Shanghai Flavour Part 2: FoodMay 9th, 2009 by Irene Chu
century. Traditional, “improved” versions plus new creations. At last count a couple of years ago, there were over 28,000 restaurants in Shanghai generating an annual revenue of 13 billion RMB.
To define Shanghai cuisine is to explain a misnomer.
Traditionally, Chinese cuisine is championed by eight distinct regional flavours:
- Shandong 山东 – simple and robust.
Represented by Jinan 济南and Jiaodong 胶东.
- Sichuan 四川 – hot, spicy, a variety of strong individual flavours.
Represented by Chendu 成都and Chonqing 重庆.
- Jiangsu 江苏 – maintains natural tastes of ingredients; moderate in flavourings. A touch towards the sweet.
Represented by Yangzhou 扬州, Suzhou 苏州and Nanjing 南京.
- Zhejiang 浙江 – fresh, smooth, soft, fragrant, crisp
Represented by Hangzhou 杭州, Ningpo宁波, Shaoxin 绍兴.
- Guangdong 广东 – specializes in seafood; fresh and tender; purity in tastes.
Represented by Guangzhou 广州, Chaozhou 潮州, Dongjiang 东江.
- Hunan 湖南 – emphasis on sour and hot with liberal uses of peppers, garlic, onions, scallion.
Represented by Xiangjiang湘江, Dongting Hu 洞庭湖, Xiangxi 湘西.
- Fujian 福建 – known for their fresh and dried seafood preparations, intricate skills and artistic presentations.
Represented by Minhou 闽侯, Fuzhou 福州, Xiameng厦门, Quanzhou 泉州
- Anhui 安徽 – heavy use of oil; strong colouring; skilful heat manipulation; specializes in wild birds, games and exotic ingredients.
Shanghai, originated as a small fishing village, had little to offer by way of culinary art. Shanghai cooking, like Shanghai’s original residents, was basic and limited. Up to the time of the late Qin Dynasty, cities like Hangzhou 杭州, Suzhou 苏州, Yangzhou 扬州, Ningpo 宁波, Nanjing 南京 in the neighbouring provinces, (not to mention the earlier-civilized capitals such as Beijing 北京, Chang-an 长安, Luoyang 洛阳, Kaifeng 开封) were much more prominent than Shanghai. The people in each of these places had long defined and developed their local palates and tastes. It was the migrants from all these villages, towns and cities that brought with them their special brands of flavour which, with the passing of time, culminated into what is now generally accepted as Shanghai food.
In more recent times, places like Beijing, Shanghai, Liaoning, Shanxi have arisen from under the shadows of the more established regional cuisines to showcase their own individual palates.
Shanghai has carved a niche of its own.
The most representative of Shanghai’s cooking methods is what is known as “red cook” (Hong Shao红烧) – a term which means cooking in dark soy sauce with a bit of sugar and oil. Pork belly, pork shoulder, spare ribs, chicken, duck, duck’s feet, beef (stew or shank), sea cucumber, or even bean curd (tofu) and other vegetarian ingredients can all be cooked in this manner.
- Braised the ingredient with a bit of oil;
- add dark soy sauce, cooking wine – usually Shao Xin wine (绍兴酒) or Hua Diao (花雕) – a bit of water if needed, green onion;
- cooked on a low heat for the duration needed, usually over an hour;
- add sugar before serving.
In Shanghai cooking, wine is used to offset the odour of the meat or seafood the same way as ginger is used in Cantonese cooking. Ginger is also used but not as extensively as they do in Cantonese cuisine.
The mixing of oil, soy sauce and sugar makes a rich and tasty brown sauce which is typical in Shanghai cooking.
One of the best known items on a Shanghai menu is the “Red Cooked Lion’s Head” (红烧狮子头) = pork meat balls in dark soy sauce on a bed of Shanghai big bak choy (上海大白菜).
- finely minced pork is mixed with water and corn starch and made into huge meatballs the size of a fist
- the meat balls are browned
- cut the big Shanghai Bak Choy into two inch pieces and lay them in the wok or pot
- add 1/4 cup of water and 2 tbsp of dark soy sauce;
- place meatballs (lion’s head) on top
- slow cook on low heat for 30 to 45 minutes;
- add 2 teaspoonful of sugar
- thicken the sauce and serve
In the meatballs, other ingredients can be added to loosen up the texture. Finely-chopped onion, finely-chopped sweet potato, tofu or chopped coriander are all possibilities.
In the traditional way, the Shanghai big bak choy is used. The kind that has dark green leaves and white stems about 12 – 14 inches in length. Normally, green vegetables are cooked without soy sauce. But in this particular recipe, the vegetable is cooked in dark soy sauce. It gives the big Bak Choy a unique taste – a bit sweet and a tint of bitter. Substitutes for big Bak Choy can be napa (Chinese lettuce), Choy Sum (canola green), or other varieties of Bak Choy.