Shanghai to Hangzhou - Eastern Chinese Food

Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
Trip End Aug 10, 2007

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Flag of China  , Shanghai,
Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Shanghai and eastern China have a specific cuisine that is not too well known among foreigners since it's rarely featured in Chinese restaurants in America and Europe.  We're generally familiar with Cantonese/southern food with its dim sum and dishes in mild sauces, spicy/peppery/garlicky central and western cuisine with dishes named Szechuan, Hunan, and Kung Pao, and northern wheat noodle and steamed bun based food that makes good use of meat and tends to be rich and oily. 

Eastern style food tends to use rather few spices but makes good use of sweet and sour flavors, abundant seafood, and baking and braising techniques that aren't used too extensively in other regional Chinese cuisines.  Being near to the ocean but also criss-crossed by canals and dotted with large lakes, it's no wonder Shanghainese cuisine prominently features seafood, with both ocean and freshwater varieties of fish, crab, shrimp, eels, and molluscs often constituting half the dishes on the menu.  If price is any indicator, the head must be the best part of a fish, since so many high priced dishes have fish head as the main ingredient.  It wasn't the season for Shanghai's famous hairy crabs, but I did try a few other local favorites including something called "Lakefood Soup", a thick seafood soup made entirely from freshwater fish, crustaceans, and molluscs, Bok Choy with Crab Sauce, and "Squirrel Mandarin Fish", a whole fish whose flesh is cross-hatch scored, then lightly battered and deep fried whole so it puffs up, served with a sweet and salty sauce. 

I found a rather nice small restaurant just off Nanjing Road (the main pedestrian shopping street in Shanghai) that had a fully translated menu with lots of pictures, a very fortunate thing to come across.  English translations of menus usually feature some great Chinglish and are often hilarious, other times just strange.  For example, this place featured:

Chengdu Saliva Chicken

Jellyfish Head With Radish

Salted Duck Gizzards

Homely Bean Curd

Stewed Hairtail

Grilled Bullfrog

Dork, perhaps a miraculous Chinese cross between something that goes "Oink oink!" and something that goes "Quack quack", makes many appearances of Chinese menus, as do "Lamp" and "Crap".  Meanwhile, other dishes listed on Chinese menus leave you wondering "What on earth could this possibly be?"  Some examples from the same menu include:

Thickened Black Mass

Joss Stick Spinach Murmur Meat

Living to Explode the Shan to Carry on the Back

The Hair Blood is Prosperous

Hunt Eight to Kick Football

Frailly Skin Seafood Winding

Black Hot Pepper Cowboy Bone

Meat Floss Salad

Delicious Soup in Marmite (this made me wonder if the Chinese found a culinary use for that salty black British sludge named Marmite that's always stocked on Dragoman trips)

I decided to have "The Grandmother Meat Braise in Soy Sauce Style" because I've never easten grandmother before.  Grandmother turned out to be surprisingly tender for such an obviously old animal, came covered in the same sweet, sticky brown sugar/soy/vinegar sauce as many Shanghai dishes, and tasted remarkably like pork (which is what I think it was).

The menu at this place was so much fun and the prices so reasonable I decided to return again, this time for "The Stem Burns the Whitewater Fish", a whole fish cooked with the same sauce as the grandmother meat with a few chili peppers thrown in, and Razor Clams (called Shenson) in a spring onion and ginger sauce.

The entertainment continued for me a few days later on Putuo Shan when I discovered such seafood delicacies as "Deep Fried Couch" and "Steamy Big Muscle" on a menu.  Although common elsewhere too, it seemed that every restaurant on Putuo Shan had an adjacent garage-like room filled with tanks and buckets full of all types of fish and molluscs and underwater creepy crawlies from which the diners pick their own meal.  "Hey, the fish that arrived on my plate was smaller than the one I picked out in the tank.  No Fair!"

Th eastern style of cuisine typical of Shanghai and the coastal islands is also characteristic of Hangzhou.  Nevertheless, like many places in China, Hangzhou has some of its own local specialties, foremost among which is local West Lake Carp in Sweet Chili Sauce, made with carp raised in Hangzhou's West Lake.  Better yet is Hangzhou Beggars' Style Chicken, a whole chicken that's lightly salted, wrapped in lotus leaves, and baked in a clay covering.

On a night with an especially auspicious full moon over West Lake, I decided to got to the lakeside Lou Wai Lou ("Tower Beyond Tower") Restaurant, Hangzhou's most famous eating establishment, to try a few more of the local delicacies for which it is renowned.  Lou Wai Lou was founded in 1848 and is a place where important people in Chinese history ranging from Sut Yat-Sen to Zhou Enlai frequently entertained their guests.  The menu was full of such interesting-sounding dishes as Smoked Duck Tongue, Steamed Goose Liver, Dried River Eel, Preserved Jellyfish, Boiled Turtle with Chinese Herbs, Double Boiled Snow Frog in Papaya, Hairy Crabs, Wild Turtle, Treasure Crab, and Fried Gingko.  Some of the exotic but intriguing concoctions containing birds' nests, abalone, sea cucumber, and shark's fin had some appeal but were a little too rich for my budget.  After studying the menu for so long my waitress lost interest in me and assumed I must just be sitting in the restaurant to enjoy the air conditioning, I finally decided on my personal menu de Degustation:

Shaoxing Wine (a strong brown fortified wine similar to sherry from the nearby city of Shaoxing)

Traditional Fried Goose Liver (my first foie gras ever - what's all the fuss about?)

Deep Fried River Eel With Shrimp (good fish but I've had my fill of the syrupy sauce it's covered with)

Dong Po Style Braised Pork (pork belly in sweet sauce with some delicious morsels of meat between the fat)

Hangzhou Beef Soup (thicked with cornstarch and a bit sour and peppery)

West Lake Lotus Roots (cold and candied, a lot like sweet potatoes), and

Fried Celery With Lily Bulb (quite adventurous since I thought lily bulbs, at least the varieties I used to grow in my garden, are mildly poisonous.  I survived)
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