Wednesday, September 22, 2010

On mostly wheat-based foods

We begin with noodles, as we always should.

The famous fish noodles (黄鱼面) at A Niang noodle shop (阿娘面). The restaurant had been remodeled since the last time I lived in Shanghai, when the dining room was an open lot across the street from the kitchen and cash register. The prices appear to have kept pace with the upgrade in facilities: a bowl of noodles, plus salted collard greens and chili potatoes, cost me just under 30RMB, which is an astronomical per-capita rate for what remains in essence a street-food meal.

As I write this, I'm realizing how preoccupied I've been with how much or how little things cost in Shanghai. For some reason the experience of being here is heavily mediated by the prices of things.

Part of the assumed appeal of life in China is how inexpensive things are supposed to be, how cheap it is to buy food, pirated DVDs, or the labor of maids, cab drivers, or masseuses, and thus a lot of attention is bound to be paid to how that expectation is fulfilled or thwarted in practice. Another factor is that prices seem to reflect very closely both the pace and unevenness of socioeconomic development--within three years you see your favorite bowl of noodles jump in price, and you also see how that bowl of noodles is still a tiny fraction of the cost of an inferior meal in any upscale shopping mall.

Soup noodles with chili potatoes (辣酱面) and a side of fried pork loin, from the hole-in-the-wall noodle shop near the gate of my apartment complex. The pork curls upward and away from the oil during the frying process, forming a sort of crispy basin into which the chef deposits a ladleful of dark vinegar.

The owner of the restaurant is affable and wiry. He mostly perches on a little table outside the entrance where some of the regulars eat. He could tell right away that I wasn't familiar with the menu, and after recommending me the above meal, he noted with pride that people line up every day to eat at his shop. Apparently, the television drama Wo Ju (蜗居) had also featured his restaurant at some point. He pointed at a corner of the room where he'd served noodles to one of the show's protagonists.

Xiao Yang Shengjian (小杨生煎), just north of People's Square and among the most famous of Shanghai's pan-fried dumpling purveyors.

A source of great stress to the snack-seeking tourist is the bewildering and improvisitorial nature of the Shanghaiese food-ordering process. Some restaurants employ the order-eat-pay cycle, familiar to any Westerner, while others demand payment upon ordering or receipt of food. In many restaurants there is no obvious cashier or server, and you are left to approach the person in the room who appears most likely to work there and deliver to him or her your order.

At Xiao Yang's, you wait in line to place your order with the unimpressed and vaguely shrewlike cashier, who prints out a receipt, which you are then to display to various restaurant staff. By some managerial alchemy, your order eventually makes its way piecemeal to the relevant parties within the various kitchens designated for soups or dumplings.

Shengjianbao (生煎包/生煎馒头) are structurally similar to the more familiar xiaolongbao soup dumplings: a flour skin, filled with wad of pork and a greasy, salty brine. You also eat them using a similar method, first biting a small hole into the side of the dumpling and sucking out the soup, and then dunking the remainder into vinegar and consuming with hasty munches.

What makes shengjianbao distinct is their large size and crispy bottom skin, similar to potstickers.

Two lia (俩), or eight dumplings (10RMB), and a can of Wang Lao Ji (王老吉), a kind of soda version of herbal tea, marketed for its health benefits and spurious historical pedigree (5RMB). Note: this is too much for one person to eat.

Five shengjianbao down, three two go. By this time I am starting to feel sluggish, with dark shoots of regret sprouting in my mind that I wash away with another gulp of hypersweet Wang Lao Ji.

A lot of customers at Xiao Yang's are Cantonese-speaking tourists from Hong Kong, and who are by mainland standards almost obsequiously polite in their table manners, cautiously dipping their dumplings in small saucers of vinegar. But when I eat shengjian, I employ the local expediency of pouring a huge amount of vinegar over the entire platter, instead using the sauce dish as receptacle to catch any soup that squirts out from the dumpling.

Eight shengjianbao consumed at the end of a minor culinary marathon. Upon the conclusion of the meal, I received high-fives from Buddha, Jesus, and Abraham Lincoln, who arrived on a translucent 1964 Chevy Impala that could fly, although it just looked like it was driving through the air. I then staggered through the subway system and down the avenues toward my apartment and my bedroom, where I slept until past dinner time.

Incidentally, Xiao Yang's is directly across the street from Jiajia Tangbao, the soup dumpling restaurant I mentioned in my last entry. The latter should be strictly regarded as a brunch option--arriving after 11:30AM will guarantee a minimum wait of 30 minutes, and the dumplings will routinely sell out by 2PM.

Two fine gentleman relax at the park across the street from the posh Xintiandi shopping district.

A couple of days ago, I was sitting in roughly the same spot, choking down a few incredibly salty Xi'an meat pies I'd bought from a nearby stall. On the adjacent street there were a couple of guys loading a Lamborghini onto the bed of tow truck. The event was totally unexceptional to me, save for the fact that it seemed to mesmerize all passers-by. Office workers in the surrounding high-rises pressed their faces up against the glass. A tour group that had been moving through the park clustered on the sidewalk to take pictures. Old couples strolling past paused agog.

This went on for five or ten minutes, quite a long time when all you're doing is staring at something. Fancy sports cars are apparently still a spectacle in Shanghai, even in one of its most opulent corners.

1 comment:

  1. No surprise that sports cars are still a spectacle; not when Jesus, Buddha and Abe (which constitutes one hell of a trio) are driving a 1964 Chevy Impala.