A typical Shanghai meal is rich in fish and crab dishes from the region's rivers, freshwater lakes and ponds, and the East China Sea.
By Richard L.T. Wei
Shanghai is 800 miles from Taipei, but its cuisine is just down the street. And whether diners are eating tea-smoked pomfret, lion's head, or braised chicken with lemon, their taste buds are experiencing some of China's most refined cuisine.
Situated at the mouth of the mighty Yangtze River, twenty miles wide where it rushes into the East China Sea, is the huge metropolis of Shanghai. Despite its size and importance to both domestic and international trade, the city is young in terms of Chinese history. Only in the nineteenth century did it begin to rival older centers of commerce and culture in the region. Suchou, Wuxi, Nanjing, and Yangzhou in Jiangsu province to the north of the Yangtze, and Hangzhou and Ningbo in Zhejiang province to the south, already had centuries of refined history and exquisitely developed cuisine.
But as Shanghai grew in population and commercial wealth, chefs from these nearby cities moved to the metropolis to open restaurants. Gradually, these masters of wok and bamboo steamer adapted their traditional menus to take advantage of the variety of produce, meats, and seafood so abundantly available in Shanghai.
The result: Shanghai cuisine, which combined the elegant dishes from the rich province of Jiangsu -- often called the Land of Fish and Rice (equivalent to the Land of Milk and Honey in the West) -- with provincial menus from Zhejiang. Thus, the food of Shanghai is frequently called Jiangzhe cuisine, taking the first characters from the names of the two provinces.
Seafood SpecialtiesAsk any restaurant manager for the most typical Shanghai dish on the menu, and the answer is bound to be a fish or crab item. Water is central to the development of Shanghai cuisine. There are more than 4,000 freshwater lakes and ponds on the lower and middle reaches of the Yangtze River. And toward the mouth of the mighty river, the area is combed with innumerable marshes, streams, and smaller rivers, including the Huangpu, which flows right through the city. These are rich sources of the crabs, shrimp, prawns, and fish that figure so prominently in Shanghai dishes. To these is added the catch from the sea, as deep-sea fishermen await the tide each day to bring their laden boats upriver to the heart of the metropolis.
A similar scene, though on a much smaller scale, occurs each morning in Taipei's fish markets. These supply the bounty of the sea, while the island's hundreds of aquaculture operations provide the crabs and grass shrimp so much in demand at local restaurants.
No part of the fish is wasted in Chinese cooking. In fact, the head, back and fillet, belly section, and the tail are each the centerpiece in a wide assortment of dishes. Perhaps the most renowned of Shanghai dishes, however, are those made from the head, xia-ba. While Westerners usually remove this part of the fish before cooking, or at least before serving, the mention of a Shanghai xia-ba dish can set the salivary ducts flowing for most Chinese epicures. Don't immediately reject the idea of trying hong-shao xia-ba, for example, because experience indicates that foreigners can develop an equally strong fondness for eating this typical dish. There are reasons.
First, it is easy to eat. There is less challenge in removing the meaty portion of the head from the bones than in many fish commonly eaten in the West. Perch, sea bass, shad, and carp (the rock, silver, grass, and variegated varieties) are favorite choices for xia-ba because the heads are large. For example, in the case of the freshwater chub, a variegated carp, the head accounts for about one-third of the total body size. Thus, a deft flick of the chopsticks along the ridges at the top of the head, or a gentle poke just forward of the gills, will easily expose delicate pieces of meat that almost melt in the mouth. Moreover, the taste is superb. As in much Shanghai cooking, Shaoxing wine and aged rice vinegar are key ingredients. The dish is often served with a brown sauce, also characteristic of the cuisine. Finally, beyond the superb taste and nutritional value of eating xia-ba there is an added value for foreigners: after returning home, they can brag about having eaten it (leaving out, perhaps, how easy and tasty the experience really was).
Interestingly, xia-ba is also a "test piece" for chefs who want to move into the big time in Taipei's international hotels. For example, Chef Tsai Jui, who has long experience with the cuisine, says that a cook who aspires to work in his kitchen is asked first to prepare xia-ba "because there are so many steps where a chef can go wrong." The key test, however, is the meat near the gills. "If it tastes even a little bit fishy," Tsai says, "the dish has not been made correctly."
But there is much more to Shanghai seafood than fish heads or even the famous (and frightfully expensive) freshwater hairy crabs that are treasured by epicures throughout Asia. For example: tea-smoked pomfret, which takes on a rich deep color after being smoked for roughly half an hour over black tea leaves in a heavy wok. Or the delicate white meat of steamed and deep-fried huang yu (Yellow Fish). Or pan-fried fillet of carp with rice wine cake and bamboo shoots, which takes the leftover rice used for making rice wine as a key ingredient. All these dishes show why Shanghai cuisine conjures up the culinary pleasures of the Land of Fish and Rice.
Try A Delicate Lion's HeadBut seafood is only part of Shanghai's culinary delights. There are noted poultry dishes, like fried goose liver wrapped in pork fat net, a dish that originated in Ningbo, where the wrap and fry method of cooking is popular. Wrapping ingredients in pork fat net before frying preserves the juices. Or try Drunken Chicken, another dish flavored with liberal amounts of Shaoxing wine.
If fish heads and goose livers seem a bit too exotic, one item that is guaranteed to please any palate is lion's head. Long a traditional specialty in the Yangzhou area, these large stewed meatballs are made from lean pork, chopped spring onion (shallot/scallion), ginger, a bit of salt, and a bit more Shaoxing wine, and are served with lots of Chinese cabbage. Whether eaten at home or in the fanciest restaurant, lion's head is simple but hearty food with a friendly, addictive aroma. Adding a crabmeat filling can jazz up its mild taste.
Speaking of tradition, another Shanghai specialty during festival times and family get-togethers is steamed three-shredded meats. Thin shreds of cooked pork, ham, and chicken meat are aligned in six umbrella-like sections inside a standard rice bowl (a large black mushroom is first put in the bottom of the bowl). The rest of the bowl is then packed with cooked bamboo shoots. After steaming for 10 minutes, the bowl is inverted on a serving dish and removed, leaving the contents in a broad-striped dome. The tightly packed ingredients symbolize the reunion of loved ones.
A Renaissance In The KitchenTaipei has long had Shanghai (or Jiangzhe) restaurants, but a renaissance has been under way for a decade. Menus have expanded and been refined by the abundance of foodstuffs now available through trade with China -- including the rivers, lakes, and fields near Shanghai. Mushrooms, shrimp paste, oyster sauce, salted vegetables, and specially aged vinegar made from sticky (glutinous) rice are now readily available to Taipei's chefs. But more than this is needed for a superbly prepared table.
Says Terand Lee, a Shanghai native and accomplished chef, "Success depends on more than having the right ingredients. Color, aroma, and taste are the key -- and these depend on the chef." And Taipei chefs, especially in the larger Taiwan hotels, are experimenting and competing with each other not only to continue the rich Shanghai culinary tradition, but also to develop it further. The higher quality of ingredients, for example, makes it possible to lighten the color of the brown sauces traditionally used in many dishes, making them look "less intimidating," in Lee's words. "Although some older Chinese diners miss the darker color, the taste is now much better," Lee adds, "especially because the secondary ingredients are higher quality."
Much to the pleasure of discerning diners, many restaurants in Taipei (especially in international hotels) are eliminating all use of MSG (monosodium glutamate). Originally made from wheat gluten that had been dried and fermented, MSG has for decades been made chemically. Overuse, which has become a habit in Chinese homes and restaurants because of the "taste kick" it adds, can cause various unhappy effects, including headaches, tiredness, or a feeling akin to an angry gorilla grasping one's head at the temples and squeezing vigorously. The replacement of MSG with refined ingredients and improved culinary expertise is a welcome event indeed.
While Shanghai restaurant cuisine often costs more per person than other styles, it is a terrific choice for special occasions. Come to think of it, eating Shanghai food is always a special occasion!
WHERE TO GO* Fang Jia, 7 Tianmu E. Rd. Tel: 2872-8402
* Hsiang Garden Restaurant, Renai Rd., Sec. 4, Lane 27, #6 Tel: 2731-7772
* Shou Lan Gourmet, 118 Minsheng E. Rd., Sec. 3 Tel: 2712-5775
Also Xinyi Rd., Sec. 2, Lane 198, No. 5-5 Tel: 2393-0167
* Shanghai Court (Grand Hyatt Hotel), 2 Songshou Rd. Tel: 2720-1234
* Shanghai Pavilion (Far Eastern Plaza Hotel), 201 Dunhua S. Rd., Sec. 2 Tel: 2376-3247
* Yangtse River (Howard Plaza Hotel), 3F, 160 Renai Rd., Sec. 3 Tel: 2700-2323