Thursday, November 27, 2008

Window Shopping in Chinatown with Google Street View

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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:


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.


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.


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 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.


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 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.


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