Thursday, February 6, 2014

15 Hours In Shanghai - Night

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.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

2013 Favorites

After recently returning from a trip to Asia and being generally underwhelmed with the food that I ate there, I began thinking about how the food compared to other things I ate in 2013.  Though there were a lot of disappointments in Asia, there were a two things that ranked among the best things I’ve ever eaten.  One savory and one sweet.  Not only were they delicious, but they were cheap too: $1 or less per order.  That got me thinking about what my favorite high end savory and sweet dishes were from 2013 and how they ranked compared to the two cheap eats.

#1: Shen Jian Bao @ Yang’s Fry Dumpling, Shanghai
Shen jian bao: an enormous porky meatball swimming in slightly sweetened soup encased in a paper thin yet toothsome wrapper topped with sesame seeds and green onion.  If that wasn’t enough, one side is fried to perfection with zero greasiness.  Crispy, crunch, chewy, savory, sweet, pungent, solid, and liquid.  I couldn’t ask for anything more.


I’m certain I’ll remember these for the rest of my life, and a small note here can’t do them justice.  I plan on giving them a full write up in the future, and at just 25 cents per dumpling they’re one of the cheapest things I’ve ever eaten in addition to one of the best.

#2: Che Xoi Nuoc @ Che My, Saigon
Che xoi nuoc: glutinous rice balls filled with a coconut-spiked mung bean paste floating in an ethereal sauce of freshly pressed coconut milk and sweetened ginger water topped with toasted peanuts.  The richness of the coconut milk was perfectly cut by the heat of ginger.  The silky chewiness of the glutinous rice balls was graceful and perfectly countered by the crunchiness of the peanuts.  A touch of salt rounded out the 47 cent bowl of che.


It’s perhaps unfair to the other amazing ches and sweet banh I had that che xoi nuoc is my favorite che of all time because there are several that could’ve easily claimed this spot.  All the great desserts I had in Vietnam will just have to share the spotlight in a later post.

#3: Wood-Grilled Ribeye & Foie Gras in Mole Negro @ Topolobampo, Chicago
“Wood-grilled 28-day-aged prime ribeye & seared foie gras in classic Oaxacan black mole (chilhuacle chiles & 28 other ingredients), corn husk-steamed chipil tamal, unctuous black beans, smoky green beans.”  I didn’t understand mole until I had this dish.  There was so much depth of flavor in the perfectly balanced mole that adding aged ribeye and foie gras seemed like gilding the lily.  I would’ve been happy with the dish even if the proteins were swapped out for stale bread.


#4: Young Coconut @ Grace, Chicago
Young coconut, lime, huckleberry, African blue basil: a great flavor combination reminiscent of Southeast Asian flavors that I love.  I’ve always enjoyed Curtis Duffy’s use of herbs in his dishes as it reminds me of the herbaceous Vietnamese food I grew up with.  I also like that he limits the ingredients of a dish and uses a certain ingredient in many different forms.  This makes for dishes that truly capture the essence of an ingredient while being varied enough to make it interesting and not monotonous.