Captured in the dank staircase of the crumbling Art Deco building, we suddenly alight to an industrial kitchen flooded in a dusky glow. Two little old Chinese ladies are pottering around, oblivious to the chaos of Shanghai several floors below. Me, my husband, and our seven-year-old daughter are instructed with gentle gestures and broken English that we’ll be learning how to make pork buns and pearl dumplings today.
Flour is thrown with abandon for the dough which is torn and massaged into our palms and filled with a pork mixture. The next stage is where the true art of dumpling making lies as the edges are pleated around the filling. Under the skilful eye of our mentors, our mutant dumplings soon begin to look appetising enough to steam and eat. Sticky rice dough is wrapped around date paste and then rolled into balls of pearl dumplings. By the end of the workshop even my daughter had become an expert at these sweet dumplings.
Where there were once rice paddies totter skyscrapers and apartment blocks with washing lines that threaten to take flight; giving new meaning to the term ‘airing one’s laundry’. The futuristic skyline hovers magnificently above traditional tea-houses and alleys that house generations of families. In all seasons the streets are a sea of umbrellas in an ocean of people that use over 45 billion chopsticks every year; and it certainly feels that way downtown. Shanghai is a city of extremes: the weather swings between bitter winters and sweltering summers; the old is giving way to the new; and capitalist China competes with its Communist past.
Our Western sensitivities may find the Chinese eating culture difficult to stomach. They slurp, yell, spit, and consume copious amounts of alcohol while chain-smoking long after the plates are cleared away. In amongst this madness tea or yum cha meaning “touch of the heart lightly” is sipped with dim sum. Food is always shared either over the dining room or huddled around a makeshift table in an alleyway. Many a business deal is done across the table: there is no substitute for trust built over a shared meal. However, a good portion of the population can’t afford to dine in restaurants and street food, dumpling carts and noodle stalls are inundated with anaconda queues, well the good ones are anyway. Survival of the fittest rules in this fast paced city.
Chinese food is the cornerstone of cuisine: shared in a country where privacy is vied for and personal space is consumed by a billion other souls. Their cuisine is integral to the ‘five elements theory’ where yin and yang keeps the body in harmony. Wood equates to the taste of sour, fire to bitter, earth to sweet, metal to spicy and water to salty. While these tastes have evolved over time, they form the basis of many dishes familiar to our modern palate. Local menus vary from those Chinese encyclopedia-sized tomes back home with ingredients like stir-fried bullfrog, turtle hot-pot, pork ear (many a domestic dog enjoys the treat of a pig’s ear in Australia), tripe, chicken feet, pig’s trotters, pigeon, snake, monkey, and the prized shark-fin.
The cuisine of Shanghai is deemed as oilier than other regions and influenced by its surrounding provinces. The prized hairy crabs are caught when in season between October and December from the Yangtze River. These black-bodied crustaceans have hairy feet and are torn apart, dipped in a mixture of soy, ginger and vinegar, and downed with warm Shaoxing rice wine. Tiny crabs, da zha xie,are shelled and the meat and roe is used as dumpling stuffing, and sometimes appear unsavourily on the menu as “crab ovaries.”
Further afield, dim sum tracks back to the Canton region which was originally introduced for travellers on the Silk Road needing tea breaks, known as yum cha, and eventually food accompanied the tea. Given the frenzied pace of China, dim sum hardly provides the relaxing break it once did, but nonetheless the comforting sentiment still remains.
The dim sum combinations are endless and it would be a gourmand’s sin to not try xiaolongbao (Shanghai dumplings). Filled with meaty soup preserving your tastebuds from scalding is tricky. Place the dumpling in a spoon and after dipping in vinegar bite a tiny hole out of the crust to release some of the steam. Slurp the soup and then devour the dumpling – decorum is futile.
The nanxiang steamed bun has a thin wrapping that encloses the bursting flavours of pork seasoned with bamboo shoots in spring, shrimp in summer, and crab in autumn. Shrimp dumplings are barely concealed in their translucent skins and can be accompanied with pork and topped with crab roe. The dim sum trolley features the familiar sight of half moon shaped jiaozi packed with meat, usually pork, cabbage and spices. These dumplings are boiled or fried and served with red rice vinegar or a dipping sauce. Slender spring rolls are filled with all sorts of meat and vegetable combinations and deep fried for a crispy crunch. The Cantonese invention of char sui ba, is a bun filled with a slightly sweet barbecued pork centre and a filling addition to the meal. Fried wontons filled with chicken and seasoning are pinched into pouches, tied with a chive and fried into moneybags.
Interestingly, although rice is grown in the region, wheat-based breads, dumplings and noodles are favoured, and rice isn’t a prominent component of the menu like it is in the west. Rice is what you eat when the other ingredients aren’t available or in congee at breakfast. However, steamed glutinous rice wrapped in lotus or banana leaves are a dim sum classic. When steamed the rice takes on the flavours of the filling of chicken, mushroom, seasoning and the leaves themselves.
Although vegetarianism is unlikely to rule, it’s becoming a fad where “mock meat” dishes are formed from tofu and sculptured into meat, fish, mushrooms, and vegetables. Some vegetarian options are dumplings filled with vegetables like leek, or fried taro encased in a flaky pastry, or the delicious carrot cake which is a mixture of flour, taro, meat, and carrot pan-fried in square chunks. Only the truly intrepid foodie will give stinky tofu a go; just follow your nose.Desserts tempt with glistening egg custards, or almond tofu with syrup or fruit for a hit of sweetness. White rice cake with its spongy, porous and jelly-like consistency has a balance of sweet and sour very popular with the locals. Puddings come in interesting flavours that range from mango to ginger. Pearl dumplings, also known as New Year sweet dumplings can be filled with either a nut or bean paste. A Chinese banquet, the epitome of a shared feast, will often conclude with an eight-treasure rice of preserved fruits, nuts, glutinous rice and bean paste.
Speaking of treasures, Shanghai sparkles with the following dim sum gems:
Whampoa Club, 5thFloor, Three on the Bund (enter from Guangdong Lu), Shanghai, +86 21 6321 3737; this fancy postmodern Chinese restaurant has a sublime nine-course dim sum lunch where the dishes come out in succession.
Nan Xiang Steamed Bun Restaurant, 85 Yuyuan Lu, at Yu Gardens, Shanghai is a shrine to the dumpling.
Yang’s Fried Dumplings, 2ndFloor, Huang Pu Hui, 269 Wujiang Lu, Shanghai, +86 21 6136-1391; you can tell the locals approve of this street vendor by the lines it commands. The fried pork and sage filled shengjian soup dumplings and sesame seed and scallion coated fried dumplings come recommended.
Local Perth treasures:
Good Fortune Roast Duck House, 344 William St, Northbridge; of course the duck is tasty but those lines are hard to ignore on the weekends and worth enduring for the dim sum.
Dim Sum Cafe, 297-301 William St, Northbridge, 9328 9388, is rumoured to have the best Shanghai dumplings outside of Shanghai.
Golden Century Seafood Restaurant, 191 James St, Northbridge, offers lavish seafood options and the seafood dim sum is particularly favoured.