A Foodie's Guide to Shanghai Part 1

If you've been following me since the beginning, you might remember me mentioning I had just returned from a trip to China.
For the month of July, 2013, I was in Shanghai, interning for a small architectural firm. Amongst being exposed to a completely new Eastern culture with all its foreign social traditions and customs, I was probably most excited about the new kinds of foods I would be experiencing. Granted, there were moments where all I wanted was something that wasn't dripping in oil or that came from the part of the chicken we normally eat, or even just a plain salad packed with clean vegetables; it was a time for me to let go of my strict eating rules and let my tastebuds experiment a little.
The first night we arrived, our program directors treated us to a sponsored dinner at a little Chinese restaurant half a block down from our hotel. I forget the name of it, but it was buzzing with locals and their families, so clearly it was authentic Chinese cuisine which would mark an appropriate start to our month-long Shanghai adventure.

It wasn't too far off from the Westernised Chinese cuisine I was used to back home, but the Sichuan chicken (unfortunately not pictured) was definitely not what I was expecting. The taste was akin to shoving a mouthful of chillies into your mouth. I wasn't feeling too adventurous my first night, so I gave the pork fluff a miss too.

The second night, I befriended AJ from Iowa. With his all-American, blue-eyed and blonde-haired appearance, he did not exactly fit the stereotype of someone who was born in South Korea, and raised all over the world; which included spending a year at an international high school in Shanghai - qualifying him as an almost local with sufficient knowledge and experience of this fascinating city.
So when he suggested his favourite restaurant ever 'Din Tai Fung' for dinner the next night (which was a Saturday), I happily obliged.
There are several Din Tai Fung restaurants in Shanghai alone, but the one we went to was located in a shopping mall in Xintiandi, a trendy area of the French Concession. It is internationally renowned for its stellar dumplings, which have been voted number one in the world according to New York Times.
So we ordered dumplings. Lots of them. I think in total, we went through about 7 baskets of pork dumplings alone for our table, along with one serving of the crab meat (my choice!) and a serving of the pork buns. According to AJ, the proper way to eat these is to pick up the dumpling in your spoon, and then pierce the skin of the dumpling to allow to juicy insides to pool into the spoon. Then you can take the drained dumpling into your chopsticks and eat it, before washing it down with the drained juices in left in your spoon.

Ever the fan of dumplings, I was very easily pleased with this meal. And we ended coming back here on our last day for old times sake!

Later on during the week, we were advised by one of the program leaders to try out some hot pot. 'The Dolar Shop' is located in a shopping mall type of building off tourist-filled Nanjing Dong Lu in the heart of the city, right near People's Square. The elevator ride may have been smelly and dodgy-looking, but once we got to the restaurant, it was clean and inviting. We were promptly seated and instructed as to how to go about ordering.

The concept of hotpot is quite easy: first you choose your broth (from what I remember, I think there was a chilli option, a fish option, and just plain hot water); and then you can visit the sauce/toppings bar and choose from a variety of sauce options which included alternatives such as oyster sauce, soy sauce, vinegar, chilli, satay...and many other foreign combinations I have long since forgotten.

While our broth was heating up, we were served a myriad of raw dishes - prosciutto, bacon, meatballs, fish balls, along with tofu and various types of noodles as well - udon, vermicelli amongst others.

So basically, you help yourself to whatever your heart desires; placing your raw ingredients into your hot pot to cook, and when it's done, you take it out, dip it into your unique sauce concoction and voila! With the freedom to put as little or as much of what you like into your hot pot, I was having all sorts of fun with this meal! (Until the fish balls ran out...)

After a busy first week of work, we kicked back on the weekend with some local sightseeing around The Bund where would get a full view of Shanghai's panoramic skyline made famous by the flamboyant-looking Oriental Pearl Tower. A trip across the river, and up and throughout the tower later, we were exhausted, and very hungry. We headed over to the Super Brand Mall located in close proximity to the tower, for some dinner. If you think Chadstone is big, well, Super Brand Mall eats shopping centres like Chadstone for breakfast. There was so much to choose from, I nearly suffered from choice overload which, if let undirected, would had resulted in poor decision-making syndrome. Lucky I had my very own Westernised Tour Guide, AJ, who directed me to another great choice for the evening, 'Ajisen Ramen', located on the top level.
The menu is extensive, and all I remember is taking about half an hour to decide between three things. I ended up going along with the rest of the table.

I ordered the spicy teriyaki beef donburi (after searching extensively throughout the net to see if I could confirm that it was in fact this dish, I realised that the Australian Ajisen Ramen outlets must not include this on their menus), and it came out sizzling on a hot plate, with a perfect mound of soft white rice atop a bed of tender beef pieces and sprinkled with corn kernels. The spicy sauce came separately, in a chalice of sorts, which you were to pour on yourself, and then mix in together with the rice and beef while the piping hot plate continued to cook through the meat. It was extremely filling, and exactly what we needed after a tiresome day of venturing throughout the city.

One place that we quickly became regulars at (by regulars I mean, visited more than once..which is an achievement considering how many other places you can go to with such limited time!) was the 'Shanghai Brewery', also located in the French Concession, and right opposite our all time favourite bar to visit on a Wednesday night for ladies night, Zapatas. But that is a whole other story for another day. 
Shanghai Brewery is like a centrally located safe haven for all Westerners. They speak English, so no dramatic hand movements or articulate enunciation of words necessary. They serve real beer, none of that watered down imitation stuff that is so commonly found here - I'm talking Heineken, Crown Lager, Stella, Pure Blonde..you name it, they've got it. Did I mention it's also a sportsbar? There are two bars; you can play pool on one of the many billiard tables located upstairs; or you can chill comfortably at one of the low-laying outdoor dining tables in an oversized woven and cushioned armchair (well, as comfortably as one can get in 35 degree heat with 100% humidity). 
The first time we came here was on a Tuesday for a dinner catch up after work. The happy hour special on Tuesdays was two for one burgers with discounted drinks, from 6-8pm only. So it was pretty packed. And I was starved, so I did not hold back at all. This was to be my first proper Western dinner in about two weeks.

Mouthfuls of deliciousness silenced by joyful moans of happiness. And those wedges were also to die for.
The second time we visited was after an ill-fated trip to Nanjing. Ok, the trip itself wasn't that bad, but my opinion of trips can pretty much be ruined by bad food (we had pork buns, fried rice, and churro-like donuts for breakfast.... *starts choking up*). The best thing about coming home, was that it was 6pm, which meant it was time to decide what we were going to have for dinner. All we wanted was a proper meal, and we knew one place that could not disappoint.
This time around, I was feeling pretty guilty for having sat on my butt all day long with no activity whatsoever. I simply could not justify a burger. So I went for the next best thing. My eyes lit up when I noticed the extensive salad menu, and furthermore when I realised there was more than just your boring Caesar and Greek salad options.

The fresh, crispy green salad leaves were generously laden with large, sweet and tender pieces of roast pumpkin and dollops of soft, white goats cheese. The vinaigrette was served separately in a mini dish so I could season it as I liked.
The others were feeling a bit more ravenous, so they went all out with pizza, spaghetti bolognaise, chicken tortillas, and 'Aussie' beef burgers with chips on the side.
Afterwards, though we were more than satisfied to end the night on a relative high, we were not done yet. The night was not over, not without dessert. The week before we had been exploring the Concession when we came across this fantastic little French Creperie located at the triangular junction of Taojiang and Yueyang Lu, appropriately named 'La Creperie'.
We may not have spoken French, Mandarin, Shanghainese, or French-Shanghainese for that matter, but we definitely spoke crepes. I just sat back, relaxed, and let my tastebuds do the talking.

In retrospect, this is one of the easiest routes you can imagine. According to Google Maps (the blue line), it should have taken us 3 minutes. But when you have shoddy wifi coupled with restricted access, it can complicate things. We ended up taking a route somewhat like the one highlighted in red. To complicate things further, halfway through our adventure, a torrential rainfall started which left us drenched like rats. This was the universe's way of condemning us for our gluttony. But it wasn't enough to stop us. We were determined, and after some perseverance, we were successful.

What a treat our tastebuds were in for tonight. Never again would we subject them to such poor choices. Here tastebuds, have some oily, sugary-chocolate fudge and ice-cream covered crepes to make you feel better.
On the left you have the Snickers crepe, on the right you have the Ferrero Roche version, and in the middle you have caramelised banana. All three were delectable, and still managed to fit even after a generous dinner serving beforehand. There were absolutely no regrets tonight. Not even when we looked like we'd just been pushed fully clothed into a swimming pool.

to be continued...


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