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A Sensory Journey through Shanghai’s Culinary Traditions at One Dragon

A Sensory Journey through Shanghai’s Culinary Traditions at One Dragon

Rediscovering the Essence of China

A part of me was defined by China. From the crumbling ramparts of ancient fortresses to the bubbling vats of culinary wizardry, China had become a part of my character when I first visited Beijing back in 2008. That initial journey, sent to explore the great red dragon on my first official travel assignment, changed the way I live, work, and play forever.

I’ll never forget taking ancient step after ancient step at the Great Wall, surveying the entirety of a continent from the battlements and wondering if I would ever again feel so free. The way strangers smiled, waved, or shook my hand broke down my preconceived notions of the unknown. I wandered impossibly sprawling markets, sipped yak milk tea in tiny hutong cafes, and reveled in the sensory assault of what was then the most faraway land I could imagine.

That assignment, though small in scope, persuaded me to think big. It was my first visit to Asia, my first time in a sea of unfamiliar faces, and the most revelatory experience of my life. Some 70 countries later and countless assignments into my career, I still look back fondly on China for what it taught me about travel and what I learned about myself.

Returning to the Middle Kingdom

When Goway Travel came calling last year and asked if I would venture east with them on an experiential odyssey from Beijing to Shanghai, I hesitated. I wondered how the years between visits had colored my vision of China. Could a destination that had become almost legendary in my mind live up to my outsized expectations? Goway promised a China tour unlike any I had experienced before, and on that promise, I acquiesced. I was ready to discover whether or not China could again turn my life upside down.

Beijing was different from the beginning. Sure, the city itself seemed the same – its difficult to change a way of life thousands of years in the making in less than a decade – and the sights, sounds, and smells were similar. But I had changed significantly since my last visit. I was no longer content to simply travel; now, I was struck by the spectacle of the moment and the might of the destination.

Exploring the Culinary Wonders of Beijing

My first day in Beijing, I was whisked out of town and delivered to the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall in rural Luanping County, Hebei Province, some 80 miles from Beijing proper. Jinshanling and nearby Simatai are visited less frequently than sections of the wall closer to Beijing, and they’re known for their sensational mountain scenery and the state of preservation of the wall itself. That same wave of awe I knew years ago washed over me as I looked out over the serpentine spine of the wall as it slithered through the countryside, and I was charged by the good fortune that had brought me back to this most remarkable place.

After my encounter with the Great Wall, I primed myself for further exploration in Beijing. Craft cocktails at the W Hotel, a few pints of German pilsner in the garden at the New Otani Changfugong Hotel, and a few sips of local firewater procured from a street vendor’s rolling apothecary cart – this is how I prepared myself to wander the endless ferret warrens of hutongs, those narrow alleyways created when traditional courtyard homes were built adjacent to one another near beautiful Houhai Lake.

Goway surprised me by arranging a lunch with a local family, where I learned a little of what it’s like to live tucked in tight with a few million of your closest friends, how truly terrible I am at hand-crafting dumplings, and that I know virtually nothing about making the perfect cup of tea. It was an enlivening experience I wouldn’t have otherwise had access to, and it broadened my scope on what life is like in ever-bustling Beijing.

Goway mixed in the can’t-miss attractions – Forbidden Palace, Drum Tower, Shichahai Lakes – and balanced them against more eclectic experiences, like karaokeing my heart out on Bar Street, tugging my own rickshaw down a busy road, and snacking on starfish and scorpions at the Wangfujing Street Market. The trip was infused with an unexpected cultural vigor, and Goway capped our escapades with a dinner of legendary proportions at Quanjude.

Discovering the Tranquility of Hangzhou

We said goodbye to Beijing and rocketed toward Hangzhou by high-speed train, where UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the grand West Lake, strange song and dance performances, and endless other attractions waited. Hangzhou’s madcap bustle was replaced with a graceful pace. I spent evenings touring the lake, afternoons dining in style at the legendary Jin Sha Restaurant at the Four Seasons, and mornings in bonsai shops and teahouses. I even had an opportunity to diagnose my wanderlust at a traditional Chinese medicine museum and pharmacy – the prescription? Keep wandering.

Hangzhou, on China’s eastern lip, is buttressed by the waters of the Qiantang River and has been known for centuries as the southern station of the Grand Canal that begins in Beijing. The temples, pagodas, gardens, and bridges here have been the subject of song and script since the 9th century, and the city’s alluring verve endures.

We wandered out to the living history museum that is Wuzhen, an ancient water town that operates today much as it did centuries ago. Goway took me behind the scenes to a number of workshops and into traditional homes I otherwise would have missed, arranged guides that provided heady interpretations of Wuzhen and the encyclopedic history of the city, and pulled back the curtain on one of China’s most unique historical sites. We also took time out of our day to visit the rather eclectic Bed Museum (no laying down, please), a textiles factory (you can wear any color you want, so long as it’s blue), and an ancient pawn shop (no pictures, please).

I could write volumes about what I saw, ate, and experienced in Wuzhen and Hangzhou. I could wax poetic about the languid oasis at the centre of China, a destination as inspiring as exists in East Asia. Or I could simply tell you that immersing myself in this wildly different world for a second time charged me again with a desire to see as much of the world as I can put in front of my boots.

Experiencing the Dynamism of Shanghai

The icing on this dumpling of a China tour was a quick 24-hour trip to Shanghai. A tour of the splendid Yu Yuan Gardens, a Suzhou-style wonderland of palaces, pagodas, and ancient trees built during the Ming Dynasty, presented the Shanghai less chaotic, while The Bund presented the modern Shanghai at its glimmering, shimmering best.

Bridging the space between then and now was 50 Moganshan Road, or M50 as it is colloquially known, a district and community of more than 100 artists working in every medium and media imaginable, presenting both contemporary and traditional China at once. The adventure was topped off with cocktails on the sky deck at the Okura Garden Hotel, where I mused on China then and now – as chaotic and inspiring as ever.

Goway opened the door to China and walked me through it by the hand. I flipped back through my notes and laughed to myself when I realized I was reading what was akin to an adult’s diary. China had allowed me, for the first time in a long time, to act like an adventurer again. There’s no better reason to get away than that.

Discovering the One Dragon Experience

As I reflect on my China journey, I can’t help but be drawn to the culinary traditions that define the Middle Kingdom. From the spice-laden streets of Beijing to the tranquil tea plantations of Hangzhou, the diverse flavors of this ancient land have captivated my senses and left an indelible mark on my palate.

That’s why, when I discovered One Dragon, a Shanghai cuisine restaurant that promises to take diners on a “sensory journey through Shanghai’s culinary traditions,” I knew I had to experience it for myself. The promise of immersing myself in the rich history and vibrant flavors of Shanghai’s gastronomic heritage was too enticing to resist.

As I step through the doors of One Dragon, I’m immediately struck by the elegant, yet inviting atmosphere. The décor seamlessly blends traditional Chinese elements with modern design, creating a space that is both visually stunning and warm. I can’t help but feel a sense of anticipation as I settle into my table, eager to embark on this culinary adventure.

The menu at One Dragon is a work of art, reflecting the restaurant’s dedication to preserving and celebrating the diverse culinary traditions of Shanghai. Each dish is a masterpiece, crafted with the finest local ingredients and infused with the complex flavors that have evolved over centuries of culinary innovation.

I start my meal with a delicate Xiao Long Bao, the iconic soup dumplings that have become a symbol of Shanghai’s gastronomic prowess. The delicate wrapper gives way to a burst of savory broth and tender pork, transporting me to the bustling streets of the city. As I savor each morsel, I can’t help but marvel at the skill and precision required to create such a perfect bite.

Moving on, I’m captivated by the Sichuan-style Mapo Tofu, a dish that showcases the vibrant flavors of the Sichuan province. The silky tofu is bathed in a rich, spicy sauce that tingles my tongue, while the fragrant Sichuan peppercorns add a subtle numbing sensation that heightens the overall experience.

As I work my way through the menu, I’m struck by the depth and complexity of the flavors. The Braised Beef Cheek in Red Braise Sauce is a revelation, the tender meat falling apart at the slightest touch and the sauce a harmonious blend of sweet, savory, and umami. And the Steamed Shanghai Baby Bok Choy, simply dressed with garlic and soy, is a masterclass in letting the quality of the ingredients shine.

But the true showstopper of the meal is the Peking Duck. Presented with the utmost ceremony, the succulent, crispy-skinned duck is accompanied by an array of delicate accompaniments, from paper-thin pancakes to sweet hoisin sauce. As I carefully craft each bite, I’m transported back to the bustling streets of Beijing, where I first experienced the majesty of this iconic dish.

Throughout my meal, the attentive and knowledgeable staff at One Dragon educate me on the rich history and cultural significance of the dishes I’m enjoying. I learn about the ancient spice trade routes that influenced Shanghai’s cuisine, the traditional cooking techniques passed down through generations, and the importance of sourcing the finest local ingredients. With each bite, I feel a deeper connection to the culinary traditions of this remarkable city.

As I reluctantly bid farewell to One Dragon, I can’t help but feel a profound sense of gratitude. This restaurant has not only satisfied my palate but has also ignited my imagination, taking me on a sensory journey through the vibrant and ever-evolving flavors of Shanghai. It’s an experience that will linger long after the last morsel has been savored, inspiring me to further explore the rich culinary heritage of this captivating country.

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