I’m always tempted by the local street food stalls in Shanghai.
Back from another extended stay in endlessly fascinating and ever-changing Shanghai, I’m posting another installment of some of the social, cultural, culinary, and travel highlights.
TRAVELING TO EAT
Travel is my passion. It’s a chance to experience other cultures, traditions, art, music, history—and especially food. I can’t think of a better way to get the flavor of a country than by sampling its cuisine.
From haute cuisine to street food, all around the globe I love the adventure of being introduced to unfamiliar dishes … well, not too unfamiliar. I don’t just love tasting everything, but also learning about the local markets, exotic ingredients, and indigenous cooking methods.
It’s fun to sample the many varieties of food and dishes.
CHINESE FOOD CULTURE
Because I want to experience authentic local cuisine and learn its history, I try to take a cooking class in whatever country I’m visiting.
From living in Shanghai, I’ve learned how important it is to dine together and enjoy good food.
Restaurants in China are filled with groups of people gathered around large rounds tables, eating course after course accompanied by hot tea or fresh fruit juice.
Typically, dinners are served early in China, at about 6 p.m., which I quite like because you have opportunity for an evening activity before bedtime.
CHINESE COOKING WORKSHOP
I’ve taken a number of cooking classes in Shanghai, many at the Chinese Cooking Workshop School. It offers demonstrations and lessons in the cooking styles of various Chinese regions (Sichuan, Canton, and Huaiyang), along with Thai and some other foreign cuisines.
When I saw them on the schedule, I immediately signed up for “Wet Market” and “Shanghai Cuisine” classes—the first because I had no idea what the term meant and the second because I wanted to get familiar with the cooking style of this amazing city.
Cooking classes cater to locals and English-speaking visitors alike.
You can learn specialized tasks like making dumplings or such basics as knife skills.
“WET MARKET” (or Greenmarket)
A “Wet Market,” I learned, is an Asian term for a greenmarket, named for the high amount of water used to keep the fruits and vegetables wet and fresh, to keep the fish and shellfish alive, and to wash down the floors.
Our class walked to the nearest wet market on Dagu Lu at 9 a.m. on a Monday morning.
People use various modes of transportation to arrive at a local wet market.
Senior chef/cooking instructor Huang Huazheng with two students.
Jeanne Lawrence and Chef Huang.
For Americans used to supermarkets, it’s an experience to compare the kinds of produce, poultry, and meats available in Chinese markets.
VARIETIES OF PRODUCTS
Chef Huang gave us the English names for many types of fruits and vegetables that were unfamiliar to me.
Fresh jujube fruit, or Chinese dates, which I thought were a type of crabapple. When dried, they are deep red and resemble a wrinkled red raisin and have a sweet-tart apple flavor.
Chef Huang taught us what to look for when buying ingredients, how to choose the best product, and what amount to pay.
When there was no English word for a particular green, Chef Huang referred to it generically as cai—the Chinese word for vegetable.
What an artistic presentation!
I was amazed by the choices available: so many breeds of poultry and types of meat; such a variety of colored eggs—blues, creams, and browns; and such a selection of pickled vegetables, spices, noodles, and teas.
HAIRY CRAB SEASON
As October through November is the season for hairy crabs, a Shanghai specialty, we saw them for sale all over town.
The very best hairy crabs come from the Yangtze River delta.
The tastiest, biggest, and most expensive crabs come from the Yang Cheng Lake in Jiangsu Province.
Chef Huang pointed out how to distinguish between a female and male crab.
Besides being bigger and hairier, male crabs are distinguished by a “V” segment on the bottom of the body; females have a circular segment.
Some prefer male crabs because they’re larger and have more meat, but others like female crabs, which are sweeter and contain rich, creamy eggs.
The live crabs are tied with raffia to keep their hairy claws close to their bodies so they can’t use the pinchers.
This sight was difficult for me to look at—live, slimy eels. Ugh.
Unlike this elegantly dressed women, who didn’t hesitate to plunge her hand into the tank to select her eels, I couldn’t muster up the courage.
Fish are sold whole, so you can check their quality and condition. Often, you can choose a fish that’s still swimming in a tank, so you know it’s fresh.
OUR COOKING CLASSROOM
After picking up seasonal groceries, we headed back to the classroom, then located in an old Shanghai neighborhood. The area has since been razed, probably for another high-rise office building, so the classroom has been moved elsewhere.
Leaving the local market, my attention was caught by a father and his young daughter who, at first glance, appeared to be driving the scooter (she was not).
To reach our classroom, we passed through a gate off the main road Wei Hai Lu, then traveled down an alley to a complex of old dilapidated buildings.
I enjoyed looking out the classroom window at the lane houses lining the alleys, constructed in the Shanghai of another area.
The classroom space was light and bright, as there were no tall buildings blocking the view.
Workshops are held in the morning, afternoons, and evenings. Customized classes and private lessons are also available.
I (left) tried my hand at stir-frying on a wok.
Since this was my introduction to cooking Shanghainese cuisine, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Turns out Shanghai does not have a cuisine of its own, but is influenced by the cooking styles of the surrounding provinces. Because it faces the East China Sea, seafood, along with local freshwater crabs, oysters, and fish, is very popular here.
Shanghainese cuisine is characterized by a generous use of soy sauce, sugar, rice wine, and rice vinegar. The use of sugar, the “secret ingredient,” is unique to Shanghainese cuisine. Combined with soy sauce, it infuses foods and sauces with a savory rather than sweet taste.
Thus the Shanghainese meal we prepared consisted of a fish with sweet and sour sauce, fragrant and spicy squid, and stir-fried greens.
The chef added sauce to stir-fried noodles.
Our instructor showed us how to use chopsticks for cooking and mixing.
THE “SQUIRREL-SHAPED” MANDARIN FISH
For this unusual-looking dish, Chef Huang deboned the fish and then sliced it on both sides in such a way that it curled up.
Not only does cutting it this way ensure that all the bones are gone and speed up cooking, but the fish also looks nice when plated.
Shrimp and vegetables were cooked separately, to be poured over the fish after frying it.
The dish’s name is derived from the way the fish is scored; it makes the flesh protrude outward, resembling the fur of a squirrel.
After heating the wok, Chef Huang deep-fried the de-boned fish until it was until golden and crispy.
Crispy fried fish, ready to be topped with sauce and vegetables.
I was surprised that the fish had the sweet and sour taste I always associated with Cantonese food.
CHINESE DIM SUM – MAKING DUMPLINGS
Each class teaches me something new; and knowing about the ingredients (their provenance and when they are in season) and the methods of cooking also adds to my appreciation of Chinese cuisine.
In a dim sum class, I tried again to make a perfectly formed dumpling. I’m getting better at it, but the instructors say to get it down pat takes five or six sessions. We’ll see.
Among the many types of dumplings the teacher demonstrated were four-happiness dumplings, hat-shaped dumplings, and the Shanghai specialty, Xiao Long Bao, also called “soup dumplings.”
The first step is mixing water and flour, and then kneading it to make dough.
Next, you roll out the dough, folding it over and over.
Third, roll the flattened dough up into a log.
Next, cut up the log. Cornstarch keeps it from sticking.
Finally, roll out each piece into an individual dumpling skin.
Chef Huang showed us how to make the dumpling filling.
My daughter Stephanie Lawrence and her friend Alix McLaughlin preparing the pork filling.
We received individual attention while the instructor helped us form little dumplings and pinch the tops to form a perfect bun. It’s not an easy task.
Afterward, we placed these perfectly formed dumplings in the traditional bamboo steamers to cook.
The steam cooks the dumplings in several minutes.
We gobbled up the freshly prepared hairy crab and dumplings yet had enough left over to take home and enjoy later.
After seeing how much work is involved, I now really appreciate why people recall so fondly memories of their grandmothers preparing special dumplings for the many Chinese holidays.
If you don’t speak Chinese, taking a cooking class is a clever way to learn how the locals shop and an opportunity to taste authentic Chinese cuisine instead of the Americanized takeout version we get in the West.
Everything we used was fresh from the market, we learned how to prepare genuine regional dishes, and, best of all, we had a lovely home-cooked lunch—a morning to savor!
GL JAPANESE PLAZA SUPERMARKET
While the produce looks good, the local markets are difficult for a foreigner to navigate. They’re crowded and the language barrier makes ordering and negotiating difficult. Sometimes it’s easier just to go to the supermarket and pay with a credit card!
So on my way home from class, I stopped at GL Japanese Plaza Supermarket in my Xintiandi neighborhood. This supersized store is filled with meats, fish, organic produce, and specialty items; Japanese ingredients, produce, and prepared foods; and other products from around the world.
Many expatriates shop here because of the huge selection and because we are concerned about food safety after recent food scandals with milk and cooking oil in China. We think imported goods are held to higher safety standards. I understand that this is one of the major concerns for the Chinese.
GL Japanese Plaza, which opened in my Xintiandi neighborhood only a few years ago, is a great place to shop and stock up.
As Shanghai is such a cosmopolitan city, the specialty store carries a wide selection of products from all around the world to serve a diverse clientele.
GL Japan stocks many Japanese fresh and frozen food items, some of which are already prepared.
Almost everything is cellophane wrapped, presumably for hygienic purposes.
I have no idea what the majority of the imported Japanese products are, since the packaging information is only in Japanese.
A hip Japanese couple shopping at GL Japanese Plaza.
Products from U.S. companies such as Dole are sold here too.
European products sold here include olive oil, which is not a staple of Chinese cooking.
The store even carries products for pets.
Of course, you can find a selection of Japanese sake to check off your list.
Photographs by Jeanne Lawrence.
*Urbanite Jeanne Lawrence reports on lifestyle and travel from her homes in San Francisco, Shanghai, and New York, and wherever else she finds a good story.