Monday, 5 November 2012

Classic Chinese

Alright. I hear you.

Enough messing around – we all know what we’re here for. The food.

So for sticking around after a little look into life here in China, here’s a little look at what China has put on the table in return.

Now you’ll always hear people tell you that Chinese food in China is decidedly different than “Chinese food” anywhere else. No, it doesn’t come in little white takeout boxes. No, it isn’t all comprised of of General Tso’s chicken and Mu Shu pork and those crunchy fried things with the fluorescent orange dipping sauce. And unlike in London, it is (largely) edible. But I can’t quite explain the difference between authentic Chinese and its pale imitation. The flavors are more vibrant, the ingredients unexpected and more varied, and there are interminable options to choose from – each region has its own distinct flavor profile and style (more on that later) – but it’s more than that. My only guess is that there is something to be said for context, and being sat in a fanguan, marinating in the inherent Chinese-ness of it all, adds a little something seasoning cannot.

Although I would argue that there is no such thing as universal ‘classic’ ‘Chinese’ food, as each region would jockey for dishes in the canon, there are certain common dishes that find their way around the majority of menus here in Shanghai, albeit in different permutations. And little did I know, but my first meal would be representative of a fair few of them.

My first morning, we went to a traditional-looking spot on the corner of our street, which now, after recognizing why it is packed to the paper lanterns at every meal, is one of our go-to spots for cheap and ‘classic’ dishes. We ordered zha jiang mian (noodles with saucy pork, here also with egg – what my brother introduced as “the Chinese spaghetti bolognese”) and hun dun tang (your “won ton soup” – notice the phonetic similarity) along with an assortment of sweet buns to try, filled with everything from egg yolk to “seamoss”. Can you tell I was keen to get stuck in?

We also got the Shanghainese signature xiao long bao (henceforth to be known as XLB because we’re cool like that), or soup dumplings. These little suckers are the pride of many places here in Shanghai because of the expertise required both in making them and in eating them. They are made by steaming meat and congealed cubes of stock within dumpling skins so the cubes melt into broth, naturally rendering them dangerous little grenades filled with molten hot soup. 

There are many schools of how best to eat XLB, but the one I ascribe to dictates taking a dumping, placing it in your spoon, poking holes in the top so the steam can escape, dipping it in some vinegar (always served with dumplings – never soy), and then gulping the thing down whole when you think it has finally crossed from ‘fires of Hades’ into ‘blazing fury’. Some people suck the soup out first, but I think you lose the effect of liquid-within-solid that the process attempts to capture. To each their own.

Finally, we finished with the holy grail of snackdom – baozi. I was first introduced to the char siu bao (BBQ pork steamed dumplings) at a dim sum dinner in a hazy place in my memory. This is either because it was a nondescript restaurant and a long time ago, or, more likely, because I blacked out from the sheer deliciousness of the faintly sweet dough pillows swaddling the smoky-sauced meat. Either/or.

The one pictured is a xian row bao, or “fresh meat” dumpling – there are dozens of fillings, and at ¥3 (less than 50¢) a pop at most, it’s going to be impossible not to try them all. Luckily for you, I am a charitable being, and will selflessly volunteer to do just that.

So if the next time you see me I actually resemble a doughy, not-so-little bao, just remember: it’s all in aid of authenticity.

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