Rick Stein is a little worried. He's come to Shanghai, a bustling city with a rich culinary history, and he's ready to eat. But is he going to to find the amazing Chinese food he's expecting?
"Since the eighties it’s become a global financial centre to rival London, New York and Hong Kong. And with all that cash, restaurants have opened up at a rate of knots and chefs have been drawn here from all over the world," he says at the start of Rick Stein's taste of Shanghai (watch below, or on SBS On Demand).
"What I'm here for is the food, of course, the Shanghainese dishes, but, are they still here i wonder? Because, everything's changing, there's so many western restaurants opening here. What's happening to Shanghainese cooking?"
You will be unsurprised to know that the seafood guru finds plenty to delight as he eats his way through the city and surrounds, meeting enthusiastic winemakers, grumpy noodle vendors and a chef who refuses to carry his wife's handbag (but does share an excellent recipe for red braised pork).
Here are some highlights of his tasty adventures.
1. Steamed hairy crab
"The hairy crab isn’t actually all that hairy – apart from a generous tuft on its meaty forearms, and not much else," Stein comments, before digging into some while getting a succinct summary of what Shanghai food is from local tour guide Jamie Barys.
"Shanghainese cuisine is kind of the red headed step-child of Chinese cuisine; so there's four major cuisines that are on the compass point. And the one that's in the East is called Huaiyang," Barys explains.
"And Shanghainese is a branch of Huaiyang cuisine. It's a bit sweeter and has a lot more foreign influences than a lot of the other cuisines in China. Because, historically, Shanghai has always been a port town."
2. Red braised pork
Stein goes to meet leading Shanghai chef Anthony Zhou. After a trip to the kitchen where Zhou reveals the secret to his version of local favourite, rich, sticky sweet-savoury red braised pork, the pair sit down for dinner with Zhou's wife. The conversation roams from the incredible number of restaurants in Shanghai (around 120,000!) to why Shanghai husbands are excellent - but Zhou doesn't embrace the local custom of a husband carrying his wife's purse.
Get Anthony Zhao’s red braised pork recipe here.
3. Pig intestine noodles
Over a bowl of this local favourite, Stein asks Shanghai local Jia Jia why several noodle vendors told him and his film crew to go away. The famous ones are always grumpy, she assures him - "they don't need to be polite."
4. Clams from the market
As a port city, it's not surprising that Shanghai has fantastic seafood. And (spoiler alert!) without giving away the answer entirely, we can say that when Stein ranks his favourite three dishes from Shaghai at the end of the show, there's a seafood dish on the list. One of the contenders? Clams bought at a bustling seafood market and taken to the kitchen of a nearby restaurant, to be cooked in a matter of minutes.
5. Scallion pancakes
Would Rick Stein wait an hour for one of the hot, flakey green-flecked scallion pancakes made by local legend Mr Wu?
6. Soup dumplings
Stein gets tips on how to eat xiao long bao - soup dumplings. It's a matter of a delicate nip and a slurp, suspended above the safety-net spoon. "Soft, delicate, doughy bags of flavour," says a happy Stein.
7. Where there's a wine, there's a way
On the island of Chongming, Rick has something else he wants to share. "It’s one particular ingredient that turns up in dish after dish - yellow rice wine – and it’s made from fermented glutinous rice. In this winery, the wine they make is more for drinking than cooking with – and that’s fine by me."
8. Chicken, tofu and afternoon tea
No, not all at once. That's just a quick glimpse of some of the other things he eats. He's not entirely sure about stinky tofu ("Well, it's not great, but I think I could get used to it"); delighted by the chicken dish cooked by the mother of his translator, Jia Jia ("lovely"); and prompted to fanciful imaginings by afternoon tea ("There’s a distinct whiff of the thirties in the air").
Watch Rick Stein's Taste of Shanghai here or on SBS On Demand).
One of the great thrills of visiting Shanghai is discovering the city’s myriad street foods. They’re cheap, easy to find and different ones appear at various times of the day, making the city a veritable smorgasbord of casual-dining options. These sturdy dumplings make their appearance in the morning and are eagerly scoffed for breakfast or as a quick snack. They are slightly fiddly – but rewarding – to make so don’t worry if yours aren’t as perfectly shaped as a Shanghai vendor’s. They’ll still taste fantastic.
This Shanghainese recipe is indispensable in my kitchen. The combination of oil infused with the fragrance of spring onion and dried shrimps and the umami savouriness of soy sauce is irresistible, however simple it sounds. I eat this dish so often that I have taken to making the flavoured oil in large quantities and keeping it in the fridge – although I’m not even sure it requires refrigeration. I keep fresh Chinese noodles in my freezer too, which means that I can have a bowlful of this gorgeous snack a mere 10 minutes after thinking of it: all that’s required is to boil some water, cook the noodles from frozen and dress them in the fragrant oil and light soy sauce. I eat them for breakfast, lunch and midnight feasts, sometimes with a salad on the side. The recipe is said to have been invented by a street vendor near the City God Temple in Shanghai.
Shanghainese lion’s head meatballs are one of my dad’s favourite foods, and this recipe was originally my great-grandmother’s, on his side. My dad missed these so much when our family moved [to the United States] that he learned to cook just to make them – they’re that good. The meatballs are first fried briefly, then steamed for longer over an impossibly tall pile of bok choy, so that the oil and juices from the meatballs lend a savoury-sweetness to the bok choy underneath as it cooks down.
It’s almost hard to call them ‘meatballs’ because that connotes spaghetti and boldly herbed, strong-textured balls of ground [minced] beef – this isn’t that. This is soft and comforting home-style food the kind that feels like your grandmother’s hug.
The famous Shanghai rice cake gets a twist with the addition of shredded pork. It’s a simple dish to prepare and a great savoury snack served with a glass of beer or orange juice.
I am a big lover of eggplant. I have been cooking it in so many ways over the years, and still love it. I am never sick of it. This is a very simple and a traditional Shanghai home cooked side dish. Every family in Shanghai has their own way to cook it and uses the exact same ingredients. The woman in Shanghai who is the best cook for this dish is very special – she is my mum. So I believe the best seasoning in the world is memories.