Shanghai-ed

18 Aug

Today’s post doesn’t fall under this month’s stated theme of plant-based foods, but I was recently treated to a Shanghainese dim sum lunch and it was too good not to share. (The venue: Shanghai, at the Marriott in Bukit Bintang in KL.) I don’t have a lot of experience with Shanghai cuisine, but according to our host it’s lighter than Cantonese, which is what most Westerners identify as “Chinese” cooking. Nor is it spicy like Szechuan. Another characteristic is the liberal use of black vinegar; a dish of what I though was soy sauce was actually a little dish of vinegar for dipping.

Dim sum, of course, means tea. (Not literally: the characters translate to something like “little heart.” Although the other name for dim sum, yum cha, does literally translate to “drink tea.”)

This is one of those “blooming” teas, where the tea leaves are tied into a knot, sometimes with fragrant flowers (like jasmine). As the tea steeps in hot water, the leaves loosen so that it blooms in the mug, although one of my lunch companions thought it looked like a sea urchin. Maybe a sea anemone would be a more appropriate analogy. Now, I’ve seen these things before — I think I may have even given them as gifts — but this was my first time actually drinking tea made from this tea knot. I can’t say that it was any better than other very, very good teas I’ve had, but it’s certainly more attractive than the average mass of tea leaves.

Left: Jellyfish and cucumber salads; right: drunken chicken

According to the host, it’s traditional in Shanghai to start with an assortment of cold appetizers. We started with a jellyfish salad, cucumbers in sesame oil and the omnipresent black vinegar, “drunken” chicken, and Chinese ham. The jellyfish salad was my favorite: cool and crunchy. The jellyfish is dried, and then reconstituted, so basically you’re eating pure collagen.

Then it was on to the soup course. This is fish maw soup, which is actually made with chicken stock and ham; the fish maw is for texture, not flavor. The white things floating near the surface are called bamboo pith, but they’re actually a kind of mushroom, which has nothing to do with bamboo; lurking below is what I presumed to be the fish maw. (What part of the fish is the maw, you might ask? Not the mouth area, as I had thought before I googled it, but the swim bladder. Sometimes with Chinese cuisine, it is as with sausage: ignorance is bliss.) Both the bamboo pith and the maw had taken on the flavor of the soup, and were pleasantly chewy. This sort of texture is very common in Chinese and Japanese foods, but I can’t think of a good Western analogue. So you’ll just have to track down some maw for yourself.

No Shanghainese meal is complete without xiao long bao, those soup-filled dumplings I blogged about here. This time I was able to eat them (sort of) properly, and I’m happy to say I shlorped up the dumpling with no loss of soup. (Remember: bite off the top, stuff a little ginger and some vinegar in, then drink the soup and eat the dumpling.)

After about fifty more dishes — more dumplings, more pork, all delicious — we wrapped up with a mango dessert:

The picture came out a bit blurry and a bit too yellow — guess I should have used the flash, after all — but I wanted to include it since it’s 1) a New Thing, and 2) fruit-based. This is actually a dessert soup of sorts, with bits of mango and pomelo and tiny sago pearls (like tapioca, but smaller). I don’t know if ending with a sweet is a traditional Shanghainese thing, or if our hosts were just catering to a bunch of Americans, but it was surprisingly refreshing after the richness of the lunch dishes. (Don’t let their size fool you: dim sum treats are heavy.)

And with that bit of indulgence…SOK is back on the wagon for the next post! But hey, everything in moderation, right?

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One Response to “Shanghai-ed”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. SOK’s Autumn Vacation, Part One: Pig Ears and Haute Dogs « Straight Out of Kampung - October 5, 2011

    […] just say that this is the scene that Lost filmed in Kalihi, if you get my drift.) As I’ve written before, Shanghai dim sum is a bit different from the dim sum we’re familiar with in the US, so there […]

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