Saturday, September 13, 2014

For the Love of Xiaolongbao

From the time I moved to Shanghai, I have been obsessed with Shanghainese Soup Dumplings, aka Xiaolongbao.  Xiaolongbao is the perfect marriage of pasta, meatballs, and soup.  They are usually presented scalding, in a bamboo steamer.  After a five to ten minute wait, it is safe to puncture the translucent pasta skin, suck out the meaty broth, and savor the remains with a little vinegar. 

The perfect xiaolongbao has a delicate pasta shell and a juicy, meaty inside.  This is the ultimate Chinese comfort food.
The flavor of the xiaolongbao is enhanced with Chinese vinegar.  
If you haven’t eaten Xiaolongbao, I highly recommend stopping by Din Tai Fung, or another dumpling restaurant to try them out.

My favorite Xiaolongbao joint is Linlong Fang in the Dapuqiao Metro Station.  One can get 12 xiaolongbao for 12RMB.  (That's about $2.00 USD)  Places like Din Tai Fung are a tad pricer.
One of my biggest fears of repatriating is I will be deprived of this amazing dish.  For the last two years, I have been asking my local friends how to make Xiaolongbao so I will be able to eat them anytime anywhere, and they have always given me the same response,

“Xiaolongbao is so difficult to make.  I’m sorry, I can’t help you.” Or “If you learn how to make them, please show me how.”

So, Chris signed us up for an advanced Xiaolongbao class at The Kitchen At so we will never be without.  I have to tell you, making Xiaolongbao is that tricky.  I hope I am able to recreate what we learned.  Here’s how we did it.

First we mixed 200g of flour and 100 ml of cold water to make the wraps.  It was extremely important for this mixture to be well mixed.  Otherwise the xiaolongbao wrappers would be too dry. 
Then we covered the dough and let it rest for about 30 minutes. 
While the dough rested, we combined 250g ground pork belly, 30g ginger, 5g salt, 30g sugar, a dash of white pepper, sesame oil, and soy sauce.
We then "whipped the meat" by kneading the mixture and throwing it in a metal bowl.  This process was extremely messy!  Ground pork flew all over our recipe and workspace. 
When the mixture felt "glutinous", we added 50ml of water until and continued mixing until it felt "glutinous" again.  We repeated this process once.
After the water had absorbed, we added 100g of pork skin jelly to the mixture.  In case you were wondering, pork jelly is made of pork skin, chicken feet, lean pork leg, shiitake mushrooms, water, spring onions, ginger, yellow rice wine, and salt.  It takes at least 6 hours to cook and even longer to chill.  After I read this part of the recipe, I knew there was a slim chance of this dish ever being recreated in my home. I'm not that gifted of a chef.
After we gently combined the pork jelly with the meat mixture, we grabbed our dough and started to make xiaolongbao wrappers.
We rolled the dough into long logs.

Then we snapped pieces of dough off the log to make little dough balls.  
We rolled the balls into wrappers...
...and stuffed them with the meat mixture.

Then we pinched the dough in special folds to finish the dumplings.

I was quite proud of my first two xiaolongbao!
These were the instructor's xiaolongbao.
These were my xiaolongbao.  I think they were the ugliest xiaolongbao I have ever seen. 

After 6 minutes in the steamer, the xiaolongbao were ready to eat!!!  They were pretty tasty, but restaurant xiaolongbao is MUCH tastier.

Needless to say, it is MUCH easier and cheaper to buy Xiaolongbao than make them from scratch.  However, it is comforting to know I could hypothetically make these in the States.  In the meantime, I will stick with Linlong Fang and Din Tai Fung for my Xiaolongbao fix!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Not Your Ordinary Cup of Joe

One of the perks (pun intended) of living in Shanghai is there are an abundance of coffee shops.  In my new hood, it seems like there are Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Pacific Coffee, and McDonalds around every corner.  While they don’t serve the Pumpkin Spice Lattes, they do serve many coffee beverages that I can find at home. 

If you are in need of a quick caffeine fix, check out your local Starbucks.  I know Delivery Hero delivers Starbucks, however the wait time is usually pretty lengthy and the website is in Mandarin.

Most Starbucks sell many of the same beverages found in the US, however they frequently add seasonal drinks that appease local palates. 
While my tall, caramel Frappuccino takes care of my caffeine needs; sometimes it’s fun to branch out to see the good, the bad, and the absurdly themed coffee shops.  If you prefer a little adventure with your caffeine, check out some of these joints.

The Old Film Café
I am a sucker for a good movie, so when I heard of the Old Film Café in Hongkou, I had to check it out.   The café wasn’t quite what I expected.

When we reached the statue of Charlie Chaplin, we knew we were at the right place.

We also had a good time looking at old movie props.
Many of the cafe descriptions said the owners play old movies on TVs around the cafe.  While we sipped, a very garbled version of the original Pride and Prejudice was on our TV.
The Gone With the Wind like seating was quite comfy.
The menu contained all sorts of amusing drinks.  
I enjoyed my creamsicle like "a phrase used for praising a pretty girl".   
My friend's green tea smoothie was more like a green tea snowcone.  It was pretty yummy.
 When dining here, be sure to check out all of the silver screen snapshots on the walls.

221B Baker Street
This summer I became hooked on the BBC Series Sherlock.  On Rujin Er Lu near Fuxing Zhong Lu, there is a coffee shop for everyone who has become Sherlocked.  My friends and I had a great time checking out everything Sherlock Holmes over a pot of tea.

This gift shop/ coffee shop is perfect for Sherlock addicts. 
The interior of the coffee shop is a replica of Holme's flat on 221B Baker Street.  It was fun to point out artifacts from the show.
The rooms had props and pictures from many different Sherlock Holmes movies and TV programs.
After ordering, our number came attached to a Holmes like top hat.
My friend's latte came with the 221B logo.
Sherlock's violin sits in the corner of the cafe.
Vampire Coffee
I wanted to indulge my darker side, so I visited Vampire Coffee.  Instead of being spooked, I ended up laughing at the bizarre assortment of food and beverages in this tiny, dark watering hole.

Vampire Coffee was more silly than scary. 
We had a great time eating the gothic themed treats like these shortbread and almond witches fingers that were garnished with ketchup.
The gingerbread bat cookies were pretty tasty.
The chocolate coffin cake was the highlight of our snack. 
My blood bag beverage tasted remarkably like a cherry Capri Sun.  I never thought I would've enjoyed drinking from a blood bag. 
In case you wanted to know a little more about Vampires, the blood bag gave a great explanation.
Central Perk
If you are a fan of the 90’s TV sitcom Friends, it is crucial to check out Central Perk.  Chris and I had a great time reliving our college days while watching Ross and Rachel debate if they were really on a break.  Check out this post from last May for more details.

The next time you are looking for a good cup of coffee, I highly suggest branching out to one of these themed cafes!  There’s nothing like a good beverage in a great environment!

For directions to the cafes, click on the links below:

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Fine Dining: The Chinese Banquet or Business Dinner

When doing business in China, it’s advisable for one to be prepared for the all important business dinner.  Chinese folks put great value on guanxi, or personal connections, and many people believe that eating is one of the best ways to develop corporate relationships. 

One shouldn’t tread blindly into these meals, so here is my informal primer on attending the Chinese banquet.
Last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending some dinners while on Chris' group outing to Qiandao Hu.  

Many times clients or companies will take you to the "most famous" restaurant in town.  This restaurant specialized in fish head soup.  Each fish used in the soup was so special that it came with its own barcode. 

Before Dinner

Punctuality is key.  Make sure to arrive to the meal on time.  The Chinese are usually on a schedule when eating, and don’t value fashionable tardiness.

You and your colleagues will more than likely eat in a private room called a baojian.  Dinners are usually held in baojians so diners can be noisy without disturbing other patrons.  A noisy dinner is a successful dinner.

Diners usually sit around large, round tables with even numbers of place settings.  (It is bad luck to have an odd number of people at the tables.)  When you arrive, don’t immediately sit down; wait to be shown where to sit.  The host or most important person usually sits facing the door, and the second most important or assistant will sit in the seat closest to the door so he or she can discreetly pay the bill. 

Our table was ready in our baojian. 
At the dinner, don't dig in until the host starts eating. 
When you arrive at the table, there will more than likely be some tea, a few cold plates, and some other beverages on a glass lazy Susan.  After you sit down, feel free to sip your tea, but wait until the host starts eating or drinking to dig in. 

During Dinner

The banquet dinner is not for the light of stomach.

When there are at least four dishes, the host will usually start the festivities by taking a bite.  Then dishes are shared by rotating the Lazy Susan. Each diner samples every dish using his or her respective chopsticks.  (At nicer restaurants, dishes will have serving chopsticks.  Don’t eat with the serving chopsticks!) After picking up a piece of food, set or tap it on your smaller plate then eat it.

When taking food, each person used his or her own chopsticks. 
When you take your food, don’t take too much food!  Many times, diners will be expected to sample upwards of a dozen different dishes.

During our dinners, the food kept coming!  When room on the lazy Susan ran out, the waitress simply stacked dishes of food. 
It’s also expected that diners sample EVERY dish.  If you are grossed out at first sight, it is completely appropriate to mention a food allergy.  If it looks edible, take a small bite.  If it’s yummy, take a few more bites.  If it’s not, leave it on the plate.  Food on your plate is good luck and the ultimate compliment to the chef.  (If you have food on your plate, the chef has done a good job of filling his or her diners.)

The fish head soup was yummy!  I actually avoided eating the head by taking broth and tomatoes. 
Some rules are meant to be broken.  I passed on the duck tongue.
Rice may be brought out at the end of the meal.  The rice is not the main course.  It is commonly used to fill the empty spaces of your stomach and absorb yummy sauces. 

If you need to take a rest between the courses, place your chopsticks on your plate or on the chopstick rest near your plate.  DON’T put them upright in the rice.  That is bad luck.

Most diners may notice that many of the foods are quite different than those found in the American Chinese Restaurants.  One big difference is the presence of bones and shells in the food.  If you happen to encounter a shell or bone when eating, quietly spit it on the plate.   It’s gross, but after a while you get used to it.

Many fish dishes are served with the head and bones.  Do not try to swallow the bone, you will choke.  
When eating shrimp, spit out the shells.  Don't peel the shrimp with your hands.
Don’t take the last piece of food on a plate. That is considered greedy.

I think everyone at the table wanted this last piece of pork. 
There are also drinking rules at these shindigs. 

Do not fill your own glass.  If you notice your dining partners need a refill, take the bottle and fill their glasses.  They will do the same for you.  If they don’t notice you need a beverage, feel free to top up their glass, then fill your own glass.  If you don't want more to drink, tap the table with two fingers. 

The host and other attendants will more than likely make many toasts.  Don’t drink your alcohol until people start making toasts. If the diners are lucky (like we were), the toasts will be beer toasts.  If you are not so lucky, the host or another guest will pull out a clear, grain alcohol like liquid called baijiu.  Baijiu is by far the worst drink I have ever tasted.

In my humble opinion baijiu is awful, but it is usually a staple of Chinese business dinners.
This clear, pungent liquid burns on the way down. 
If the host or guest makes a toast, hold your glass up, and then tap the Lazy Susan with your glass.  If the host says, “GANBEI!” drain your glass. 

Instead of clinking glasses, we tapped our glasses on the Lazy Susan.
Ladies, do not feel obligated to ganbei.  It is perfectly acceptable to play the “I’m a lady, I can’t ganbei” card and sip the drink.  If you aren’t a drinker, feel free to play the alcohol allergy card and ganbei with non-alcoholic beverages.  

Wrapping it Up

As dinner draws to a close, the waiter will bring plates of fruit for desert. 

Since the fruit is here, the end is near!
You may feel the need to pick your teeth at the end of the meal.  If you need to do so, pick your teeth with one hand and cover your mouth with the other.

If the dinner has an end time, diners will leave at that time.  People usually don’t linger at the table.  It is common to take the conversation elsewhere.   

Our dinner ended at 8:00.  We boarded the bus for the hotel at 7:57.  The mass exodus was hilarious.
After dinner, it is important to thank the host, and inform them how much you enjoyed the experience. 

The most important rule when attending a banquet is have fun!  The banquet experience has allowed me to sample some foods that I wouldn’t ordinarily order and has allowed me to bond with many colleagues.  Ganbei!