Monday, January 10, 2011

I Burned My Face

Shang Hai

So. I finally arrived in China on New Years Day to begin my week helping to chaperone sixty high school junior girls around Shang Hai with the aim of investigating women’s rolls in China. The food on these trips is one of the job's greatest perks but to be honest it is kind of a mixed blessing. All of the meals are huge, lavish and free but most are in the banquet style, often in restaurants oriented towards tourists. Couple this with the natural inclinations of Shang Hainese cuisine (not my favorite of China’s food traditions) and you end up with a lot of fried and sticky sweet dishes, the vegetables very oily and sauces very thick. That said one of my favorite dishes of all time is one of the sweetest, and stickiest Shang Hai has to offer, Hong Shao Rou or red cooked pork. Large cubes of fatty pork are slow stewed in a broth of soy sauce which turns them a dark red. When prepared to perfection the meat should shred easily in the teeth and flake apart under even the lightest pressure. The fat, which is sometimes as much as half an inch thick, should take on the the color and texture of a whipped custard and immediately melt to coat the mouth in that way only pork fat can. I had a few different Hong Shao Rou experiences on this trip and although none were incredible, even mediocre Hong Shao Rou is a welcome treat and nearly impossible to find in the States.

I did manage to have a couple truly exceptional dining experiences with the kids in Shang Hai. The first was the Xiao Long Bao I had for my second meal in China. Xiao Long Bao (xlb) are Shang Hai’s most famous food item. They are soup dumplings made with pork and sometimes crab. The small thin rice flour wrappers contain a perfect mouthful of searingly hot, rich pork broth. Quickly dipped in vinegar and sometimes ginger, these little pleasure packets are some of the best cold weather comfort bites on the planet. A great xlb is transcendent and a bad one is about as bad as an overly thick cold noodle filled with hot pork grease can be. People in Shang Hai are incredibly loyal to their favorite xlb restaurant/ stall and xlbs in Shang Hai assume the roll that the burrito plays in the bay area. I had done my xlb research before leaving for Shang Hai , so I was surprised when the best xlb I had ever had came from a small place I had never heard of before.

On the first day we took the kids to Fudan University to meet their new college buddies who were then supposed to take them out to a typical college student lunch. The girls guiding our group led us into a cramped and noisy little street side restaurant just a few steps from the east gate of Fu Dan University called De Long Restaurant (笼馆). We ordered normal pork xlb, crab roe xlb, Cha Siu xlb (which the girls described as filled with honey bbq pork) and spicy xlb, along with two bowls of spicy beef curry noodle soup. This was way off from my usual xlb order. I am usually a xlb purist sticking to the old favorites of crab roe and pork. I tend to regard spicy xlb the same way I regard spicy tuna roll, made for people who don’t know what they’re doing, the spiciness mostly used to cover up sub-par ingredients. I had never heard of Cha Siu xlb before and so was a little suspicious (although it is difficult to go wrong with bbq pork) and I don’t usually like East Asian curry dishes at all. Anyway, I was wrong on all counts. The spicy bao were scorchingly hot, the broth filled with chilies and a hefty portion of mouth numbing Sichuan peppercorns. Two dumplings in and I was covered in sweat and couldn’t feel my face. The normal pork xlb were absolutely flawless, the meat ground to perfection, the broth rich, bracing and hot. The Cha Siu dumplings had more firm dense pork slices providing a lot of nice tooth resistance, with a deep golden rich broth that filled your head with an almost overpowering scent of honey. Crab roe xlb are always good but these were amazing- filled with rich salty crab broth and the roe itself hit me like an ocean wave in the face almost like a bite of fresh Uni. Even the curry soup was great. Hot spicy broth, nice globs of fat, perfect noodles and tender slices of beef falling apart between your chopsticks. Bangin. Now I have not tried enough places to say this but I think I’ve found my Xiao Long Bao place. De Long Guan I’m all yours.

德笼馆, 复旦大学东门

De Long Restaurant,

Fu Dan University East Gate

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