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A Taste of Distant Lands
Tapping the Shanghai Restaurant Scene
SHANGHAI -- "Don't be disgusted," my friend warned as we walked into the restaurant, "but they like to eat rotten things. When the food gets a little hairy, they love it." Those intimidatingly unappetizing words were my introduction to the cuisine of Shaoxing, a coastal city south of Shanghai. I had long known about Shaoxing wine, the rice wine that's used in so many Chinese dishes. But until I walked into the Old Xianheng Hotel in Shanghai (the restaurant kept the name of the hotel that used to be on the premises), I never realized that Shaoxing has its own distinctive cuisine, much less that it was a smelly one.
My friend, a Shanghai native named Steven Gu, was right on the mark. The duck we ordered had been hung up to dry, marinated in a soy-based sauce for three days, cooked and marinated once again. To characterize its taste as "gamey" would be an understatement. The "stinky tofu" -- the deep-fried squares of fermented bean curd that can perfume entire city blocks -- rivaled anything in Taipei, a city filled with stinky tofu fanatics. And even the restaurant's stewed pork belly was spiced up with pickled mustard greens, which had been fermented until they turned black.
Here I was, a longtime fan of Chinese food, eating a Chinese cuisine that was entirely new to me. I felt like a kid once again, graduating from the chop suey and chow mein of Cantonese restaurants in suburban Cleveland to the sophisticated Hunanese and Sichuanese food offered in New York. And I was to remain a kid for an entire week in Shanghai, discovering not only Shaoxing food from Zhejiang province, but the cuisines of Anhui, Jiangxi, Guizhou and other provinces.
This is the food that the rest of China eats. Those of us who live outside of China know about Cantonese, Shanghainese, Sichuanese and other cuisines that have left their mark in big cities all over the world. But to hundreds of millions of Chinese, a Cantonese dinner is just as foreign as a taco or a pizza. They've grown up with their own local food, which in some cases is equally as interesting as the much more famous provincial styles. It's just that there hasn't been enough immigration from these places to spread the food around the world.
But now, thanks to the increasing prosperity and sophistication of Shanghai, many of these little-known regional cuisines are establishing Shanghai beachheads, meaning we can sample them without having to fly all around China. "The Shanghainese are eating everything now," says Mr. Gu, who is a corporate headhunter. "They used to be very conservative. When I was a child, most people ate out only about once a year. But because they now have more money to spend, they eat out often."
This phenomenon exists to a lesser extent in Beijing and Guangzhou, two other cities with new-found prosperity. And food experts are predicting that the trend won't stop there. "It will gather momentum, because the food of all these regions will start making a bigger and bigger impact once the world discovers there are different kinds of Chinese food," says Ton Tan, a Melbourne food historian and cooking teacher who takes frequent eating trips to China. "It definitely will happen," he adds.
Jereme Leung, a chef from Hong Kong who now cooks innovative Chinese food at a Shanghai restaurant called Whampoa Club, says that a lot of these "minority cuisines" are unique. "For someone who doesn't know China well, to be having Guizhou cuisine one day and Xinjiang cuisine the next is incredible. I love some of these dishes."
If you think you've done the rounds with Chinese food, consider the following dishes as examples, illustrating a vast range of food that I had never even heard of, much less tasted: Nanjing boiled duck, which many Chinese prefer to Peking duck; Manchurian slow-cooked stews, called dun; and giant Huaiyang dumplings served in individual ramekins, where you suck the soup out of the dumpling with a straw but don't eat the dough.
Admittedly, as with the "stinky" cuisine of Shaoxing, some of these regional restaurants prove a definite culinary adventure. At a Yunnan restaurant in Shanghai, I got a chance to sample pig kidneys, as well as eel and pig stomach cooked together inside a hollowed-out stalk of bamboo. Then there were mixed chicken innards (from Chaozhou, a region of Guangdong province), pig backbone (Jiangxi province), and a Guizhou dish called "saliva chicken" (don't ask -- I didn't). These, however, were fairly mundane compared with one of the specialties of the Manchurian Special Flavor Jiaozi Restaurant -- donkey penis, stir-fried with chilies and slices of garlic. I can report with all seriousness that donkey penis is delicious, with a taste and texture resembling sweetbreads (the delicate thymus gland of an animal, usually a cow). Remember how exotic sweetbreads seemed not too many years ago? Maybe someday donkey penis will also hit it big time at the world's chi-chi restaurants.
The major surprise of eating little-known regional cuisine, though, is not the exotic dishes, but how good so much of this food is. I came to China with the impression that jaded foodies have already lifted the lids on virtually every restaurant pot in the world in an effort to find something new. Yet we were eating dramatically new food every day, and finding that much of it was good -- and some actually great. I don't know if it was the cuisine or the chef, but the Anhui meal was so splendid that I'm tempted to spend a few days eating my way through Anhui province, a poor agricultural area of east-central China.
And aside from the donkey penis, the dumpling and noodle dishes of the Manchurian restaurant were surprisingly tasty. Even the Shaoxing meal was enjoyable. In addition to the pungent food, Shaoxing is also the home of drunken chicken, in which the chicken is boiled and then marinated in Shaoxing wine and served cold as a starter. This dish, washed down by a glass of Shaoxing wine itself, is enough to put a smile on anyone's face.
Here are the highlights of a restaurant-by-restaurant tour of what the rest of China eats. The selection of restaurants came from research by Mr. Gu, who sniffs out good food as an avocation. Many of them are one-of-a-kind representatives of their region in Shanghai.
Anhui (Lu Yang Ren Jia)
You eat the food of this dirt-poor province in a surprisingly upscale restaurant, complete with glassed-in kitchen, that's a bit too glitzy for my tastes. But what food it is. It's unusual to be served raw vegetables in China, but a salad of jinjie, which looks like baby spinach and is tossed uncooked in lemon juice and oil, proves so delicious we had to order seconds. A huge fish head is split in two, steamed and covered with fiery chopped pickled green chilies. Pigeon gets cooked in a crock pot with stinky tofu, the first time I've encountered stinky tofu used as an ingredient instead of being served alone. Shredded dried scallops are steamed with a dried flower that comes from a species of tree that's grown in Anhui. In short, it's all unique, and everything tastes wonderful. Six of us ordered 10 dishes and were fighting for every scrap of food -- the Lazy Susan in the middle of the table was whirring away all through dinner. And despite the luxurious surroundings and the endless bottles of beer, we paid just $50 for the privilege.
Lu Yang Ren Jia.
Manchurian (Dong Bei Ren)
It's all kitsch, with the waitstaff wearing red-flowered clothes and red streamers hanging from the ceiling. But for a welcome change, the kitsch is designed to attract Shanghainese customers rather than tourists, who would flee in panic from a menu that included such delectables as donkey penis. This is truly a whole new cuisine, with its wild greens, the various fried breads, the slow-cooked stews called dun, and -- if you're not into donkey penis -- the donkey ears. The dun of chicken stewed with wild mushrooms and vermicelli noodles is one of the great dishes to be found in Shanghai. A plate of wild greens gets doused with a hot dressing including eggs and oil made at your table. The little dumplings stuffed with napa cabbage and ground pork might not be unique to Manchuria, but they're well worth ordering. And ordering is made simple by a menu that includes photos of each dish. The surprises don't stop with food; you can wash down your dinner with a thick "smoothie" made with various grains blended together.
Dong Bei Ren
Guizhou (Lao Tan)
Guizhou Province in southwest China, one of the poorest areas of China and one of the most scenic, is just south of Sichuan province, the latter world-famous for its red-hot dishes. The chili peppers have crossed the border to spice up yet another cuisine: Guizhou cuisine might not taste like Sichuan food, but it roars. I've never tasted anything quite like it. Some of the meats must get pounded into tenderness, because the "saliva chicken" and the sliced pork liver can only be described as "pillowy." Sour fish soup comes Sichuan-style, as a hotpot cooked at your table, with a dipping sauce for the fish. Not everything is what it seems: a cold starter that looks like tofu is actually made from rice. A platter of sliced meat, that looks like Spam, is actually sticky rice. It must reflect the poverty of Guizhou, making inexpensive rice look more tempting. The restaurant itself is a barn-like room made pleasant by murals of modern art on the walls, and broken pottery glued onto wall panels.
Shaoxing (Old Xianheng Hotel)
True, the food smells. But don't forget that fermentation can do a lot of good things gastronomically, like making milk into cheese. Shaoxing cuisine is a meal like no other. We ate not only stinky tofu, which can be found in other places in China, but stinky bean curd sheets; if you closed your eyes, you'd swear you were eating cheese. The duck, marinated for longer than you want to know and dark brown in color, is gamey enough to be confused with venison. And then there are the "drunken" dishes, marinated in the rice wine that makes Shaoxing famous. Both the drunken chicken and the drunken duck tongues are served cold as starters. The drink du jour, of course, is Shaoxing wine, brought to the table in a pewter teapot accompanied by tiny wine glasses.
Old Xianheng Hotel.
Nanjing (Jinling Yan Shui Ya)
Although you can order other items, there's one thing and one thing only that people come here for: the Nanjing duck. To get to the dining room, you walk through a glassed-in room with white tile walls stacked almost to the ceiling with whole ducks. They're like no other duck you've ever eaten. First they're marinated in salt and spices, including huajiao, a sort of pepper that's considered the most essential part of the marinade. Then they're hung and finally cooked in boiling water. Served at room temperature without any sort of dipping sauce, they're salty but very tender and tasty, without a speck of fat. Accompanied by a green vegetable and a beer, they make a perfect lunch. And as an added bonus: If you keep walking down the food street, on the next corner after the Nanjing duck restaurant is a brightly lit restaurant with a big, red sign. It specializes in what must be the world's best pork chops, which are deep-fried. A chop, with sticky rice cakes, sliced cucumbers and dumpling soup, will set you back $1.
Jinling Yan Shui Ya.
Jiangxi (Tile-Crock Soup Restaurant)
You may not be familiar with Jiangxi province, which is in central China east of Hunan, much less its cuisine. But lots of Shanghai residents are, because both floors of this restaurant can be jammed as early as 6 p.m. The bland, modern décor belies the peasant origins of the food. Jiangxi cuisine features lots of pork dishes, and the great specialty is soup, such as bitter melon with pork ribs, cooked slowly for hours in earthenware pots. Here you can also order an unusual cut of pig: the backbone, roasted and served dry. The meat clinging to the bones might not be abundant, but it's likely to be sweet and tender. Top marks go to another house specialty: a crepe stuffed with a thin layer of egg, green onions, chopped ham and tomatoes, then cooked on a griddle until it's crisp.
Tile-Crock Soup Restaurant.
Huaiyang (Yang Zhou Restaurant)
It might just be a legend, but Chairman Mao supposedly turned his back on his native Hunanese food and celebrated China's liberation with a Huaiyang banquet for the first official state dinner. That's why it's sometimes called "the first cuisine of the new China." Huaiyang is a region of China incorporating part of Anhui and Jiangsu Provinces. While it's not far southwest from Shanghai, the food tends to be light and simply done, a sharp contrast to oily Shanghainese food. So when you order the fried rice -- Huaiyang is said to have the finest fried rice in China -- you get fluffy, greaseless rice flavored with bits of sausage, shrimp and egg. The Huaiyang version of the famous Shanghai "lions head" pork balls is fluffy instead of dense, with crab roe at its center. Crab meat is mixed with roe, then stuffed back into the little crab shells. Most interesting are the huge dumplings stuffed with a soup filled with bits of crab and crab roe. You poke a hole in the top, suck out the soup with a straw, and discard the dumpling itself. The only disappointment here is the restaurant itself, which is on the fourth floor of a sterile, modern hotel.
Yang Zhou Restaurant.
Yunnan (Yunnan Mei Shi Yuan)
Don't come here expecting the magic of a restaurant in Yunnan, a province in southwest China filled with ethnic minorities. Instead, there's the opportunity here to taste a great Yunnan specialty, food prepared by being steamed in hollow stalks of bamboo. Eel, fish, chicken, pig stomach or kidney -- you name it and you can get it encased in bamboo, along with the mushrooms that are a staple of Yunnan cooking. Everyone here orders rice noodle soup, a Yunnan version of Japanese sukiyaki. About 20 ingredients are brought to your table with noodles and a bowl of very hot chicken stock, and you dump in what appeals to you. The downside is that the restaurant is in one of those glitzy shopping malls that could just as well be in Philadelphia as Shanghai.
Yunnan Mei Shi Yuan.
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