A Meal To Remember

800px-RedCookedPorkBellyAt 99 Fuxing Lu (an older restored home in the French Concession now offering “true” Shanghai cuisine); following is the menu with some translation help from our friend Patrick who set it up:

  • River Eels with Asparagus
  • Drunken Chicken (Zuiji in Mandarin, stewed chicken over ice)
  • Kaofu in Sauce (Kaofu, braised wheat gluten with wood ear mushrooms and “golden needles”)
  • Fried Smoked Blue Fish (Xunyu, but not the blue fish we know in America, more like a firm white fish)
  • Braised River Shrimp (He Xia, braised in a very light sauce and served by themselves)
  • Stir-fried Greens (Mixian)
  • Red-cooked Pork (Hong Shao Rou, Braised Pork Belly or Pork Leg, ours was the belly)
  • Eels in Brown Sauce
  • Braised Shad (this could have been a true Shad, and the fish was cooked qing zhen, or steamed with ginger, scallion and a sauce of oil, soy, sugar and shaoxing wine)
  • Fish Stomach Soup (Lao Ji Tang, chicken soup with fish stomach and winter melon)
  • Lions Head (a light but large pork meatball, ours was served in a broth, but it’s never called soup because it can be served in a variety of context)
  • Noodles with Fried Chives and Dried Shrimp
  • Fermented Rice with Black Sesame Dumplings (Niang Mi Zhima Tang Yuan)
  • Fruit (Shuiguo, we had watermelon – Xigua)

The dinner took place in an old Art Deco style Shanghai home that’s been converted to a restaurant primarily with private rooms around a central staircase seating up to 10 people around a single table. When we arrived we met Patrick and Tina’s friend Pan Ling, author of “In Search of Old Shanghai” and an epicurean of all food, but especially Shanghainese food. She and Patrick described each dish as it was served indicating how close it was to authentic Shanghai recipes, especially regarding its ingredients. They rejected one braised fish that had been offered because it wasn’t typically found by Shanghai fishermen (and therefore on Shanghai tables), and instead chose a “shad” type of river fish that was very good.

Ling was interested in the food we cooked, and she was especially keen on learning about the “Nose to Tail” cooking movement that Patrick had told her I was a part of. I explained that in the west eating certain parts of animals (innards, or offal) brought a class stigma that can be linguistically traced back to the Norman Conquest of Britain when the animal that the peasants raised and cared for retained their Anglo-Saxon names (cow, sheep, swine, chicken), and the meat that the Norman lords and ladies dined on were called by their French names (beef, porc, poultry, lamb (l’agneau)). The peasants did not eat “high on the hog.” They ate low: organs, feet, head — all the stuff the lords could afford to go without. As a result, after we chopped the heads of the French lords and ladies and aspired to replace them, we adopted their menu to prove that we had made it. No more Liver (german/dutch word) And Onions, we were eating steak (from bifstek, a French word) and only steak. That kind of cultural division of animals never occurred in China, and more over the Chinese have invented thousands of ways to make the odd bits of an animal tasty, but sometimes to make them a treasured meal (Shanghai soup dumplings are primarily made from pork skin). Nothing goes to waste in China, in fact, they eat ALL of America’s chicken feet, and gladly so because they’re so big and fleshy compared to the local birds feet.

Everything in the meal was delicious, but my favorite was the Red Braised Pork, and not because it was deliciously tender and fatty meat (well, maybe) but because the spices in the braising were wonderfully exotic but paired beautifully with the sweet meat, and the meat was tender and juicy despite having been braised (as is traditional) for several hours. Still, the fish stomach was also wonderful because it had the most delightful texture: it was like a tender strip of terry cloth floating in an ethereal fish broth. The braised fish was simple (served whole) and perfectly cooked. The dessert of the glutinous black sesame balls was also a new textural experience floating in gelatinous fermented rice that had bits of rice still in it, and the balls were oh-so gooey but not sticky hiding a sweet grainy center of black sesame paste.

After dinner we lingered in the room chatting about our upcoming adventures (Eric to Beijing; we are off to the West of China via train), and then moved to a balcony overlooking Fuxing Road, above the beautiful plane trees that line so many of the streets in the French Concession.

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