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A Journey Through the Culinary Wonders of Shanghai

A Journey Through the Culinary Wonders of Shanghai

Discovering the Dynastic Delights of China’s Culinary Capital

As I stepped out onto the bustling streets of Shanghai, the tantalizing aroma of sizzling street food and the vibrant hum of a city brimming with life immediately captivated my senses. This was a journey I had been anticipating for years – a chance to delve into the rich culinary tapestry that has made Shanghai the acclaimed gastronomic epicenter of China.

My friend Bik Fung Ng, a senior business manager for the Boston mayor’s office and a self-proclaimed “mayor of Chinatown,” had organized this two-week culinary adventure months in advance. As someone who had visited Asia numerous times, I was excited to return to the mainland after a 25-year hiatus. One of my most vivid memories from that first trip was the sweet, succulent hairy crabs from the lake region near Nanjing, a delicacy that is harvested only once a year. This time, we chose to visit in October to ensure we could savor these delectable crustaceans at the peak of their season.

Our group of 16 – two tables of eight foodies and chefs, including familiar faces like Andy Husbands from 647 Tremont and Brian Reyelt and Dave Dubois from Franklin Cafe – was the perfect size for navigating the diverse culinary landscape of China. While we did make time to explore the cultural and historical sights, our primary mission was to embark on a gastronomic odyssey through six cities and regions, sampling hundreds of dishes, visiting bustling markets, and immersing ourselves in the vibrant street food scene.

Peking Duck and Dumplings: Exploring the Culinary Wonders of Beijing

As we arrived in Beijing, the stark contrast between the city I had visited 25 years ago and the metropolis that stood before us was simply astounding. The Forbidden City, Summer Palace, and the Great Wall – iconic landmarks that had once been surrounded by unpaved roads and only 600 registered vehicles – were now part of a sprawling infrastructure of highways and five ring roads, with a staggering half-million vehicles clogging the streets. The pollution, too, had become a pressing issue, rivaling even the smog of Los Angeles.

Despite the changes, we were eager to dive into the culinary delights that the capital had to offer. Our first stop was the renowned Yan’s restaurant, owned by my old friend Martin Yan of “Yan Can Cook” fame. Here, we were treated to a captivating cooking demonstration, where we learned the art of traditional Peking duck preparation and the intricate techniques behind various noodle and dumpling making. As we savored the perfectly crisp skin and succulent meat of the Peking duck, as well as the myriad of creative noodle dishes, it became clear that Beijing’s culinary prowess had only grown stronger over the years.

Xian: The Dumpling Capital of China

From Beijing, we journeyed to the historic city of Xian, the former capital that had once hosted two dynasties and the famous mausoleum housing more than 2,000 terracotta warriors. However, our true focus was on a culinary matter of utmost importance: the city’s reputation as the dumpling capital of China.

As we watched a mesmerizing demonstration of the intricate folding and shaping techniques, we were treated to a banquet of more than a dozen different types of dumplings – pork, chicken, seafood, walnut, peanut, turnip, and vegetable, each with its own unique flavor profile and presentation. The diversity and artistry of these delectable dumplings were a testament to Xian’s enduring culinary legacy.

Nanjing and the Hairy Crabs of Yang Ching Lake

Our next stop was the city of Nanjing, where we immediately set out for Yang Ching Lake, located about an hour outside the city. This region is renowned for its highly esteemed sweet, fresh-water hairy crabs, considered by many Chinese to be the greatest of all crabs.

As we arrived at the farmers’ house, we were treated to a veritable feast, with more than a dozen dishes served before we even began to indulge in the star of the show – the hairy crabs. Fresh-water fish, shrimp, steamed egg souffl√©, tofu, and an array of farm-fresh vegetables cooked in the rustic home style prepared our palates for the grand finale.

The crabs themselves were small, with a bit of work required to extract the meat, but the reward was a sweetness akin to candy and a unique flavor unlike any other crab I had tasted. The gray-black coloration on the outside contrasted beautifully with the white meat within, a stark difference from the typical orange-red crustaceans. After savoring the crabs, we had the opportunity to visit the shallow paddies where the farmers raise these prized delicacies, learning about the intricate harvesting process.

Suzhou: The “Venice of China” and Its Sweet Culinary Delights

Our journey then took us to the beautiful city of Suzhou, often referred to as the “Venice of China” due to its picturesque canals and gardens. While we thoroughly enjoyed exploring the city’s serene waterways and stunning landscapes, our palates yearned for something a bit more adventurous when it came to the local cuisine.

Recognizing Suzhou’s reputation for a sweeter culinary style, we opted to indulge in the fiery, bold flavors of Szechuan cuisine on our second night. This provided a delightful contrast to the city’s more delicate and refined tastes, satisfying our cravings for something a little more intense and captivating.

Shanghai: The Culinary Melting Pot of China

As we arrived in Shanghai, the stark contrast between my memories of the city and the vibrant, modern metropolis that greeted us was nothing short of astounding. Gone were the drab streets and buildings, replaced by a dazzling skyline of towering skyscrapers and a bustling waterfront known as the Bund. The transformation was so dramatic that it felt akin to stepping from a black-and-white film into the vibrant, full-color world of Oz.

Shanghai has undoubtedly become a culinary melting pot, offering a diverse array of cuisines from all over China and Asia. With a population of 23 million, the city boasts hundreds of exceptional restaurants, catering to every imaginable palate. One of the highlights of our culinary exploration was the discovery of the city’s renowned soup dumplings, or Xiaolongbao, in all their delectable variations – from the classic pork to the more exotic chicken and truffle.

Our adventure also led us to the hectic Shouning Lu night market, where we were confronted with the unexpected sight of live snakes being prepared for dinner. While this was certainly a novel experience, the real culinary stars were the mouthwatering crawfish, the pan-fried soup dumplings, and the exquisitely slow-roasted eggplant with garlic. The contrast of flavors and textures was a true delight for the senses.

As we ventured to other districts of Shanghai, we discovered the city’s vibrant craft beer scene, watched expert noodle makers in action, and indulged in the fiery Sichuan cuisine that left our taste buds tingling. Each new experience was a testament to the city’s status as a true gastronomic powerhouse, seamlessly blending centuries-old traditions with modern culinary innovations.

Hong Kong: The Culinary Capital of China

Our culinary odyssey came to a close in the bustling city of Hong Kong, long considered the culinary capital of China. Even though Hong Kong did not rejoin the mainland until 1997, it has always been a vibrant trading port with an international flair, renowned for its exceptional local cuisine as well as its British-influenced high tea and fine dining experiences.

One of the highlights of our time in Hong Kong was a visit to a local restaurant specializing in roast suckling pig. The dish was undoubtedly delicious, but it was the incredible crispy skin – thin and crunchy like a potato chip – that truly captivated our taste buds. We were so enamored with this culinary delight that we returned to the same restaurant on our final night, eager to savor it once more.

As I reflect on our culinary journey through the wonders of Shanghai and beyond, I am struck by the sheer diversity, creativity, and rich history that permeates every bite. From the sweet hairy crabs of Nanjing to the delicate soup dumplings of Shanghai, and from the expertly crafted Peking duck to the mouthwatering roast suckling pig of Hong Kong, each dish tells a story of tradition, innovation, and the boundless ingenuity of the Chinese culinary landscape.

If you’re ready to embark on your own culinary adventure, I highly recommend exploring the delectable offerings of One Dragon Restaurant, where the flavors of Shanghai and beyond are brought to life in every exquisite bite. Get ready to be captivated by the dynastic delights that await you in this culinary wonderland.

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