Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Blue Nankeen 蓝印花布


Behind a yellow lane house on Changle Lu is a garden filled with swathes of printed indigo cloth drying gently in the breeze. The house is home to the Shanghai Blue Nankeen Museum, originally just one small dark room dedicated to this traditional indigo nankeen fabric that has its roots in Shanghai. 

A chance visit five years ago to that little museum, where a man with blue-stained hands washed the dyed cloth in large laundry tubs outside in the lane, set me on a long path towards finding the methods behind the making, and the history behind the designs of this wonderful traditional fabric.

The Chinese name for blue nankeen is lan yin hua bu – blue-printed flower cloth, a more poetic name that ties nankeen firmly to its flower-based designs. Other prints are simple and geometric, and despite being centuries old they look surprisingly modern. 


Some near-forgotten designs have colourful stories attached.

Chinese people are fearful of the ‘five evils‘ or ‘wu du 无毒’– five poisonous creatures - the scorpion, snake, centipede, lizard, and the toad. When a woman was pregnant it would be traditional to give her a length of nankeen cloth printed with these five animals as a way of providing protection for the new baby.

Similarly, many Chinese people hanker after a dragon baby, a baby born in the Year of the Dragon for its strength, wisdom, prosperity and courage. At the time of marriage the newlyweds would be given dragon-printed nankeen as a way of wishing they would have a baby born on the dragon’s back.

Unfortunately, as often occurs with traditional crafts, many Chinese people see nankeen as old-fashioned, worn by peasant women. They find it hard to accept its innate, simple blue and white beauty, and the tradition of giving lengths of fabric as wedding or baby gifts no longer exists.

This may change though, as blue nankeen made by hand has been elevated to the status of 'Intangible Cultural Heritage' meaning there are concerted efforts to preserve the techniques and history of its production.

Last year in Nantong, several hours north of Shanghai in Jiangsu Province, I met Wu Yuanxin 吴元新, China’s most passionate and well-recognised proponent of the art of blue nankeen, a man who has devoted his life to its preservation and is keen to see it move forward into the future. 


Descended from five generation of of weaving and dyeing artisans hstarted studying the techniques of nankeen design and printing after a brief and unhappy stint in the Chinese military, for which he was - he says - eminently unsuited. In 1997 he opened the Nantong Blue Nankeen Museum and has been honoured by the Chinese Government as a kind of living cultural relic, a Master of Art and a National Craft Master.

“I feel lucky to make a living as an artist” Teacher Wu (as he is respectfully called by all who know him), told me. "Becoming a National Craft Master means a great deal, because now I know the unique art and techniques of nankeen will be passed from generation to generation."

He teaches young design students at university, some of whom complete internships with him, and has been a guest lecturer at many overseas universities. The traditional techniques he teaches are complex and take years to learn fully, with nuances of temperature, humidity and season contributing to the success or failure of the printing and dyeing process.

I asked about bringing nankeen into the modern age, and whether traditional designs were unchangeable for him. 

“At the core of the heritage of blue nankeen is the technique, this can't change at all. But the colour, the pattern and the design can all change.” he said. "In fact it’s great to explore contemporary patterns and designs, but nankeen has a history of three thousand years – so often old designs look contemporary today.The critical thing is that for young generations to like it and pay money for it, they must love the design.”


Making Blue Nankeen


A design is hand-drawn on heavy paper, then cut out using a tiny blade.

On the subject of design: “No matter if it's traditional or contemporary, it has to be rooted in something of weight and importance. I’m not talking only about the outer form or appearance, but the inner spirit. This comes form Chinese culture and history. “

The paper stencils are relatively fragile, so those that will be repeatedly used are heavily oiled to give them longevity.

An oiled stencil

The printing paste is mixed from ground dried soy beans and lime to make a thick, plaster-like paste.

The stencil is laid across a width of unbleached cotton, and the soy-lime paste applied using a broad spatula.





The paste dries over several days into a hard finish in the drying room, hung with hundreds of yards of cloth.


















Now the dye master takes a length of fabric into the dye room, where there are two deep vats of indigo dye made from fermented indigo leaves.











He plunges the fabric over and over into the indigo. Because it's a naturally fermented dye the indigo froths and bubbles and has a curiously earthy smell.








The cloth is removed from the dye length by length using bamboo battens and left to drip dry.







As it dries the initial green-blue hue transforms into a deep purple black, like deepest aubergine. 

The dyeing process is repeated several times to achieve the correct depth of colour, and the fabric dried. 









In the final step Master Wu takes a 60-foot length of fabric and stretches it tightly between bamboo poles.




He scrapes off the hardened soy-lime paste with a cleaver's edge, to reveal the white resist design beneath. Because the soy-lime paste is poisonous to pests, the fabric was often stored un-scraped until it was required, in order to preserve it.



Faint bleeding of indigo dye around the edges of the design is typical of handmade nankeen and not apparent with machine-printed fabrics.

If you'd like to learn more about blue nankeen you could visit one of these two small museums, both with attached shops. Blue nankeen is often available in souvenir shops in Shanghai but take care - most of this nankeen is machine-printed using commercial dyes. Traditional nankeen has a stiffness and a slightly rough finish, as well as a typical indigo smell. Expect to pay about 60-90RMB ($11-$16) per metre for fabric - anything cheaper than this is unlikely to be handmade.


Shanghai Blue Nankeen Museum
Lane 637, 24 Changle Lu
Shanghai

中国蓝印花布博物馆
长乐了637弄24号

They no longer make blue nankeen at the museum, which is now a large bright shop with museum exhibits upstairs, but they still hang out the lengths of indigo in the garden every day because it looks so wonderful.

Nantong Blue Nankeen Museum
81 Haodong Luyuan

Nantong City, Jiangsu Province
+86 513 85108771


南通蓝印花布博物馆
江苏南通市濠东绿苑81号


Thursday, March 27, 2014

My Top Five: Shanghainese Restaurants in Shanghai

These five restaurants exemplify Shanghai cuisine at its best - laid back, local, and hospitable. Now that you know all about Shanghai cuisine thanks to last week's Shanghai Food Primer, here's where to try it out for yourself.

Be sure to let me know your favourites too!



1. Qiao Family Gate Restaurant 乔家栅食府 QiaoJiaZhaShiFu

I have a soft spot for this little place on the corner of Xiangyang Lu and Yongjia Lu. It's a very old-fashioned Shanghai restaurant, full of locals eating lunch after finishing their morning errands and elderly friends getting together once a week for a meal and a gossip.

It's not a destination restaurant, and there's no hype or advertising. What you see is what you get. The most expensive dish on the menu is less than $US10 and most are $US3-4.

Every time I eat there one of the chefs will come out to the dining room to ask what I thought of the meal - not in a western celebrity-chef-meets-lowly-diner moment, just in a curious, never-seen-many-foreigners-eat-here kind of way. They always seem pleased I enjoyed the food, and I love that they come and chat.

On Dianping (China's behemoth restaurant review website), frequent mention is made of the waitstaff's 'bad' and 'indifferent' attitudes - you'll have to decide for yourself. I've always found them consistently surly, in a good-natured sort of way.

Downstairs is just for noodles and Shanghai snacks, upstairs is a la carte.
Stand Out Dish: 
Their Drunken Chicken is, in my books, the best in Shanghai. A whole young tender chicken is presented peacefully asleep in a broth of clear chicken stock and Shaoxing wine, its meat suffused with the clear, mellow flavour of the wine and garnished with finely chopped chives. RMB 32.

Details:
336 Xiangyang Lu, corner Yongjia Lu
Xuhui District
Shanghai
021-64374174

乔家栅食府

徐汇区 襄阳南路336号(近永嘉路)

English Menu: No

Picture Menu: Yes




2. Jian Guo 328 建国328
When Jian Guo 328 opened in 2012 there was a sudden realisation that this at last was the Shanghainese restaurant everyone had been looking for.

For a start, the emphasis was very firmly on the best and freshest produce sourced cleanly. Secondly (and most controversially), the restaurant enforced a strict no-smoking policy, unheard of in Shanghai and the source of much initial anger as the smokers huddled together outside, complaining and puffing, before going back inside to finish their meal. 

Shanghai's restaurant anti-smoking laws were actually introduced two years before Jian Guo 328 opened but were rarely enforced and certainly never by a restaurant proprietor, who might lose business by pushing smokers outside. But non-smoking diners embraced the restaurant enthusiastically, enjoying the consistently well-cooked food without a cloud of dense smoke affecting the flavour. Lovely staff too - not a surly one amongst them.

Stand Out Dishes:
Jian Guo 328 has a very extensive menu, and I've yet to find a disappointing dish among it. Their food is terrific.

The 'Yellow Fish with Scallion' 竹网葱香小鱼 (zhuwang cong xiang xiao yu ) shown above, is a nest of five sweet-fleshed freshwater fish) wrapped in caramelised scallions and served in a woven bamboo 'net'. The fish are crispy and salty, and the scallions are smoky and sweet. RMB 58.

'Eight Treasures Duck' 私房八宝全鸭 (sifang babao quan ya) is a whole boned duck, marinated and stuffed with rice and smoky ham, dried scallops, and black dates amongst other aromatic delicacies, then wrapped and cooked in dried lotus leaves, imparting a fragrant herb flavour. RMB298, feeds 4-6 people.

'Braised Pork in Shanghai Grandma Recipe' 恃色红烧肉 (shi se hong shao rou) is a traditional red-braised pork belly, succulent and sweet, served in a terracotta dish. RMB 58

'Black Mushroom in Soy Sauce' 卤水大花蘑菇 (lushui dahua mogu) is a cold dish, an entire giant mushroom head served in a small bowl, dressed with a vinegar and soy dressing. RMB 16.


Details:
Jian Guo 328
328 Jian Guo Lu, near south Xiangyang Lu
021-64713819
Open 7 days for lunch and dinner

建国328
徐汇区 建国西路328号(近襄阳南路)

English Menu: Yes
Picture Menu: No


3. Guang Ming Village 光明邨 Guang Ming Cun
This famous Shanghai restaurant is just around the corner from our first house on Nanchang Lu, but I was always way too intimidated to ever try it out because of the long queue and my lack of Chinese.

Now I understand how it works - the ground floor sells traditional Shanghai snacks and pastries, including famous savoury pork moon cakes, and upstairs is the a la carte restaurant.

There are no reservations except for the top floor private rooms, but don't worry - you can just turn up and try your luck at table-hovering like everyone else. Walk around the restaurant until you find a group who have almost finished their meal, then hover patiently very close to their elbows. As soon as they stand up, sit down.

If your group doesn't fill up all the seats on your table, expect to share it with strangers who will be absolutely delighted you like Shanghainese food.

Stand Out Dishes:
River Shrimp with Preserved Vegetables 梅菜干煸白米虾 (mei cai gan bian baimi xis)(above). A wonderful combination of tastes and textures exists together in this dish - crisp-skinned fried river shrimp, with soft, salty preserved vegetable. RMB32.

Scallion Oil Noodles 葱油拌面 (cong you ban mian) - fine wheat noodles topped with caramelised-to-a-crisp scallions. RMB22.

SilkenTofu with Crabmeat 蟹粉豆腐 (xiefen doufu) (below). Best in show. The best version of this classic Shanghai dish in the city - rich and luscious, thick with crabmeat and roe. RMB39.

Details:
588 Middle Huai Hai Lu, near Chengdu Nan Lu
Luwan District

021-53067878 
53061200
Restaurant open 11am-2pm and 5pm-9pm, seven days
Ground floor snacks open 8am to 9pm,seven days

光明邨
卢湾区
 淮海中路588号(近成都南路)

English Menu: No
Picture Menu: Partial




4. Old Zheng Xing 老正興 Lao Zheng Xing
This old Shanghainese restaurant on Fuzhou Lu is the place you would take your grandparents to eat - reliable and unpretentious, but always good. Excellent service.

Stand Out Dishes:
Braised Gluten 烤夫(kaofu) - spiced with star anise, cassia and ginger, this sweet, soft dish is Lao Zheng Xing's version of gluten cooked together with black wood ear mushrooms and peanuts.


Fried Eel 油爆鳝丝 (you bao shansi) - a predictably good dish. 


Details:
Lao Zheng Xing
556 Fuzhou Lu
Huangpu  District
+86 21 63222624

Open seven days for lunch and dinner

老正興菜馆
上海市黄浦区福州路556号

English Menu: No
Picture Menu: Yes




5. Dianshi Zhai Small Feast 点石斋小宴 Dianshi Zhai Xiao Yan
Housed in a beautiful old restored 1930s mansion on Yongjia Lu, the winding wooden staircase takes you upstairs to several different but equally charming dining rooms looking over the street. Consistently well-executed Shanghai classics with great service.
Stand Out Dishes:
Dong Po Pork 东坡肉 (dong po rou) This single piece of slow-cooked pork belly glistens like a jewel in its tiny dish, sitting in a tarry black sweet soy sauce. Perfection in pork.

Poached Whole Fish with Shaoxing Wine 酒香鰣魚 (jiu xiang shiyu) - a whole poached shad with Shaoxing wine - the wine's delicate flavour complements the light taste of the fish.


Details:
Dianshi Zhai Small Feast
320 Yongjia Lu, Xuhui District, Shanghai

Open for lunch 11am-2pm
Dinner 5.30pm -9.30pm, seven days

021-54650270 54650271

English Menu: No
Picture Menu: Yes

点石斋小宴 
徐汇区
 永嘉路320号(近襄阳南路)


And Five Honourable Mentions:
Five more places to get your fix of Shanghai cuisine. Are they on your top five list?


Shanghai Club 上海会馆 (shanghai huiguan)
5th Floor, 489 Henan Nan Lu, Huangpu District (near Fuxing Lu)
021-63357779 
Same delicious Shanghai classics, but with modern presentation.


Yuan Yuan 圆苑酒家 (yuan yuan jiu jia)
108 Xiangyang Lu, near Huai Hai Zhong Lu, Xuhui District
021 51083377
A more upmarket dining experience, Yuan Yuan has some beautiful private rooms ideal for large groups, and an extensive and thoughtful menu. 


New Jesse 新吉士(xin jishi)
28 Taojiang Lu, Xuhui District
021-6445 0068
It's great, but relatively expensive. A nice space on Taojiang Lu, there are another five locations including Xintiandi, and the new IAPM mall on Huai Hai Lu.


Old Jesse 老吉士上海菜 (lao jishi shanghai cai)
41 Tianping Lu, near Huai Hai Zhong Lu, Xuhui District
021-62829260
The original but sadly no longer the best. It's on a lot of 'best of' lists, which means tables are hard to nab and they make you wait outside until yours is ready.


Lu Bo Lang 绿波廊
Yu Gardens, near Bridge of Nine Turnings
021-63280602
Bill Clinton ate there, along with every dignitary in the world. This doesn't necessarily mean the food is good, but if you spend the whole day taking visitors around Yu Gardens, it's a great place to put your feet up for an hour.





Monday, March 17, 2014

A Shanghai Food Primer


An understanding of Shanghai's cuisine has come to me only very slowly over the last five years. In fact, all of the individual Chinese cuisines took some time to differentiate themselves from the overwhelming flood of new tastes I experienced - what was the difference between food from Guangdong, for example, and from Fujian? Sichuan food, with its blast of heat and numbing spice, was relatively easy to figure, but Shanghai cuisine was more subtle, more difficult to tease out. 

Shanghai's cuisine is known for its abundance of freshwater and saltwater produce, and also for the use of wine from nearby Shaoxing in many dishes, an aged rice wine with a rounded, mellow flavour. In Shanghai cuisine sweetness and saltiness often occur together, sometimes with vinegar (like sweet and sour pork ribs), but almost never with chili spice. Those who struggle with spicy food will be pleased to find Shanghai's cuisine contains little of it. 

Often criticised for being too sweet and too oily compared with other Chinese cuisines, in the wrong hands this can certainly be true. But in Shanghainese food cooked the right way, these ingredients are in perfect balance with all other flavours in a dish and never overwhelm the overall taste. Braising, steaming, and poaching are common cooking techniques. 

Below is a primer on Shanghai's cuisine - a beginner's guide. Judging by the number of emails I've received from travellers asking for tips on eating Shanghainese food in Shanghai it's long overdue! 
It broadly reflects what you will find on the menu in a Shanghainese restaurant, divided into the following categories: 

1. Cold Dishes
2. Hot Dishes
3. Noodles and Dumplings
4. Sweets

It doesn't include street foods, or the type of noodle dishes you would go to a stand-alone noodle restaurant to eat, and is, of course, far from comprehensive. It's just a beginning - so dip your toe in, and  enjoy eating out in Shanghai!




1. Cold Dishes 涼菜 liang cai


Wild vegetables with tofu
马兰头香干 ma lan tou xiang gan 

This dish consists of a steamed leafy green wild vegetable (kalimeris indica) similar to clover or alfalfa that is then steamed, finely chopped, and mixed with diced smoked tofu. It has a light and refreshing grassy taste that perfectly complements sauce-heavy dishes.



Vinegar Jellyfish
老醋海蜇头 lao cu hai zhe tuo 


Jellyfish is, I admit, an acquired taste, with a look on the plate only a mother could love. But prepared this way, sliced into thin slivers dressed with sweet local vinegar and sesame oil, the jellyfish is cool and slippery with a squeaky, chewy texture. Magnificent - a must-try.



Drunken Chicken - Chicken Poached in Shaoxing wine
醉鸡 zui ji

This is a quintessential Shanghai dish with a clear, light flavour achieved by steeping white-poached chicken in Shaoxing wine, then slicing it on the bone and serving it cold with the full-flavoured steeping liquid. Head optional. It's a triumphant dish where simplicity wins over complexity.



Braised gluten
烤夫 kaofu 

Gluten - a bread-like cooking ingredient - is braised with soy sauce, ginger, five spice, sugar, peanuts and wood ear mushrooms in this vegetarian dish that is usually served as an appetiser, although warm rather than cold. For those who have never tasted gluten, its spongy texture has little taste on its own but absorbs the richness of the fragrant sauce.




 Shanghai Style Crisp-fried Fish with Sweet Soy Sauce
上海烤子鱼 shanghai kao zi yu

No larger than sardines, these crispy little fish are deep fried to within an inch of their lives, then served drizzled with a sweet soy dressing. A perfect accompaniment to cold Qingdao beer.




Jujubes Stuffed with Sticky Rice
糯米红枣 nuomi hong zao / 心太軟 xin tai ruan

DO NOT LEAVE SHANGHAI without trying this dish. I'm SERIOUS. Honey-flavoured jujubes (also known as red dates 红枣 hong zao) are stuffed with soft, pillowy sticky rice, steamed, and then smothered in warm osmanthus blossom syrup. The unusual Chinese name, xin tai ruan, means soft-hearted. For reasons unclear to me you will find it at the front of the menu, along with the cold dishes.




2. Hot Dishes 热炒 re chao
Braised Pork Belly
红烧肉 hong shao rou 

'Hong shao' literally means 'red-braised', referring to the colour of the sauce made with soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, soft brown sugar, ginger, cassia bark and star anise. The pork belly is cooked slowly in this aromatic mixture until the skin and fat become translucent and gelatinous and the sauce is treacle-thick and utterly luscious.








Steamed Hairy Crab
清蒸大闸蟹 qingzheng da zha xie

Natives of Yangcheng Lake near Shanghai, these sweet and delicate hairy crab are available only in autumn from September to December, a much-anticipated delicacy for Shanghai locals. They are best eaten simply steamed, with a   ginger and vinegar dipping sauce and a cup of warmed Shaoxing wine on the side.



Steamed Shad
清蒸鲥鱼 qing zheng shi yu

This whole river fish, steamed gently in its own juices, then has a light soy sauce with fresh green soybeans poured over before serving. This is the best way possible to preserve the superb natural sweet taste of the fish with a light fresh-flavoured sauce.



Braised Eel
锅烧河鳗 guo shao he man

This dish is not for the faint-hearted, and it's neither light nor mildly flavoured. Shanghai freshwater eels have an intense oiliness and strong fish taste that needs the robust flavours in this braise - soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, sugar, oil, and ginger.



Rice Cake Stir-Fried with Pork and Shepherd's Purse
荠菜肉丝炒年糕 ji cai rou si chao nian gao

Shpeherd's purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) is a flowering plant cultivated outside Shanghai, used to give a burst of leafy flavour to this very textural dish. The soft, pleasantly chewy rounds of rice cake are sliced from long cakes of compressed rice starch.







Silken Tofu with Crab Meat
蟹粉豆腐 xie fen doufu 

I sincerely hope my last meal on earth includes this extraordinary dish. Silken tofu cubes, warm and soft, swim in a thick braise of rich crab meat seasoned with pepper. It's divine.



Braised Pork with Chestnuts in Soy Sauce
栗子红烧肉 li zi hong shao rou

Essentially a variation of hong shao rou with autumn chestnuts and boiled quail eggs added, sometimes with soft yellow gingko nuts.


Salty-Boiled River Shrimp
盐水河虾 yan shui he xia

Not fussy, not fancy. Just very fresh shrimp cooked in salted boiling water for long enough that they turn lobster pink.




Sweet and Sour Pork, Shanghai Style
本帮小排 ben bang xiao pai

Forget what you think you knew about sweet and sour pork. There is no deep frying in batter here, no tart orange sauce made with pineapple juice and ketchup. This is real sweet and sour - soy sauce, dark vinegar, brown sugar, coating pieces of pork rib on the bone. A great eating experience of chewing, gnawing, and spitting out the bony bits.



3. Noodles and Dumplings





Shanghai Soup Dumplings
小笼包 xiao long bao

The best dumplings in the world, filled with fragrant pork meat and hot broth. I think I might have said enough about them already here, in Shanghai Xiaolongbao - The Complete Guide. You must eat these in Shanghai, as often as possible. All good Shanghainese restaurants serve their own version.



Fried Shanghai Dumplings
生煎包 shengjian bao

Fried and crispy on the bottom, steamed and pillowy on the top, these much heartier dumplings are also filled with pork and soup.



Scallion Oil Noodles
葱油拌面 cong you ban mian

Slow cook scallions in oil until they turn a dark caramel colour, then add soy sauce and dried shrimp and mix through freshly cooked wheat noodles. Lip-smacking. 



4. Sweets 点心 dianxin
Just a note here - most Chinese menus don't list noodles, dumplings and sweets separately, but put them together in one large category called dianxin, to be eaten at the end of a meal. This category includes both savoury and sweet dishes, mostly starch based. I have separated them here, only because I still tend to finish with savoury foods first before ending the meal with something sweet.
Fermented Rice Wine Soup with Sticky Rice Balls
酒酿圆子 jiu niang yuanzi 

A very traditional dish, served warm or cold. The soup is made with sweetened fermented rice, giving it a slightly tangy, zesty flavour. The little soft sticky rice balls may be plain or filled with a sweet filling, like black sesame or red bean paste.





Osmanthus Rice Cake
桂花糕 gui hua gao 

Usually made with sticky rice flour and scented with delicate osmanthus blossoms, the version shown here is more upmarket with an osmanthus-scented jelly on top of a red bean and sticky rice base. 



Over to you now: what's your favourite Shanghai dish, and how far would you go to get some?

Next post: My Top Five Shanghainese Restaurants in Shanghai