We've just come back from a week in Shanghai, my Hub's birth place. I was looking forward to an eating, shopping and sight-seeing trip but it turned out to be an eating, eating and eating trip. By the second night, I went to bed early, curling up fetal-position in my bed, feeling very uncomfortable and nauseous from eating too much. I wondered how I could go through another 6 days of such dinners which Hub and I had been looking forward to and even dieted for, two weeks before the trip.
China today is experiencing the best economic times ever. In restaurants, it is common to see two persons share four big dishes and one soup. We had to remind ourselves that it was only 40 to 50 years ago when people were starving in China. Hub and I often shook our heads at the amount of food on the tables and we wondered 1) Why do they order so much and can they finish the food? 2) Is everybody in Shanghai rich? 3) Why aren't there fat people in China? My father often told stories of how he survived on sweet potatoes and leaves when on the run in the 50s from the communists who hunted him as he was an officer in the Kuomingtang, the democrats. He wouldn't have believed it then if someone told him that communist China would become so prosperous.
While an Italian dinner is usually made up of four courses (antipasto, primo, secondo, dolce) served individually, Chinese-Shanghainese (and Pekingnese, from what I remember) dinners start with 8 to 10 cold dishes followed by at least 10 warm dishes, followed by at least two desserts, all served a la commune (as in most Asian cultures), to be shared by the dinners. In very formal dinners, the dishes are served one after another while in less formal dinners, the dishes are served as they are cooked so that more than one dish is on the table.
Our schedule was full, with all our meals planned by Hub's older cousin Huiyi and that meant that we couldn't make any trip anywhere. I was hoping to visit one of those villages, specifically 'Seven Gems' (Chi Bao) where--food again--I could eat swallow wontons (pork mince in wonton wrappers made of fish paste that give an el dente bite; the word swallow refers to their tiny size) and the best black sesame glutinous rice balls called tang yuan. Lunch and dinner appointments also meant that I had very little time, most days none, to shop, since the shops open at 11 am and we had to be back to the house by 5 pm as the old folks didn't think we could find our way to the restaurants ourselves. Not that shopping is great anymore in Shanghai. Prices have gone up so much since my last visit 4 years ago. On Changle Lu where we lived in a long tang (old housing units, duplexes), any dress you pick up would cost over RMB2000! That's RM1000/USD300. And these are Chinese clothings sold in little unimpressive boutiques, not designer labels on Nanjing West Rd. Eleven years ago when I first visited China, there weren't many imported make up and clothing labels. Gifts of perfumes were very welcome. Now they have more labels than we have in Malaysia and Singapore. Even in Hangzhou, designer stores like Hermes, Cerrutti, Versus and lots others are lined up along the famous Xi Hu (West Lake). When I wondered who'd shop in these places (imported designer goods are more expensive in China than other Asian countries), Hub reminded me that one percent of China Chinese is already 13 million while 1 percent of the US population is 3 million. China now ranks second in the number of billionaires, an astonishing feat considering that economic reforms were implemented only about 20 to 25 years ago. Before that, Chinese weren't even allowed to own businesses.
Back to the dinners. Our first dinner was from Huiyi, Hub's cousin, in a restaurant the name of which I don't remember. There were ten of us in a private dining room which gave a more exclusive feel and this is what we ate, 10 cold dishes, 11 warm/hot dishes, 4 desserts and a platter of fruits:
The cold dishes from top, left to right: boiled pork with garlic soy sauce dip, breast of goose stuffed with salted duck egg yolks, goose liver slices (foie gras), flavored bean curd, 'liang fen' (mung bean noodles) with Sichuan hot sauce and braised beef tripe.
More cold dishes: drool chicken (I think they mean chicken so good you drool), some kind of fried fish, braised kohfu (a kind of tofu, my MIL's fav) and a Shanghainese veg with hard bean curd.
The hot dishes:
Fen jen rou ( steamed flavored-flour-coated pork) is a Hubei dish.
A tasty deep-fried breaded roll of minced meat.
'Crystal' river shrimps is a top fav Shanghainese dish. The shrimps (size of a 20 sen coin) when treated with running cold water become plump, tender and crunchy.
Smoked duck, another Shanghainese specialty.
Baked lamb ribs.
'Water-cooked fish' (shui joo yu), which Hub and I love, is actually cooked in oil but surprisingly doesn't taste oily. The dried chilies and Sichuan peppercorns give a wonderful aroma to the fish slices (in this case, the river fish was too delicate and lacked fish flavor) and big bean sprouts.
A nouvelle dish of deep-fried prawns drenched in a mango sauce. The batter stayed crunchy and the sauce was wonderful.
Sweet and sour 'gui' fish, very well done. The fish was artfully cut to open up like corals.
A very subtle but delicious dish of silky tofu and silky, wonderfully flavored high-grade fish maw, not available anymore in Sabah.
Gohbak is crispy rice pieces, usually topped at the table with a tomatoey prawns sauce, that sizzle as the sauce touches the rice. In this case, a fruit sauce was served and Hub and I thought it was a bad twist to the dish. Some dishes just shouldn't be nouvelled.
If you don't drink wine or beer, you are most likely to be served a fizzy drink or something sweet. In this case, I got sour plum juice, which had a slightly smoky taste, nice. I found it strange that even at home, the Shanghainese will serve a sweet drink with the meals and even if there's soup.
Four varieties of dien xin (dim sum, little bites that 'point at the hearts').
Which other cuisine is as varied and luxurious?