Monday, September 8, 2014

Shanghai Specialty Food Stores: The Insider's Guide to Chinese Delicatessens

They're mysterious places, Chinese specialty food stores. But if you're interested in Chinese food you will inevitably find yourself wandering into one and contemplating the rows of strange foodstuffs and intriguing smells, wondering where to begin.

For a long time living in Shanghai I felt depressed about the lack of a really good European delicatessen, the sort of place where I would go back home to look at acres of cheese and sample four kinds of prosciutto. The great news is that the  equivalent does exist - think Harrod's food hall and Dean and DeLuca with Chinese characteristics.

Most specialty food stores have a similar range - cured, dried and preserved goods; baked goods and confectionary; fresh foods, and freshly-prepared meals to eat at home.

Here are three of Shanghai's best:

1. Shanghai First Food Hall 上海市第一食品商店
Recently refurbished, the Shanghai First Food hall on Nanjing Road is the oldest and most respected specialty food store in Shanghai. If you want to buy a food gift with prestige for someone important, this is the place to get it. The building dates to 1925 but the interiors were renovated in 2012, and it's very swish.

The first floor features premium seasonal fresh foods from around China (for example, the best of the best Shanxi persimmons), top range meats, food gifts, and international foods (don't get excited here - it really means biscuits and confectionary).

The second floor houses traditional dried and preserved foods including seafood, hams, sausage, mushrooms, dried fruits and pickles.
The hams here are the best you can buy in Shanghai, and come from all over China.
The dried mushrooms are absolutely best quality, but you will pay for the privilege. The matsutake mushrooms (below left) are selling for 2380rmb per 500g. That's almost $US800/kg. Gasp.

The selection of barbecued meats and freshly prepared cold dishes is outstanding here, although again, quite expensive. But all the staff are very, very helpful. 

The third floor is packed with small eateries including branches of Yang's Fried Dumplings and Nanxiang xiaolongbao. For the time being, the fourth floor has non-Chinese restaurants.

Shanghai First Food Hall
shànghǎi shì dì yī shípǐn shāngdiàn

720 Nanjing Dong Lu
Open daily 9am - 10pm

2. Shanghai No 2 Food Store 上海第二食品商店

The Shanghai No. 2 Food Store has branches all over Shanghai, but I most often visit the one near Shanxi Nan Lu - it's pretty representative of what they have to offer. It's an every day specialty food store (if that isn't an oxymoron), with more affordable prices. The fresh food section is small but is balanced by a huge snack and confectionary section.

For festivals and holidays No. 2 Store always has a seasonal special food, often sold from a street food-style cabin at the front of the store.

This is one of my favourite bargain buys - hawthorn paste (shanzha gao). It's sweet and tart and perfect with sharp cheddar or blue cheese. Use it exactly as you would use quince paste (and at a tiny proportion of the cost). I've actually come to prefer its more delicate flavour to quince paste.
Dried persimmons - also great with cheese

Ground black sesame - now you know where to buy it!

I'm also kind of addicted to No. 2 Store's sweets - the good old White Rabbit milk candies, and their miniature peanut nougats. Buy by weight - just grab a bag and fill it up.

If it's your thing, they also have a trustworthy supply of Chinese spirits. And yes, a good bottle of baijiu will set you back more than 2000rmb.

Shanghai No 2 Food Store
shànghǎi dì èr shípǐn shāngdiàn

994 Huai Hai Zhong Lu
Open 7 days

3. Shanghai Changchun Food Store 长春食品商店
The Changchun Food Store is my own favourite in Shanghai. It's small enough not to be overwhelming, has very helpful staff (although non-English speaking) and the food is very high quality. As an added bonus it's directly across the road from one of the city's best Shanghainese restaurants - Guang Ming Cun

They have an extensive cold foods section - 

Air-dried chicken and duck

The best hams

L to R: white poached chicken, Shanghai roast duck, Nanjing salt duck

Cold pig's ear salad (front) and duck tongues (rear)

Kaofu - a Shanghainese specialty with five-spice braised gluten, wood ear mushrooms, and peanuts

Marinated chickens' feet

Vinegar jellyfish, Shanghai style

And an equally extensive dried goods and baked goods section:
Dried fruits and sweets

Dried fish snacks

Air-dried fish from Shaoxing. Incredibly good.

L: Fresh Suzhou style moon cakes - savoury and sweet. These are the store's biggest-selling item.
R: Many foods have a small 'taste jar' so you can sample first and figure out whether it is animal, vegetable or mineral

Shanghai Chang Chun Food Store 
cháng chūn shípǐn shāngdiàn

619 Huai Hai Zhong Lu
Open 7 days 9am-10pm

Have another food store you love in Shanghai (or elsewhere in China)? Let us know below - it would be great to have a nation-wide list of the best!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Shanghai Street Food #36 Big CrispyPancakes: Dabing 大饼

For many people, dabing 大饼 is their first introduction to Chinese street food. And what a great place to start!

A huge round of flaky bread, leavened or unleavened, dabing is cooked in a contraption that looks like a giant waffle maker, leaving it oil-crisp on the outside and flaky, chewy and soft within. Dabing are always savoury - topped with white sesame seeds and green scallions; or brushed with a red, spicy, garlicky sauce made from pixian soy bean paste.

Bing 饼 is an all-encompassing word describing any food that is flat and round. The fine wheat pancakes used to eat Peking Duck are bing, the small flaky scallion filled pastries of Shanghai are bing, and moon cakes, whether savoury or sweet, are also bing. The word isn't exclusive to Chinese foods either - French crepes, pizzas, and tortillas are all types of bing. Da bing 大饼 (big bing) simply refers to a large flat round. 

Da bing are eaten at any time of day as a snack, but in Shanghai they are one of the 'Four Kings of Breakfast', the other being deep fried dough sticks (youtiao); sticky rice balls filled with salted egg, pork, and pickles (cifan); and fresh soy milk (doujiang).

To buy dabing, simply nominate a monetary amount - one yuan, two yuan, and so on, and the vendor will cut up a triangular slice for you of the correct weight.

Dabing vendor with folded dabing ready for sale - plain on the left, spiced on the right
Leavened dabing with sesame and scallions

Dabing cooking in the bing-maker
Flaky unleavened dabing with spiced soybean and garlic sauce

Shanghai Street Foods - The Complete Guide:

Number 1   Roast Sweet Potatoes
Number 2   Snack-on-a-stick 
Number 3   Liangpi - a spicy cold noodle dish
Number 4   Langzhou Lamian - hand-pulled noodles
Number 5   Cong You Bing - fried shallot pancakes
Number 6   Baozi - steamed buns, Shanghai style
Number 7   Jian Bing - the famous egg pancake
Number 8   Dan Gao - street cakes
Number 9   Shao mai - sticky rice treats
Number 10  Summer on a Stick - fresh fruits

Number 11  You Tiao - deep-fried breadsticks
Number 12  Dan Juan - egg rolls
Number 13  Shao Kao - street barbecue
Number 14  Bao Mi Hua - exploding rice flowers
Number 15  Chou Doufu - stinky tofu
Number 16  Bing Tang Shan Zha - crystal sugar hawthorns
Number 17  Mutton Polo
Number 18  Yumi Bang - puffed corn sticks
Number 19  Mian Hua Tang - cotton candy
Number 20  You Dunzi - fried radish cakes

Number 21  Suzhou Shi Yue Bing - homestyle mooncakes 
Number 22  Gui Hua Lian'ou - honeyed lotus root stuffed with sticky rice
Number 23  Cong You Ban Mian - scallion oil noodles
Number 24  Guotie - potsticker dumplings
Number 25  Nuomi Cai Tou - fried clover pancakes
Number 26  Da Bing, Shao Bing - sesame breakfast pastries
Number 27  Ci Fan - sticky rice breakfast balls
Number 28  Gui Hua Gao - steamed osmanthus cake
Number 29  Zongzi - bamboo leaf wrapped sticky rice
Number 30  Shengjianbao - pan-fried dumplings

Number 31  Mala Tang - DIY spicy soup
Number 32  Salt and Pepper Fried Chicken
Number 33  San Xian Doupi - Three Delicacies Wrapped in Tofu Skin
Number 34  Jidan Bing - savoury egg puffs
Number 35  Shiliu Zhi - Fresh pomegranate juice
Number 36  Dabing - big crispy pancakes

Monday, August 18, 2014

Night in Shanghai - In Conversation with Nicole Mones

I fell for the writing of American author Nicole Mones a few years ago when I first read her love letter to Chinese food, disguised as a novel called The Last Chinese Chef (2007). Mones writes beautifully about China and the intersection of cultures, from Lost in Translation (1999) to A Cup of Light (2002), and now her latest work, Night in Shanghai

Night in Shanghai brings the decadent, seductive jazz age of the 1930s to life as seen through the eyes of African American pianist Thomas Greene. It's a vivid, lyrical, musical novel that draws the reader in to the world of Ye Shanghai, with its powerful underground gangs, irresistible jazz, and heady mix of Russian aristocracy, Chinese elite, and wealthy foreigners. Thomas finds that in Shanghai he can become whoever he wants to be, but as the Japanese grip on the city tightens we are left with a sense of impending loss - these might be the last days of old Shanghai.

Night in Shanghai is also the extraordinary true-life story of how the city of Shanghai saved the lives of 25,000 Jewish refugees fleeing Europe at the start of Word War II. At a time when every other nation in the world rejected thousands of terrified Jews (including the United States, Great Britain and Australia), Shanghai opened its ports and welcomed them in. 

In an unbelievable twist Mones and her researcher uncovered evidence that the Chinese government also had a well-established plan to re-house 100,000 Jewish refugees in Yunnan. The evidence of this plan has all but been swallowed by history, and deserves much wider recognition.

When Mones' publicist sent me a copy of Night in Shanghai out of the blue, I read it, loved it, and emailed to ask if Mones might be interested in an interview. I admire her so much as a writer but didn't think for a million years she would say yes, so imagine my surprise and utter delight when Nicole herself emailed to say she had been a follower of this blog for some time and would love to do an interview. I felt like the kid who gets to ask the Prime Minister a question. 

Here's what we talked about - I hope you enjoy the conversation.

FR: In Night in Shanghai the city of the 1930s is brought vividly to life. Why was this era important to you, and what does it represent to you in terms of Chinas history?

NM: The last hundred years of Chinese history have always enthralled me, maybe because as someone who started doing business in China at the close of the Cultural Revolution, I've been able to observe China's present stage of modernization pretty much from the start. I feel like the struggle to modernize--personally, socially, economically, in terms of governance--has been the story not just of the current era, but of the whole last century in China. Shanghai has always been at the edge of modernization, and there have been some periods when things happened so fast, you could see life changing before your eyes. One of those times in Shanghai was the 1930s. Another is right now.

Speaking of researching the era… I found it so interesting that when historian Hanchao Lu interviewed elder residents of Shanghai about their memories of the 1930s, they expressed special wistfulness over the songs of the food peddlers. Roving snack vendors used distinct melodic chants to draw residents out of their homes and into the lane—chants which elder Shanghainese could still remember, sixty years later.

I thought of those memories when I read your epic series on Shanghai’s street food. I’m so grateful you’ve created this urban ethnography, beautifully photographed, and accessible to all. It’s important. Because just as the roving, chanting snack peddlers were largely wiped out by years of war and revolution, it could be that the street foods thriving today will one day vanish under roaring development as well. And then nostalgia and memory will collect around what you have captured on this site.

FR: The story of 25,000 Jewish lives saved in Shanghai in World War II is one still barely known around the world. Your research uncovered some unexpected findings – in particular a plan to relocate 100,000 European Jews to a resettlement area in Yunnan in 1939, a plan ultimately abandoned by Chiang Kai-shek.  Can you describe what it was like finding these documents, and how it changed the course of your novel?

NM: You can tell I am someone who loves research, but this had to be one of the peak discoveries of my life—and I didn’t even discover it, my brilliant researcher Daniel Nieh did. He was combing through a Chinese military history database, pursuing an unrelated question, when he stumbled on documents detailing the Jewish Resettlement Plan of 1939, which aimed to save 100,000 additional Jews from the Holocaust by establishing a Jewish resettlement zone along the Chinese-Burmese border. It failed, of course—but not before two lives (and a pile of money) were lost trying to make it happen. Amazingly, my draft of Night in Shanghai already had some of the plot elements needed to include this true story:  Shanghai’s Jewish refugee musicians were already integral to my protagonist’s survival during the years of the Japanese Occupation in Part Two, and H.H. Kung, the architect of the Jewish Resettlement Plan, happened to already be a side character.  Rewrite the novel? Of course.

I was surprised that such a large Holocaust story had been forgotten by the West; my publisher could find only two references to the Plan’s existence in books published in English. The unique role China played in saving lives during the Holocaust—and that includes the 25,000 Jewish refugees who rode out the war in Shanghai—is something in which all Chinese can take pride. 

FR: I loved the frequent and easy use of chengyu and slang phrases and insults throughout Night in Shanghai. Tell us about your relationship with the Chinese language – how easy or difficult did you find learning Chinese?  And how does having a second language at your disposal shape the way you write?

NM: First of all, my Chinese is very poor, and I’m not just being polite; it is. Still, because I started doing business in China in 1977, an era when almost no English was spoken, I had to try to learn. At first it was about gaining freedom of movement, and the freedom to talk to people. For a lone operator like me, it also seemed like the best way to improve my business. I dawdled for five years, deluding myself that I was going to pick it up on my regular trips to China, but once I finally faced the fact that I had failed to get past ‘hello,’  ‘goodbye’ and ‘where is the bathroom’, I went back to school at night. Everything I’d hoped for followed, and much more. As soon as I started to understand how people framed their thoughts and feelings, how they mediated and organized the world around them, China as a whole began to make more sense to me. Language is a lens, bringing the civilization behind it into focus.

Which is why I like to play with language now, in writing about China.  The natural Chinese idiom (for both the moment and the person) gives distinctive voice to a Chinese character, in either thought or dialogue. Sometimes I don’t actually quote the expression so much as fold it into a character’s consciousness, like the moment when Song privately recognized that ‘she was only a girl, with no more power than a grain of millet in a vast sea.’ Articulating mindset through an idiom feels right, partly because a certain part of Chinese consciousness truly is the product of accretion, the long accumulation of shared culture, remembered and referred to through language. Pure gold for limning consciousness. And if I get sidetracked for an hour or two, poring over dictionaries and phrase-books in search of the perfect cheng yu, those are always happy hours. Mandarin is endlessly rich in references and allusions. And don’t get me started on curses and insults—the best.

FR: Some of the most beautiful passages in Night in Shanghai are those describing music, just as The Last Chinese Chef featured deeply beautiful and sensual scenes describing food. Where does your love of jazz come from, and what do you think of the Shanghais modern day jazz resurgence?

NM: I love music, it is the language I admire most. I learned the musical staff at the same time I learned the alphabet, and as a teenaged piano student, took the same theory classes at Peabody that (my protagonist) Thomas Greene took when he was growing up. Unlike Thomas, I lacked the talent to become a musician, but that is one of the great things about writing novels—the chance to live a few lives that are out of one’s reach.

Though music was a big part of my youth, I never heard jazz until I was out of university, just past my 21st birthday, working at a radio station in Texas as an on-air person and music programmer. Late at night, listeners would call up and request jazz. I noticed these callers were male, cerebral types—not like the local cowboys, who always asked for alt-country and southern rock. They were a niche audience, but passionate. So I listened, starting with ragtime and Dixieland, and coming forward, and what startled me was how jazz multiplied in complexity with each decade, pushing the envelope of structure and melody and improvisation further and further. Writing about 30s music—the Swing Era—was only possible for me because that  sound was still pretty close to the basic American song form, with orchestral texture, and improvisation that was controlled and decorous. I could grasp it. I could understand Thomas’s hands on the piano, and his arc as a bandleader. I don’t think I could have pulled off writing about hard bop, or the cool school, or anything in the genre that came after.

It thrills me that jazz players from all over are gigging in Shanghai these days, and people are listening. Do you know, in the late 70s, foreigners who were in Shanghai used to scoff at the notion that the once-great city would ever rise again. “Shanghai is dead!” they’d declare. “It’s never coming back!” And now, not only is it back, it’s young… with cafes and nightspots where people gather to hear jazz. In fact, there’s more jazz being played in Shanghai right now than in a lot of American cities, which also feels like a return to an old pattern.

FR: Lastly – I understand you have been a frequent traveler to China since 1977 and all your novels have introduced readers to significant aspects of Chinese culture and history. Have you faced any barriers in getting the English-speaking publishing world interested in China? And what are common misconceptions about the country you come across?

NM: I feel the English-speaking publishing world is very interested in China, though in movies and novels alike, public tastes in the West tend to favor romantic historical works (like the film ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’) that have little to do with what China is like today. I wrote an essay about this for the Washington Post just before the 2008 Olympics opened.

And it’s not exactly a misconception, but the biggest frustration for me these days, as someone who lives in the U.S., is that most Americans continue to focus the bulk of their attention on China’s human rights issues. Those are very important issues, of course. But I wish, as a nation, we could focus on doing whatever we can to help slow down China’s environmental damage. I feel this is the real emergency.  And maybe the right to a healthier environment underlies all other rights.