Friday, October 29, 2010

Healthy Shanghainese Meals

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From 12 O'clock: stir-fried asparagus, curry chicken, stir-fried broad beans with xue cai, stir-fried celery with hard bean curd, tomato sauce prawns, Shanghainese-style steamed fish (with wine) and drunken chicken wings. Soup was tomato egg flower soup.

One late morning, we were on our way out when Da Ma waylaid us. She insisted that we eat lunch at home and I willingly agreed because I was tired of eating out. Da Ma's maid was a little flustered because she had already prepared lunch for Da Ma. Before we could stop her, she went out and came back (that's the wonderful thing about living in the city. There's always a corner grocery store) with a small bag of live prawns. She trimmed them live and threw them into a hot wok and cooked a simple delicious dish of tomato sauce prawns. Lunch was 8 dishes and again I was so full I was upset with myself for gorging.

From top: salted pork slices, stir-fried asparagus, stir-fried Chinese spinach sprouts, a beancurd, mushroom and ham stew (gunzi tang) and stir-fried mao doe (fresh soy beans). Soup was winter melon and pork bones. 

On another day, we were again caught on the way out (the rare day when we didn't have a lunch appointment) so we had lunch with Da Ma again. Since this was really impromptu, Da Ma's maid didn't add more dishes and yet I enjoyed this meal. It made me re-think my meals at home, especially since my Hub is testing a bit high on his sugar levels now. A meal of mostly veggies (many kinds of them) with little carbs (like I said, not eating rice is a trend now) is so much more healthier than my meat-oriented meals. It's an eye and mind opener. I really should not plan my meals around meat, at least not for lunch.

Ooji (means turtle in Shanghainese) shen (shoot, sprout) is the veg on the left next to the long beans, with leaves like romaine lettuce. The veg on the right is gaobak.

The Shanghainese call this veg  ooji shen . In Malaysia, we get them in cans pickled in a light soy sauce which makes them salty and crunchy, perfect for eating with plain rice congee. If you ever find fresh ooji shen  in your local market (or bring it back from Shanghai like I did), get a stem and make a cold salad of it. The stems are crunchy and have a slight pleasant scent.


Cold Salad Of Ooji Shen
1 ooji shen/ lettuce stem
thinly sliced spring onions
msg (optional but recommended)
veg oil

1. Peel the stem, removing all hard fibers. Cut into thin slices, then julienne strips and add just enough salt to taste. Do not add too much salt because it's not washed away. Cover and leave about 20 minutes.

2. Squeeze the salted lettuce stem strips gently, discarding the liquid. Put into a serving bowl or plate, mix in a dash or two of msg and spring onions.

3. Heat the oil until smoking and pour it over the lettuce stem strips, mixing well. You can serve straightaway or chill it prior to serving.

Note: Healthy though the dishes were, I was shocked by the amount of msg Da Ma's maid added to each dish. If there's msg in home-cooking, restaurant food must be 100% msg-laced. I suspect the same in Japanese cooking, except that msg is disguised in dashi granules, a quintessential ingredient in Japanese dishes, said to be made of tuna but is really tuna and msg.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Good N The Bad

Not everything we ate in Shanghai was good. Some were just edible and some downright bad. Let's start with the bad.

One night, we were walking home, not particularly hungry but it was a chance to eat something less fancy than banquet dishes. I wanted the noodles being fried on a cart by the corner of the street but Hub was adamant that it was dirty. I watched them cook; their hygiene wasn't worse than the restaurants. There was a queue too and the noodles smelt damn good. No, Hub said, they probably use dirty oil. So we walked on and came to a Chinese fast-food restaurant. Hub gave his order, the lady shouted it to the kitchen which I was facing. A middle-aged lady who was digging her teeth with a finger replied "Oh", took her finger out and grabbed a handful of mung bean noodles. With that hand. I told Hub he was going to eat her teeth plaque. The noodles came, he dug into them bravely, saying we probably have eaten worse than teeth plaque many times before. My noodles came, I took a bite (I had watched another cook cook my noodles and she behaved herself) and stopped. Hub stopped. We both stood up and walked out, no words needed. How tasty do you think those two bowls of noodles were, looking at the photos?



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Another day, another fast food restaurant. The savory soy bean milk (upper left) was good, the wonton (upper right) hardly had filling and the soup was bland (Shanghainese wontons just can't beat Cantonese ones), the xiao long bao (lower left) was a disgrace (hard wrappers and no broth inside) in the city famous for these dumplings and the goutie (lower right), the worst I've eaten, was so hard that it lacerated the inside of my cheeks. We decided that Chinese fast food restaurants are to be avoided completely.

On another night, we were curious because the restaurant was full of diners so we went in for a midnight snack. Not too bad tasting but too greasy so I felt sick and regretful:



Remember Guang Ming Cun? What a difference a storey makes because the food on the 2nd floor was very much inferior to the food on the 3rd floor. We should've known by the prices, because the food on the 2nd floor was cheaper:




 My MIL, though Shanghainese to her marrow, doesn't like xiao long bao. She said they are made of low-grade pork and too oily. To prove her wrong, I let the broth out of my bao. She was right. It was disgusting, and I now agree with our Shanghainese relatives who disdain xiao long baos. I think 'real' xaio long bao started out as street food, considered coarse food, but have become popular around the world after restaurants like Crystal Jade and that popular restaurant for tourists in Chenghuangmiao refined them and served them as fine food.

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The spring onion pancake (upper left) was good but greasy, the savory sesame bun (upper right) was okay, the chi fun (lower left) was tasteless and the da bing (big cookie) was not very tasty but greaseless and had a nice toasted flavor. Da bing are baked in open clay 'ovens' but when I asked to go to the market to see them make the da bing, I was told that I wouldn't be able to eat if I do. The cousins then laughed and told each other in Shanghainese how they'd seen the guys who make da bing wipe mucus off their noses and then work on the da bing. I can understand more than 90% of everyday Shanghainese so I kept quiet about going to the da bing stall.

Chinese beer is horrible--tasteless and flavorless. Avoid it.


Physalis is RM11.90/USD3.80 per punnet of 250 gm here but in Shanghai, they are RMB8/RM4/USD1.30 per jing, about 500 gm. Tasted good.


Vendors like the lady above are from the countryside. You can tell because they are darker, shorter and dressed more shabbily than the city folks.


This is a kind of nut that grows in water. We called them "moustaches". My dad used to cook them and eat as snacks and sometimes string them as ornaments; I still have one of the ornaments he made over a decade ago. They are usually available in the fall, around Mid-Autumn Festival. The ones we get in Malaysia are black by the time they get here.


Here's something I ate on my first day in Shanghai that was so good I craved it every time I thought of it. It was a piece of the best chocolate cake (5 layers of cake, 5 layers of choc fudge, topped by a rich, thick ganache) from a shop called 'Awfully Chocolate'. Either that's a hip name or one of those broken English names, prevalent in Taiwan and China. The choc cake was in a block and they cut off the amount you want. This small piece cost a whopping MB35/RM17/USD5.70. The little shop had only 3 kinds of cakes and no sitting area. You know how once in a while you eat something that's better than what you can make? This was one of those things.


Everybody was eating this on Huahai Lu. It was good, not too sweet.


And now, one of the best things I ate: a slice of banana tart (RMB25/RM23/USD4). This was in one of those fancy coffee houses in Xujiahui. I thought I was in Europe. Anyway, I'm now a banana tart lover after this piece of heaven . If anyone has a good banana tart (I tried making one last week and it was awful), please send me the recipe. And I mean a banana tart, not banana cream pie (after years of begging from Wey, I made one a few months back and we both think cream pies are just that, full of cream) which I dislike.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Chingpu Hairy Crabs


An hour out of Shanghai is a town/city called Chingpu where we visited Hub's oldest uncle's grave. We were a group of 10 and we stopped by this restaurant for a delicious lunch. I was told that the prices of food here is very cheap compared to Shanghai. But it was not just the prices that were right but the food too because every dish was yummy. That was our 4th or 5th day in Shanghai and I was rather tired of banquet-type dinners and so I enjoyed this less formal meal which by my home town standard is a mighty big meal.

First came the cold dishes or appetizers as is customary in Shanghai:

I think this was 'drool chicken' again. This doesn't mean the dish was made with drool. It means chicken so good you drool.

Takoo cai is a Shanghainese veg that looks like a flower. This is a salad of takoo cai with firm beancurd.

This is freshly harvested baby 'wood ears', a kind of fungus. There is another type of rare wood ears that grows naturally on the plains of Jiangxi, north of Sichuan, China. It appears in the morning like dew, is very delicate and fine and disappears as the sun gets hotter. One day I'll go to Jiangxi just to eat that elusive dish.
This is Chinese sushi with eel and wood ears.

Eels make me uneasy because they look like snakes but I ate one piece of this, figuring that I eat unagi (Jap eel)--although very uncomfortably--anyway. It was very tasty.

Then came the hot dishes:

Deep-fried salted prawns.

 I think it was the best dish. Some kind of prawns with a bigger upper 'body' than regular prawns. They were deep-fried and the shells were so paper-thin and crispy I ate them all without peeling. The eyes too.

River whelks in a nice spicy beancurd sauce. I found it hard to suck the meat out and there wasn't much meat. It's one of those fun-to-eat dishes.

Those weren't fish balls. They are baby taro in a superior soup with mushrooms. Baby taro do not have as much flavor as the mature taro but are nice, soft and floury.

Roasted duck.

What can I say? The Chinese cook the best ducks, hands down, whether they roast them or fry them or stew them.

Very tender and tasty dish of dai yu (belt fish).

A simple but tasty dish of jiew cai (Chinese chives) and baby clams.

Boiled half head of cow, the weirdest dish I ate this trip.

Huiyi's hub wanted to try this the last time he was in the restaurant but there were not enough diners with him so this time he figured we can finish this dish. We couldn't, partly because some of us were put off by the cow's teeth and skull. Yes, this is half a cow's head, cooked until very tender. You snip a piece off and dip it in a tasty broth. I ate one piece just so I know how it tasted but I was rather repulsed by it.

I couldn't eat anymore and I can't remember what it was.

Finally, the dish we came to eat: hairy crabs, called 'mao xie' or da cha xie'. 

Hairy crabs are usually steamed, plain, and eaten with a dip of black vinegar and julienned ginger. My in-laws cook any kind of crabs that way and I wondered why because the Cantonese would always cook crabs in a sauce. When I ate this dish of hairy crabs fried in a sauce with fresh soy beans, I immediately knew the answer. Like a good corn fed chicken or a good live fish, the best way to cook such quality food is by steaming or boiling briefly without adding unnecessary seasonings. This method of cooking will not rob or mask the real flavor of the food. Both Hub and I were disappointed with the saucy hairy crabs, not because they were not well-cooked. On the contrary, they were excellent. But the crabs could have been ordinary crabs and still tasted great because the sauce was good. After this dish, I realized that hairy crabs MUST be steamed plain. Any other way and the crabs are wasted.

The crab was full of sweet tasty roe, which is why hairy crabs are so sought after. There isn't much meat but whatever meat that the hairy crab has is very tender and sweet.

 Hairy crabs (because they have furry claws) are native to the area near the Yangcheng Lake near Suzhou in the Jiangsu Province where Shanghai is also located. The crabs are seasonal, appearing in early fall and disappearing before Spring, which is why Hub and I choose to visit Shanghai in October. I was told that hairy crabs connoisseurs eat the crabs according to the months. Even months like October and December are when female (or is it male?) hairy crabs are at their best while odd months like November and January are when the males (or females?) are best. I think the hairy crabs we had were a bit too immature because although there was plenty of roe, the flavor wasn't pronounced enough. Unlike mud crabs, the roe of the hairy crabs is soft, creamy and smooth. Each crab in the dish above was RMB29/RM15/USD4.70, considered cheap because in Shanghai and big cities they are more than double that price. Large crabs are about RMB100/RM50/USD16 to 150/75/24 each in Shanghai.

 Glutinous rice pancakes with some kind of minced leaves in them in a sugary syrup, a snack considered to be too 'peasant'. I found them unusual and liked them so I ate three even though I was so full.

That was a belly-worthy meal. I was so full I felt like my eyes would pop out.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Beautiful Garden

Come walk with me through a very special garden. I'm sure you'll find this interesting. Not scary at all, I promise you. You may even find some great design ideas, like I did.

Cemeteries are frightening and fearful places to most people, including me. I hate Chinese cemeteries, especially those in my home town, and especially the Buddhist or Taoists ones where the gravestones alone can make my heart jump to my mouth, so spooky and ugly they are. So imagine a cemetery that's beautiful and even scenic, where a walk is like a walk through one of the famous gardens in Europe. There is such a cemetery, and we have been there the last two two times we went to Shanghai, for that's where Da Berber, my FIL's older brother, is buried. I'm not sure what the name of the cemetery is, but it is about one hour's drive out of Shanghai near a town where we could conveniently eat hairy crabs (da cha xia, or mao xia) too. It was also time to bring Da Berber's only great grandson, little 6-weeks old Luke, to pay his respects.

This cemetery is the resting place for many of China's famous literary and political people. A famous musician here, an award-winning movie star there, a couple of royal communist party big guns, writers, poets, artists...I liked walking around the part of the cemetary where the famous people are buried. I can't read their stories, written in Chinese, but I appreciated the statues and the beautiful surroundings. Even the air was nice, with the scent of freshly-cut grass and osmanthus flowers. But I walk quickly when I am told this one or that one died in an airplane crash, or a tragic accident or suicide, and a part of the cemetery that made my heart contract hard was the one where little children were buried.

I liked this one. He looks happy and relaxed.

A famous communist?


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I was told that many of the people here were commies persecuted by their own party and their status cleared and restored only when China opened up over the last decade. 



Little angels. Extra sad because China has a one-child policy, very much adhered to in the cities, so these kids were mostly only-child.

I like this one too.



This made me sad because the empty chair made me wonder who sat on it, and it made me think of my father.


How can a walk through a cemetery not remind me of my own mortality? It did, and I particularly like this one, only maybe I would be whipping up a cake or eating a bowl of mangoes. Or durians.
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