Our resident China correspondent, Mike Knuppel, goes local wetmarket style in Shanghai and realizes the communion is, above all, about food.
You really don’t have to go far to experience the richness of Chinese culinary culture. Some of the best food in Shanghai is found not only in the 5 star Hotels, or the labyrinth Shanghainese restaurants with their private rooms replete with washroom, individual staff and faux Ming Dynasty décor, nor the myriad new ventures popping up daily, if not hourly.
For me, a mere stroll of 200 meters from work brings me to the Dong Xie Rd wet market, home to an eclectic bunch of local Chinese, some curious, some wanting to test out their English skills, but most simply locals going about their daily ritual; and it all centers around food. Whilst the local hairdressers are out the front singing group songs to motivate themselves, those ‘in the know’ duck into small dingy rooms where great food is created, day in day out.
This wetmarket is not unlike any of the ones you will find everywhere in Shanghai, if you venture out of your comfort zone and really embrace what is on offer. If you don’t, you miss out discovering, for example, THE best Hong Kong style dumpling soup one could possibly try. Made to order, by a husband and wife team, generous beyond belief, this brew of chicken stock, white pepper and garlic boasts a dozen plump, rich pork and shen jiang or ginger dumplings, cooked al dente and nursed by a generous helping of bok choy. Add some chilli…
When I first came here, I wondered what the heck the locals chatted about in the lift. I thought if I could pierce the elevator talk, I would somehow belong. You know what? My Shanghainese friends have oft told me they live to eat, and in any elevator all over town, the local conversation simply runs along the lines of what was eaten, and what’s to be eaten. No politics, no economics; I get that.
So, I’m doing lunch, local Shanghai style. Today, the market is brimming with fresh seafood and ten species of clams, freshly picked beans and broccoli, reds, purples, vegetables of all variety, glorious fruits like of which I have never seen. And I’m working up an appetite. I choose my fish: to be eaten now. Lovely little specimen we call Ji Yu, a species of small carp which is braised to soften its flesh, and cooked in a mix of hot spicy oil and cong, sizzling in a Si Chuan hot pot being fired in a wok. Flames lick out but my chef never blinks – a genius with a wok.
To accompany Ma La Tang, where one simply points out any ingredients for the Si Chuan stir-fry. Dao Dou, Jiang Dou, and snow peas, shredded carrot, ginger, mushrooms, onion and broccoli tossed with noodles and clams. Chef constantly adjusts the spice and salt…lots of powders thrown in, and not one measuring device to be seen. This is how I like to cook. I feel very at home.
I have some of the unleavened bread baked in a stone kiln, its dry texture a perfect foil for the oil in the two dishes. This is my idea of the long lunch.
Cooking time: 13 minutes
Rating: Let’s just say it was the best meal of the week
Cost: 40 RMB
Peeling a fresh ripe orange on the short trip back to work, letting the juice cleanse the palate, I kind of reflect on the simplicity, the joy of it all. No damn KFC here, no greasy salty fatty burgers or sausage rolls with a sachet of Masterfoods’ tomato sauce. Nope, just fresh food – caught, picked, ready to go.
The 200 meters at the London Olympics will be run in 19.32 seconds or thereabouts, most likely by that human machine, Usain Bolt. My trip is also 200 meters, a lot slower, and I’m not striving to get to any finish line. Slower the better…Blink and you’ll miss both.