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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Anatomy of a Chinese Lunch

Freshness is probably the single most important element in Chinese cuisine. When I walk around my aunt's neighborhood, I often see people on their way back home from the neighborhood food market, holding just enough groceries for a meal or two (unlike here in the US where we come out of the supermarket with a week's worth of groceries). My aunt shops at the food market at least once or twice a day.

The neighborhood produce market near my aunt's home is large and airy, easily the size of half of a football field. The good part is, I did not see any refrigerators so everything was fresh. Look at all the fresh produce!

My aunt and me...

Chinese ham vendor, Chinese ham is so much more flavorful and textured than American ham. It's really more akin to European proschiutto...

Now I know why eels are called eels cuz you wanna go eeeeeewwwweee when you see them.

I saw this chicken at the market, poor thing, it seemed resigned to its fate... please forgive us humans :-(

Lin Jiaos (lin horns), these are kind of like taro. They were once used to make a type of starch called lin flour.

Fresh pea shoots!

Molluscs galore.

These are called Tsengzi in Shanghainese and my aunt picked out the best and the chubbiest ones. So cute!

Next up, we went to my aunt's go-to Dazha crab vendor.

Here is how you pick out the best Dazha crab (they are about 10 Yuan each so better pick carefully). Make sure the back is full and chubby and turn the crab upside down, a fresh crab should flip over immediately.

Lastly, my aunt got some fresh pig kidneys from the butcher to make kidney flowers, one of my favorite dishes.

When we got home, the tsengzi...

and the pea shoots were soaked in water to rid of any impurities...

While my aunt washed the crabs one more time...

The hard part with kidneys is you have to carefully cut off the portions that store urine (the whitish parts). Dont' worry, they don't smell of urine or anything, but you need to cut them out. It's kind of complicated, then you need to score the kidney to give it a "flower" appearance.

The kidney slices are then thoroughly rinsed to rid of any impurities and are blanched in hot water.

Now, homemade sauce is drizzled on top. The sauce consists of sauteed spring onions and ginger, bean paste sauce, hot sauce, soy sauce, sugar, vinegar... somehow my aunt mixes them perfectly. If I were to do it, it'd be like the witch's brew or something.

I cannot tell you how delicious this is. The kidney slices are as tender as can be and the sauce complements the dish perfectly. I couldn't stop eating it!

Tsengzis are lightly sauteed with ginger and spring onions.

Look at them...

A close up... what I like most about tsengzis is that they are so tender, there is no rough or chewey spots at all.

This is no ordinary sauteed pea shoots. When I ate it, I noticed there was this extra fragrance to it... I asked my aunt for the secret formula and it is... maybe I'll tell you later, hehehe, I am evillll...

Oh yeah, the Dazha crabs are ready too! Look at the golden colors and the fat bellies, hehe, all mine!

Mmmmm, yummy crab roe and mustard, droooool... oh always remember to eat crabs with some ginger as crabs are cold in nature and you need something warm to counterbalance. Our sauce of choice is a mixture of Chinese balsamic vinegar, minced ginger and sugar.

We washed down all this yumminess with some home brewed grape wine -- btw, this has been aged for two years and is very strong (tasted 50% brandy, 25% wine and maybe 25% port). I felt all warm and fuzzy inside afterwards. Mmmm, time for a nappy. Life is so good!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Shanghai World Financial Center is Shanghai's newest skyscraper and the second tallest building in the world. Many Shanghainese do not like it due to feng shui reasons -- that it resembles a blade in the heart of Shanghai. But I do not care for all that feng shui foo-foo-ry. I think it is beautiful and I've got pictures to prove it. The other tower is Jinmao Tower -- I don't like it too much, maybe it's because I worked in it, and after one particularly difficult negotiation, I threw up in the conference room of what was then the most expensive office building in China.

Night time shots -- it's much prettier at night and what I like about it is, it looks different depending on the angle.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Shanghainese Pao Fan Breakfast

Traditional Shanghainese breakfast fares typically include little wonton soup, Xiao Long Bao (tho it's now more of an all day thing), fried dough (we Shanghainese like to dip our fried dough in light soy sauce)... But for at home, on the go breakfast, we eat Pao Fan (Soaked Rice) and Pao Tsai (Soaked Veggies)... My aunt makes her own Pao Tsai, here she is taking some Pao-ed spaghetti beans (very long string beans) and peppers out of her Pao Jar... it's a super cute jar, and it is sealed by pouring water around the edge of the cover.

Chop the pao-ed red peppers, spaghetti beans, and some fresh ginger...

Peel fresh soy beans. I peeled them! So proud of myself :-)

Now fry all of them together. Fry, fry...

Tada! Isn't this beautiful? Glistening soy beans, sweet soury spaghetti beans, sweet and spicy red peppers... this is the kind of yummy xiao tsai (little dish) that you will never get in restaurants.

Now, get some homemade Pao Ginger (it's crispy, gingery, sweet and sour all at once, make sure you use very young ginger, otherwise it gets fibery), Pao Daikon/Cucumber (also homemade), and some Pao Rice, and you have your traditional Shanghainese Pao Fan Breakfast. I supplemented my Pao Fan with some sour milk (ie Chinese yoghurt). See the bottle with the Chinese words "bright"? That's freshly home delivered sour milk.

Mi Tu Ha

Upon my arrival in Shanghai, my aunt made one of my favorite dishes -- Mi Tu Ha (or Mian Tuo Shia in Mandarin or Flour Drag Crab in English). I used to have this dish all the time when I was little, so brought back many fond memories... Here are the Dazha Shia (or Hairy Crabs) we got from the local market. They look just like spiders!

The crabs are cut in half, sorry crabbies, then dipped in flour.

They are fried first with the battered side down, then chopped ginger, soy sauce, sugar, Shaoshing cooking wine, and other seasonings are added. My aunt varied the recipe a bit by throwing in a little nian gao.

Here it is, the final product! IMO, one of the major flaws of American Chinese cuisine is the excessive sauce... actually most Chinese dishes only have enough sauce to coat the underlying ingredient. Here it is just perfect, when I bite into it, the slight sweetness, gingery-ness, soy saucey-ness and gooey-ness complement the natural flavors of the crabs perfectly.

A close up... look at the golden delicious roe, if I could only reach into my computer and grab it and eat it!

Hot Pot in Back Lake

Front and Back Lakes are two artificial lakes near the Forbidden City connected by a tiny canal. This is the view from the quieter Back Lake.

Back in the days, Manchurian royals used to frolick on the lakes, but now they are lined by restaurants...


and lotus leaves...

But our mission there was not to learn history (or to check out Sex and Da City), but to visit one of the best hot pot places in Beijing!

Here people are dining al fresco in the courtyard of the restaurant.

This is the special Mongolian hot pot ... it is heated by charcoal and you can control the fire by opening and closing the top vent.

This is the house specialty: freshly made fish paste, and it is put into the pot using a device typically used for decorating cakes... it is so good though.

The waitress skimming off the impurities, such good service.

So we dined on yummy lamb, beef, seafood, veggies, tofu, with an assortment of side dishes, under a light breeze and the reflection of the Anding Gate, life can't get any better than this.