12 July 2009

the travelvore

Shanghai's soup dumplings changed my life. Or, if I'm going to be less dramatic about the whole thing, I could say that Shanghai's soup dumplings helped define a consistent inconsistency that has appeared in my eating habits over the past few years. It was over steaming baskets of these pork-filled delicacies that Stefano-ssi and I decided to call me a "travelvore."

My research (i.e. Eating food for 34 years) indicates that the eating habits of a "travelvore" can best be described as herbivore meets carnivore with a lot of air travel in between. Take the example of pork: I don't eat pork at home but when it's in a soup dumpling in Shanghai, I've resigned myself to eating it well before my plane lands in China. And standing in line waiting for a seat at a jam-packed soup dumpling restaurant doesn't make me reconsider my decision, instead it confirms that I'm in exactly the right place to break my no-pork rule.

If these dumplings could be found closer to home I might be tempted to fully convert to carnivore; you could say the same thing about melt-in-your-mouth Italian prosciutto. But thankfully, and unfortunately, the authenticity of such pleasures tends to decrease as the distance from their birthplace grows. And so I eat San Daniele prosciutto with abandon in Milano and stand in line for soup dumplings in Shanghai.

Some of us travel for the eating and in the case of soup dumplings - or xiao long bao - the flight is worth it. These delicate pouches of soup and pork are tiny and fragile and if you're too rough with your chopsticks you'll breach the core and the salty rich insides will be lost. If you're lucky, the broth might dribble into your vinegar dish or the spoon you're supposed to be holding under the dumpling at all times, and you'll be able to recover the delicious liquid. If you're not so lucky, it'll slip through the slats of the steamer basket never to be slurped again.

The dumplings are made by wrapping minced pork and solidified broth into a tissue-thin dumpling skin. When the packets are steamed, it not only cooks the pork but melts the broth, turning it into a mouthful of boiling hot soup. These dumpling are usually made to order and should arrive steaming hot to the table. You're supposed to bite a small steam vent into the top of a dumpling - rather than eating it whole - and once some of the heat has escaped you can suck out the broth and eat the dumpling. The entire experience is a sort of wonderful culinary magic.

In Shanghai it's easy to find great food from China's other regions as well, including Sichuan cuisine which is known for its slow burn. We had dinner in the garden of one Sichuan restaurant and both enjoyed the tongue-numbing pleasures of a large pile of shrimp snuggled with dried red peppers. While the effects eventually faded they weren't helped by my room temperature cucumber juice which was somehow not as refreshing as I'd hoped.

We also waited "just one moment" [translation: just one hour] to eat in a local place that a friend recommended. It was void of tourists and worth the wait mostly for the people watching and an excellent eggplant dish that reminded us of a vinegary Italian capponata. We also tried another type of pork dumpling, this one with thick breading and a bottom that was deep fried and crispy, and coated in sesame seeds.

Shanghai's reputation for incredible food is well-deserved, as is commentary about the breakneck pace of development and the resulting particulate cloud that hangs across large swaths of the city. Walking just a few blocks here will not only leave you with dust in your mouth from multiple construction sites, but will show you Shanghai before, after, and in-between.

The cutting-edge skyscrapers are some of the world's tallest and looking across the HuangPu River (ignoring the construction along its shore) is like staring into the face of any American skyline, all lights and twinkle and modern pride. The city's parks are top notch and reminiscent of New York's Central Park in their function as a green mirage at the center of a bustling city. There are also the architectural reminders of Western powers that in the second half of the 19th century opened Shanghai to international trade. Largely art nouveau, these formal buildings stand out like three-dimensional urban graffiti where European visitors scrawled out "we were here" in bricks and mortar.

Leave behind the skyscrapers and formal promenades and in ten minutes you'll be walking through narrow-street neighborhoods with clothes on laundry lines, men balancing chicken cages on motor bikes, and women selling lethargic frogs out of mesh bags. Young women wash their hair at the curb, men in pajamas and rain boots clack pieces across checker boards, and an old couple eats the insides out of a watermelon they've cracked open with their hands.

Children on tiptoe take turns dunking their faces in a bowl of water, grub vendors count their merchandise with tweezers in one hand and a cell phone in the other, and no one thinks about the bullet train that shoots visitors into the city from the airport at 400 kilometers per hour.

This is a city jammed with personality and if you smile, people smile back. It's in stark contrast to the stoic posture of Beijing where the pressing weight of several thousand years of history, culture and government have squeezed the gaiety out of the city. By contrast, Shanghai feels happier, lighter, and more international. With great food. The perfect place for a travelvore.

[Note: When we landed in Shanghai and the captain turned off the "fasten seat belts" sign, we were not allowed to leave the plane. Instead, we had to wait for our official welcome party to board. Composed of several people in hazmat outfits the group went up and down the aisles pointing large laser guns at each passenger's forehead. If your bangs were in the way, they made you move them. If you were sleeping, they didn't even wake you up. The laser guns were thermometers and the hazmat brigade took every single person's temperature before they would let the plane disembark. Reportedly, if anyone within 3 rows of you came down with swine flu, you would get quarantined right along with them. It's this sort of thing that reminds you you're in China.]

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