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!