Pan-fried, Meaty, and Juicy

Xiaolongbao, those glorious steamed dumplings with a meat and soup filling, have migrated far beyond Shanghai and gained a cult following. Meanwhile, another obsession-worthy Shanghainese specialty has remained a local secret.

Shengjian bao, they call it here. Think of it as a fried version of xiaolongbao. Well, a bun, really. A soup bun that is pan-fried until the bottoms are just crisp and the sesame seeds and chives on top meld into the crunchy casing.

When I come to Shanghai I get my shengjian bao from two places. One is in the French Concession, a 3-minute walk from where i usually stay. The baozi aren't spectacular, but they're great for a cheap lunch or hunger fix. The other is the venerable and endearingly misspelled Yang's Fry-Dumpling, just north of People's Square and right across the street from another cheap-eats institution. If you eat shengjian bao only once in Shanghai (or twice, or thrice), do so at Yang's.

Chowing down on shengjian bao is trickier than on xiaolongbao. First,the thick crunchy casing is such a good insulator that the soup is still piping hot 10 minutes after you sit down. Burnt tongues are common, but worth dealing with.

Second, each bao is about the size of a small plum, making it impossible to eat in a single bite. This means squirtage is inevitable, at least for a non-local. With practice, or luck, the soup will squirt into the boundaries of your plate instead of at the person across from you. (The woman with the baby will appreciate this.) Again, just concentrate; these are easy hurdles. Because the mouthfuls of crunchy bun and soupy pork goodness to come will be very, very satisfying.

Did I mention a plate of four shengjian bao costs about 60 US cents?

Yang's Fry-Dumpling 97 Huanghe Lu Shanghai

Dai Pai Dong Love

I recently took a much needed break from Beijing and blogging and headed to Hong Kong. Oh, how I missed good Cantonese food.

Upon my arrival in the hot and muggy city my uncle gave me two suggestions for food.

"Do you want to go to a nice air-conditioned dim sum parlor, or an outdoor dai pai dong where we'll sit on hard plastic stools and be insanely sweaty and uncomfortable?" Given that I had just been through an ordeal that involved missing my overnight train, buying an over-priced same-day plane ticket to Guangzhou, bussing to Zhongshan to see my parents for a night, then bussing 4 hours to Hong Kong, I decided to postpone roughing it to another day.

The next night, after two long showers and lots of sleep, I was ready for some cheap outdoor grub.ย The term dai pai dong in Hong Kong refers to open-air food stalls (though it's easy nowadays to find indoor ones). Diners sit at folding tables on cheap plastic stools, eat from cheap plastic plates and bowls, and enjoy no break from the ever-present humidity in Hong Kong. That said, the food is often delicious, the atmosphere quite rowdy and social, and most importantly for my uncle, smoking is still allowed.

The number of official dai pai dongs have dwindled in recent years, because of government health concerns and original owners being unable to transfer licenses to offspring.ย  But Hong Kongers are a nostalgic bunch, and so far have been able to keep the few remaining dai pai dongs in business with fervent patronage.

Sham Shui Po is a neighborhood in Kowloon far off the tourist path. On Shek Kip Mei Street there are still a couple original dai pai dongs whose kitchens are located on the street, en plein air. The food is a bit pricey, but that's because the restaurant also has indoor, climate-controlled seating which we shunned in favor of "atmosphere." And because of the mostly seafood choices, which I did not mind. We ordered a cold spicy stir-fried squid dish to start. And then a plate of hong sum choi (water spinach) with fermented tofu. And finished with a plate of the most sublime soft-shell crab I had ever tasted.

 

If I knew the secret to locking in such tender, juicy crab meat while creating an exterior that is still crispy after 40 minutes of languorous eating, I would open a crab shack on some popular seashore and make a killer profit. Alas, I don't, so I must stick to blogging about this decadent dish rather than cooking it for others to enjoy firsthand. Did I mention the sprinkling of sea salt atop the crab? Divine.

It was so divine, in fact, that I hardly noticed the mugginess, until I retreated to the rest room and saw my beady forehead in the mirror. Culinary euphoria does a great job of disguising discomfort.

 

 

More Scorpion Love from Portland's KGW

Okay, maybe "love" is an overstatement. Not long after I filmed the Donghuamen Night Market segment with CBS (but before it aired), I was contacted by KGW, Portland's NBC affiliate. Stephanie Stricklen, the correspondent, wanted to shoot an odd street food story for the Portland area, and of course, I obliged. (According to an online pole, viewers had insisted she try scorpion.) She was also excited to learn that Jacob is an ex-Oregonian, and thus his appearance in the segment.

This KWG clip which aired on August 19th shows both the Donghuamen Night Market and the slightly less tourisy Wangfujing Snack Street.