Billiards boasting of Expo 2010 greeted us as we entered the city limits of Shanghai. Quickly approaching the population mark of 23 million, it is currently China’s most populous city. In the last 20 years there has been a period of rapid growth development, pushing Shanghai into the modern world as an influential entity in all things related to finance, commerce and fashion. However, what I’m really looking forward to in this booming city is over 130 years old… the xiao long bao. It is a real gastronomical treat and a joy for the insides of your mouth, as far as I’m concerned.
Xiao long bao is a small 18 pleated bun that is filled with a wonderful mixture of meats and aspics, and then steamed to perfection. It is best eaten hot as the heat melts the aspic into a nice savoury broth. Ideally, you’d pop the whole bun into your mouth and wait for the burst of flavours as it explodes against your taste buds! I must’ve had this at least 3 times, and I had planned on many more as they sold them on the street as well. However, our ever cautious tour guide advised me against eating these as my digestion system might not handle street food very well. Drats.
Venturing back into the modern aspect of Shanghai life, we visited a Haagen Daz restaurant, which I was surprised to find were quite popular in China. Yes… a restaurant! They don’t have these in Canada, or in the US, and it was almost like visiting a Death by Chocolate. A maitre ‘d greeted us at the front door, in full-on uniform complete with vest and matching beret. Shortly after we are seated, and given our 10 page photo spread menu to peruse, our waiter visited our table to take our orders. Thank goodness for the pictures because being able to point at what we wanted made ordering so much easier, not speaking Mandarin perhaps the only way it was possible. Our silverware was laid out, our water glasses were filled, and we sat back listening to the contemporary pop that was playing over the speakers. I don’t think I’ve ever been in such a classy joint for ice cream!
The next morning, I had to say a sad farewell to the xiao long bao as we made our way into Hangzhou. This is where the famous Longjing (aka Dragon Well) tea is grown and harvested. In fact, the entire country-side seemed to be covered in tea plants, hills and hills of neat rows of green everywhere you glanced. And if there’s one thing I’d learned during my time in this country is that Chinese people are serious about their teas.
Our visit to a longjing tea plantation began with a short seminar by a government official dubbed “Dr Tea”. He had a degree in Tea Sciences (I didn’t even know such a thing existed!) and he worked as a Quality Inspector at the federal level. Dr Tea began his lecture by explaining the anti-oxidant effects of longjing tea, and preformed a simple, but visually effective, demonstration which involved rice, iodine, water and tea. It had everyone’s attention; hook, line and sinker. “I must have this!” my brain told me, and next thing I knew, we were paying $140 for a half kilo of premium grade-A longjing green tea. Interestingly, the AA stuff is reserved only for the government’s use, while the lower quality of grades B and C are also available for public sale. Grade D is kept for export… Makes you go hmm doesn’t it?
Specialty dishes that originated from Hangzhou include the Beggar’s Chicken, and Dongpo Pork… both of which are very tasty. The chicken is stuffed with a mixture of pork, shrimp, various veggies and seasonings, and then it is wrapped up in layers of lotus leaves, and encased in salted clay. It is then baked for anywhere from 2-4 hours, and once the clay is cracked, the chicken is falling-off the bone tender and smells wonderful. It’s not a dish that you can just order off the street; due to the amount of time and labour involved Beggar’s Chicken must be ordered in advance.
Dongpo Pork is fatty pork belly that is braised in soy sauce and wine until it barely holds up together. A nice fatty pork is key, the fattier the better in fact! My parents actually make a version of this at home, but as much as I love Momma’s cooking, I gotta say that the real deal tastes so much better! Yeah I know what you’re thinking, but it’s worth every fatty, artery-clogging calorie. And it’ll be alright… I have all that longjing tea to clear everything right up! But I digress.
The pork is so rich; we’re only each given 3 small inch cubes of meat, served in small individual bowls. The tender meat is merely a side note and the fatty main star literally just melts away in your mouth. Mmm… so good… and while it’s very oily, there’s no lingering taste of grease left on your tongue.
We finished off our decadent meals in Hangzhou with fresh raw sugar cane. The stalks are peeled and cut into manageable sizes, which you then bite off and suck on, draining out all the sweet juice. Developing the ability to remove the leftover fibres from your mouth discreetly was also quite the experience.
And that was pretty much how we ended our culinary adventures in China. It was definitely an eye opener on how different the cuisine was when compared to Chinese food in BC, and even the difference of preparation between each region. And while I can’t wait to return to China to eat my way through again, I’m actually quite happy to be eating sweet and sour pork again here at home.