Once upon a time, some great people brought me to a place called Din Tai Fung. Although I was living in Shanghai at the time, I had no idea what to expect on this first visit to Xintiandi and my first introduction to Xiaolongbao (way before it was cool). Luckily, they taught me how to bite in without scalding the insides of my mouth, and I quickly fell in love. More than six years later, I finally made in back to Din Tai Fung, but this time it was in Arcadia, California. Despite the obvious distance between Arcadia and Shanghai, much of Arcadia looks like it was pulled directly out of China. The Din Tai Fung, though, looked little like its counterpart across the Pacific.
After living in China for a while, I learned there were quite a few dishes that the Chinese liked to call “Chinese Hamburger.” Fortunately, none of these involved a trip to McDonald’s, but unfortunately if you don’t speak Chinese, you really don’t know what you’re going to get if you do ask for a Chinese hamburger. This is because essentially anytime they stick some meat and any other foods inside some sort of bread or bun, they call it a Chinese Hamburger. One night in Shanghai, we were invited out by a buddy of mine to eat at a Shanxi-style restaurant (not to be confused with Shaanxi, its neighboring province) called Sanjinxiaochu (三晋小厨) near People’s Square in Shanghai and encountered an interesting variation of the Chinese Hamburger.
Just what is chou doufu (pronounced cho dough-foo)? If you don’t know Mandarin, you might think it sounds pleasant. The words roll off the tongue pretty cleanly and it sounds like it could be some sort of doughy deliciousness. Like a doughnut or something. But if you know Mandarin, then you know the true meaning of the words and they are nothing at all like a doughnut. Chou doufu means, quite literally, stinky tofu. And the name is certainly appropriate. As with much of the rest of Chinese cuisine, chou doufu comes in many forms, but the form I know best can be found on the street.
By now you may be wondering why I’m posting all about food in China. First and foremost, it was for vacation, but it was also to check out the Shanghai World Expo. If you don’t know what the Expo (formerly known as the World’s Fair) is, it’s basically a huge event lasting a few months where countries are given the opportunity to build pavilions to show off their nations. Some create beautiful works of architecture (remnants of past fairs include the Eiffel Tower and Ferris Wheel), some show off aspects of their culture and some simply use their pavilion to sell products from their country. Some even had local foods to eat, and that interested me the most.
In my experience, I’ve learned that some of the best food in the world can be found on the street. No, not literally on the street (although the 10 second rule certainly applies for some of this food), but food that is sold on the street rather than from some brick and mortar building. A major part of the allure is the tracking down of the street food. There’s no address, so you really just have to stumble upon it. Plus, since it’s mobile and there are no hours, there’s no guarantee the food will be there again the next time you look for it. The biggest part of the allure, though, is the taste. It takes someone with an iron will to seek out this kind of food, but when you find something great, the payoff is huge.
To some, the thought of eating McDonald’s in a foreign country seems just plain wrong. After all, when you’re in a different country, you should be experiencing their culture in all aspects, especially food. And what’s more American than McDonald’s? Yet, it’s hard to deny how much of this American fast food has become a part of other cultures. In Japan and China, a big bucket of KFC is now a Christmas tradition and all over the world you can find Burger King, Subway, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut. And these companies have not simply forced American food down people’s throats. Instead, they have adapted, and few have adapted as well as McDonald’s.
Step into a McDonald’s outside the US and you will see foods you never knew existed. In Canada, you can find Poutine, in Israel there are Kosher McDonalds’ that don’t offer cheese on their burgers. In Japan, the Teriyaki McBurger is like a regular burger, but with a teriyaki twist. These international options almost make McDonald’s a destination, rather than a place to avoid on vacation.
After spending some time in China, you will find that the Chinese people are very prideful, and not simply prideful about their country, but about their regions as well. It seems like if you go anywhere in China, you will hear that whatever region you’re in has the best tea, best dumplings, best noodles and really anything else you can think of (best dog?!). The same goes for hot pot. So if you may think hot pot is simply a bot of boiling water to cook food in, you are wrong.
Just across from Yang’s new location in the new mall on Wujiang Street is another place that serves up xiaolongbao (soup dumplings). It’s called Nan Xiang Steamed Bun Restaurant and cooks them up in the original steamed way. Nan Xiang is actually the part of Shanghai where xiaolongbao originated and you can still find the original in its location near the Yu Garden, but the line is always crazy-long, so when I saw the Nan Xiang restaurant right next to Yang’s, I figured I would give them a taste.
Once upon a time, there was a street called Wujiang in Shanghai just outside the Nanjing West Subway Station. At all hours of the day, the street was lined with food vendors and inside the old buildings were delicious, old-school Chinese restaurants. On that street was a hole in the wall called Yang’s Fried-Dumpling, which served a delicious xiaolongbao (pronounced shiao-long-bow) with the special twist that it was fried (as opposed to the traditional steaming method). Xiaolongbao is one of Shanghai’s signature dishes, a dumpling stuffed with pork that creates a soup inside when cooked. The dumpling is sealed air-tight so the soup stays inside until it is eaten. Even though Yang’s went against tradition by frying their dumplings, there was always a line outside their door.
Mmmmm meat. There’s something about that just makes my mouth water. It must be the taste. But taste alone is not enough to make meat amazing, apparently meat can be a pretty good springboard for earning some serious cash. Take Li Li from China for example.