In Shanghai, robot restaurants (and grocery stores) were all anyone could talk about in 2019. Well, that and bubble tea shops. But we love that there are still thousands of mom-and-pop restaurants serving traditional foods that are handmade and well loved, if you know where to look.
So next time, skip that trendy, US$100-a-head hotpot joint where you still have to queue for an hour after your reservation has passed, and try your local noodle joint. Of course, you’ll probably scan the QR code on your table to order (and pay), and you won’t even chat to the staff until they put your dishes in front of you – after all, it is 2019 in one of the most tech-forward cities in the world.
Road trips in China are full of surprises. It’s 2019, so our trip to the countryside started with reserving the car via app, paying via WeChat, and having it dropped off directly at our apartment’s gate at the appointed time. Naturally, tolls are all payable via WeChat as well. The first snack stop at a highway rest area included steamed yams, tea eggs, a quick bowl of dumplings, paired with, regrettably, a giant screen on the main wall re-playing graphic videos of recent fatal car accidents – something akin to the cancer-depicting cigarette pack warnings, taken to a new level.
Our destination: Wuyuan Skywells, a recently opened boutique hotel in the countryside, about a five-hour drive from Shanghai. Located in a bucolic village, the property has been lovingly restored and transformed from a 300-year-old tea-trader family home into a 14-bedroom retreat by a Chinese-British couple. Rice fields dot the landscape, locals are bathing and cleaning fish for supper in the river, and water lilies dot the ponds and water features along meandering stone alleyways.
Arriving right at lunchtime, we sit down for a countryside feast that typifies the schism between fine city dining and rural. Read: real farm-to-table dining. There’s no menu, except for a chalkboard that reads, “You get what’s fresh from the market,” and we couldn’t be happier to hand over the decision-making reins. Though hard to choose a very best bite, we loved the steamed ribs with glutinous rice (糯米蒸排骨 nuòmi zhēng pái gu). The marinated ribs were steamed to perfection – the meat was falling off the bone and sticky rice was clinging to the pork in perfect culinary harmony.
The breakfast buffet every morning is a close runner-up with plenty of excellent bites. We loved the country potatoes mixed with mouth-puckering pickled long beans and chiles, steamed buns stuffed with wild greens so fresh you could taste the color (and vitamins), and a mix of other familiar Western items with local twists.
After the birth of my twins, Lucile and Henri, this year, the question of “where are you going to hold your 100 days celebration?” came quickly and often from local friends. The celebration is a popular tradition celebrated around Asia, harkening back to harsher times when babies often didn’t make it past early infancy. It can be simple or lavish, but the focus is on family, friends and food, regardless of the budget. With family flying in from abroad, and a mix of both local and immature palates to please (several members of my immediate family find black pepper too “spicy”), we decided on a shared meal at Yuan Yuan, a popular Shanghainese restaurant with several locations around town.
What Shanghainese cuisine lacks in spice (and often in respect from non-Shanghainese residents who find it too sweet, too fancy, too oily, portions too small, or some combination of all the above), it makes up for in sheer variety and its ability to highlight the natural flavors found in quality ingredients.
We settled into two round tables for 20 of our closest friends and family, and enjoyed a feast of sweet-and-sour mandarin fish, red braised pork belly, scallion noodles, garlic dry-fried river shrimp and many other Shanghai classics – not too spicy, not too familiar, and thankfully, not too expensive either. While the straightforwardly delicious scallion noodles might have been my Midwestern father’s favorite, mine was the steamed whole crab with Chinese jamon. The cured ham combined perfectly with the rich crab roe, and the light broth was slurpable when the delicate crabmeat (the whole crab had conveniently been cracked open in advance by the kitchen) had all disappeared.
For the first ever World Jianbing Day this past April (a holiday of our own creation), we set out to raise awareness of our favorite local street food and inspire others to try one wherever in the world they may be. While the Chinese diaspora and other jianbing-lovers and entrepreneurs have pushed the jianbing abroad at an increasingly feverish pace, the crackdown on street food in China has made it even harder to find it here consistently.
As the jianbing moves abroad, and closer to the mainstream, the snack inevitably evolves to local palates. Instead of a simple egg and crispy wonton in the middle, you may find five-spiced stewed pork belly as a stuffing at a food truck in Australia or a cumin lamb stuffing at a market stall in downtown London – undoubtedly delicious but straying from the original. Purists might call foul, but we decided to celebrate the jianbing in all its form. Which leads us to jianbing pizza.
Our friends at our favorite Shanghai pizza joint, Homeslice, decided to get in on the action by releasing a one-day-only pizza that captured the essence of jianbing in what had to have been a world’s first. The team added hoisin sauce to the tomato base and topped it off with cilantro and crispy wonton crackers. Optional toppings included pork floss and ham – it sounds odd, but it just plain worked. It’s certainly not “authentic” Italian pizza and has arguably a tenuous connection to Chinese jianbing. But dammit, it was perfect for the day, they sold out, and we can’t wait for them to do it again for the next World Jianbing Day on April 30, 2020.
– Kyle Long
Ningxia Wine Breakfast
It was barely past 9 a.m. in China’s wine country. Emma Gao had just finished her five-minute intro about her vineyard, Silver Heights, in the darkened, cool cellar when she turned to us and whispered conspiratorially, “Should we go drink some wine now?” She led us to their offices, a stack of shipping containers converted into a sheltered tasting room and a rooftop space with views across her lush 45 hectares of cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and merlot vines.
Gao started by pulling out three bottles, which quickly turned to six as she kept dancing down the stairs to pick up something else we just “had to try.” The surprise delights included thin sticks of twisted local bread that looked like Chinese grissini (made by the Hui Muslim community who call Ningxia home and work the vineyard), pears Gao plucked from her garden during one of her descents, and a platter of charcuterie and cheese (a remnant of her wine education in Burgundy). After an hour of snacking, drinking and chatting about all things local wine, she snatched the fullest bottle from the table, told us to grab our glasses, and led us down the stairs so we could meet the latest addition to the Silver Heights family: a foal who dines on the leaves of the vines.
We greeted the vineyard’s menagerie, which included shaggy goats which are fed the must of the grapes (Gao attributed their sleek and shiny hair to their diet), as well as donkeys, ducks and geese. Once we reached the marselan plot, the sun was directly overhead and Gao ripped a vine from the trellis and effortlessly fashioned a crown for our friend’s six-month-old to shield her delicate skin. Then she picked a bunch of grapes and encouraged us to eat them “correctly.” “Don’t pluck them off – bite directly into the whole bunch!” They were, by far, the most delicious grapes I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating.
After two months spent traveling through southeast Asia, my husband and I had one thing on our minds when our plane touched down at Pudong Airport: spicy Sichuan noodles. When we’re in Shanghai, we don’t go a week without our fix. And while the bun cha of North Vietnam and mohinga in Yangon had been delightful, we were in desperate need of wan za mian (fiery wheat noodles topped with spicy minced pork, golden cow peas, and wilted baby bok choy) and dan dan mian (a snack size portion of noodles mixed with douban jiang – a fermented fava paste – and chile sauce topped with umami-laden pork floss).
We sped through customs, grabbed our bags, and hopped in a taxi, placing our delivery order on the ele.me app as soon as we pulled onto the elevated highway headed into town. Our car pulled up to our lanehouse apartment just five minutes before our noodles did, and the next 10 minutes were spent slurping in glorious silence beside unpacked suitcases – our perfect welcome home.
It’s rare that typhoons actually hit Shanghai full on – in the 10 years of running food tours in Shanghai, we’ve only ever had to cancel tours due to typhoons twice. Once was this year when super typhoon Lekima made landfall just south of Shanghai, causing landslides in Zhejiang province and forcing evacuations along the coast.
My father, a meteorologist, warned me to stay inside to avoid flying debris and torrential rain, so when our friends invited us over for a typhoon party, we strapped on our scooter helmets before the brunt of the storm arrived and headed over to bunker down in their apartment in the former French Concession.
To create the ultimate Chinese typhoon party, they popped champagne and made the classic Cantonese “typhoon shelter” dish, burying purple cauliflower (instead of the usual whole crab) under mounds of fried garlic, cilantro and chile in honor of Lekima’s landfall. We brought the entertainment – a piano keyboard for a wine-fuelled impromptu KTV session where our voices rose to match the winds howling outside – to make sure the event was max Shanghai.
– Jamie Barys