A Shanghainese dream

An August Saturday night in a flat in Wapping, East London… and I was privileged to share the best Chinese meal I’ve ever had outside China. A Shanghainese friend emailed me some time ago to say that his mother would be visiting from China and cooking dinner, and would I like to come? Now, anyone who has lived in China could tell you that the best home-cooked food can be better than anything you can taste in a restaurant, but this was extraordinary. My friend’s mother had flown over from Shanghai with a suitcase full of dried vegetables and seasonings. When we arrived at the flat, the table was already covered in little dishes of Shanghainese appetisers: sour-and-hot Chinese cabbage, green soybeans with ‘snow vegetable’, fried sea moss and peanuts, home-made pickles, wheat gluten with shiitake mushrooms (烤麸), pig’s tongue steeped in fermented rice liquor… an incredible array. So the five of us began to eat, and every few minutes my friend’s mother would emerge from the kitchen with another dish: pieces of deep-fried grouper with a vinegar dip; stir-fried prawns; steamed pork belly with Shaoxing dried vegetables; sea bream in a sweet-and-sour sauce; stir-fried spinach… And everything, just everything, was utterly delicious, expressing the essential nature (本味) of the ingredients, perfectly balanced and perfectly cooked. After we’d enjoyed the main dishes, there were noodles in spring onion oil, pot-sticker dumplings and a delicate soup. I counted 23 dishes in all, which would be a large number in a restaurant, let alone in a private home. And aside from the food, the company was delightful, and we drank beautiful wines, and, as a digestif, a fine Taiwanese tea. As I assured my hosts would be the case, I have remembered that dinner ever since almost as a dream…

11 Responses to “A Shanghainese dream”

  1. David Ockey

    It’s so amazing that in this day in age that there are still so many wonderful, unknown dishes that are out there. Makes me want to visit Shanghai!

  2. Fuchsia

    The dishes that ARE known outside China are really just the tip of the iceberg

  3. CrunchyNut

    To produce 23 dishes in a private home is extraordinary! I love everything on the menu! They are typical home cooking from the Yangtze delta.

    BTW,I don’t think the dishes known outside China are “tip of the iceberg”. How a dish gets to known outside China is probably to do with the immigrants and availability of ingredients.It’s also to do with what people outside China would accept. Take Twice Cooked Pork,for example, it is the most stable dish of a Sichuanese family, yet it is much less know abroad than Ma Po Tofu or Hotpot. There are many great dishes in Beijing that represent the essence of Lu Cuisine, yet people abroad only know about Peking Duck.

    Cooking of the Yangtze delta region is all about the original flavour and freshness of the ingredients. We use a lot of freshwater fish/shellfish that is difficult to transport to elsewhere. To cook a dish using very simple flavouring sometimes requires more skill than cooking with complex spices. Plus, I found a lot of Chinese people’s taste buds are numbed by too much salt and MSG. They simply think food from Yangtze delta is bland. I was told there used to be a great Shanghainese restaurant in London that serves very authentic 腌笃鲜. It closed down a few years later, due to lack of business. There aren’t that many people from the Yangtze delta region in the UK compared to people from other parts of China, which is probably why Shanghainese cooking is less known. You also notice in Chinese shops, there aren’t many Shanghainese ingredients. For example, I have never seen fermented wine liquor, or Shaoxing dried vegetables, or dried baby bamboo call 扁尖. In places like California or Madrid, on the other hand, are full of people from our region. Even some of the Westerners living there know about these regional dishes.

  4. Fuchsia

    CrunchyNut – I think you may have missed my meaning in ‘tip of the iceberg’!

  5. CrunchyNut

    Fuchsia, I’m sorry if you feel offended. I don’t mean so.

  6. Fuchsia

    not in the least offended! just thought you might have misunderstood me

  7. Laura Scott

    After reading this i think i need to make a concerted effort to befriend someone with Chinese heritage in the hope of discovering what the real food of China tastes like! It all sounds too good to be true.
    Also, I have to tell you that I am 2/3rds the way through Sharks fin & Sichuan pepper. It is so wonderful. I have always had a fascination with both China & Japan for their food and culture. You really have me captivated!

  8. John Weagle

    What a meal! Any chance you could tell us how to make fried sea moss and peanuts? Sounds as if it might be sinple but where to start….

  9. David

    Where can I get the Sichuan Pepper in the UK which may be purchased over the web as I live in a rural location. I don’t see it on the coolchile web site! Anybody?

  10. Monica

    Dear Fuchsia,
    this morning I was thinking of you and of the wonderful meal my son and I enjoyed at the London restaurant you recommended. We are still dreaming of it! Your description of the fantastic home-cooked meal you had remembered me of a film by an Italian director, Pupi Avati, describing a traditional Italian luncheon for the engagement of two young people … a part of our history (Storie di ragazzi e ragazze)! The film shows also the consequences of a 20-course luncheon of a traditional Italian cuisine (based on meat!)! I am sure you felt better. Regarding the wine… I am waiting for you in Piedmont. Bye and … kisses please, we’re British. Monica

  11. John Weagle

    David – Try The Spice Shop on Portobello Road in London. Browse on Sichuan when you land on their website.

    john in coastal Nova Scotia

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