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 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.

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