Photography: alan benson
Beep. Beep. "Get out of my way!" Well, at least I think that's
what my taxi driver yells in putonghua (standard Mandarin),
to the driver in front as we careen around the corner. I presume he
must know, from the address that I've given, that I'm in urgent
need of dumplings. Not just any dumplings, either, but the
famed, maddeningly good Shanghainese xiao long bao, filled with
pork and searingly hot soup.
The reason both the driver and I are in a hurry is that I've committed that most cardinal of culinary sins. I've been in Shanghai for more than 24 hours and haven't yet eaten a single xiao long bao. That means I'm yet to burn my tongue or spray the fabulous, fatty juice all over my face and shirt. It's an omission that I'll spend the next seven days trying to make up for. And the next month washing from my clothes while relishing the memory.
This first dumpling house, Din Tai Fung, is set well away from the usual tourist haunts, but they have a branch in Xintiandi, the swish rejuvenated dining precinct in the French Concession. Originally from Taiwan, but now international [they've opened a Sydney branch, too, see our Food blog], Din Tai Fung specialises in a modern, more elegant version of Shanghainese classics. An army of red-capped, facemask-wearing cooks hand-roll the pale wheat dumpling skins, smear them with pork and pleat the top so they look like elegant moneybags. When they're steamed they emerge as the finest of dumplings, their soupy filling heavy in the base. You pluck them carefully from their bamboo abode, roll them in Zhenjiang black vinegar, and attempt to eat. It's a hit of fragrant, sticky pork, sweet fatty juices and silken dumpling skin.
You may have guessed that I'm in Shanghai to eat. But what to eat? In a country famed for the cooking of Guangdong (Cantonese), Chengdu (Sichuanese), Chongqing (hotpot) and Beijing (that duck), the food of the nation's most thrilling upwardly mobile town is lesser known. But there is magic to be found amid the sprawl of glass buildings and dowdy communist-era tenement blocks. From the humblest of noodle joints to the most majestic of fine diners, Shanghainese food is enjoying a renaissance.
The hallmarks of Shanghainese food are not my favourite traits. It's sweet, usually just with plain old white sugar. It's oily. And often it's laced with just a bit too much MSG. But at its best, the food of this Paris of the East reaches heights rarely witnessed in Chinese cuisine.
Take the Whampoa Club, for instance, Jereme Leung's swank fine diner set in a 1916 former bank down on the famed Bund. Here 'smoke fish', a dish of fried fish steeped in flavoured soy, is still crisp from the fryer. Local goose liver, miraculously browned outside and pink inside, is paired effortlessly with candied red dates. Even the strangely dessert-sweet appetiser of sugar-steeped lotus root filled with sticky rice is elevated from the pack by the use of tiny aromatic osmanthus blossoms and, according to the waiter, peppermint petals.
Whampoa's take on Shanghainese is brilliant for tourists. Not only is the menu in understandable English (as opposed to hilarious Chinglish), but there are also, thankfully, tasting menus. While not unusual in the West, tasting menus in China mean a solo diner can taste as many dishes as a big family, the traditional way to eat. Whampoa looks the part, too, with its jade chopstick holders and coloured screens. Several tables boast views, so you can watch barges loaded with coal or sand chug down the Huangpu river.
Leung, Whampoa's Hong Kong-born chef, counts about 60 per cent of his guests as Chinese. His recipes all came via masters of Shanghainese cuisine, which Leung tweaked for modern tastes and service. Leung's also willing to share his tips on where else to eat. He sends us to Jia Jia, his favourite dumpling house where for most of the day there's a half-hour wait for their famed xiao long bao. When there's not a half-hour wait, they're closed.
These dumplings aren't as elegant as the ones at Din Tai Fung. But they are fantastically flavoured, the casing thicker and more resilient. And they're a lot cheaper.
Probably the most famous dumplings of all are those served in the majestic if overcrowded Old Town restaurant of Nanxiang at Yuyuan Gardens. We line up for an hour at the takeaway counter for a single serve; 16 of their famed buns. Inside a glassed cube, chefs in hats that look like inverted dumplings can be seen relentlessly rolling and filling wrappers. These are rustic, old-style dumplings with thick, hunger-curbing skins and a rich porky filling.
The best place to get a taste of Shanghainese food of old is at Chun, a miniscule diner in the French Concession, the owner Ya Ya tells you what time you'll come, what you'll have, how fast you should eat, and how much you should pay, with no hint of a menu. All in Chinese. The elegant simplicity of river prawns wok-tossed with a hint of sugar is impressive, as is the depth of flavour in a chicken, cloud ear and bamboo shoot soup. I'm interested if not overawed by the pomfret fish with a thick sweet soy sauce. As for décor, it's a clean, wood-panelled space with nothing much apart from four tables to fill it.
Some of the best food we find is at Union, a diner where 'décor' is a word you'd be unlikely to use. Bright fluorescent lights showcase a garish room of pale tiles and peach-coloured tablecloths. But the food thrills. The menu is in decidedly dodgy English so we follow the waiter's instructions and order tangy stirfried crab roe with tofu, a revelation in contrasting textures. Winter bamboo is cut into slivers and wok-tossed with greens including pickled cabbage. The finest slices of perch are cooked on the way to the table in a foil dish reminiscent of a large pie wrapper, a cast-iron plate underneath giving it heat. The fish is immersed in an oily broth earthy with good yellow Shaoxing wine. And the final dish, Hangzhou-style noodles in chicken broth has pieces of Zhejiang's famed ham, fine Shanghainese bok choi and some of the best flavoured stock you could ever hope to try.
If doing the full-on Chinese thing seems a little scary, you could opt for Yin, where the Japanese owner has cleaned up the flavours of Shanghai by omitting some of the sugar, oil and MSG, while trying to retain the integrity of the food. Mr Chan, the chef, is a local, and his dishes sparkle. Try the xiang qin bai he, stirfried lily buds with celery shoots. It's brought to the dark timber tables served on elegant Song dynasty-style glazed porcelain by the sweetest Chinese waiters. On Friday and Saturday evenings you can relive the past with live jazz.
Old Shanghai was known for its sleaze, its drugs, its corruption, and you still see glimpses of this in New Shanghai; from the girls in suburban hairdressers who put up a pink light at night and gesture for you to come in, to the lack of meritocracy that sees rude information attendants at the supposedly tourist-friendly Xintiandi. Shanghai, however, knows how to adapt. Dreary communist-era attitudes and buildings are gradually being replaced by design-savvy bars and restaurants, and a sense of service culture that isn't demeaning.
You wouldn't know that times have changed at Xinguang crab house, except, perhaps, for the prices. Fixed, full-on crab banquet menus start at around $60. Everybody seems to have their own private room; ours has greasy handprints on the glass doors, peeling paint on the timber and chipped crockery. But the food is terrific, from whole bowls of claw meat, then leg meat, then body meat (taste the difference), and then stirfried roe and a crab broken down and the meat picked out before your eyes. Xinguang proves why the local crabs, particularly Yangchen Lake hairy crabs, are probably the best in the world.
If you want top-shelf service and western-style décor, the impressive Villa Du Lac, by the lake on the cusp of Xintiandi, is more on the money. Here they specialise in another eastern Chinese cuisine, that of the imperial courts of Yangzhou, a short hop north-east of Shanghai. A tile of fish atop drunken chicken scented with Shaoxing wine is impressive; sweet river fish soup with hand-cut noodles are exemplary. If you've got one mealtime in China, you could do far worse that spend it here. Villa du Lac, however, is expensive. Well, maybe I've been in China too long. The meal cost $200 for two, and that would barely earn you a platter of contempt in some of Australia's flashest diners.
After seven days and 30 meals, the urgent need for dumplings has subsided. As I head for the airport I tell the taxi driver not to hurry. Curiously, he doesn't seem to hear. Beep. Beep.
THE FINE PRINT
Xiao Nan Guo
A chain of mostly huge places that really pump out Shanghainese specialities. Brilliant for a group.
3337 Hongmei Rd, Shanghai,+86 21 3208 9777.
A modest four-table restaurant serving up better than homestyle Shanghainese tucker. No English spoken.
124 Jinxian Lu, Shanghai, +86 21 6256 0301.
Modern tastes in food and wonderfully traditional décor, with live jazz on Friday and Saturday nights.
Old Jinjiang Hotel, Gate No.2, 59 Maoming Nan Lu, Fuxing Park, +86 21 5466 5070.
Din Tai Fung
The Taiwanese chain that does the city's best xiao long bao dumplings and pretty good versions of everything else.
Unit 11, 2F House 6, South Block, Xintiandi, Lane 123, Xinye Rd, +86 21 5382 5800.
There's an English menu, but better to trust your waiter. Be prepared for a fantastic textural and gustatory ride despite the garish décor.
132 Maoming Rd South, +86 21 6473 9871.
Villa du Lac
Superior versions of imperial Yangzhou-style dishes, served in lush European-style surrounds.
383 Huangpi Nan Lu, Xin Tian Di, +86 21 6387 6387.
Famed for their dumplings. Line up to see what all the fuss is about.
90 Huanghe Rd, People's Square, +86 21 6327 6878.
Wujiang Food Street
Busy at night, Wujiang Food Street boasts everything from chargrilled chicken wings to hotpot and some of the city's best jiaozi (crisp fried bottomed dumplings) at Xiaoyang number 54.
Xin Jishi (Jesse)
This is the original and the best in the chain. Bookings are essential. Also try the Xintiandi outlet for all the local classics (such as soy-braised red-cooked pork) done really well.
41 Tianping Rd, near Huaihai Rd, +86 21 6282 9260.
Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant
Famed dumplings but long queues for takeaway.
85 Yuyuan Lu, Old Town, +86 21 6355 4206.
Jereme Leung's majestic take on Shanghainese food is served in stylish surrounds.
5th Floor, 3 The Bund, Shanghai, +86 21 6321 3737.
Crab, crab and more crab. Sensational set-price, expensive menus that serve the famed local crab at every course. Communist-era décor and service.
Hongqiao Guest House, 1591 Hongqiao Rd, Shanghai,+86 21 6219 8855.
A refreshingly clean six-table diner not far from the Regent hotel that serves wonderful food but you'll have to point as no English is spoken.
79 Wuyi Rd, near Yan'an Rd West, +86 21 6213 4110.
Note Always ask your concierge to write the address of the restaurant in Chinese so your taxi driver can understand where you want to go.