Editor’s note: For the latest installment in our series First Stop, we asked Fuchsia Dunlop where she stops first for food when she heads to Shanghai.
Dunlop is a cook and food writer specializing in Chinese cuisine. She is the author of four books, including, most recently, Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking. She has won many awards for her work, including four James Beard awards, an IACP award, four awards from the British Guild of Food Writers and an award from the Hunan government. Her writing has been published in the Financial Times, The New Yorker, The Observer and The New York Times, and she is also a frequent pundit on Chinese food on BBC radio and television, as well as many other media outlets.
I’m incredibly fond of Old Jesse. I’ve been going there for nearly 10 years now and eat there every time I go to Shanghai. I just love their food. Shanghai is a melting pot, surrounded as it is by so many of China’s great cooking traditions and also with Western influences, and Jesse has a really representative selection of traditional Shanghainese food. They do a really incredible whole fish head with oil-roasted spring onions. You unwrap the fish from its tangle of caramelized onions to get these sticky, gooey bits. The red braised pork is excellent as well, and in autumn, they make a marvelous hairy crab with silken tofu. I love the seasonal vegetable dishes – one of the great strengths of Shanghainese cooking – like alfalfa sprouts stir-fried with potent rice wine, which gives the dish such a lovely fragrance, and the long, green shiny gourds with fresh fava beans and Jinhua ham, which is a home-style dish and absolutely simple.
So many restaurants in China are very big and commercial, but Jesse is a very tiny restaurant, noisy, chaotic and it’s harder to get in, but it’s still great to go with a group and try a whole assortment of dishes. It’s popular among locals and has been mentioned a lot, so you really have to reserve in advance. The service can be friendly – they’re very busy but the waiters know about the food and are helpful. However, it’s difficult if you don’t speak Chinese to get the best out of the waiters.
Shanghainese food sometimes has the reputation of being sweet and everything being covered in dark brown sauce. A friend of mine went [to Jesse] and ended up having a lot of dishes cooked in soy sauce and wine, but it’s important to balance the red braised pork dishes with the fresh vegetables and very refreshing veg appetizers. In Shanghai, it’s all about balance.