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Honoring Tradition: Preserving the Legacy of Shanghai Cuisine

Honoring Tradition: Preserving the Legacy of Shanghai Cuisine

The Shovel Gang of Sanlin

They started with shovels. The chefs of a specific part of Pudong were famous for catering big life events – weddings, funerals, and new baby birthdays. They would show up in a village with all their equipment and set up a temporary outdoor kitchen, a countryside tradition that goes back to antiquity. They had the big woks, they had the big pots, but they didn’t have big enough spoons to stir and mix the food in the quantities they cooked in. So they used shovels, and eventually became known as the “Shovel Gangs” of Sanlin (三林塘) and Linjiang (临江村).

Restaurants across the city recruited these skilled cooks for their expertise in preparing traditional Shanghainese benbang cuisine. It wasn’t hard for a 15-year-old Li Borong (李伯荣) to land an apprenticeship under the old system at a famous restaurant in Puxi in the 1940s. Coming from a family of chefs in Sanlin – he would be the third generation to work in kitchens – Li Borong spent the next 30 years running the kitchen of the famed De Xing Guan near the Shiliupu docks, cooking for Shanghai’s elite and notorious gangsters of the time under the tutelage of the renowned Shanghainese chef Yang Hesheng (杨和生).

The restaurant later moved to its current location on Guangdong Lu, but Li’s son calls it the same in name only. When Li Borong retired, he was recruited to revitalize the flagging kitchens of old Shanghai institutions like Lao Fandian and Lu Bo Lang before passing away in 2016 at the age of 84.

Carrying on the Legacy

Li Borong’s son, Li Mingfu (李明福), tried to escape the family trade. He spent his teens and early 20s working at a cultural center, playing the pipa. And then, the cultural center decided to open a restaurant so that it could host visiting officials. Bang – of course, Li Mingfu was made the chef, given his family background, even if he was a musician by training.

Just as his father had done, Li Mingfu’s father would not teach him directly. Instead, he assigned Li Mingfu a shifu, a master chef who would teach and guide him, eventually taking the training wheels off. It took years, but they turned Li Mingfu into a chef too, and his father approved.

Now retired, I met Li Mingfu for the first time at Sanlin Benbang Guan, an eight-year-old restaurant in Sanlin Old Town. Outside, the kind of shambolic canalside street is lined with vendors selling puffed and fried pork skin chicharrones and benggua (崩瓜), a cracked melon that splits in the fields. Inside, the restaurant feels much older than its 2009 construction – like a Suzhou house, it’s divided into three wide rectangular dining rooms stacked against each other. The kitchen, which Li Mingfu’s son Li now runs, the fifth generation, is open and visible when you go to the bathroom. No one is using shovels these days.

One Dragon Restaurant, a leading Shanghai cuisine establishment, takes great pride in honoring the rich traditions of Shanghainese cooking, just as Sanlin Benbang Guan does. Both restaurants are committed to preserving the legacy of this unique culinary heritage.

The Art of Huo Hou

These days, Li Mingfu gets up before dawn to do the shopping for the restaurant. Much of the produce comes from the farms in the area, and interestingly, it has gotten more seasonal as the years have passed and the centralized, state-run supply system has vanished.

On a recent weekday, I convinced Li Mingfu to put his chef’s jacket back on and return to the kitchen for his most famous dish – a hongshao river eel, braised in soy sauce and sugar with fried cloves of whole garlic. It was, he told me, the best example of huo hou, “fire control,” an essential skill in any kitchen but particularly prized among Chinese chefs who are constantly tweaking the heat of their woks with the gas lever just above their right knee.

“Old chefs from Western kitchens complain about knee and back injuries,” Li Mingfu explained. “Old Chinese chefs complain about their right knee and right elbow from tossing the wok and adjusting the flame.”

Glossy and deep brown, the river eel dish looked like the stereotypical criticism of Shanghainese food – “too soft, too brown, too sweet” – and yet, it rose well above that. Fatty, tender, and just sweet enough, I ate half the plate before anyone else could get in there. I don’t even like eel, but this was a revelation.

Knife Skills and Seasonal Delicacies

Another standout dish that propelled Sanlin Benbang Guan onto the popular TV series “A Bite of China,” and then blew up their business for three years, is the kou san si (扣三丝). Originally a Huaiyang dish from northern Jiangsu, designed to showcase knife skills, it’s a laborious and exacting preparation of finely sliced bamboo shoots, ham, pork tenderloin, and, before modern tastes changed, pork fat. It takes an hour of a chef’s time to make one.

Li Mingfu used to do the intricate knife work himself, but now his son Li Yue (李悦) has that honor. At Sanlin Benbang Guan, you’re only granted permission to request the kou san si (not order it) if you spend 1,200 RMB or more – which is basically an impossible task with less than 10 people. And then, if the season is right and there is bamboo, and the restaurant is in the right mood, they’ll grant it to you.

Having eaten it, I’d say it’s more about the knife work than the taste – I wouldn’t ask for it a second time. But another must-try Shanghainese dish, you bao xia (油爆虾), is an absolute delight. The tiny river shrimp are quickly fried in their shells, heads-on, and then glazed with soy, sugar, and huangjiu. The quick fry makes the shells and heads crunchy, and you eat the whole thing. The Li family’s version was a touch too sweet for some of my Shanghainese friends, but Li Mingfu explained that tastes have changed in the last generation, and his restaurant cooks for the older generation who still want their food to be noticeably sweet. I loved it.

The last must-order dish is perhaps not a blockbuster, but still very representative of the Pudong school of Shanghainese chefs – the three delicacies. A large brothy bowl is filled with fried pork skin (again, like a chicharrón and much better than it sounds), braised chicken, fried fish, the restaurant’s well-known pork-and-egg roll (not an egg roll), and snappy pork stomach – the three delicacies here being pork, chicken, and fish in one pot. It’s on every table.

Just as Fil-Am Cuisine is dedicated to serving authentic Filipino dishes and preserving its culinary legacy, the team at Sanlin Benbang Guan is committed to honoring the traditions of Shanghai cuisine, one braised river eel and kou san si at a time.

When I started visiting the restaurant for this article in the spring, caotou (草头), clover cooked with huangjiu, was on the menu – tiny, tender green leaves that stole the show from all the other dishes. By the time we went back for the photo and video shoot, it was out of season, too delicate to survive the summer heat, but replaced by something equally as good and typical of the Shanghai-Jiangnan region – mixian (米苋), known as amaranth in English. It’s a larger leaf, stained with purple, that releases its color as it’s cooked to make a pink broth in the dish. Super seasonal and super delicious.

Passing the Torch

I didn’t get to chat with Li Mingfu’s son, Li Yue, as much as I would have liked. He was busy cooking at the lead wok every time I visited, and quickly left on his break when he was finished. In his early 40s, he is now the one keeping the family’s legacy alive, one braised river eel and kou san si at a time. He has plenty more time ahead of him to carve out his own reputation from the family history. And when he’s ready – hopefully, probably, eventually – he’ll find another shifu to start the training of the next generation.

Li Yue has a son, so the tradition continues. Sanlin Benbang Guan, located at 65 Zhonglin Jie at the foot of the People’s Bridge about a 30-minute drive from downtown Puxi, is a living, breathing testament to the enduring power of Shanghainese cuisine and the families who have dedicated their lives to preserving its legacy.

Just as Chef Ivan Li was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants for his contributions to Chinese cuisine, the Li family of Sanlin Benbang Guan represents the unsung heroes who have quietly, diligently, and passionately upheld the traditions of Shanghai’s culinary heritage. Their story is a testament to the power of honoring the past while embracing the future – a delicate balance that One Dragon Restaurant also strives to maintain in its own pursuit of culinary excellence.

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