biang noodles, but it was the lamb bones that made me feel like Henry VIII.

After dinner, when we did our “zai jians” and exchanged calling cards, I asked the Xi'an stall owner his name. With a sheepish grin he told me he went by “Liang Pi” which means (or at least sounds like) “Cold Noodles.”