Specialty of the house

Remember how I went for a two-week long trip to Shanghai at the start of September? Well, a favourite topic of conversation with those who come back from China is food. At least, that’s one subject I like to ask about a lot, but it might well be a personal obsession: no matter what the country, my interest in the subject never seems to fail. But I digress — China is indeed renowned for its food, and this is what this long overdue blog post is about.

First of all, it really should be Chinese foods, in plural. Even though my limited visit and its non-culinary purpose didn’t allow for in-depth exploration of oriental eating customs, I still had the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the variety and intricacies of the local cuisine. Cuisines. Well, you get the point, I’ll stick to singular.

The finest restaurants can be found in Chenghuang Miao

He who cooks but does not eat, is lost. He who eats but does not cook is in great danger — Confucius

The first impression I got of food was like an edible version of fireworks. A wide variety of dishes, where a feast of colours, a wide array of textures and a skilful composition of flavours all contribute to the dining experience. Dishes go from simple pickled roots to elaborate and colourful mixes of marinated meat, vegetable and spices; from noodly soups to flavourful dumplings; from whole grilled fish to wee pancakes with an assortment of toppings you can arrange at your fancy. On more formal occasions, or in larger groups, countless dishes are put on a large rotating plate, so everybody can get to every dish just turning the plate around. It also means you can see a coveted plate moving towards you, just to see it being steered away before you could touch it by a fellow table guest eager to reach his or her own preferred food.

Each province of China has its distinctive food traditions. Unfortunately I have not tasted many sorts yet, as I mostly stuck to the fiery spices of Sichuan style food, which I quickly grew quite fond of.

All in all I am glad I eat everything. OK, not literally everything (oysters, I just can’t), but I have no basic reluctance or allergy against, for example, garlic, fish-with-bones, nuts. Otherwise, with standard dishes involving mixing so many ingredients, prepared so as to be unrecognisable on sight, it could easily become very challenging to find a dish avoiding all of my personal ingredient blacklist. Now instead, no matter what the recipe, I’m almost sure to like it! It would be so stressy otherwise, and being stressed isn’t really the point of food (in normal situations, that is).

He who knows a cook is wise. He who knows to cook is enlightened — Lao Tzu

Enough with general statements, don’t we want a sample menu? There we go. One day that I was brought to Lu Bo Lang, a place of choice where many personalities have had dinner — I remember Clinton and her husband (when he was still US President), and Fidel Castro, but there were many others, whose pictures adorn the walls.

Lu Bo Lang, in the middle of Chenghuang Miao district

My cicerone and I had the following. (Apologies in advance for the approximate descriptions; feel free to provide more info if you can, in the comments below.)

  • A Shanghainese speciality of smoked fish, which may well be marinated as well (very different from the smoked fish I know from northern Europe), one of my favourites that day;
  • fish soup, clear and spicy;
  • boiled vegetable (could have been pak choi or something similar), with mushrooms;
  • an “8 delicacies” dish, also spicy, with beef, bell pepper, mushrooms (?), plum, and more but I forgot, also delicious;
  • more beef, but more simply marinated;
  • spring rolls;
  • another fingerfoodey thing like spring rolls, in a funny shape, but truth be told I didn’t like it that much.

All this with green tea, and chopsticks.

Special and very popular in China is also street food. Ah, street food. I had some in the Qibao district, a web of small streets and even smaller streets with thousands of food shops, selling all things fried, boiled, candied, baked, and more; if you are hungry, or even not that hungry, or just feel like nibbling, this is the place to go. I tasted three sorts of dumplings (crab, meat, bean paste), and a popular treat called “stinky tofu”. As its name indicate, the smell isn’t the most refreshing, but the taste is curiously pleasant. Dumplings contain a core of whatever they are filled with, as well as some tasty soupish liquid, which makes them rather difficult to eat with elegance for the unexperienced visitor.

View of Qibao's "Snack Street" from the dumpling place.

In order to properly understand the dish, everyone should fear becoming mentally clouded and obsessed with one small section of the recipe — Xun Zi

The alert sinophile will have noticed that my visit happened exactly around the time of the mid-Autumn Festival, the second most important Chinese holiday after the Spring Festival. It happens every year around the same period, the exact date being chosen so as to coincide with full moon. On that day, the moon is said to be the most beautiful in the year; there must even be a wish-making scheme (there always is one).

Of course there is some folklore associated with the festival. If memory serves, the legend goes something like this. A long long time ago, the Earth was illuminated by not one, but ten suns taking turns to light the world. But one day all suns went on duty at the same time. So the Emperor asked his most skilled archer to put an end to this scorching situation by shooting down all suns bar one. Lo and behold, nine arrows later just one sun was left shining, after which the Emperor rewarded the brave man by giving him a potion of eternal life. For some reason he didn’t drink it at once, and kept it hidden instead. At some point his beautiful wife stumbled upon the vial’s hiding place, and boldly drank its content. This gave her the ability to fly, and for some reason, chased by her disappointed husband I guess, she flew to the moon. I think it is a reflection of the lady’s radiance that the moon is particularly beautiful during the festival.

Oops, didn't get the myth quite right. The actual story involves the Moon Rabbit.

As with most festivals, food is involved. Here, the custom is to eat so called moon cakes, traditionally with your family, and while sharing tea and stories. But what is a moon cake? A small pastry which comes with all sorts of different fillings, while the appearance is almost always the same (yet a completely different style exists in Beijing, for example). Once again, the appearance is dictated by tradition: legend has it that after an old-time Mongolian invasion, a brave warrior managed to smuggle messages around by hiding them in such cakes and helped to free his country. Allegedly the modern cakes have the same design as the one he had used.

I had the opportunity to taste at least five different kinds of fillings, some sweet and some savoury, and all quite dense; I remember a dark one which may have been bean paste, and possibly an almond one. The most traditional ones should contain a baked egg yolk, symbolic of the hidden messages carried around by the warrior. I tried to buy some for myself, but it is harder to get a variety of fillings when you cannot read the package. I found bean paste, though!

Notice the heart of egg. But no bean paste!

Can you imagine what I would cook if I could cook all I can? — Sun Tzu

What’s this I hear you saying now? “Bla bla bla, traditions, bla bla, folklore, bla bla bla, spices. Aren’t you forgetting something here?” Fear not, I know what you are thinking: Do they really eat dog in China? Did I eat anything weird? Well, the time has come to answer those pressing questions.

First of all, I don’t know if they do eat dog over there. Anyway I didn’t spot any on the menu, and if I’ve eaten any, it was unknowingly and probably tasty. But some unusual foods were indeed on offer: sea cucumber for example, or turtle (I tasted neither). A Sichuan restaurant had cockroaches, which I still hope was a mistranslation for some other insect. Until further research answers this mystery, I am not sure I’d be brave enough to order some, Sichuan or not. On the other hand, what I really really wanted to try was snake. I even went in search of a restaurant which reputedly serves it, but couldn’t find the place; either it had shut down, or I didn’t write down the address correctly (I suspect the latter). In any case that was a major culinary disappointment.

Instead of snake I ate duck tongue, and shark fin soup. Shark fin, I was assured, helps rejuvenation, nourishing the blood, and is an all-round benefactor of my offal; to be fair, the menu also described modern medicine benefits (proteins and vitamins and whatnot), but the traditional medicine routine is less abstract and more entertaining, almost poetic. The soup was very delicate; too delicate probably, in light of a recent experience which exposed my taste buds for the lazy fools they are. Duck tongue was quite nice, once I managed to avoid thinking about what it was (it helped to remember that I have no issue with beef tongue). Oh, and I ate bullfrogs too, also in a soup. What is so special about that, you may wonder, since, as a Frenchman, I do eat frogs for breakfast (no, not literally for breakfast). The difference is that the French eat only the legs: here, the frogs were complete, hence noteworthy.

But the highlight of my culinary experience, and definitely up there in my Top Three List of Weird Food I’ve Eaten, is marinated jellyfish. It was served as a small salad with white radish, or a similar root. The basic advantage was that both were shredded, which means that the dish looked like a homogeneous heap of translucent pale stripes. On closer examination, it turned out that radish had a clearer, more opaline tone, while jellyfish veered towards shades of sauerkrautish ivory. The major difference was texture, radish being crunchily brittle, and jellyfish tougher and somewhat rubbery. Also, tiny bits tended to get caught between my back teeth, which kind of spoiled the experience. The taste was whatever it was marinated in (something with vinegar) — it seems that these edible jellyfish have little taste of their own. Maybe I will try the fried ones next time, and hope they’re less chewy.

Not the sort I ate.

A book is like a sandwich carried in the pocket — traditional proverb.

After this overview of Chinese food, and last time’s general impressions of Shanghai, one thing is left to recount. What could that possibly be? Have I been up to some mischief after all? Did I shoot a movie scene with Jackie Chan? Find out in next week time’s installment of this fascinating tale!

Pictures credits: me, me, me, not sure who, Mooncake Desserts, Travis Snelling

About the quiet one

I ain't never ever had the gift of gab, but I can talk with my eyes. Words fail me, you won't nail me, my eyes can tell you lies. View all posts by the quiet one

3 responses to “Specialty of the house

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