Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant - Shanghai

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Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant
Yuyuan Bazaar, 378 Fuyou Rd, Shanghai

This post is going to be about 'MUST-SEES'. As a tourist visiting Shanghai, one place that's considered 'must-see' is Oldtown aka Chen Huang Miao. Yu Yuan (another popular tourist sight) is located in the center of Oldtown so perhaps that will ring a bell.

Oldtown is a collection of, well, old buildings. You'll find gorgeous temple-style architecture - iconic roofs and wooden lattice windows. Everything is refurbished though, so you don't feel like you're walking through dusty, crumbling buildings. The buildings in Oldtown house many restaurants, small-eateries and souvenir stores. In particular, there are many shops stocking traditional Chinese products, i.e. tea, silk, pottery and calligraphy.

Street stalls selling small eats

Yes... that is a skull in a soup pot

In terms of food, this is not a fine dining district. There is a heavy presence of foreign food chains (McDonalds, Dairy Queen and Haagen Daaz, to name a few). However, the focus is on SMALL EATS. Walking around, you can see anything from quails on a stick to lamb skewers, tea eggs, rice ball stands and stinky tofu.

If you are curious to try something that's fundamentally Shanghainese, it's hard to go past little dragon buns. Along with the pan-fried buns, they are typical Shanghainese cuisine, perhaps even more so.

Little dragon buns are made of a thin outer casing with a pork-based filling. They are very delicate and must be eaten quickly. The buns are considered 'well-made' if the casing is thin (but intact) and there is 'soup' inside. You bite a hole in the casing and suck the soup out OR you pop a dragon bun in your mouth whole and enjoy.

Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant is a very reputable store when it comes to little dragon buns. With it's central location in Oldtown, it is very very popular. Nanxiang adopts an interesting 'system' to let you decide how much you're willing to pay not to stand in queue.

The ground floor always has a long queue. Expect an hour or so wait. Up one story, the buns are more expensive but you have a shorter wait. It is cafeteria-style eating and you get a 'ticket' for the purchase of the buns. You then have to stalk the seats till you find a vacancy OR stand behind someone who looks like they're about to finish and quickly snap up their seat.

If that sounds too competitive, you can go up another floor or two where it's conventional seated dining. As expected, the buns are again more expensive each floor you go up but the waiting times are shorter.
Upper floors have non-competitive seating

My mum and I were too impatient for the ground floor queue but too timid for the cafeteria floor so we went for the dining levels.

Nanxiang focuses on little dragon buns but they also have other snacks. We ignored those and ordered 2 'lian' of little dragon buns which is equivalent to 1 dozen. We chose 1/2 pure pork buns and 1/2 pork & crab-meat buns. You can also go more upmarket with pork & crab-roe buns.

As we were waiting for the food, we watched the staff prepare the buns. It was mind-blowing to watch: these guys are fast! Each person had a different 'roll' and as I was watching the guy who folds the wrapper up around the meat, I could swear it looked like his hands were on 'fast forward'. Amazing.

Our buns arrived and they are indeed delicious. To be honest, I'm not a HUGE fan of plain pork little dragon buns but at Nanxiang, they manage to stand out. I still prefer the crab ones though.

Top: pork; Bottom: pork and crab meat

Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant is popular even amongst local Shanghainese people, so you know it's not some kind of foreign gimmick. Apparently, Nanxiang expanded their restaurant overseas to Hong Kong, Singapore and the likes. I heard that their popularity overseas was not that great and my mum explained that this could be because people don't know how to eat them? Her theory is that in Hong Kong, people like to eat slowly and chat over 'yum cha time'. This doesn't work for little dragon buns because they need to be eaten immediately and quickly.

There's not a lot of things I stress you MUST do when visiting Shanghai, but trying the little dragon buns would definitely make your trip more 'complete'.

Chinese Hot and Sour Soup

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Chinese Hot and Sour Soup
Home Cooking

Continuing on with the family-style-cooking theme of the previous thread, I served the Shanghai spring rolls with a hot and sour soup.

When I was younger, I was obsessed about soup. The Soup Nazi episode on Seinfeld always made me so furious that there was no soup chain in Brisbane. In Cantonese restaurants, I would mostly look forward to the free soup they served at the start of the meal.

I always thought my mum made the best soup. My favorites included plain chicken broth, vegetable stew and her hot and sour soup.

Chinese Hot and Sour Soup
Serves 2 people generously

  • 3 dried shitake mushrooms
  • 20g worth of dried lily flower buds
  • 1 small pork loin chop (approx 100-150g), chopped into strips
  • 200g of firm tofu, cut into matchsticks
  • Chinese dark vinegar
  • white pepper powder
  • 3 x 250mL cans of chicken stock/chicken broth/water (I used water + a bit of chicken essence powder)
  • 2 egg whites or 1 beaten egg
  • 1 tbsp cornstarch

1. Soak the shitake mushrooms and lily flower buds in hot water, or in cold water and then put them in the microwave for 2min (time depends on strength of microwave). Once cool enough to handle, cut the stumps off the shitake mushrooms and cut them into strips.
2. Get all the ingredients ready...3. In a large wok, heat some vegetable oil until it is very hot. Stir-fry the pork strips until the color has changed. Reduce the heat to medium and add the water/stock. Once it is boiling, add the remainder of the ingredients.4. Reduce heat further and pop on the lid. Let the tofu tenderize over 5min or so.
5. Start adjusting the flavors - add a good dash on vinegar. Balance with white pepper and salt (I have a pepper/salt mix so I effectively added both at the same time). A bit of salt or chicken stock might be needed too. Everyone has different tastes but basically, you need to know that the 'hot' comes from white pepper and 'sour' comes from vinegar.6. Once you've got the flavors balanced, mix in the egg white slowly and let it break up like a mesh within the soup.
7. After all that, stir a bit of water into your corn starch and add this mix bit by bit to the soup. Keep stirring the soup - the idea is that you're trying to thicken it with the starch. As soon as it thickens, you can take the soup off the heat. Keep in mind that it will continue to thicken slightly from the residual heat.
8. Serve with a sprinkling of fresh shallots.

This soup is perfect for Winter. The pepper gives a lovely, mellow 'heat' - very pleasant for a sore throat.

Shanghai Spring Rolls

Shanghai Spring Rolls
Home Cooking

Having moved out of my parents house, I'm starting to miss mum and dad's cooking. It's one of those things you don't really appreciate until you're forced to eat out/make your own food every single day.

I have a theory that with certain foods, the taste varies greatly not just across different countries, provinces and whatnot but even in different families. This is probably the case with curry. It's definitely the case with spring rolls and won tons.

It's not to say I don't 'like' other spring rolls. Put some in front of me and I'll probably try them! However, I think that nothing replaces what you grew up with and what you're taste buds associate with home. I call these 'Shanghai' spring rolls because that's where my family is from and it's the kind of spring roll that Shanghainese people make.

I had a load of wom bok (Chinese cabbage) left over from the Korean hotpot night and stir-fried noodles... so I thought I'd use it to make spring roll filling. After a brief consult with my dad, I realized it would be super easy and I went for it!

Shanghai Spring Rolls
Makes approx. 12 small rolls

  • 1/4 head of wom bok, chopped into small pieces
  • 3-4 dried shitake mushrooms
  • 1 sml pork loin chop (approx 100g), cut into strips
  • 2-3 tbsp light soy
  • 1 tbsp cornstarch
  • 1 tbsp Chinese cooking wine
  • spring roll wrappers (small size - if you want to make small ones)
  • oil to fry (use a neutral oil e.g. vegetable oil)

1. Mix together the cornstarch, cooking wine, light soy with the pork strips. Set aside for at least 10min.2. Soak the shitake mushrooms in hot water (or, you can pop them in a cup with tap water and microwave on high for 1min 30sec or 2min). When they are cool enough to handle, cut off the stumps and cut the mushroom into strips.3. Heat up a wok on high heat with a bit of oil. When the wok is really nice and hot, add the pork. Toss the pork around until it has changed color.
4. Reduce the heat and add the wom bok with a bit of water. Pop the lid on and let the wom bok tenderize. Stir now and again to prevent burning.
5. When the wom bok is really mushy, add in the mushrooms. Toss everything around and taste. Season with a bit of salt if necessary.

Spoon out the filling into a bowl, cover with cling wrap and cool it in the fridge. If you're short on time, it's a good idea to make the filling the day before you want to have the spring rolls so you can cool it in the fridge overnight.The next day...

1. Spoon a bit of filling into each individual wrapper and fold into rolls.2. Fry in a moderate amount of oil in batches. Fry the spring rolls with the seam side down first. When that side is golden, turn and fry the other side. You should only have to turn them once. Be careful when turning the spring rolls - if you pop them open, filling may ooze out and splatter in the oil (happened to me...)3. When each spring roll is done, place it on many layers of absorbent paper towel and let the oil drain a bit.
4. Serve with light soy sauce (Charlie likes it with sweet chili sauce; I like it with no sauce).

I was a bit disappointed with how my spring rolls look. I blame the wrappers that I used which were frail and tore easily. Taste-wise, I'm extremely pleased because they are exactly like the ones we had at home.

Spring rolls are traditionally eaten in the Chinese New Year (for the Spring Festival). They're a bit oily but very yummy so I think they're suitable for any time of the year.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Workout of the week - MAKE YOUR OWN PASTA

Handmade Pasta
Home Cooking

I'm not going to be modest about this. Today I made HANDMADE pasta. It is indeed HANDMADE because I MADE IT. With my own hands. From SCRATCH.

You cannot GET any more 'handmade' than this. Not only is this homemade (as opposed to buying fresh pasta from a store), I don't even have a pasta machine. I DO, however, have an electronic stand-mixer with a dough-hook. At the time, I chose not to use it because a) I wanted the satisfaction of doing everything by myself and b) I completely underestimated how difficult it would be to kneed the dough.

Word of warning: if my post somehow entices you to give it a go, it is hard work. I thoroughly regret going ahead with this without the boy around.

Aside from all the doom-and-gloom though, I do have some advice/encouragement:
1. I personally am much weaker than the average female individual. Just because I thought this was super laborious, it doesn't mean you will. In all fairness, Jamie Oliver also made a reference to how strong Italian grandmothers get from kneading pasta dough (in his book "Cook with Jamie"), so... you never know.
2. This is feel-good cooking at its best. Aside from the obvious therapeutic benefit of pounding the living daylights out of a lump of dough, you also get a fabulous punch-the-air feeling at the end when you have darling threads of pasta tumbling through your fingers. It's worth it for that sense of achievement alone.

Handmade Pasta
Makes - however much you want (as a rule 1 egg leads to pasta for 1-2 people)

  • 1 egg
  • 100g Italian Tipo 00 flour

1) In a bowl, combine the egg and flour. I tried to be pro and made a mound of flour into which I cracked the egg. Not that I've tried the bowl method (since this is my first attempt) but I imagine it to be less messy.Very pretty

2) Once you have a uniform ball, plop it onto a well-floured surface and knead away.
3) Keep kneading. Nigella recommends pushing the dough away from you with your palms and bringing it back. Repeat.
4) Keeeeeepppppp kneaaadding. Jamie also suggests pulling and stretching the dough.
5) You're done when the dough is smooth and silky rather than rough, sticky and tattered. I didn't think I knew what that meant... I did actually feel a change in the consistency of my dough and I pretty much stopped there, unable to go on. My pasta was a bit on the chewy side so I'm not sure if that's because I didn't knead it enough. Probably.6. Once the dough is ready, wrap it up in cling-wrap and pop it in the fridge for 30min-1hr.
7. Remove from the fridge and start rolling it out. It's recommended you use a pasta machine for this (in which case, you'll follow the instructions for your pasta machine). Like I said, I didn't have one so I did it old-school with rolling pin.
8. Flour the bench and your rolling pin. Roll away. Once I got to a certain 'thinness', I floured my dough and folded it over and rolled that... in effect, I was rolling 2 parts in one go. I then unfolded and evened things out, floured, refolded and rolled again.
If that doesn't make sense to you - refer to the photo below.
As long as you keep your layers nicely floured to prevent sticking together, it's a good way to get thin layers fast. This inability to roll thin sheets properly (without the aid of a machine) could be another reason why my pasta turned out chewy so follow my advice with caution.
Thin as I could get without pulling a muscle :)

9. Once you got a nice thin sheet, flour and fold again. Using a very sharp knife, cut the sheet into strips. The thickness of the strips determines your 'type' of pasta. I didn't bother to measure but my strips are thick so I'm going to call it tagliatelle. You can, of course, chose not to cut and instead make ravioli or use your sheets lasagna-style.

I was so happy once I finished making my pasta that I whipped up the quickest 'sauce' I could devise in order to devour the whole lot asap.
Barely a sauce at all, what I did was infuse some A-class olive oil (my good stuff) with crushed garlic (do it over medium-high heat) and tossed through some: parsley, black olives, anchovy, pine nuts, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds.

I boiled my fresh pasta in salted water for about 2min (doesn't take long) and drained thoroughly before throwing the lot into the hot, flavored oil.

After plating, I grated some fresh parmesan over the top and it was all good.

All in all my pasta wasn't bad and I'm pleased I got through the whole process. As I pointed out before, it was a bit tough and chewy. I hope I'll be able to figure out what I did wrong because as much as I've complained about it, pasta-making is indeed very rewarding.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Zen Chinese Cuisine - Shanghai

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Zen Chinese Cuisine, Life Hub @ DaNing, Shanghai (China)

Note: the website given above is about the location of this restaurant, rather than the restaurant itself.

DaNing (just one of the many buildings)

Usually, when individuals/familys 'return' overseas, they bring gifts back for their families and friends. We go back too often for Australian souviners to have any appeal... but aside from sheepskin and lanolin oil, there really isn't much you can get in Australia that you can't get in China.

The current solution is that we don't bring anything back but for courtesy, we shout the family a large meal. When I went back in Feb 09, my mum asked my aunt to chose a nice restaurant. The one we were going to visit was too full and we didn't want to wait around for an hour. It was located in 'DaNing' which is a bit like the Pentagon in Shanghai. Basically, there's a collection of buildings that are full of shops and restaurants. At DaNing, the streets connecting these buildings are pedestrian-only walks and the whole complex is quite nice to walk through and explore.

Zen is the restaurant we ended up going to.

This restaurant was HUGE. It was really really big. I thought for a moment that the walls were lined with mirror - to create the illusion of more tables. No... they actually WERE more tables.

I've been to Zen in Conrad Jupiter, Gold Coast and it was a pleasant experience. Zen in Shanghai was also pretty good. The food was of high standards and the service was friendly(not easy to find in China). I didn't enjoy all the dishes that much but I feel like this is because my aunt didn't order perfectly to my taste. I would be happy to return to Zen and pick my own dishes in confidence that they'll turn out well.

As per traditional Shanghai style, we started off with the cold dishes.

Peanuts with salted vegetables

Black fungus in chili oil

Cold mini-clams

Tiny dried fish

Crab claws

I thought the spicy fungus was pretty awesome although many of my family members can't handle chili food.

The hot dishes came next.

Zen-style sticker buns

One major lapse in service is that we ordered a pork leg and it never turned up. The kitchen actually forgot all about that order so we just canceled it. Also, my aunt made a big deal about the sticker buns but in all honesty, my mum and I thought the Xiao Yang sticker buns were much superior, even though they are about 5 times cheaper.
Tofu & mushroom pot with qi chai

Seafood tofu

French-style beef with mayonnaise

In particular, I liked the 'French-style' beef with mayonnaise. You'd think that it's impossible to go wrong with a dish of crispy deep fried dish but I've had it in more than 1 place in Shanghai and I thought Zen made it better. It wasn't too oily and the beef was lovely and tender.
Pork mince wraps

I liked the wrapped pork mince too. You eat this Peking duck-style by wrapping up a bit of the mince with some shallot in a pancake. I've had this dish before but at that time, we wrapped the pork in mini steamed buns. My mum tried to make this when we got back to Australia - the pork part was OK but she got the pancake wrong and for some reason, wrapped avocado in with it. Very poor fusion of East and West.

Sweet and sour mandarin fish

The sweet and sour mandarin fish was also well received. Everyone dug into it and while we were waiting for the pork leg (that never came), my uncle even devoured spoonfuls of the sweet and sour sauce... soon, the plate was clean!

South-East Asian Stir-fried Noodles

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South-East Asian Stir-fried Noodles
Home Cooking

Lol at the name of this dish but my explanation is...

The original recipe that inspired me was for 'Singaporean fried noodles' but I've altered it so much that it's barely more than a slight influence. As a result, I have no idea what my noodle dish is supposed to be culturally. 'South-East Asian' is a safe bet but I'm leaning towards Malaysian. There probably isn't a genuine Malaysian dish like this but the flavors and ingredients are a mix between Singaporean and Indonesian tastes so if you're curious about how these noodles taste, it's somewhat similar to those cuisine styles.

After days and days of Indian food (I noticed a trend that I was cooking curry, baking naan, eating at Indian restaurants and drinking Chai), I decided to ease myself out of full-flavored food... gradually...

South-East Asian is spiced and sometimes pungent but it is a definite step down from Indian food. My house is such that there are not many windows so whatever I cook will influence how every room smells for many days to come.

I got so overwhelmed by smelling curry every time I came home that it was definitely time for a change.

Since I had a host of random Asian ingredients lying around, I thought a stir-fry would be a good option. When I read about a stir-fry noodle dish that used vermicelli noodles, I thought it would be perfect since it saved me buying noodles or cooking rice.

South-East Asian (possibly Malaysian) Stir-fried Noodles
Serves 2-3

  • 1 egg
  • 1 sml white/brown onion, cut into wedges
  • 1 tsp curry powder
  • 100g pork sirloin (or 1 pork chop), cut into thin strips
  • 150g tofu (I used firm/fried tofu), chopped into cubes
  • 2 tbsp dark soy sauce
  • dash of Chinese cooking wine
  • 1 clove of crushed garlic
  • 1 sml block of grated ginger (to make a tsp-full)
  • About 100g dried vermicelli
  • 1 handful of bean sprouts (about 50g, I used frozen)
  • 1/4 wom bok (Chinese cabbage), torn/cut into large pieces
  • 1/4 cup kecap manis (or to taste)

Note: the procedure may look complicated but it simply involved getting a few things ready and stir-frying it all together in the end. Most of these steps can be done in advance.

1. Mix together the dark soy, garlic, ginger and Chinese cooking wine with the pork and tofu pieces and leave to marinade for at least 30min. I was given an awesome 9-minute marinator for my birthday so I used that.2. Soak the vermicelli and bean sprouts in some warm water. Once soft, drain and set aside.
3. Meanwhile... beat the egg in a bowl. Fry it in a pan with some oil to make a mini-omelet. Set aside.4. In a large wok, heat up some vegetable oil and fry the onion with some curry powder. Once it begins to tenderize, remove from the wok and set aside.
5. In the same wok, fry the pork on high heat until it begins to change color. 6. Add the wombok to the wok and turn down the heat. Pop on the lid and let the wombok cook. It should release water as it's cooking and begin to shrink and tenderize whilst soaking up the juices from the pork.7. Return the onion to the wok along with the tofu and bean sprouts. Once everything is pretty much cooked, stir-fry in the vermicelli and the egg omelet (omelet will get cut up in the stir-frying process, which is what we want).
8. Flavor the noodles with kecap manis (sweet Indonesian soy sauce) to your liking.
9. Serve with some fresh shallots.

This dish has a lot of steps but it's easy to do. Stir-fries are excellent ways of getting rid of left overs. I'm quite happy with how this turned out and it's boosted my confidence in Asian cooking.