April 2014: Eating in China

After a week in Hong Kong, my father, brother and I flew to Shanghai (K joined us there) for the main purpose of our trip – to see my mother’s side of the family and mark the one year anniversary of my mother’s passing. We hadn’t been back since then, so it was understandably a very emotional time. Every little thing seemed to trigger my grandmother’s tears – my jade necklace (originally Mum’s, I’ve taken to wearing it instead), talk of my upcoming wedding, the mere mention of my mother’s name.

The visit was emotionally overwhelming, but I think it was important that we went back as the one fear that my mother’s family has is that we’ll stop going back and visiting them now that Mum’s no longer with us. As country folk without passports (my grandparents live two and a half hours out of Shanghai in a village near Ningbo), my grandparents are unlikely to ever come out and visit us in Australia. It’s entirely up to us to go back and visit, and I do hope that I can go back every couple of years. One bonus to the family visit is that I’m always guaranteed wonderful food whenever I’m there!

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My aunt (mum’s sister) owns a business selling nightwear and thermal wear in the wholesale markets near Yuyuan Gardens in Shanghai. She lives in the streets nearby in a single room on the third-floor of an old rickety wooden building hidden in the back alleyways that tourists would never be able to find. The toilets are communal, and showers consist of a wet cloth in a kettle of boiled water, washing standing up. It’s a standard of living that most of us here in Australia could never even imagine.

Yet, what people like my aunt lack in home comforts, they make up for in community connections and excellent dining. On our way to one of her favourite local eateries, my aunt is greeted by two dozen different people and introduces me to them. I got very used to people staring at me and saying “Oh, this is the niece from Australia”. When we sit down to lunch, plate after plate of delicious fried dumplings and fried pork buns come out to our table, sent by my aunt’s friend who owns the small stall. All home-made, hand-wrapped, and cooked on a giant hotplate a metre in diameter, I find myself devouring dumpling after dumpling.

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The xiao long bao come out as well, each with paper-thin skins and a mouthful of hot fatty pork soup. The xiao long bao at this tiny stall down a side street are far superior and far cheaper than the ones that most tourists have at the famous shop in the Yu Gardens. Not for the first time, I silently give thanks that I have family locally who know where to go!

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No visit back to Shanghai is complete without a big banquet dinner though, full of weird and wonderful things for us to try. One of these was a simple dish of tiny sea snails, soaked in a soy-based sauce. To eat it, you had to pick out the snail flesh with a toothpick as it was quite hard and chewy.

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Everyone was served an individual portion of a clear egg drop soup with crab meat. An extremely simple dish, designed to cleanse the palate between the stranger dishes.

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One of these stranger dishes was this dessert. At first I thought it was quite innocent – I was served half a paw paw with part of its flesh scooped out, filled with a crunchy jelly-like substance, and topped with coconut milk and sugar syrup. So there I am, happily eating my dessert when my father finally decides to tell me what it actually is – frog. fallopian. tubes. I was eating frog fallopian tubes, in a paw paw, covered with coconut milk. Apparently this dish is supposed to boost fertility, an important consideration for my very traditional family given that I’m due to be married later this year and obviously marriage = babies right?!

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After the shock of some of those dishes, I needed something a little more mainstream and boring for my next meal. My brother at that point had also been suffering with an upset stomach for a few days, presumably because his delicate Westernised stomach wasn’t used to the meals that we were having. I decided to take him to a Chinese-Italian restaurant for some simple pasta dishes that might help to settle his stomach. Talk about fusion cuisine! His ravioli were more like dumplings.

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And the sauce for my clam spaghetti was most definitely straight out of a can. Don’t even get me started on the side salad we ordered, which was so pitiful in appearance that I didn’t even deign to take a photo of it. The meal was very disappointing which really just goes to show – don’t bother trying cheap fusion Italian food in China when you can just have delicious street food instead!

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I love wandering around supermarkets when I’m overseas as well, and was delighted to find these delicious Tim Tam Wafers, marked clearly on the back with “Not for sale in Australia”. I’m a Tim Tam fanatic, and it was great to try a new version that apparently I can’t find here locally!

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After a week and a half of travelling and eating out though, nothing really beats a home-cooked meal. My uncle used to be a chef in a restaurant, and he still loves cooking now. Pictured in the photo is: 1) frog with capsicum, 2) sauteed broad beans, 3) prawns with ginger, 4) fried crabs, 5) tofu with century egg, 6) beef strips with garlic shoots, 7) pork with shredded celery and 8) fish fillets. All this for six people!

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Once we took the bus down to my grandmother’s village, another of my uncles took us out for a fancy lunch at one of the hotels nearby. The point of difference with this restaurant? Rather than ordering from a menu, you pick your dishes from a display of mock dishes set up in an exhibition hall as you enter.

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You can pick your seafood directly as well, either off the ice or from one of the many tanks along one side of the hall, and request for it to be cooked a certain way.

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And if you’re in the mood for something a little bit different, make your selection from a couple of live snakes in cages and get it butchered, cooked, and delivered to your table. (For the record, we didn’t!)

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Fifteen years ago, the village square outside my grandmother’s house was parked full of bicycles. These days, most people keep their electric scooters in their houses, and the village square has been turned into a marketplace where all the migrant workers from other parts of China (renting rooms in my grandmother’s village in order to work in the large factories around the area) do all their daily shopping and pick up a few snacks as well. Other migrant workers choose to provide services and go into business for themselves rather than work in factories – this husband and wife duo churn out dozens of yao za gui every hour, made from scratch.

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Oh, and another reason we went back to China to see my mother’s family? It wasn’t just to mark the one year anniversary of my mother’s passing, but also to take the opportunity to celebrate K and my engagement with family members who would never be able to to make it to Australia for our wedding later in the year. We held a full-blown mock Chinese wedding service with a wedding banquet for 100 of my extended family members. K wore a suit, I wore a wedding dress, I had my hair and makeup done, there was a band, and fireworks and firecrackers, and a red carpet…crowds of villagers turned out to see us get paraded throughout the village. Another blog post to come soon on these celebrations!

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So one of the many somewhat embarrassing things about me is that no matter how selective and sophisticated my palate becomes (not very!), one of my downfalls is ultimately the McDonald’s soft serve. It’s my kryptonite. I love it, and I crave it when I haven’t had it for a few weeks. It’s just so artificial and satisfying! I love the soft serve options in China as well – they always have more interesting options than just plain vanilla. This one is green tea and vanilla, but I’ve also tried taro, red bean and black sesame. All delicious!

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Seven or eight years ago, I spent two consecutive summers in Shanghai studying the Chinese language at the Shanghai International Studies University. It was an amazing experience – organised through Monash University, I went with dozens of my fellow Chinese Studies students and while we did study hard, there was also a lot of fun and a lot of partying. I actually ended up holding the record for the most consecutive nights spent out partying and hitting up the clubs – seventeen nights and way too many drinks and drunken dances. I don’t know if that record’s been broken since my time in the course!

Anyway, one of the most enduring memories of my clubbing nights in Shanghai are the lamb skewer vendors, most of whom are Muslim and come from the Xinjiang region in the west of China. They station their skewer stands outside of the nightclubs and bars, and offer their hot coal-cooked skewers to people stumbling out in the early hours of the morning. Forget kebabs and souvlakis from Kings Cross after a big night out – lamb skewers in Shanghai is where the best dirty drunken food is at!

With lamb skewers and lots of other street food on one of our final nights in Shanghai, K and I prepared ourselves for a week in Seoul, free from family and without any family obligations.

Coming up – recap of my eating experiences in Seoul! You might also be interested in my eating experiences in Hong Kong.

One thought on “April 2014: Eating in China”

  1. Wow!! What a massive foodie adventure! Sounds like a special trip too and nice that your extended family can celebrate your wedding ahead of time with you and your fiance. I can’t wait to read up about your actual wedding this year :D

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