DRAFT Shanghai Cuisine: the Sweet and the Boozy05 Jul 2014
Qiang bai xie—"drunken crab"—is raw crab, cracked and marinated with rice wine and sugar. It's a challenging dish for Westerners, partly because of its strong boozy, briny (and ok, fishy) flavor, but more because of the strangely buttery, slippery texture of raw shellfish. To be honest, it was more than we could stomach after a couple of bites.
A rich and sweet brown sauce made with dark soy, wine, and sugar, makes common appearances in a number of Shanghai dishes, including this sliced braised duck.
Lion's head meatballs are a dish developed in Huaiyang cuisine, but has since become a Shanghai staple. I've seen Lion's Head meatballs served in Shanghai restaurants in New York that make a dark, soy sauce-flavored version of the dish, but I vastly preferred the lighter version we had in Shanghai.
In this version, the giant meatballs, made with coarse chunks of pork and pork fat very mildly seasoned with salt and sugar, are braised in a simple clear broth along with baby bok choy. It reminds me a lot of matzo ball soup in its homey comfort.
It seems like every city in China has its own staple noodle dish. In Shanghai, it's ma jiang ban mian—stretched wheat noodles served with a ladle of sesame sauce and chili oil. I had the version at Wei Xiang Zhai, on the recommendation of Serious Eatser Ken Phang. The restaurant is a small, ratty, no-frills type place and the clientele—who are jammed shoulder to shoulder into tiny tables next to complete strangers—ranged from on-duty policemen to men in suits on lunch breaks to perfectly-dressed young women taking a shopping break.
The reason? Well, the noodles were pretty much perfect. Super-fresh and springy, served with a creamy dollop of sesame sauce and a spoonful of chili oil.
Quick word of advice: Eat fast, as the sesame sauce has a tendency to get thick and grainy if you let the noodles cool too much. Just follow the locals' lead: start slurping as soon as the plate is laid in front of you, and don't stop until they're all gone.