Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year, and another Xi'an Ming Chi update

I've been dilatory in updating my blog, and blame fragmented interests plus a twitter addiction; but I can't let the year end with a new post and a hearty Happy New Year wish.

My 2009 noshing highlights are pretty well covered in the blog and here's the outlook for 2010: First and foremost, if plans materialize, I may be relocating to New York by the end of the year and will have one, two, many Xi'an Ming Chi analogues to discover in its five boroughs. Failing that (or supplementing it, if the plan comes to fruition), I will make a more resolute effort to track down some far-fuing San Francisco and Bay Area diamonds in the rough that I have heard rumours of. And of course, come hell or high water, I will work in at least a month in Shanghai, which calls me, Expo 2010 or no.

Now for the Xi'an Ming Chi update. As readers of this blog will probably have figured out, my favorite hole-in-the-wall for Chinese small eats outside of China is Xi'an Ming Chi, or Xi'an Famous Eats, in a ramshackle basement mall in downtown Flushing, New York. I have previously blogged about it here and here. The photo at the top of this post is of the shop's famous Liang Pi, a cold wheat-starch noodle dish which, as I discovered, is the perfect hot-weathyer lunch.

As of my last visit to New York, Xi'an Ming Chi had opened a second outlet, in the more conventional Flushing Mall food court, with no diminution in the quality of the food. Now comes news of a third branch, opened just this month, in Manhattan's Chinatown. According to coverage by the Village Voice and Serious Eats, the food is apparently up to the standard of the original, and thus presents an option for those without the time or inclination to head out to Flushing, though I can't imagine anyone not wanting to visit this little corner of China. The new branch is at 88 East Broadway #106, New York NY 10002 (at Forsyth Street).

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Chop Suey: Chinese Cuisine's Prodigal Son

Chop suey was nothing less than the poster child for Chinese-American food in the mid-Twentieth Century. Iconized in art (Edward Hopper) and song (Flower Drum Song), it was also the signature offering of many Chinese-American restaurants, judging from their signage, which displayed "Chop Suey" more prominently than the restaurant's name. The origins of chop suey have been extensively studied by Jacqueline Newman (at least two articles in Flavor & Fortune Magazine), Jennifer 8 Lee (The Fortune Cookie Chronicles) and by Andrew Coe in a new book named, yes, Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the Unided States, among others. Although evidence has been uncovered that chop suey has an antecedent in a south China dish named za sui ("mixed remnants") consisting of stir-fried chicken gizzards and other offal, something in our collective psyche seems to want it to be of American invention, our contribution to global Chinese cuisine. Several different stories have been cited to validate chop suey's American invention, the most accepted of which revolves around a traveling Chinese statesman named Li Hongzhang, of whom more below.

In researching another Chinese culinary mystery, namely why Anhui cuisine is named as one of China's "Eight Great Culinary Traditions" I kept coming across references to a dish named "Li Hongzhang Hotchpotch." This dish is usually listed as one of the four or five landmark dishes of Anhui cuisine, and one source describes the dish as follows:

Li Hongzhang hotchpotch is a popular dish named after one of Anhui's famous personages. Li Hongzhang was a top official of the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD). When he was in office, he paid a visit to the US and hosted a banquet for all his American friends. As the specially prepared dishes continued to flow, the chefs, with limited resources, began to fret. Upon Li Hongzhang's order, the remaining kitchen ingredients were thrown together into an impromptu stew, containing sea cucumber, squid, tofu, ham, mushroom, chicken meat and other less identifiable food materials! Thus appetites were quenched and a dish was created.

"Li Hongzhang Hotchpotch," it is immediately evident, is the very dish we call "chop suey." So, an obscure dish with humble origins in China is reinvented and achieves fame abroad as the ultimate in adaptive cuisine, and then the land of its reputed creator is proud to welcome it home and bask in its reflected glory.

Go figure.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Did the Chinese invent the Turducken?

If you've listened to football broadcaster John Madden around Thanksgiving, or even if you haven't, you may know about "turducken." That's a mashup of the words "turkey," "duck," and "chicken" and the name of an over-the top Thanksgiving specialty. The turducken consists of a turkey stuffed with a duck, which is in turn stuffed with a chicken, all of the creatures having been first deboned. The chicken, in its turn is also stuffed with some form of conventional stuffing. According to the Wikipedia entry for turducken, this delicacy was apparently invented in Louisiana, possibly even by the legendary Paul Prudhomme. One shop in Louisiana prepares around 5,000 turduckens per week around Thanksgiving, and they are even available by mail order.

Surely such a monument to meat could only be born in America, or some other Western nation prone to fresser excess, right? Well not exactly. As every wise person knows everything originated in China, and could turducken be any exception?

While searching recently for information on the eats in Zhengzhou, Henan Province (where a friend has invited me to visit), I came across references to "taosibao" (套四宝), or "four treasures wrap." This was not some kind of Chinese burrito but, according to an introduction to the food of Henan I found on the web, a dish that existed at least as long ago as the Qing Dynasty:

The dish is famous for integrating chicken, duck, dove and quail that represent strong, fragrant, fresh and wild flavor respectively. The four birds are combined with the bigger containing the small ones, which are as a whole without any bone. Being placed in a fine pottery soup bowl with blue patterns, the dinners can only see a whole duck floating in the soup. After eating up the delicious duck, they will find a fragrant whole chicken. Eating up the chicken, they will again find a delicious whole dove in front of them. Finally, they will find a quail which is also as a whole and stuffed with sea cucumber puddings, shredded fragrant mushroom, and water soaked bamboo slice.
Well, it's not exactly a turducken, as no turkeys were apparently to be had, but the dish outdoes a turducken by having four birds telescoped into one instead of three. If a turkey had been available, you can rest assured that it would have formed a fifth layer of a "套五宝."

How does a taosibao go down? According to the same article, "
The dish contains several tastes, is neither fatty nor greasy and is tasty and refreshing. The customers praise that the course is strong, delicious, and nutritious so that the aftertaste is continuous." In other words, it's a gift that keeps on giving.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

On Dog, Guinea Pig and Real Pig (Not you, AB)

Persons with reservations about the practice of eating dog in Asia are probably not tinfoil hat-wearing PETA regulars, vegans or even anti-red meat. Their often expressed concerns are that a creature nature intended as a pet and a friend is ending up on someone's dinner table. But what if they had it backward?

Dogs are the descendents of wolves, and according to a recent New York Times Article, a new study of dogs worldwide suggests that wolves may have first been domesticated for their meat. The study, performed by a team of geneticists at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden lays out the story. Based on samples of mitochondrial DNA from dogs all over the world, all dogs appear to have come from a common lineage, and that lineage appears to have originated in (where else?) South China more than 10,000 years ago. Timing and other factors (including lack of a plausible alternative motive, I suppose) suggest that the purpose of muzzling, caging and breeding wolves was for meat for the dinner table, or whatever they ate on in those days.

Continuing the subject of edible pets (or pettable edibles, if you will), I blogged sometime ago about a modest proposal for Peru to export cuy, a.k.a. guinea pig, to China. Cuy is a delicacy in Peruvian cuisine, the country is currently producing more than they can eat and, as I explained, introducing the delights of cuy to China would partly repay Peru's culinary debt to China. This blog post, which included a picture of a cutie of a guinea pig, drew an avalanche of comments (well, four at last count). One of these comments is worth repeating here:

I'm an American married to a Peruvian living in China. I love cuy and would be ecstatic if I could order one off a menu here in China!!!

My wife's grandmother raised her own cuy (so she could feed them only the best) until she passed away, and they tasted amazing.

Incidentally, my wife and I run two small restaurants ( for tourists here in the foothills of Tibet, and we serve a sampling of Peruvian dishes. I would add cuy to the menu tomorrow if we could find any!

Eugene, the author of the comment and his Peruvian wife Cindy operate their restuarants in Xiahe and Langmusi. According to their website, their menu offers:

Chicken Quesadillas
Homemade French Fries
Pizza w/ lots of Cheese
Spaghetti Bolognese
Lomo Saltado
Bistec a lo Pobre
(Peruvian Style Steak)
... & Tons of Local Dishes

Next time you're in Xiahe or Langmusi stop in and yak it up with Eugene and Cindy to and let me know if cuy has made it to the Himalayas yet. Even if not, enjoy the rare opportunity of enjoying lomo saltado with your momos.

As for the "real pig" in the title to this blog post, it has to do with Anthony Bourdain, and no, I'm not calling him a pig.

As I noted in an earlier post, Lao Liang's Xi'an Ming Chi at the Golden Mall in Flushing was to be included in Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations TV series on September 7, and as promised, I monitored Bourdain's visit on the edge of my seat. Before I comment on the subject, I need to do some penitence.

In the past I've been anything but a Bourdain fan, for reasons that are no longer important, and have not been shy about letting people know it. However, after watching the Outer Boroughs episode, and before it (once I found out where the Travel Channel was on my cable dial) the 2009 San Francisco episode, I have decided that AB is, at this stage of his and my lives, a mensch, and that we are really soulmates. The politics of food have become as polarized as electoral politics these days, and Anthony and I happen to sit on the same part of the foodie spectrum, the place for real people who like real food (note the lower case initials), distant from foodies who breathe correctness and gorge on labels like "sustainable," "organic," and "humane," which have no direct relationship to tastiness. What I once thought was Bourdain's schtick has become a stick to beat Alice Waters with, and I like that.

So where does the pig come in? Overall, I thought the New York Outer Boroughs segment was excellent, and happy to see Bourdain enjoying the well-known "lamb burger" (roujiamo) at Xi'an Ming Chi and giving Lao Liang's place some strokes. The only nit I would pick was that he didn't have time to try anything a little more out there, such as the notorious "lamb face salad," which you can take as literally as you like. However, Lao Liang was up against another stall in the Golden Mall which featured a bounty of golden fried pig offal, and who could blame Anthony Bourdain from being seduced and, er, pigging out on those before he even reached Lao Liang's stall?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Lao Liang's Got His Roujiamo Workin'!

In a blog post from last year I wrote about the delights of the Xi'an specialties at a food stall in a ramshackle basement food court in downtown Flushing, and of its personable creator, who calls himself Liang Pi. In two trips back to New York this year (a brief one in April and a two-week stay this month) I made trips early and often to his venue and am happy to report that Lao Liang has his mojo (make that roujiamo) workin'. Since my 2008 visits, the Xi'an Ming Chi stall have been featured in various media from the New York Times to China Central Television; received visits from the likes of Anthony Bourdain (more on him later) and Zhang Yimou; expanded his operations to a second outlet in the shinier (but less soulful) environs of the Flushing Mall on 39th Street; started a slick little website where you can check out his menu; and acquired a Facebook Fan page!

On my 2008 visits to Xi'an Ming Chi I was too preoccupied with trying all of the stall's hot noodle options that I never got around to trying the dish Mr. Liang is so proud of that he named himself (and his new outlet) after, Liang Pi. This cold noodle dish, made from wheat starch noodles mixed with bean sprouts, kaofu and other condiments and drenched in a complex spicy sauce is pure dynamite for hot weather eating, as I well found out this month when the temperature hovered around 90 degrees F with high humidity for most of my stay. I'm also happy to report that it travels well as takeout, since they package the sauce separately for you in a plastic bag. It made the 20-minute trip on the 7 train back to Long Island City from Flushing on a couple occasions with flying colors. (Well, the colors, mostly red, fly when you pierce the plastic baggie and hose the cold noodles with its contents; it's as satisfying as opening a hydrant on a 95 degree day.)

As readers of my blog know, I am not a big Anthony Bourdain fan, especially after his Shanghai segment two years ago. However, I will certainly be watching No Reservations on the Travel Channel on its September 7 debut, because that's when AB will be featuring New York's Outer Boroughs, and his visit to Liang Pi's Xi'an Ming Chi is slated to be shown. If Bourdain gives Lao Liang and his food its due, he will have redeemed himself for taking the fall (in my esteem) in Shanghai.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Lanzhou La Mian -- Part I

On my periodic tours of Shanghai, I'm usually on a mission to visit as many different far-flung notable small eats establishments as I can get to, which means very few repeat visits. However, when I reviewed my notes for my April stay this year, I found (not surprisingly to me) that I had visited one restaurant no less than 10 times in the space of a month. This restaurant happened to be a noodle shop of the "Lanzhou La Mian" stripe, Lanzhou Zheng Zong Niu Rou La Mian (兰州正宗牛肉拉面), roughly translated as "Authentic Lanzhou Hand-pulled Beef Noodles."

Why so many visits to this shop? For starters, it was just steps from the apartment hotel I stayed in. It was also open early and late (7:00 AM to 4:00 AM), was extremely inexpensive, and its products were tasty and filling. Thus, if it were raining (which it often was), if I were late getting around and famished, or just too plumb lazy to go further, it was there; but most of all, I had come to love the noodles from this shop from my previous visit in October 2008.

Shanghai has some 250 "Lanzhou La Mian" styled restaurants, judging from the listings in About 50 of these, like the one across from my hotel, are "official" Lanzhou La Mian Shops, with identical names, identical signage, identical menus, identical prices and more or less the same modus operandi: although there is a kitchen at the back of the shop, the noodles are made when ordered at a work table at the front of the shop, and passed, when finished, through a sliding window into a large pot of boiling water on stove set up outside. After all, who wants large pots of boiling water inside an un-air conditioned restaurant in a Shanghai summer?

In addition to the beef noodles, Lanzhou La Mian establishments will also offer lamb (but no pork, being Muslim and halal) noodles. In addition to pulled noodles they will have knife-shaved noodles (刀削面), lamb or beef pao mo (泡馍), or hand-torn steamed bread in soup, and other non-noodle and non-soup foods characteristic of the Lanzhou region. Despite this fairly extensive menu, the hand pulled beef noodles are always the main attraction, but don't go for them because you are a beef-eater. The thin beef slices, along with generous sprigs of cilantro are little more than garnish for the fresher-than-fresh noodles in a skillfully complex broth. A "small" bowl (enough for a hearty lunch) will set you back 4 yuan (about 60 cents), while a dinner-sized bowl if 5 yuan (about 75 cents).

It's notable that although the name and the origin of the specialty noodles come from Lanzhou, Gansu province, more often than not the Lanzhou La Mian restaurants are operated by Hui nationality Muslims from neighboring Qinghai Province. The history (and science) behind Lanzhou La Mian, and the development and popularization of today's bowl of beef hand-pulled noodle soup by one Ma Bao Zi in the early 20th Century, are fascinating subjects that will be touched on in a subsequent post.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Xiao long bao report card update -- Lin Long Fang and Fu De Xiao Long

I'm just back from another month-long foray into the streets of Shanghai, which constitutes a major part of my excuse for not having posted in so long. I vowed not to get hung up on tracking down additonal xiao long bao venues to add to the reports I filed last fall in order to do justice to a broader sample of street foods and xiao chi, which I will be reporting on in due time; however, I couldn't resist checking out a couple of very different, but worthy new XLB venues I caught wind of.

The first of these, Lin Long Fang Te Se Xiao Long Bao (麟笼坊特色小笼包), or Lin Long Fang for short, had been open for less than a week when I visited it, judging from the earliest reviews of it on It has the look of a Jia Jia Tang Bao Clone; from the layout of the place, the content and pricing of the menu, to the bandana headgear worn by the small army of young women (yes, young women exclusively) making the baozi, it's Jia Jia with a different color scheme, brown in place of red. Even the Jia Jia trademark of steaming the vinegar dish along with the xiao long bao is here. Fortunately, they've succeeded, or very nearly succeeded, in cloning the Jia Jia xiao long bao. They seemed to me to fall faintly short of Jia Jia's mark in wrapper suppleness and flavor intensity of the soup, but otherwise they were very good, perhaps a B+ in my grade book. Lin Long Fang is also conveniently located (10 Jianguo Dong Lu, near Zhaozhou Lu) and it a bright, upbeat venue I'll gladly return to.

The other new (to me) xiao long venue I tried, Fu De Xiao Long was very much the opposite of Lin Long Fang. It was a proverbial hole-in-the-wall in a working class Hongkou neighborhood, and looks like it has been there forever, though judging from the vintage of the earliest reviews has only been around for about a year. I'm tempted to say that Fu De is a cross between Fu Chun and De Long Guan, but I won't; it does share the same comfortable, weathered neighborhood ambience of those two, however. Like De Long Guan, the xiao long bao came in a small quantity (six baozi) for a small price, 4 Yuan (about 60 cents). I found the wrappers a little on the heavy duty side, however, and the "soup" at once a bit t0o sweet and too salty. I'll give Fu De's XLB a B. An added bonus to a visit to Fu De is the presence, immediately to the east on Dongyuhang Lu, of a very lively, blocks-long street market, where you can fand a seemingly endless array of street foods and wares for sale. You can find Fu De at 862 Dongyuhang Lu, about four blocks south of the Linping Lu Metro Station on the No. 4 line.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Butterfly Effect: Erma Yina, the Blogger, the Movie, the Earthquake and the preservation of Qiang culture

In August of 2004, a tourist took a snapshot of a beautiful young Qiang woman named Erma Yina and posted it on his personal blog. The photo touched other Netizens, resulting in a flood of Chinese tourists to Taoping Village, Sichuan where the girl was photographed, and a flood of more pictures and national celebrity for Erma Yina followed. As a result of the girl's Net-driven idol status, a movie was shot in Taoping, "Erma's Wedding," short on plot but very long on local color.

On May 12, 2008, the Wenchuan earthquake all but wiped out Taoping and Erma Yina's birthplace of Li Xiang and threatened the future of Qiang culture.

Probably influenced by the Internet-spurred celebrity of Taoping Village and its famous resident Erma Yina, approximately 10 billion yuan (US $1.5 Bn) of investment from China and abroad has been allocated "to save and rehabilitate the quake-threatened Qiang culture."

The movie, "Erma's Wedding," was recently released in an English-subtitled DVD in the "Follow Me Chinese" series which features, though not exclusively, movies of a high propaganda value. The movie is described as "A true record of culture and natural landscapes of Qiang ethnic minority before 5.12 Wenchuan Earthquake."

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

From Peru with love: Cuy on China's Tables?

Peru has borrowed more from Chinese cuisine than has any other non-Asian nation. Peruvian-Chinese "chifas" (whose name derives from chi fan, or "eat [rice]" dot the Peruvian landscape more than chop suey parlors ever did the U.S. landscape. It's said that even non-Chinese restaurants in Peru have a variety of wonton soup as a standard menu offering, and lomo saltado, which amounts to Peru's national dish, is said to be of Chinese invention. It goes without saying that Peru would like to repay China for its culinary largesse beyond her greatest conbtribution to China's larders to date, the potato.

Enter the cuy. As the intriguing blog Double Handshake explains, the cuy, better know in the English-speaking world as the guinea pig, is a favored delicacy in Peru:

The animals, which reproduce extremely quickly, are full of protein and low in fat. Cuy, as it is called in Peru, can be fried, broiled, roasted or turned into soup. Peruvians eat about 65 million guinea pigs annually.

It seems that modern breeding methods have produced more guinea pigs than Peruvians can eat, and export options are currently limited. Why not, wonders the blog (which covers both China and Latin America) interest China in adopting a new taste treat? It convincingly lays out half a dozen good reasons why cuy would probably catch on, including a catchy slogan “It’s keyi to eat cuy!

To Double Handshake's list of reasons why it makes sense to export guinea pigs to China for human consumption, I would add another: precedent. A cuy, or guinea pig, after all, is just another rodent, albeit a cute one. A rat is a rat is a rat, and skinned and cooked (see the picture in the Double Handshake blog) a guinea pig looks remarkable like the end product in an earlier blog post of mine, Eating your way through the Chinese Zodiac. That gustatory delight started out as the uncute critter depicted below. I've yet to taste either, but perhaps another selling point for cuy might be the catch phrase "It tastes just like rat."

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

From the Shanghai Bites Archive: Bow-wow stuffed baozi creates controversy

[Note: I have decided to let my website and blog expire, and am reprising selected posts here in the @GarySoup Blog. This one was posted on February 27, 2007 in Shanghai Bites]

No, this is not something Michael Ohlsson ("Weird Meat") missed. It's a Yankee-style hot dog place, and the weirdest thing about it is its location: the northeast corner of People's Square, near the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center. I tried the dog last December, when I took the picture. There seemed something not quite right about the bun, but otherwise it walked like a hot dog, talked like a hot dog, and looked like a hot dog to me. And I should add tasted like a hot dog.

The controversy, if it can be called such, relates to the graphic logo of the jauntily leaning dog. Others in the blogosphere have pointed out that it's a copy of the logo used by Top Dog, the beloved and venerable mini-chain in Berkeley, California. I think it has also been reported that the Mac Dog owner once worked at Top Dog for a few months. Is Top Dog complaining? Not that I've heard. Should they complain? Unless they are planning to expand beyond their three East Bay shops to Mainland China, I think not. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

From the Shanghai Bites Archive: Bourdain Blows It

[Note: I have decided to let my website and blog expire, and am reprising selected posts here in the @GarySoup Blog. This one was posted on August 5, 2007 in Shanghai Bites]

I was excited to hear that the latest installment of Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" had him in Shanghai, sampling local small eats. When I caught the re-run, though, I found it to be a huge disappointment. Although the episode was identified as "Shanghai," there was a scant 10 minutes or so of an hour-long blitzkrieg Long March to Shangrila, and it was stock travelogue stuff. AB at the Nanxiang Steamed Dumpling Shop, proclaiming their xiaolong bao product to be "the best dumplings in the world." AB stopping by Xiao Yang's for some shengjian bao (a.k.a. "fried dumplings"). And finally, the really exciting and titillating blip of Anthony Bourdain buying "stinky tofu" from a street vendor and representing that it was something new to him. Then poof, off to cormorant fishing (another travelogue yawner).

The Nanxiang is certainly photogenic in its setting and activity (as in the above photo), and deserves a visit simply because it's a shrine to xiaolong bao. But it was galling to see Anthony Bourdain, as has been done with almost every video tour of Shanghai before, hunker down with the local tourism boosters and agree with them on the party line that the Nanxiang's XLB are the best anywhere. True, they once were, but if AB's team did their research, he would know that the Nanxiang's culinary glory has faded and there are probably mom-and-pop shops making tastier, nore delicate-skinned xiaolong bao in almost every Shanghai neighborhood today.

Shengjiang bao from Xiao Yang's establishment and even chou doufu from street vendors are also covered in almost any guide book a visitor is likely to bring with him. But I forget, Anthony Bourdain's show is on the Travel Channel, after all.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Vetting Bund Shanghai con't.: Four very different thumbs go up for New Year's Day dinner

Expect the worst, but hope for the best, we like to say in the U.S.

A couple of posts ago, I embraced Bund Shanghai Restaurant tentatively, based on the imperfect nature of the breakfast fare I tried and/or of my sense of taste, then impaired by a head cold. Last night the Spring Festival gave me an excuse to take a flyer on it for dinner with my personal review panel in tow, they being three generations of very picky Shanghainese women in the persons of my wife, Mother-in-law and step-daughter. Coming in cold, as it were, with them, I was prepared to be both disappointed and scorned, but happily suffered neither fate: we all loved it from first bite to last.

I ordered conservatively, with the intent of getting a read on how well they did the Shanghai classics. We started with kao fu, five-spice beef and salty duck for cold dishes, followed by Yan du xian (see post below). pan-fried nian gao (also de rigeur for a Shanghainese New Year's feast) and hong shao rou (red-cooked pork belly), always a potential show-stopper. We added onion beef (on the request of my stepfaughter, whose tastes have become somewhat Americanized) and gambled on something called "Seaweed fish" from the Chef's Specials menu which sits in a little holder on each table.

The kao fu came first, and my MIL, the toughest critic of the bunch, led the chorus of praises for Bund Shanghai's version, which featured kaofu cut into smaller diamond shapes than usual, blanched Virginia peanuts and donggu (Shitake) mushrooms. The Nanjing salty duck was lean and appeared to have been freshly cured, showing no sign of refrigerator burn, dry edges or other discoloration. It was as good as I've had at Xiao Jinling in Shanghai, famous for its Nanjing duck. The five-spice beef was lean and tender shank meat, subtly spiced, not overpowered by five-spice powder as is often the case.

Yan du xian, a soup that eats like a casserole, is considered by some to be the most indispensible part of a Shanghainese New Year feast. It is listed on the Bund Shanghai menu as "Boiled Bacon and Pork Soup" and contains (for symbolic reasons) both cured pork and fresh pork, winter bamboo shoots and tofu sheet knots (bai ye jie). Bund Shanghai's version was comforting, rich, and salty. Some might find it too salty, but "salty" is part of its name and of its aim. The nian gao ("Rice Cake w/Shepherd's Purse and Shredded Pork) was the softest I've ever had, almost of melt-in-the-mouth tenderness. I wondered if this was a misfire, expecting a little more al dente character, but the three women were wowed by it.

The hong shao rou ("Soy sauce-braised pork" on the menu) was as unctuously appealing as only red-cooked pork belly can be, and Bund Shanghai's version did not commit the error of being too sweet. Hard to believe, but the owner told us that the house's red-cooked pork butt (ti pang) is even better.

The onion beef was unexciting to me, but the stepdaughter loved it and took the leftovers home with her.

The "seaweed fish" probably got the coolest reception, partly due to its unfamiliarity and possibly due to the fact that it came last, after we were pretty much stuffed. It turned out to be yellowfish filets that had been dipped in a thin, seaweed-infused batter and deep fried, then arranged on the plate to look like fish. "Not very good," said my wife, as she reached for another piece of it. I thought it was fine.

We finished with jiu niang ("Small Mochi in Rice Wine Sauce," as the menu put it), complements of the house. I abstained, because this dish is too sweet for my tastes, but my wife had no trouble eating my bowl as well as hers.

We spent time talking to some of the staff and found out more about the restaurant. The owner has been in the US from Shanghai for 20 years, and is an attorney with a private practice. He actually opened the restaurant create a livelihood for recently immigrating relatives. (His mother is the cashier, and a sister is the hostess).

There are two dinner chefs at Bund Shanghai. One formerly worked at the Jin Jiang Hotel in Shanghai, and the other worked as a chef for the Municipal Government of Shanghai (official functions and the like). We chatted briefly with the latter and found out he is actually from Wuxi, Jiangsu province, which made him a hit with the girls, who are Wuxiren as well). Both chefs had worked at various restaurants in the suburban Peninsula area before he recruited them to work for him, a reversal of the usual direction for talent drain.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Yan du xian: Shanghai's Spring Festival comfort food

[Click on picture for source document and more pictures]

One of the first things I learned about Shanghainese people was that they all seemed to love a soup they called something like "EEE-tuh-shuh." It was something they might crave at any time of year, but was particularly important as a harbinger of Spring. It always contained both salted pork and fresh pork, and Winter bamboo shoots. Some versions, like my wife's, also contain bai ye jie, or knotted strips of tofu "sheet," and sometimes greens and bean thread will be added. It was some time before I figured out that "EEE-tuh-shuh" was the Shanghainese pronunciation for yan du xian (腌笃鲜). Here's how yan du xian was described in the only article I've ever been able to find in English, from a 2003 edition of the Shanghai Star:

With the Spring Festival (the Chinese Lunar New Year) drawing near, "Yan Du Xian" is again in the limelight. It was said that this course was the most necessary one on the dinner table.

Before 1900, peasants living in the suburban areas of Shanghai made their living by starting small businesses such as charcuteries. They raised piglets and sold the meat to the shop and the left-overs were usually cured into bacon which was hung high in corridors.

When bamboo shoots came out in the following year's early spring, local families took the bacon down and added it to some fresh meat and pieces of bamboo shoot.

The ingredients were placed in a large cauldron and cooked over a slow fire for a whole afternoon until it turned into a pot of delicious soup.

The pickling process is called "Yan" in the Shanghai dialect, the simmering is called "Du" and the fresh meat and bamboo shoots are called "Xian", giving the soup its name.

The usual recipe for this soup is first to stir-fry some ginger and shallots, add water and high-grade Shaoxing wine, boil the mixture then adddiamond-shaped slices of bacon, meat and bamboo shoots. Simmer on a slow fire for not less than two hours

Many festival foods in China are symbolic because of their names, which may be homonyms for, or rhyme with, the names for desirable things or qualities; since the pronunciation of words varies considerably among dialects, the symbolic importance of many such foods are not always transferable among regions and can sometimes be mystifying. The primal symbolism of yan du xiang, on the other hand, is fairly obvious, with the cured meat representing the previous year's bounty, and the fresh meat and especially the fresh bamboo shoots representing the promise of the new year.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Solid, Jackson! Shanghainese food comes back to SF Chinatown.

If you had told me a year ago that there would be a full-on Shanghainese restaurant in one of the most venerable locations for a restaurant in San Francisco's Chinatown by this time in 2009, my reaction would be about the same as if you had told me we would have a black President of the United States with "Hussein" as his middle name. As it was once explained to me, most of the prime retail property in Chinatown is in the hands of the various Family Associations, networks of immigrants and their descendants from various parts of Guangdong province. First dibs on leases for good restaurant locations usually go to the Home Boys, who are inclined to serve up home cooking, which means Cantonese food.

640 Jackson Street was long the address of the Jackson Cafe, a Chinese and American (not Chinese-American) restaurant which sustained me in my salad days nearly 50 years ago. It was known for brusque waiters (including one who usually had a transistor radio glued to his ear, listening to a Giants game), local celebrities like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Lenny Bruce, and good cheap food from both sides of the menu. It eventually became "Jackson Pavillion," then "New Jackson Cafe," so you can imaging my reaction when it suddenly turned over as "Bund Shanghai" run by real Shanghainese people and offering a menu of real Shanghainese food. "Solid, Jackson!" (or something like that is what I said to myself). There hadn't been a Shanghainese restaurant anywhere near Chinatown for at least a decade, when one of the successors of Meilong Village/DPD gave up the ghost. It, even, was in the Kearny St. "Pale" as I call it, where non-Cantonese restaurants are tolerated, not on the hallowed ground of Jackson Street halfway up to Grant Avenue.

Bund Shanghai (known simply as "Shanghai Restaurant" in Chinese) opened on January 21, and I couldn't resist vetting the xiao long bao, of course, as well as a couple of my other Shanghainese breakfast standards, xian dou jiang and sheng jian bao. With the caveat that I was suffering from a head cold which somewhat impaired my tasting ability, here are my first reactions.
  • The xiao long bao were good, better than the mean for the San Francisco area, though not on a par with San Francisco's best (which are from a place called "Shanghai Dumpling King"). They were of the proper size and had the appropriate amount of "soup," but the wrappers were a touch too thick, and the broth slightly lacking in intensity.
  • The xian dou jiang (savory soy milk soup) was also good, but but not quite as good as the exemplary version at another San Francisco restaurant, Shanghai House (which serves up the best I have found in the Western Hemisphere). Bund Shanghai's version was well curdled, complex in flavor but neither salty nor spicy enough (but that could have been on account of my impaired taste buds).
  • The sheng jian bao (pan fried dumplings) were the biggest disappointment, partly because the Maître de said they were a house specialty. Like most American versions, they wimped out on the amount of pork fat in the broth, and they were barely browned on the bottoms instead of having the hell scorched out of them. They were fried bottoms down, not folded top down (Xiao Yang style) and garnished with sesame seeds. It's only fair to mention that I have yet to find a really satisfying serving pf sheng jian bao anywhere in the US.

I've yet to find anything earthshaking about Bund Shanghai , though there is still a lot on the "xiao chi" and dinner portions of the menu that I intend to check out. I'm inclined to cut the place some slack because it is a 15-minute walk for me; the other two Shanghainese restaurants in San Francisco (mentioned above) are an hour-long haul to the foggy Outer Richmond by bus, and, especially when it comes to breakast eats, it's all about location, location, location.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Say it ain't so: Molecular Gastronomy in China

"Smoke made of green tea rises from the smoked salmon and avocado roll. Shark fin in saffron soup comes in a transparent capsule. Rosy beads in bird's nest soup look like fish roe but turn out to be made of jam."

These words begin the lead paragraph in an article titled "Tech away restaurants" about Molecular Gastronomy in Beijing, a movement spearheaded, ironically, by a noted Beijing Duck resturant, Da Dong. "Molecular Gastronomy," in case you've been living, er, sous vide, involves pushing the physical and chemical processes that occur in cooking to extremes, using expensive laboratory equipment, and indeed sometimes contracting out to laboratories run by mad scientists for prepping the food. I've railed against molecular gastronomy in Western settings, because I consider it an anti-food movement and it saddens me to see grown men playing with their food. It may have a place in the culinary spectrum, but too often shows up as a bailout for creative bankruptcy. What Da Dong (which may be trying to escape its image as a "Johnny One Note" restaurant) and apparently other places in China with a front-runner mentality are doing to Chinese food strikes me as especially insulting. Chinese food is more art than science; in fact, I'd put it near the furthest end, culinarily, of the art-scientist spectrum. Putting it in the hands of the men in white coats but no white hats is to be party to a marriage as forced as the pun in the title of the bombshell China Daily article.

Besides, haven't the food chemists in China had enough fun with Melamine?

Thursday, January 01, 2009

The Won Lee Restaurant Sign: a wee bit of cultural justice in Florida

Somehow I missed this story as it developed (I don't always have time to read the West Volusia Beacon) but spotted it in a year end summary in the DeLand-Deltona Beacon:

In 1999, DeLand passed a sign ordinance requiring signs to meet more stringent regulations. The city gave out-of-compliance businesses a 10-year grace period, which expired May 2009. Won Lee Chinese Restaurant owner Seamus Poon asked commissioners to not make him take down the historic 1950s- style sign. Later in the year, the commission postponed enforcing the ordinance on the Won Lee sign and other nonconforming signs until 2013.

Through the magic of Google search, I was able to find this excellent article about the background of the skirmish, which includes the background of Won Lee's owner and the origin of his colorful name, as well as identifying a hero on the DeLand City Commission, Leigh (not Lee) Matusick, who took up Mr. Poon's cause.

Come 2013, I hope to be there (at an age respected in Florida) to argue for giving both the Won Lee sign and the name Seamus Poon Historic Landmark status,