It’s not every day that you find a former national volleyball champ in the kitchen, but that’s just the case with Lu Dajie (aka “Big Sister” Lu) and her eponymous restaurants. After a successful career with the Chinese military’s volleyball team, followed by years working in restaurants for others, she left her hometown of Jianyang in Sichuan province with her brother, bringing her region’s famous cuisine with her. Now, in Shanghai, she is slowly building an empire.
Having started off two years ago with a small shop located well outside central Shanghai, Lu recently opened a newer, bigger and slightly fancier restaurant much closer to the city’s downtown residents. Thankfully, the suburban prices are intact in the newer location, and an array of dishes and beers for two people will only set you back about RMB 80 ($13).
Look around the dining room and you’ll see a bowl of steaming goat soup on every table. The restaurants ship the meat in from Sichuan, ensuring an undeniably unique and tasty meal. Once Lu Dajie’s daughter’s boyfriend tasted the family’s goat soup in Sichuan, he sensed a market just waiting to be tapped, and it was he who convinced Lu to come to Shanghai. Not only does Lu still use the same recipe that’s been passed down from her ancestors, but she personally stews all of the meat for the soups herself.
But the story behind the region’s famous “big-ear goats” is almost as unbelievable as the nuanced flavors they lend to Lu’s soup. According to the restaurant’s staff, the Jianyang variety of goat can be traced back to Soong Mei-ling, one of a famous trio of Chinese sisters who wielded great political influence over their husbands during the early 20th century. Along with other impressive accomplishments of their own, the eldest sister was the wife of the richest man in China at the time (he was also the finance minister), while the second married Sun Yat-sen, the first president of the Republic of China. The youngest, Soong Mei-ling, married Chiang Kai-shek, Sun Yat-sen’s successor and the Nationalist Party ruler who was exiled to Taiwan when the Communists took control of mainland China in 1949.
All three Soong sisters attended Wesleyan University, and the story goes that Soong Mei-ling returned from America with Nubian goats, which, when bred with the local Chinese herds, produced a smaller but heartier animal with atypically large ears and perfectly fatty meat. Legend or not, the thick slabs of tender goat meat taste great when mixed in a savory broth and stewed bone-in for at least six hours, resulting in a luxuriantly rich and almost creamy soup. Opt for a bowl (羊肉汤, yángròu tāng), with a handful of cilantro thrown in to zest it up, or try the larger hotpot version (羊肉汤锅, yángròu tāngguō), which has a variety of veggies and noodles floating about.
A Sichuan dining experience is incomplete without the addition of a few numbing peppercorns. The use of crushed huā jiāo (花椒) in the cold noodles (凉面, liáng miàn), which are tossed with chili oil, peanuts, green onions and beansprouts, makes the dish equal parts subtle and addictive; the cold temperature and warming spiciness are the perfect contrast on either a cold or hot day. Another appetizer not to be missed is the Sichuan sausage (四川香肠, sìchuān xiāngcháng). With just a hint of crushed peppercorn, this dish’s slow burn and salty fatty bits left us drooling for more – and reaching for a bottle of cold Tsingtao beer. In addition to the large variety of classic stir-fry dishes, the chili oil wontons (红油抄手, hóngyóu chāoshǒu) are simply divine. Little pockets of minced pork meat are drowned in a bowl of flavorful and spicy oil, cilantro and chili flakes, resulting in slippery nuggets of heaven that have us dreaming up our next trip to Sichuan.
Although summertime isn’t typically the season for eating goat meat (in Traditional Chinese Medicine it’s considered a yang, or warming food, and is best consumed when the temperatures drop), the beauty of visiting Lu’s place now is that there are no long waits for a table. It will also give you time to get on a first-name basis with Lu and her friendly staff by the time the wintertime chills set in. We recommend the newer location, which is a bit more central, with better upkeep. Best of all, it’s where you are most likely to catch a glimpse of Big Sister working in the kitchen.
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