The first stop in my recent trip to Asia was Shanghai. We originally planned to stay longer, but having relatives in Vietnam meant we had to allot more time to Saigon. So with only a layover in Shanghai, I really only had one goal: eat dumplings.
We were going to hit up the one-two punch of Yang’s Fry Dumpling and Jia Jia Tong Bao upon arrival for shen jian bao (fried soup dumplings) and xiao long bao (steamed soup dumplings). However, incorrect hours of operation posted online meant we’d have to postpone the dumpling duet until the next morning. Instead, we wandered the area around Nanjing Road and had a few bites of street food.
Our first bite of the night was from a busy stand selling Taiwanese fried chicken. Freshly fried and piping hot, the chicken was served as small bite-sized portions. It had a great amount of crispy crunch to it that complimented the succulent and juicy meat. The seasoning was predominately soy, sugar, and five spice. Assertive and upfront, the soy and sugar smacked you in the face while the five spice mellowed things out nicely on the finish and carried over from one bite to the next. A definite winner.
A few blocks away we found a Muslim grilled meat vendor. Muslim grilled lamb kabobs were nice and smoky from the live charcoal they were cooked over. The smokiness and cumin helped balance the intense muskiness of the fatty lamb, which was probably the gamiest lamb I’ve tasted.
Right next to the grilled meats was a stinky tofu vendor. We got the deep fried stinky tofu in chili sauce with green onions and some type of pickle. I’d only had stinky tofu once before at the 626 Night Market, and that particular stinky tofu was really hard to choke down due to the strong aroma and taste of petting zoo. This stinky tofu wasn’t nearly as poopy; it was actually very clean tasting (as clean as something that smells like poop can taste). You could actually taste the bean curd through the lingering barnyard flavor. The outside of the stinky tofu had a decent amount of bite to it while the inside was silken and scalding. To add to the searing pain caused by the molten tofu, the chili sauce was some of the spiciest stuff I’ve ever eaten. It was my first experience with how spiciness in Asia is simply on another level compared to the States.
I’m not 100% sure exactly what it was, but the stinky tofu vendor was selling another dish. The main ingredient was some type of soft, gelatinous substance. It was too soft to be wheat gluten or tendon. My guess is that it was some type of steamed radish cake, as I tasted some sharpness in the mush. The sauce consisted of ground pork, oyster sauce, sesame oil, fermented black beans (I think), green onion, some type of pickle, and more of that rip roaring chili sauce. Pretty tasty.
After torching our mouths, we tried putting out the flames with some sugar cane juice and yellow pomegranate juice hand pressed to order. Both drinks were the best versions of the drink I’ve ever had. Because the vendor only pressed the sugar cane once through the rollers, the resulting juice was so pristine, not watered down, and paradoxically not overly sweet. The vendor took the same care when pressing the pomegranate. She used a deft hand and made sure not to press too hard. As a result, it was like drinking the juice from the pulp with none of the astringency that comes with the seeds. It was the essence of pomegranate in a cup. Due to the cold weather, the juices came out nearly ice cold straight from the press. Later on in the trip, we had fresh pomegranate juice in Seoul. The difference between pressing gently to maintain purity and pressing hard to maximize volume was night and day. The latter was so astringent it tasted like drinking a cup full of liquefied coins.
To cap off the night, we decided to try some pretty good looking fried pork dumplings from another street vendor. Big mistake. They were stale, which made what should’ve been the crunchy parts tough and hard. The worst part was that they were reheated in a pool of tepid oil, just hot enough to warm them through. In terms of flavor, it was oil and loads of salt. Thankfully, this was the only thing we ate in Shanghai that didn’t fall within the very good to unbelievably amazing spectrum of deliciousness.