Tag Archives: Shanghai

Self-guided walking tour: Shanghai’s Former French Concession Area

Self-guided walking tour: Shanghai’s Former French Concession Area

Author’s note: If you have made use of this tour, please pop me a note to let me know of any changes that might have occurred so future travelers can be aware of any closures or business location changes. And if you have anything to add, please leave a comment here too. Other travelers would love to hear from you!   – LK

The Shanghai French Concession (上海法租界Shànghǎi Fǎ Zūjiè), was a foreign concession in Shanghai from 1849 until 1946, and was the premier residential and retail district of Shanghai for much of the 20th century. With its European style cafes, quiet, leafy, tree lined avenues and tudor houses nestled in beautiful gardens interspersed with hole-in-the-wall eateries and local colours and flavours, it is a popular tourist destination. You could pretty much get off at any stop in the area and just stroll around the shops, boutiques, restaurants and deli’s. Or follow this self guided walk to hit some of the best spots between Xintiandi in the East, Tainzifang in the South and Fuxing Middle Road in the West.

French Concession lane

Time: A full day

Distance: +/- 7km

Start: South Huangpi Road metro station

End: South Shaanxi Road metro station

Xintiandi in the Former French Concession.

Xintiandi 2Start your tour at (A) South Huangpi Road metro station. Leave through Exit 1 and head south on Danshui Road. Turn left on Taicang Road till you hit the Starbucks. You can’t miss it. The two block area behind Starbucks is the heart of (B) Xintiandi, an upmarket, pedestrian only, shopping, eating and entertainment district composed of refurbished shikumen houses, narrow alleys and stone paved courtyards. With its stone gate buildings, it is a beautiful area, and you could spend a whole morning here browsing through book shops, cafes and delis selling French cheese, wines and Moët & Chandon, upscale boutiques and restaurants. In the south eastern corner of this block is the (C) Site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China which has now been preserved as a museum. The museum houses exhibits about the history of China and Shanghai and the foundation of the CPC.  Entry is free. Head north on Huangpi South Road until you hit (D) Huaihai Road and turn left. Cross the road using the pedestrian bridge at Chongqing, because, well, it’s kinda cool. And also, you do not want to miss the little hole-in-the-wall establishment that sells (E) radish cakes a little way down from the corner on the north side of Huaihai Road. I can’t sell radish cakes by using the term “radish cakes”, so you’ll just have to trust me on this. These pastries have a warm, fresh filling and a flaky, crisp coating and make a perfect mid-morning snack. The shop is no more than a bamboo steamers filled window with a little sign hanging above it. Look for the green painted window frames with red writing. Skip the shāomài (sticky rice dumplings) here though. Maybe I caught them on a bad day, but I thought they were awful.

Site of first National Congress

Take the next road left and head down Yandang Road towards (F) Fuxing Park. This cobblestoned road is semi pedestrianized and lined with Chinese shops and restaurants. The park is a feast for the senses. Vendors sell fresh seasonal juices at the entrance, the gardens are a riot of colour and fragrance, little old people do tai chi around every corner, and young and old sing karaoke on portable speakers. There are spontaneous ballroom dancers, mahjong playing enthusiasts, laughing children, pensive pensioners, kite flyers, fan dances, card games, makeshift tables where doctors take blood pressure and dispense advice and lots of music and random singing. The 10 hectare park is designed in the French style, with a koi filled central lake, fountains, covered pavilions, and colourful, seasonal flowerbeds. Exit the park through the north western exit.

Fuxing Park (2)Fuxing Park (3)

Fuxing ParkKaraoke in Fuxing Park.

Turn left on (G) Sinan Road and head south. On the left when you reach Xiangshan Road is the Shanghai Museum of Sun Yat-Sen’s Former Residence. Sun Yat-Sen was the forerunner of the Chinese democratic revolution and the founder of the Republic of China. The museum contains the original furnishings used by the family as well as displays of Mr. Sun Yat-Sen’s activities from his stay in Shanghai. A little further down, behind a red lacquered door lies the former residence of General Zhou Enlai, a former Premier of the PRC. The residence now houses a free museum that depicts the history of the Chinese Communist Revolution. Read the rest of this entry

Shanghai’s Friday Muslim Market

Shanghai’s Friday Muslim Market

My husband plays this little game every now and then. I’m not sure whether it’s his way of preparing for the worst thing imaginable to him. His Armageddon. His Apocalypse. His Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Out of the blue he will ask me: “If you had to give up all but one meat, which one would you keep?”. To me, this question was always a bit of a conundrum. Lamb seemed the obvious choice. Ribs, roasted till the fatty bits are all crispy. Shanks, slow cooked in Port till the meat melts off the bone. Chops, cooked on an open fire, surrounded by friends. Leg, done till slightly pink and served with lakes of rich gravy. But then what about bacon? I mean, pork would lose if not for bacon, but bacon complicates matters greatly. A pickle. But like anything, I needed to lose both to realise what mattered most to me. We technically can’t get bacon in Qingpu. Or at least, we can get something that says bacon on the packet. And “Elaborate Bacon” at that. But it’s some sort of processed, smoked meat chopped into bits and reassembled into a shape vaguely resembling that most essential BLT ingredient. And after our favourite teppanyaki restaurant closed its doors overnight despite being an apparent roaring success, we could no longer get mutton or lamb in any shape or form either. So, in those desperate days where I could not tuck into either a lamb chop or a perfectly crisp slice of streaky bacon, lamb is what I would’ve run to if you’d put it opposite bacon and had them both call me at the same time.

I am therefore slightly embarrassed that it took me four months to discover the wonder that is Shanghai’s Friday  morning Muslim market. Here, on North Changde Lu in the Jing’an District, you can get lamb in every conceivable style – fresh, cooked, minced, spiced, baked in dough, steamed in dumplings, skewered onto kebabs. And oh. My. Word. As a half blood Afrikaner meisie it pains me to say that the lamb I have eaten in China is better than any Karoo lamb I’ve had back home. Granted, it won’t be to everyone’s taste. As lamb goes, it’s fairly lean (if you don’t have the tail bit) and it has that really strong animal flavour you only ever get when you know someone who knows someone who can get his hands on one of those sheep who was actually destined to provide only wool, but then met an untimely end in a sausage machine.

But wait! Before we get to the market, a little detour is essential. To get to the market, you absolutely have to take the (less than) scenic route via Yanping Road. What you are looking for is Wuyuan bĭngjiā (or W.Y. Fanriy Cake – fancy cake? fairy cake? I don’t know, but look out for the orange sign). Here you will find xie ke huang – tiny, crispy, golden sweet or savoury crab shell pies. The pies don’t necessarily contain crab (although our interpreter did tell us that the ones we had here were crab roe, which I’m a bit dubious about given the pale colour). Rather, they are so called because the finished product resembles golden crab shells. The savoury fillings can contain fresh meat or crab meal, shrimps, spring onion and lard and the sweet ones are filled with sugar, rose water and bean or date paste – the sweet filling when warm has the consistency of thick syrup. The pastry is made from oiled, fermented flour and is wrapped around the filling, rolled in sesame seeds and then baked on the walls of a clay oven. It it hard to say what it is that makes me yearn for these little pies, even now. But there is just something about the crispy, flaky pastry giving way to the warm, soft, delicately flavoured center that is addictively moreish. We hadn’t made it halfway up the block before we’d polished off the lot and had to go back for more. Would I lie to you? It’s worth getting off a stop early for them. 蟹壳黄 – just find these characters on the menu and point – there is no English here. Pay inside and either eat in or collect your pies from the window outside. The queue moves very quickly. The pies are around RMB1 each.

Anyway, back to the Muslim Market. The red awninged carts and stalls of the market line both sides of Changde Lu on the sidewalks outside the Huxi Mosque. Most of the vendors are Uyghurs from Xinjiang province. This is the region that makes the sheeping world go round – the lamb here is the fat bottomed (or fat tailed to be precise) breed of sheep that gives the dishes you’ll find here that hearty, flavoursome edge. You can stock up on incense, carpets, jewellery, ornate daggers (can’t have too many of those), nuts, dates, fruit, a mind-boggling selection of raisins and sultanas, naan, and, most importantly lamb. Lots and lots of lamb!

Our first stop was at the steamed dumpling stall. They’re made just like every other jiaozi in Shanghai, but instead of pork they are filled with minced lamb and onions. There are virtually no other spices added – it’s just unadulterated lamby yumminess! The paper thin dough is folded around the lamb mixture, deftly pinched along the edges to seal in the meat and juices and the dumplings are then steamed in massive bamboo steamers.

One of the most popular dishes at the market is pulao (or polos) – mutton pilaf. To make this Uyghur dish, great, big chunks of mutton are boiled with rice, carrots, onions, garlic and sultanas. But while this was one of the main dishes I came for, it didn’t really appeal to me once I saw the pans full of rice. I think I was expecting a little more oomphf. Maybe some spices or something. Anyway, we skipped the pilaf and moved on to the langman – a cold noodle dish served with chilli flakes and sliced vegetable. We moved along – cold noodles are probably Read the rest of this entry

Self-guided walking tour: Nanjing Road to Old Shanghai

Self-guided walking tour: Nanjing Road to Old Shanghai

Author’s note: If you have made use of this tour, please pop me a note to let me know of any changes that might have occurred so future travelers can be aware of any closures or business location changes. And if you have anything to add, please leave a comment here too. Other travelers would love to hear from you!   – LK

So you have 24 hours in China’s biggest city. You’re a world-wise traveler. You have more stamps in your passport than David Attenborough’s cameraman. You prefer to do those things that are off the beaten track, far from the madding crowd, living like the natives do and all that. Hole-in-the-wall eateries, remote temples, out of the way ramshackle buildings with loads of history, original fittings and a little old man out front who will single-handedly change the way you view the world with a story about how he ones saved a shepherd and his goats. You know – all those tips that well-thumbed guidebook has told you and a million other readers to do. I get it. But if you’re only going to have one day in Shanghai, you’re probably going to want to see the Bund and Old Shanghai – probably the two most touristy spots this side of Mongolia (the pavements of Nanjing Road alone are trampled by over a million visitors a day). Nothing wrong with that. Hit the area between Nanjing Road pedestrian street in the north and Fang Bang Road in the south and you’ll see the best of all that is East and West, modern and traditional that Shanghai has to offer. Or that’s what I think.

Pudong skyline. Clearly not reliant on Eskom.

Time: Full day

Distance: 3 miles / 4.8 kilometers plus exploring

START: East Nanjing Road MTR Station (1) END: Yuyuan Garden MTR Station (20)

Exit the station on to Nanjing Road and head west. The pedestrian portion starts a little way up the road. Just because you’ve almost been knocked down four times by speeding, obnoxious scooter drivers and at least one brown car does not mean you’re not in the right place. Sidewalks are where the Chinese like to drive. Nanjing Road is Shanghai’s main shopping street and one of the world’s busiest. It is divided into Nanjing Road East (from the Bund to People’s Square) and Nanjing Road West (from People’s Square towards Jing’an District). Both Nanjing East and Nanjing West boast large department stores as well as a variety of retail outlets and restaurants. For the purpose of this tour we’re only going to head a little way up Nanjing East, mainly to get to the (2) San Yang Food Shop located at no. 630. It is not signposted in English, but you should find it easily from the gallery pic. I suppose one would describe this place as a dried grocery store. If you can dry it and eat it, it is here. And as you know, the Chinese will eat just about anything, so expect to find sea cucumbers, starfish, every possible edible mushroom and bracket fungus, a selection of shellfish that will make your eyes water, fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, meats (the appeal of sweet pork floss remains a mystery to me) and mind bogglingly expensive cordyceps fungi with their caterpillar hosts. There is also a massive selection of traditional Shanghainese sweets and snacks as well as cured meats and fowl. It is a fascinating place, especially if it is your first introduction to the oftentimes weird and wonderful world of Chinese cuisine. Find the ladies selling the cookies and palmiers and try a few of their pineapple crisps. Delicious! If time permits you can continue heading west towards People’s Square and Nanjing West with all its luxurious boutiques where all the larny people shop, but we’re going east.

 Just outside San Yang is (3) Chez l’Ami. This is a good place to quench your thirst (you have been walking for all of twenty minutes after all) and do a bit of people watching. Yes, it is very, very French and as such is a bit of a shameful cop-out on day one of your big Chinese adventure, but it is one of the few places with seating right on the street.

Nanjing pedestrian road, oui?

Cai Tong De traditional medicines

Continue heading east towards the Bund. (6) South Beauty is a chain restaurant located in the Henderson Metropolitan and is a good bet if you’re looking for traditional Shanghainese and Szechuan food but are too scared to try street food. My suggestion though is to keep walking. Shanghainese street food is safe, delicious and cheap and available everywhere. Get your first taste right here at the little cafe on the street corner (opposite Lao Feng Xiang Jewellers Store with its floral wreaths). It’s easy to spot – there is probably a queue thirty people deep standing in line for (4) pork moonpies sold from a little window on the side. These savoury pastries are absolutely stuffed with pork mince filling and encased in a crispy, flaky shell. And at around US$0.50 a piece, it’s a deliciously cheap way to fill your tank. There’s a veggie version too. Look out for the red lanterns of (5) Cai Tong De pharmacy a little further along. Opened in 1882,  this pharmacy is famous for its traditional Chinese medicine. The four-story building sells medicinal herbs, herbal pieces, medicinal liquor, beauty treatments, health care products and some expensive tonics such as ginseng and pilose antler. If you’re running low on sheep placenta, donkey hide gelatin or deer penis, this is the place to stock up. I always wonder who the first person was to think, hmmm, let’s rub a bit of this on and see what it does? The rest of the road down to the Bund is chock full of boutiques and stores including an Apple store and the massive, newly opened Forever 21 if you’d like to kid yourself.

(7) The Swatch Art Peace Hotel is named after the Swatch watch shop on the first floor. The Renaissance style building was constructed as the Palace Hotel in 1908. It has a brick veneer structure with six stories reaching 30 meters in height. The rooftop terrace has spectacular views of the city skyline and is a fantastic place to try a few cocktails (many with champagne if you’re feeling particularly celebratory) as the sun goes down. It also has a lovely view of my favourite art deco building in Shanghai – the Imperial Crown of the Westin Bund Centre.

The rooftop bar at the Swatch Art Peace Hotel. Looks posh, but anything goes.

Right next door is (8) The Bund 18 – a high end commercial bar and restaurant complex in a neoclassical style building that received the UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage Award in 2006 after two years of careful restoration. The building houses the well known French eatery, Mr. & Mrs. Bund. Stop here for dessert. No, it doesn’t matter if it’s only eleven in the morning and you haven’t even eaten lunch. Just stop here for dessert anyway! With his Lemon & Lemon Tart, chef Paul Pairet does things to this little yellow citrus fruit over a period of 72 hours that will have you jumping up and down in your seat and clapping hands like a giddy little girl. At least, that’s what it did to me. A paper thin, whole candied lemon rind is filled with lemon sorbet, lemon curd and vanilla chantilly and served with sablé (shortbread biscuit to you and me). At 100RMB (US$16) a portion this is a dessert you savour mouthful by creamy, tangy, citrussy mouthful. But you can tuck in to a complimentary amuse-bouche before you start – impossibly light and airy but beautifully flavoured tuna mousse served in a re-purposed tuna can with crispy melba toast and other breads, so you’re getting your money’s worth. If that doesn’t convince you, they have teeny, tiny chairs specially for your bags! Now how cute is that?

Keep heading south along the Bund. Named after the Persian word for embankment, this one mile stretch along the Huangpu River is lined with dozens of historical buildings. There are benches all along the promenade where you can relax and look over the river at the view of the Oriental Pearl Tower, Shanghai World Financial Centre and the Jin Mao Tower that dominates the Pudong skyline. The Shanghai Tower – currently under construction to the right of the Jin Mao Tower – will be the tallest building in China when completed in 2014. The living walls lining the river side are a spectacular site and change with the seasons. (9) The Shanghai Customs House houses a massive clock tower known as Big Ching. At 90 meters tall it is the largest clock tower in Asia, with each of the four clock faces measuring over 5 meters in diameter. The bell was modeled on London’s Big Ben and when it chimes it feels a little like you could run into the Queen at any moment (like you do on an average day in London.)

HSBC Bank & Shanghai Customs House – don’t worry, you’re still in China.

(10) The HSBC Bank (now the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank) is a six storey neoclassical building with 4 storey high columns, archways and a dome, the base of which is decorated with a triangular structure in imitation of Greek temples. Opposite the bank is a bronze sculpture – The Charging Bull Statue. It was designed by Read the rest of this entry

Mooncakes

Mooncakes

Thousand layer mooncakes.

I have been so busy shoveling mooncake into my face, trying to determine which ones are tastiest (in the name of investigative eating of course) that I forgot to write about them before they started disappearing again! Blame the brain slump after the sugar rush. Mooncakes (yuè bĭng) are sweet or savoury cakes eaten all year round, but especially during the Mid-Autumn Festival when the selection on offer balloons from a few choices in the corner of the bakery to what seems like hundreds of sizes, shapes, colours and flavours. During the festival (also known as the Moon Festival or Chinese Lantern Festival) which celebrates the end of the fall harvest, mooncakes are offered between friends, business associates and family. They are packaged in anything from single cakes in simple cellophane wrappers, to a selection of cakes wrapped in delicate tissue paper and nestled in beautifully decorated, elaborate boxes. (You know how you are always thinking it’ll be there tomorrow, I’ll do it tomorrow? Well, that’s what happened with all the beautiful displays of packaged mooncakes I kept swearing I’d photograph the next day. It never happened. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.)

Typical mooncakes are round or rectangular thin pastries with a rich, sweet, dense filling. Traditional mooncakes are made from red bean or lotus seed paste around a salted duck egg yolk that symbolises the full moon. (Salted duck egg in a sweet pie is a lot tastier than it sounds.) The cakes are embossed with various drawings and characters that might say the name of the bakery, the type of filling or the Chinese characters for  “longevity” or “harmony”. Other imprints might depict flowers, leaves, vines or one of the various legends surrounding mooncakes:

– Chang’e, the Chinese goddess of the moon – who landed up living there due to an unfortunate string of events involving ten suns in the form of three legged birds living in a mulberry tree, a kick-ass archer and half a coughed up pill  – is often depicted. And you thought Scientology was weird.

– Rabbits are another popular choice, with some cakes even baked in the shape of a rabbit. In Chinese mythology, the Jade Rabbit lives on the moon where he pounds away at herbs trying to make another pill for Chang’e so she can get back to earth. I believe this. I’ve seen him. Although to me it looks like he’s lying in a bed with a patchwork quilt, which fits better with the other legend claiming that three fairy sages transformed themselves into pitiful old men and begged for something to eat from a fox, a monkey and a rabbit. The fox and the monkey both had food to give to the old men, but the rabbit, empty-handed, jumped into a fire to cook himself so that they could eat his flesh. Touched by his sacrifice, the sages let him live in the Moon Palace.

– A popular legend claims that moon cakes were instrumental in the overthrow of the Mongol dynasty that ruled China from 1271–1368. As group gatherings were banned, it was impossible to make plans for a  rebellion and so the Chinese rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang had to devise a sneaky plan. Noting that the Mongols didn’t eat mooncakes, he timed the uprising to coincide with the Mid-Autumn Festival. He sought permission to distribute thousands of moon cakes to the Chinese residents in the city to bless the longevity of the Mongol emperor. Inside each cake, they inserted a message on a piece of paper that read: “Kill the Read the rest of this entry

Homemade granola

Homemade granola

Breakfast is a bit of a challenge in China if you’re not near a shop that sells expat goods. You can get the odd cereal, but they’re more into congee and noodles with their morning cuppa. Lucky for you, you’re a thrifty little homemaker, and all the ingredients to make your own granola are readily available. And you don’t need to be Martha Stewart to make this either. It takes all of 5 minutes to prepare, and then just let the oven do the rest!

 

Makes 3 cups

 

Ingredients

2 1/2 cups raw oats

pinch of salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon (or to taste)

1/2 cup of nuts (I used almonds)

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon sunflower oil

5 tablespoons honey

 

Method

1) Preheat the oven to 100ºC. (If you’re using a little toaster oven, which if you’re a temporary citizen you probably are, make it 120. Don’t be impatient and set it too high or you’ll burn the nuts. You don’t want burnt nuts). Scatter the oats in a baking tray. Sprinkle with the salt, cinnamon and nuts and stir through.

2) In a little bowl, melt the butter and add the oil and honey. Pour over the oats.

3) Stir the honey mixture into the oats. This is about the minimum amount of mixture you would need to get good coverage without it getting to fatty or sweet. Yes, I realise there is no such thing as “TOO fatty or sweet”, but it’s breakfast, so let’s try to start the day right, okay?  It won’t look like enough in the beginning, but just keep stirring till it’s all coated and trust that it is enough. If you want more butter and honey, add as much as you like.

4) Place in the oven and toast until golden brown and crunchy, about 90 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Of jellyfish, old eggs and other things to eat.

Of jellyfish, old eggs and other things to eat.

Century eggs with soy sauce

As I mentioned in my previous post, this weekend I finally got around to trying century eggs, chicken feet and jellyfish. I have had a punnet of preserved duck eggs sitting in the fridge for weeks now and just haven’t had any ideas on what to do with it. The only recipe suggestion I could find was century eggs with silky tofu. Ew. But when it was served to me on a plate on Saturday night I had no more excuses. Ditto with the chicken feet and jelly fish. Chicken feet are ubiquitous around here. They are available on the street as a deep fried, boiled or battered snack and they are plentiful at the supermarket, both fresh and frozen in open cases at the butchery as well as vacuum packed in the snack aisle. Jellyfish too are available at the fish counter and vacuum packed as a snack. But unlike those sneaky chocolate bars that slip into your trolley as you pass through the snack aisle, chicken feet and jellyfish don’t exactly jump off the shelf at you now, do they? As I pointed out to my husband the other night when a tiny, disorientated beetle took a nose dive into a boiling pot of pasta I had on the stove, our perception of what is acceptable to eat is almost entirely a state of mind. I have no problem wolfing down a platter of prawns, legs and all, but I would spend ten minutes trying to fish the now partially disintegrated beetle out of the pasta. By the time I got it out I actually needed the crunch it would’ve provided as by then the pasta was overcooked and nothing was “too the tooth”. It was just the idea of eating this beetle. Big, fat, bug-eyed cockroaches of the sea? No problem. Flying insectile sources of protein? Hell no!

I think these might be off, but how would you even know??

Which brings me to the century egg. To be honest, if you had blindfolded and fed it to me (blindfolded me, not the egg) and told me it was a hard boiled egg with a bit of cream and beautifully ripe Camembert inserted into the centre for a creamier yolk with a delicate ammonia flavour I would’ve loved it and declared you a Heston Blumenthal-esque genius. Because that is exactly what it tasted like. Just a little more sulfurous. But it isn’t a hard boiled egg with a creamy center now, is it? It’s a raw egg, immersed in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, lime and rice hulls for anything from a few weeks to several months. This turns the egg white into a firm, translucent, dark brown jelly and the yolk a grey-green, creamy consistency with a slight sulfur and ammonia taste. I tried the egg white first and it didn’t taste like much – pretty much like a very firm, boiled egg white. Then I tried the yolk on it’s own and I really struggled to keep it down. I don’t know why! The flavour was creamy and delicate and everything but my eyes told me it was something I should love! But as I took the second bite, getting a bit of everything in, some of the green yolk sort of glooped off the chopstick on to my plate and I was done. I really am rather disappointed with myself on this one I have to tell you. Century eggs (quail, chicken and duck eggs) are available everywhere and can be bought singly as a vacuum packed snack, by weight or prepacked in punnets. They are also labelled as preserved eggs.

Preserved quail eggs at a market.

The chicken feet were a bigger success. I’ve suspected all along that I’d actually like them as one of my many secret shames is that that little gristly bit on the end of a drumstick is my favourite part of the chicken. But when it comes to animal bits, what puts me off is the package deal. Chicken feet on their own are fine. Chicken feet still attached to the chicken, not so much. So when you’re standing in the butcher, contemplating the chicken feet right next to other chicken feet still part of a whole chicken, you have one of those “Usual suspect” moments. You look at the feet, you look at the chicken, you look at the feet… Wait… The feet… are part of the chicken! I need to get over this. After all, as a South African the concept of “walkie-talkies” (chicken feet and heads) is not foreign to me, even though it is not a staple of the average white South African. Personally, I think this should change because, as I suspected, I liked the chicken feet. Not so much how they were served on Saturday night (boiled and then served cold with chillies and vinegar), but nibbling those little gristly bits off was really good, and I can quite imagine myself working my way through a big pile of roasted chicken feet washed down with an ice cold beer.

Looks good right? I’d klap that with a beer!

As for the jellyfish, you might as well find the dullest person around and ask if you can nibble his ear a bit. Tasteless with a sort of squeaky crunch. A bit like trying to chew that rubber skeleton toy we all had when we were kids, just with some sesame oil and a bit of soy. I am dumbfounded as to why anyone would eat this. I will try it again though, just to be sure. And as with all things, you shouldn’t take my word for it either. Who knows? Century eggs and jellyfish could just be your dream meal!

On hairy crabs: My dismal failure

On hairy crabs: My dismal failure

I was going to do it. I really, really was. Last night was the night I was going to buy, render unconscious and cook the flavour of the month: shanghai hairy crabs. These burrowing crabs, also known as mitten crabs, are so named for their furry claws that look like mittens. Come Autumn, these crabs hit the streets. Not in their finest gear, ready to party the night away, but fighting for space in green nylon bags in every smelly wet market and on various street corners throughout the city. People get totally crab bedonderd round about now. And naturally, I had to partake in the festivities! Live like the natives and all. So yesterday, full of bravado, I headed for the wet market ready to hunt down and bring home all the makings of a fine Shanghai meal. Well. If the first thing out of your mouth when you see your dinner is “Awwwwwww”, you know it’s probably going to be McDonald’s for you. I mean, they’re just so cute! They really look like little green alien babies, trying to keep their claws warm in little furry mittens. Once a crab has the dubious honour of being selected as chow, the stall (2 polystyrene coolers and maybe a scale) holder deftly grabs it out of the bag, folds in the legs and binds the whole thing with twine so that it can’t make a quick getaway. The entire process takes all of 5 seconds. I asked the friendly, elegantly dressed customer next to me how much they cost and she said RMB6 for one. (At least, I think that’s what she said? It was either that or “Sharp, my bru”, the hand signal for which is the same as 6 in China). That’s less than a dollar a crab. Damn, that’s cheap! They’re looking tastier already. And a local had told me the price, so there would be no laowai tax imposed. Being ripped off was another concern. (I am the world’s worst haggler. Once, in a market in Bangkok, I had already “negotiated” the price for a dress and upon handing the money over, the guy actually gave me a few baht back with a pitying look on his face!). But that was now taken care of. There really were no more excuses left, so it was time to choose which crabs I wanted. Now, here stories will differ depending on who you ask. The other customer would say it is all my imagination and she didn’t see a thing, but I swear, the first crab I picked up looked up at me with dark, sad eyes (just like Puss-in-Boots if his eyes had been on stalks), and it’s lower lip started quivering, tiny bubbles frothing out of it’s mouth like a death rattle. A tiny, furry claw reached out to me as if to gently touch my cheek, and I swear I could hear a little chorus of voices pleading “You are our only hope.” I gently placed the crab back where I found it, muttered something about it still being a long way to Qingpu, and shuffled off with my tail between my legs.

Fortunately, there’s a McDonald’s right at the bus stop on my way home.

But no worries! I awoke with new gusto this morning. A steadfast determination to make these crabs my bitch. The way I figured it was thus: The sooner I ensure the untimely demise of 6 of these crustaceans, the sooner I will be relieving them of their misery. Right? I mean, at least they won’t land up in a live hairy crab vending machine, destined to wait it out in a 5 degree fridge till someone with a few yuan comes along and pulls the lever, right? Right. This would be a good thing. I would be doing my share to make the world a better place. I decided that instead of braving the sad faces in the wet market, I would head to my nearest supermarket. Here the crab is kept cold, so they’re already in a state of semi-hibernation, and so would be less likely to make a last stand. Sure enough, hairy crab was the first thing I saw as I got to the fish counter. (It was also almost four times the price for the same size as the previous day’s leading me to wonder whether the helpful shopper really was just saying “Sharp my bru.”). Already trussed up and nestled in still rows on a bed of ice, it was easy to tell myself they were already dead. All I had to do was see who the little boys are and who the little girls are to ensure I get three of each. You see, the battle of the crab sexes is a hotly debated topic in Shanghai, with long arguments over decimated piles of crab over which sex has the sweetest meat and richest roe. The females usually win out, but I had to try for myself. So, all self congratulatory because I know to look for these differences before making my purchase, I picked up a crab and flipped it over… The crab was not dead. It was not even sleeping. Two little black eyes stared up at me as a wayward leg came loose from the twine. Flailing it’s furry mitten around wildly the little chap (or chick, I didn’t even get a chance to look) shouted “She’s saved me! I’m free!” before it tried to air swim away. Okay, not really. But it might as well have for how it made me feel like I’m the world’s worst human being, single-handedly responsible for the sad depletion of our oceans. I tucked the little leg back in the twine, put him back on his ice bed while muttering an apology to him, his brethren and their lady friends, and slunk off to the butchery.

So I am left shamefacedly writing this post, drowning my sorrows in a glass of whiskey while my husband cooks the neatly packaged pork rashers I bought as a substitute. I guess drunken shrimp is off the menu then.

Fusion Fajitas

Fusion Fajitas

Every now and then I experience a truly miraculous foodie moment. An instant when I know my culinary world has shifted and life will never be the same again. Making our own corn tortillas last night was such a moment. It was a first attempt and by no means perfect, but oh my word! They are SO much better than the store bought variety! And infinitely better than making them with wheat flour. We eat a lot of wraps back home, but tortillas are hard to find in Shanghai and therefore, I would imagine, in the rest of China. The only place I have seen them is at City Shop (there’s one in the Shanghai Center in West Nanjing Road) and then it’s the packaged variety that comes with it’s own stay-fresh sachet and a long shelf life – never a good sign in a product that should only last a few days. They’re okay in a pinch, but not great. So we decided that if you can’t buy them, make them. To make corn tortillas you need a special type of corn flour called masa harina or harina de maiz and a Mexican friend. Okay, the Mexican friend is not, technically, required but it helps. When our rounds kept splitting on the edges our friend Tom recommended we add a bit of wheat flour to the mixture and it worked a treat! The process by which masa harina is made is very different from normal corn flour or maize meal which is why, if you have ever tried to make corn tortillas from normal maize meal, you’ll know it’s like trying to shape a bowl full of cheap playschool glue mixed with ground up bits of old rubber boots. Unlike normal maize meal that just gets sticky and gritty, masa harina makes a soft, pliable dough when mixed with water. We found a 2kg bag at City Shop for US$14.00.

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Shanghai’s greatest shengjianbao

Shanghai’s greatest shengjianbao

When we first visited Shanghai a few years ago, I (needless to say) consulted all the books, forums and websites out there to plan our gastronomic excursions. Top of many people’s list was Yang’s Dumplings – a bit of an institution in Shanghai and apparently one of the best places to get your shengjianbao. That’s quite an impressive accolade in a sheng jian crazy city! So we took our place in the queue and half an hour later were rewarded for our patience: Soft on top and fried on a cast iron pan to a perfect crunch below, these dumplings contain a delicious, scaldingly hot broth and juicy pork filling perfectly flavoured with sage and spices. They are, in a word, sublime. Don’t just bite into them without a little planning first though, or you’ll blister your lips, your chin and possibly your thighs as the soup explodes from its casing and dribbles down your front – a sure sign that you are new at this and a rite of passage for anyone living in this city (yeah, been there.) Pierce the dumpling with a chopstick and allow some of the heat to escape before biting into it. The hole will also help to release a bit of pressure so that it does not go bang in your face. You can also just slurp out the soup first, but I like to try and get as much of it into a bite with everything else!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are many street vendors that sell these morsels all over the city and I’m sure if you keep looking you’ll find ones even better than Yang’s (if you’re serious about this whole business, then follow CNN Go’s Great Shengjianbao Food Tour of Shanghai), but you’ll probably have to go a long way. At only US$0.90 for 4 hearty dumplings, you’ll be hard pressed to find a cheaper, tastier meal anywhere. And the good news is you no longer have to queue at one of only a few restaurants in the city – Yang’s now has over 40 locations, including (oh the joy!) one right opposite our hotel all the way out in Qingpu.

 

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Shanghai’s Venice

Shanghai’s Venice

Zhujiajiao is an ancient water town located on the Cao Gang River in the Qingpu district of Shanghai. Roughly 50 square kilometers of tree lined rivers and canals, winding cobbled lanes and well preserved Ming and Qing dynasty architecture lure hordes of day visitors keen to get out of the city for a bit. For this reason you should plan to get here early and preferably on a week day. By lunch time you will be fighting sweaty American tourists and hungry locals (who don’t ever seem to sweat) for the pork and pastries.

There are many temples, galleries, museums and old residences to explore here. The Kezhi Garden, Qing dynasty Post Office, Yuanjin Buddhist Temple, Tongtianhe Chinese Pharmacy, City God Temple, Y-Art Gallery, Shanghai Qianhua Art Gallery and Shanghai Handicraft Exhibition Hall all require an admission ticket, but entry into the town is free. The maze of pedestrian lanes house loads of shops selling traditional Chinese art work, engraved jade, delicate chopsticks (you can pick up a set engraved with your name in Chinese characters for US$0.50), silk clothing, duvets and pillows, scarves, jewellery, handmade embroidered bags and shoes, beautiful cheongsam (including the cutest little itty bitty ones for babies) and all the other usual tourist trap trinkets. But even though North Street is known as “a mile long road with a thousand shops” the discriminating tourist tax is high here, so unless you’re good at bargaining, don’t plan to come here purely for the shopping. Rather grab a tasty street snack and explore the stone cobbled lanes with their old style shopfronts and decorative red lanterns, walk down the quiet, deep alleyways or zigzag back and forth over the canals across the arched stone bridges.

There are loads of stalls selling a variety of foods from roasted pork knuckle to rose flavoured fermented bean curd, but one of Zhujiajiao’s proudest exports is the bamboo or reed leaf wrapped dark rice dumplings or zongzi. Also known as Grandma Dumplings (apo zong), the pillow shaped parcels of Zhujiajiao are wrapped with straw and are purportedly the best place in China to get them. That’s sort of like claiming that a certain shop in SA sells the best boerewors in the country. It’s a big freaken deal. And with some vendors selling up to 30 000 dumplings a day, this is a rumour best believed. The dumplings are stuffed with flavoured rice and may also include pork, red bean paste or red beans. Locals in the know recommend Xiaotian Apo Zong at 263 Bei Da Jie Lu as the best one to try.  For dessert my favourite Zhujiajiao snack is the flaky, sweet and salty stocking sole pastries. Although Tongli is most famous for these sesame topped treats, the ones in Zhujiajiao are just as moreish. Like the zongzi, every stall seems to have a different recipe and some are better than others but, like sex and pizza, even the bad ones are good. Read the rest of this entry