Lost Heaven Silk Road in Shanghai

Panda Express does not give you a proper view into the regional variety of Chinese cuisine. Like in any large nation, the cuisine of China has substantial regional differences. While in Shanghai this summer, I tried something I’m not very familiar with – the cuisine of Western China – at a restaurant called Lost Heaven Silk Road in the Jing’an district.

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Based on the cuisine found along the ancient trading route, the menu offers foods from Xi’an and Dunhuang all the way to India, Pakistan and Persia. The restaurant owes much of its interior design specifically to Dunhuang, a small city in Gansu Province in the northwest of China, famous for its hundreds of caves decorated with ancient Buddhist art.

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Our first dish was cold oat noodles, a specialty of western China where oats are more common than rice or wheat. The noodles were served with a slightly spicy sauce flavored with peanuts and were a refreshing start to the meal.

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There were many meat dishes, especially good were the lamb ribs. The meat was flavorful, tender and the sauces added a lot to the dish. The skewers pictured above had a nice spice rub with flavors of cumin prominent.

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We also had Xi’an rice noodles, which are flavored more by sesame oil and were more familiar as a Chinese dish.

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There were several vegetable dishes including this slightly curried okra dish that was not the typically slimy okra you might be familiar with. These would seem not out-of-place in an Indian or Pakistani restaurant.

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They also served so-called “Tang wei hu bing” buns, literally Chinese flavor foreign bread – pita bread stuffed with grilled meat and coriander. The flavors and style of more Middle Eastern cuisine was particularly noticeable here.

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For dessert we had a Kashmir style rice pudding. While nothing pretty to look at, the cardamom flavored pudding was pleasant.

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And a final sweet that left no doubt about where the far end of the silk road lies: baklava.

The restaurant is beautiful and the food is tasty. While one could quibble with its authenticity, I think they illustrate beautifully the reality that a lot of food is fusion, tracing the path of trade and migration and bringing together the ingredients, techniques and tastes of the people who make the journey.
Lost Heaven Silk Road
758 Julu Lu (Jing’an station)
+86 6266 9816
open for lunch and dinner daily
lostheaven.com.cn

Thoughts After Taking the New Gen to China

Two weeks ago, I wrote an entry on the even of my departure for a week-long trip to China with a client, bringing a group of “New Generation” (Gen X / Gen Y) leaders from a Thai multinational on a learning trip to Shanghai and Beijing. The trip was a big success.

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We started in Shanghai, the world’s largest city (as measured by population in the official city limits) – 25 million people! There we did a walking tour of the French Concession to taste local dumplings and practice making them. We went to a innovation consultancy that helps companies think differently about their customers, especially in the China market.

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We had two separate informal sessions, one over dinner and another in the morning, sitting down with young professionals from different countries and industries, to learn about their experiences within China and elsewhere.

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We took many opportunities to debrief, reflecting on our learning and understanding how it relates to our day-to-day work. One of the most interesting debrief sessions began on the bullet train from Shanghai to Beijing (300 km/h or 185 mph) and continued that evening in the hotel. During this time, I noticed that the participants’ thinking was starting to shift. They were moving from a very linear way of thinking to a more lateral way. I enjoyed watching as the lightbulbs started to illuminate!

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Beijing was an altogether different city from Shanghai. While almost as large (21 million people), it is much more congested despite having incredibly large, wide roads and big buildings. Everything seems to be on a monumental scale. It was certainly more “Chinese” in character than Shanghai, which is much more international.

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One of the most powerful exercises was an afternoon in which we paired the participants up with Chinese university students, all of whom were reasonably proficient at English. They showed us around the city in small groups, giving everyone a chance to learn about each other and gather a diversity of first-hand experiences. In the subsequent debrief, it was interesting to hear how different participants’ “buddies” had wildly different perspectives, illustrating just how diverse and fragmented a market China is.

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Of course, no trip to Beijing is complete without seeing the Great Wall. After an evening of rain and wind which had scrubbed the polluted skies almost clean, we found a bright and sunny morning along a relatively quiet stretch of the wall.

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On our final morning in Beijing, we stopped by the 798 Art Zone, a former industrial area that was taken over by artists and subsequently converted into a proper arts district. Despite my initial fears, it was actually a very cool and happening place, with a vibe that doesn’t feel at all contrived.

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We headed to the majestic Beijing Capital Airport to board a flight home. There was a characteristic delay of about two hours due to weather, but we arrived in Bangkok around midnight.

The six days with these New Gen leaders was an exciting experience for me. Exciting both to spend time with a smart, interesting group of people, but also exciting to see them grow and learn. The final morning, I interviewed each of them about what had changed over the previous six days. Each participant had very thoughtful, reflective responses that made me realize just how much one can change in less than a week’s time.

 

Taking the New Gen to China

After three months of preparation, I leave this evening on a very interesting work trip. I’m taking a group of 13 “New Gen” (i.e. late Generation X / early Generation Y) leaders on a six-day learning field trip to Shanghai and Beijing, China.

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Employees of one of Thailand’s largest multinational companies, these New Gen participants are part of a 15-month program I’m leading to develop the next generation of leaders in the company. Specifically, they are trying to build leadership capabilities that will allow these Thais to work effectively in an international environment, especially if they are assigned to work abroad.

The field trip is an opportunity both to learn more about the company’s growing operations in China, but more importantly, it is a chance to challenge them, expose them to new things, and really test their ability to think differently about the world.

We jokingly named it the “Great Mall, Great Wall” field trip because the participants’ capstone project will be to propose a food and beverage business concept that their company could consider investing in in China. To study for this, we will visit several malls, which is where their company’s current F&B outlets are mostly located.

And, of course, we will make a visit to the Great Wall.

There are 13 participants, one chaperone from the company, and then me – the single observer, facilitator, coach, mentor, debriefer, and all-around tour guide. Should be an exciting but exhausting week!

 

Shanghai Page Built

Ever since moving from Xanga a year ago, I’ve been slowly working on building my WordPress site into a proper website instead of just a blog.

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I made another step in that direction today by creating a page for all my entries on Shanghai, based on a trip I took there a year and a half ago. It looks like I’ll be back to China (and to Beijing) this summer on business, so hopefully can add some new entries.

 

Shanghai Odds and Ends

Oh, Shanghai, you really do have such interesting things to see, don’t you? My trip there was full of odd moments, funny signs (not all of which were intentional), beautiful scenes, and colorful images that I will long remember.

A trio of signs in a housing estate meant to encourage residents to respect the greenery. Translations into English were a bit questionable: “You need spicery and I protection” (maybe relative to variety being the spice of life?); “Meet with life and green counterparts”; and “Treat plants wall and get good return” (okay, I kind of understood that one).

“Assists the happy building?” Sorry, come again?

We saw several health clinics with rather blunt names. Here is the Diarrhea Clinic. Okay, I guess that is easier to say than “Gastrointestinal Distress Clinic”.

Random advertisement: “Have duck, must have suck!!”

Street food! We passed a shop specializing in ham. They were preparing for a delivery, strapping ten smoked and dried pig legs to the back of a bicycle.

 

Roasted corn and sweet potatoes sold on the street. Perfect for cool weather! On the right, Daniel tries one. Sadly, I forgot to get a picture of Jason, too.

Lots of modern vehicles in Shanghai, but also a lot of people using pretty old (and inventive) methods of conveyance.

Wait a minute, is that a large stuffed bear in that cart?

Almost anything can fit on the back of a bicycle, even if it means that the passenger has to walk alongside.

The antiques market (“antiques” really needs quotes around it because few things are really antiques) is a great place for kitsch. My favorite must-have item:

Yes, a portrait of Chinese Communist Party heroes that changes images as you move. From the left: Jiang Zemin, Mao Zedong, and Deng Xiaoping. I guess the American equivalent would be Lincoln, FDR, and Kennedy?

Bird ownership is very popular in Chinese culture. I passed this guy standing on the street and couldn’t figure out at first glance what was in his hands. 

Lots of effort made to beautify the city. In front of a new set of retail shops that are about to open, someone decided to build a little fence around a fire hydrant, which they must have thought to be unsightly. The beautify the fence, they tied small artificial plants to it. Of course the tags are still on the plants, making the whole thing as ugly as could be. Oh, and I checked: the artificial plants were made in the USA. No, just kidding… they were made in China.

There were lots of buildings being built and shops being remodeled. I found this one interesting just because of the mirror.

Beautiful small park in the midst of the French Concession. It definitely has a European feel to it, doesn’t it?

Maybe it was just the chilly autumn weather, but love was everywhere in Shanghai.

Lots of people were taking wedding photos. It is common in a lot of Asian cultures to take your wedding photos before the day of the wedding. Maybe there is a rush of weddings in the next few months, to sneak them in during the auspicious Year of the Dragon?

We wanted to get in on the action, too! 

Okay, one more Shanghai entry coming up (about the mag-lev train to the airport) and that wraps up that trip. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone in the United States.

A Visit to West Lake and Hangzhou

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On Sunday during our visit to Shanghai, Tawn’s cousins arranged for us to drive to West Lake, a freshwater lake in Hangzhou, about a two-hour drive from Shanghai. Hangzhou is a city of almost nine million people located on the Yangtze River Delta, famous for its natural beauty.

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Our first stop was the Lingyin Temple, a Buddhist temple that dates back almost 1700 years. It is a wealthy temple, with many buildings and famous stone grottoes that include religious rock carvings. Being a Sunday and the weather being pleasant, the temple grounds were full of worshipers and other visitors.

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The smoke of thousands of sticks of incense hung heavy in the air, a perfumed fog through which the strong morning sun filtered. 

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Devotees lit handfuls of incense, not the mere trio of sticks common in Thai Buddhist temples, and every so often an uncle or auntie, waving their still-flaming incense with abandon in an effort to extinguish the flames, would nearly set another person alight. 

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The temple grounds were full of striking images and saturated colors – brightly painted buildings, monks in vibrant robes… 

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…and the rich reds associated with good fortune in the Chinese culture.

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The Hall of the Five Hundred Arhats features a complex floor plan laid out like a Buddhist swastika. Along the arms are bronze statues of the arhats, or Buddhist spiritual practitioners who have been liberated and attained nirvana. Each of the statues is unique, as are the seats upon which they rest.

We founds one statue which Tawn thought resembled his father’s grumpy frown. 

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Escaping the crowded, smoky temple, we drove a short way to the shores of West Lake. Our lunch was at a restaurant owned by the son of Hangzhou’s mayor, a friend of one of Tawn’s cousin’s colleagues. Because of these three-degrees of separation, we were seated in a small dining villa that offered a lovely view.

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Hangzhou is known for a variety of pan-fried green tea known as longjing, which we were served at the restaurant. It is very gentle, almost sweet tea and pleasant to drink.

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One of the highlights of our meal, beggar’s chicken. This famous dish is a bit complex to make (see here for one blogger’s attempt) but it is basically a marinated chicken that is stuffed, wrapped in leaves, then covered with clay and baked. The clay seals in all the moisture so you are left with a very tender, juicy bird. It is presented to the table unopened and the server asks whether you want them to open it or whether you prefer to do it yourself. We let the experts crack the clack.

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The second dish to arrive (sadly, I didn’t capture the name) was this cold gelatin-like lotus root. The sauce was sticky and sweet and it seemed more like a dessert than an appropriate second course.

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Another stand-out dish was the “gold medal braised sliced pork” or, as I like to call it, the ziggurat of bacon. The thin slices of braised pork belly are wrapped around a mold to create a delicate pyramid that you slowly unwind, slice by tasty slice. 

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The inside of the ziggurat is stuffed with fermented greens (lotus root, maybe?) that are a wonderful compliment to the rich pork. Combine that with some of the steamed bok choy and you have a balanced meal.

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The pork arrived with green crepes in which to wrap the pork and fermented vegetables. Add a dash of sauce and you had a burrito of porky goodness.

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An elaborate dish that didn’t live up to its promise was the crab meat steamed inside an orange. As the plastic bag was unwrapped, the aroma or orange was mouth-watering and the exquisite carvings on the orange were beautiful, but the sweetness of the orange overpowered the crab meat and one or two bites was sufficient.

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Getting full, the dishes continued to arrive. This was a tasty dish of greens and tofu, something simple but refreshing. 

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Shortly after we thought we could take no more, a huge bowl of noodle soup arrived with hand-pulled noodles and bitter greens. It was very tasty but I couldn’t manage but a few bites before I had to be rolled out of the restaurant, too full to walk.

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After lunch, we did end up walking to burn off some of the calories we had consumed. The scenery around West Lake is beautiful. Ah, tranquility… looks like we are there by ourselves, doesn’t it? But that’s not the whole story.

As you can see in this brief video, there were hordes of tour groups from all around China, each of them with a group leader waving a flag and amplified with a portable speaker that echoed their explanations and instructions across the lake.

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Walkways were full of tour groups, moving like the packs of zombies in The Walking Dead. It was fascinating to watch as groups from different directions would converge, the tourists jostling through each other like salmon swimming upstream.

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While walking, I heard the chirps of birds only to discover that vendors were selling bamboo whistles to visitors. None of the bird chirps were real! 

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Still, if you turned and looked the other way, you could block much of the din of the crowd and enjoy the beautiful scenery, sights so beautiful they deserve to be painted and perhaps have been hundreds of times.

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There were even some spots where couples could enjoy their own private moment, something that must be a rare commodity in such a crowded city.

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On the western side of the lake, the trees were starting to show some autumn colors and the lotuses turned their leaves to the sky.

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Tawn’s cousins Paul and Nicha pose with us at West Lake. Interestingly, I was approached by two teenage girls who wanted to take their picture with me. Paul took a picture of that and I’ll have to see if I can get a copy to share with you. They either thought I was someone famous or, more likely, were from somewhere in the country and don’t see white people ever. Anyhow, it was an enjoyable trip!

Food in Shanghai – Part 2

As I mentioned in my previous entry, a large part of our trip to Shanghai was focused on eating. Let me share some more of our delicious discoveries with you. (When I say “our delicious discoveries,” I really should credit the friends and family on whose recommendations we relied.)

 

The Grumpy Pig

Located on Maoming Luu in the Jiang’an district, the Grumpy Pig features a pork centric, pan-Asian menu that invites you to nosh, chill, and enjoy the hip vibe.

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Pork steamed buns were a winner with fluffy buns, braised pork belly, and a cucumber and red cabbage slaw. The pork was sweet, sticky, and tender.

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Pork street toast, a play off the shrimp toast snack food common in Thailand and elsewhere in east Asia, features pork and grated sweet potato slathered on baguette toasts which are then battered and fried and then topped with sweet chili sauce. Good, but a little underseasoned.

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Several dishes are served over rice, making for a perfect meal for one. This was the teriyaki pork neck rice bowl with flavorful pork neck, sweet peppers, cabbage, and sansyo (the ground, dried leaves of the prickly ash tree) with a nice, tart teriyaki sauce. 

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The pork rice bowl features the same pork belly as served with the fluffy buns, served over rice with a poached egg, bok choy, and roasted onion. Mix it all together and you have a healthy and happy meal.

 

Di Shui Dong

Our first evening in Shanghai, Tawn and I were left to our own devices as Tawn’s cousins had to go to a social event. We wandered to the French Concession, another district in Shanghai, and ended up stumbling into a Hunanese restaurant that we later discovered is written up in Lonely Planet. Turns out that the recommendation was well-deserved.

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As you can see, the restaurant is popular with a mixed crowd of people. Many of the foreigners appeared to be expats, which I take as a good sign. Hunanese food is similar to Sichuan foods in terms of spiciness, but instead of relying on the tongue-numbing Sichuan peppercorns, more traditional chilies are used. 

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The “Shef’s Special!” (per the menu’s spelling) was the Hunan style cumin spareribs, which were so good that my mouth waters just writing about them. The pork ribs are grilled and finished with a healthy dose of chilies and spices, mostly cumin seeds. The flavor is spectacular and they are not as spicy as you might expect. Cumin is one of my favorite spices, so I was in heaven. Almost ordered a second plate.

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The balance out the meat, we ordered a dish or stir-fried eggplant and French beans, which in addition to some chilies had some smoked pork belly. The little bit of bacon elevated the dish. If your children don’t like to eat vegetables, may I suggest you add some bacon to them?

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Since there were just the two of us eating, we ordered only three dishes, settling on something the menu called “distilled water egg”. We assumed this was a custard similar to the Japanese chawanmushi and were correct, kind of. The egg itself was flavorless and the dash of soy sauce didn’t season it sufficiently. Worst of all was the film of vegetable oil on top, which made the dish unappetizing. Two successes and one failure, but overall we were very happy with the food and service.

 

More Di Shui Dong

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As coincidence would have it, we ended up eating at another branch of the same restaurant two days later, when Jason and his husband Daniel took us to lunch. It wasn’t until we sat down and I looked at the name of the restaurant on the hand wipe packets that I realized we were at the same place. The good news is that we had a chance to further explore the menu.

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Hunan original bacon and smoked tofu spicy hot pot (“Recommended!”) brought together all the flavors we associate with Hunan cuisine in a single dish. It was tasty but seemed like a large portion for four people and I soon tired of it.

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An excellent, if simple, dish was the stir-fried cabbage with cayenne pepper. The cabbage was very sweet and despite the chilies, was a refreshing counterpoint to the other dishes.

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Mr. Mao’s favorite fried shrimps are small shrimp fried in their shells, covered in a mountain of fried garlic and chilies. Such a tasty combination. My only complaint was that the shrimp were not very large so the effort of peeling them was not rewarded with a lot of meat. I ended up eating the shells, which were crispy, but you still end up with the pieces that need to be picked out of your mouth. Not very graceful to eat!

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A steamed fish head, split open and topped with two types of chilies. The green chilies were pickled and had a nice vinegary flavor. The red chilies were fresh. Fish head is under appreciated in the west, but there is some really tasty, firm meat to be had.

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A soup made with pork bone and wax gourd, a flavorful, clear broth that made for a nice break from the spice of the meal. After two meals at Di Shui Dong, our appreciation for Hunanese food was even more solid than before.

 

Xin Ji Shi

One evening we went to the Xiantindi branch of Xin Ji Shi, a well-known Shanghainese restaurant chain. The restaurant, located in an upscale dining and shopping district, has a quaint interior that was formerly a row house. The modern exterior doesn’t prepare you for what might best be described as a step back in time, and a tasty one at that. 

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This is one of several “new” branches of the original “Jesse” (an Anglicization of “Ji Shi”) restaurant on Tianping Luu. Since the original is too small to reliably get a table in, the owners have opened these other branches. Depending on whom you speak to, the branches serve food that is as good as, or a close approximation of, the original.

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Before ordering, you are served a few small dishes of appetizers – pickled vegetables and spicy roasted peanuts. Enough to whet your appetite.

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A specialty is the crispy dried fish. Exactly as described, it is a dried fish that is then deep fried, making almost all of the bones edible and adding a nice crunch to the concentrated fishiness.

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The hong xiao rou (red braised pork) is perhaps the most famous dish in Shanghainese cuisine and is certainly the restaurant’s showstopper. Simmered for hours in a sweet soy sauce, the pork belly turns into a meltingly tender mass of goodness, a flavor that appeals to everyone except vegetarians. 

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Another very typical Shanghai dish was the bean curd skin with crab meat. This dish is deceptive. It looks unassuming at best and, more likely, unappetizing. It is profound, though. The thin strips of tofu are scrambled with crab meat. The first taste, before adding the all-important condiment of black vinegar, is relatively bland. But the vinegar unlocks so many levels of flavor and the dish is elevated to something much more than the sum of its parts. 

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A very simple dish of broccoli fried with garlic provided a nice serving of vegetables, helping to ensure a healthy, balanced meal lest we fall too into temptation with the pork belly.

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The most beautiful and extravagant dish, the toasted deep water fish head in a nest of fried shallot greens. The fried shallot greens hide the fish head when it arrives and the water carefully parts the nest at the table.

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The fish head, which is served split in half to make the meat readily accessible, is tender and succulent. The shallots prove the point that aroma is an integral part of flavor. You don’t eat the shallot greens but their perfume adds an earthy depth to the fish and fills the air.

Xin Ji Shi was a special meal and reinforced my love of Shanghainese food.

 

Qian Xiang Ge

Our final evening in Shanghai, Paul and Nicha took us to Qian Xiang Ge, a Guizhou style restaurant in Pudong, the eastern side of the city. Guizhou is a province in southwestern China that is relatively mountainous and one of the most ethnically diverse in China. It borders Sichuan province but has its own distinct culinary style, known as “Qian” (which is the Chinese diminutive for the province’s name). The food is known for its sour flavors and a distinct condiment, zao pepper, a fermented chili pepper paste.

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The interior of the restaurant is beautiful, with graceful courtyards and many seating areas for casual relaxing before, after, or during a meal.

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Sadly, despite most Shanghainese restaurants no longer allowing smoking, the common seating areas between the dining rooms was open for smokers, filling the room with the unwelcome scent of cigarette smoke. I’m fine with people making the decision to smoke, but when their smoke impedes on my enjoyment of a meal, that’s where I get upset.

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The highlight of the meal was a wujiang fish hot pot. A staple dish of Qian cooking is this fish in sour soup. Chunks of firm white fish are simmered in a spicy-sour sauce tableside for several minutes, before being served. The dish was similar to the Thai gaeng som, but without the tamarind flavor. It was enjoyable, but I think anyone trying the Thai dish might find the overall flavor of that to be richer and more satisfying.

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Seasonal greens stir fried with pork and an egg yolk. Served hot off the wok, you mix the egg yolk into the greens to create a pleasing sauce.

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Guizhou style fried chicken with cashew nuts in chili sauce. This tasty dish wasn’t as spicy as you might think, but had enough chili to get your attention and keep your taste buds awake. This dish is similar to one you might recognize from Chinese restaurants in the west – kung pao chicken – a dish which originates in Guizhou.

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I didn’t make note of the English name of this shrimp dish, which Google translate spits out as “Dushan hydrocloric acid flavored shrimp.” Appetizing, huh? It was shrimp in the shell with a garlic and chili sauce, very tasty and neatly arranged on the plate.

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Our final dish was a specialty called “Guizhou native chicken cooken in purple sand casserole.” It is basically a clay pot chicken. The unique design of the vessel allows steam to come up through the hole in the center of the pot, keeping the chicken incredibly moist and retaining all of its juices in the pot. The juices were too good to waste, so we spooned them on rice.

This was my first time trying Guizhou, or Qian, cuisine and I’ll definitely try it again. The food was very flavorful and not as spicy as Hunan or Sichuan cuisine.

Hope you enjoyed the culinary tour of Shanghai!