Friday, October 8, 2010

China post 5: Riverside


On our last full day in Shanghai, mum decided we should travel out a bit to do a day tour. She had a friend with a car and we all took a ride to Zu Jia Jiao, which is a small tourist village about 1-2hrs out from Shanghai.

Looks like a painting

It’s a tourist site labelled ‘ancient village’ because that’s the appeal of the town. You pay a small fee to get in and once inside, are surrounded by old architecture and old streets.

This is a river city, by which I mean several small to medium-sized streams run through the city and boating down these streams is a popular mode of transport. There are also ancient-style bridges crossing the streams for pedestrians.

The actual streets are very narrow and lined with shops. Nowadays, these shops target tourists but people do actually live above their stores. There are shops selling all kinds of cute souvenirs and lots and lots of food products.

After walking around for a bit, it was time to get a bite. We wanted a table next to one of the larger streams and finally got one after lots of searching (the waterfront tables are the first to fill up).

Though there are many little restaurants in Zu Jia Jiao, they tend to serve the same kind of food. The cuisine is home-style and traditional and like country food, showcases the fresh ingredients.

We ordered a selection of dishes that aren’t commonly eaten in the city.

Chili water snails

The water snails came first. They’re stir-fried in a chili sauce. I find it easiest to get a tooth pick to pull out the flesh. I think they’re tasty but I can see why people would find them gross.

Smoked chili toads

Similarly, the next item we tasted is not for the faint-hearted. They were smoked chili toads. I’ve had frog/toad legs in stir fries and soups but in this form, it’s impossible to ignore what they are because the shape is entirely preserved. It was yummy but I had to force myself to ignore the shape.

Water chestnut and broad beans

We had a vegetable dish that contained a water chestnut stir-fried with broad beans. These water chestnuts aren’t like the type you get in cans (that are crunchy and good for desserts or meatballs). They’re elongated rather than round and have a starchy texture resembling potato. I really liked this dish.

Gao ba

Another unusual vegetable dish was called gao ba. It’s a plant that also grows in the water. I guess water plants are more popular there because of the proximity to rivers/streams etc. The gao ba is (in my mind) like underwater bamboo and cooked in a similar way to how we treat bamboo, in this case stir-fried.

Steamed freshwater fish

Steamed freshwater fish is very popular (we saw almost every table around us had a fish). The important thing to look for is that the fish must be extremely tender and not stringy or dry. Dad says the secret lies in how it’s steamed. I’m not sure what they did at the restaurant we went to but dad’s technique is to put the steamer on with an empty plate, wait till the plate is piping hot and put the fish in. He then steams for 4min (depends on the size of the fish) and simultaneously prepares a hot oil mixture with ginger and shallots. This is then poured over the fish once it has finished cooking. I didn’t describe the technique in detail because the purpose isn’t to explain how we cook fish but more so the type of dish we were eating.

Soy-braised pork

This pork is a signature dish of Zhu Jia Jiao. The meat is wrapped in leaves before cooking. I'm not sure what the cooking process is but I presume it's similar to typical Chinese soy-braised meat (i.e. red-cooked meat). The resultant product is sweet/salty, sticky, fatty and soooooo delicious. You just can't have too much of it in one go because it's very rich.

Boiled free-range chicken

Boiled chicken, called 'white chopped chicken' is very popular in Shanghai. Because the cooking process is simple (steamed or boiled in a way that preserves the tenderness of the flesh), the quality of chicken is extremely important. Out in the country, all these are free-range chickens that are free-range to the true sense of the world. The eat good food and run free. You can really taste the difference because the flesh is much more tender and flavorsome. They even look different (more yellowish skin and fat).

Fish stew

We had a fish stew too. It was OK but the other dishes overshadowed this. The fish flavor wasn't intense enough. It was nice but boring.

It was a lovely meal by the water. I like these kinds of simple dishes with ingredients I never have in Australia. The view was also quite memorable.

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