We were walking along Xiang Yang Lu one afternoon when we saw a little old lady waiting stoically by an actual hole-in-the-wall stall while the 3 degrees wind blew fiercely about. She may be on to something good, we thought, so we crossed the road and waited with her. We couldn't actually see what was being sold, because the vendor covered the pan, though he turned it every so often and kept insisting gently that no, it was not ready yet. The smell from the pan was driving us crazy. We waited 10 minutes, though it felt like 10 years.
Finally he deemed it ready. He lifted the cover and we saw these beauties- pan fried xiao long baos. The Shanghainese call it shen jian bao, literally this means baos fried from raw.
Hot he said, be careful. Mum and aunt tore into the buns not caring if they got scalded or burnt, besides they were already numb from the cold. We all know how delicious xiao long bao is, now imagine the pan fried version which has a crispy caramelised skin at the bottom. Once the delicate yet resilient skin on top is breached, hot broth squirts out just like a regular xlb and finally we reach the little nugget of juicy pork inside. That first mouthful of contrasting skin textures and pork juices was ecstasy. It was the best thing I have eaten in Shanghai, ever.
Apparently the stall is not even considered the best in town but my mum and aunt would definitely disagree. Later, we ordered this dish at every Shanghainese restaurant we visited. None came close to the street version. Their skins were thicker, almost fluffy like regular baos.
Food was not really a big priority for my mum and aunt. When I ask them what they would like for dinner, their answer would inevitably be " something simple lah", or ' something light'. So that meant I had to cancel the Whampoa Club booking. But looking back, we managed to eat quite well and I ended up liking Shanghainese food more compared to our previous trip. How did this change come about?
Well, there weren't any drastic changes in the cooking style of the local cuisine. But I changed my style of ordering. I paid more attention to the appetiser section, especially the leng cai (cold appetisers) and discovered a whole new world of wonderful dishes such as the endless variations of tofu skin and greens like the one above. Appetisers come in small portions and are usually fresh tasting and lighter on the oil and seasonings and if we didn't like it there isn't much food to waste.
Shanghainese appetisers are fun. One of our favourite default orders was cucumbers tossed with garlic- crunchy, sweet and garlicky, this dish is hard to mess up. Another perennial favourite is chicken tossed with peanut sauce or what the Chinese restaurants in London would call bang bang chicken. At the Liu Hui Guan Restaurant in Xintiandi (tel 63850188) I sampled an intriguing dish of 'jellied eggs' which means hard boiled egg white with soft-cooked yolks. I liked this restaurant very much because none of their dishes were oily, even their delicious braised pork was relatively light. Mummy loved their spinach and pine nuts which was moulded into a tall pyramid.
Another new favourite is 1221, located at the same number along YanAn Lu Xi, near Fan Yu Lu (tel 6213.6585). I ate there with aunt L, as mummy had to forego dinner because she had indigestion from eating too much Xinjiang lamb satay and xlbs. The restaurant, by virtue of the lack of alphabet in its name, heads the Shanghai restaurant listing in most of the city magazines, therefore ideal for whoever is not sure where to eat and likely to pick the first listed place, like me and the many expatriates eating there that night.
We were pleasantly surprised to be served by their very friendly and attentive proprietress. She took one look at the two of us and concluded rightly that we would not be able to eat much, so she said she would ask the kitchen to serve us half-portions of whatever we ordered. How very considerate, that meant we ate pork ribs, their signature ma-la beef with sesame mantou (very good, no dumbing-down for the ang-mohs), garlicky cucumber and stir-fried string beans and yet were not stuffed. So that we could still manage to eat some of their very delicious complimentary dessert of ba bao fan or eight-treasure rice; there weren't really 8 ingredients as far as I could see, but the glutinous rice was adorably soft and sweet with a bittersweet crispy edge and the middle of the pancake was filled with bananas which did it for me, I adore banana desserts.
So it was mainly good eating for us. But some food were a little weird. At a little noodle house in front of the Sheraton, my colleague was very excited to see crayfish on the menu for about SGD8 per jin, i.e. cheap cheap. So she ordered one jin. What came were little red shells no bigger than my thumb, even smaller than yabbies or marron. The meat inside the hard shell were a little like prawns, but all of us could not get past the suspicion that the 'crayfish' in its uncooked state very possibly look like a big bug. We were not Fear Factor material, and after a while nobody's chopsticks ventured near that plate.
Other than the crayfish incident, the eating was generally good and rewarding. We also had some fun drinking, but that story will have to wait for a while yet...