Shanghai is a cultural jumble. A hundred years ago there was the ‘Chinese city’, surrounded by walls and filled with narrow alleys. Outside the walls, tens of thousands of British, American, French, German and other colonialists had carved out a series of concessions and built a replica Europe. But the borders were porous and the cultures all mixed to create a style of art, food, life and thinking known as “Haipai”: the “Shanghai school”. Originally a term of derision used by the stuffy traditionalists in Beijing, Shanghai embraced it as a description of its international spirit, informed by both Chinese and modern western culture, but beholden to neither. The fingerprints of this east-west spirit, first named in the 1920s, can still be found in its residential lanes (a blend of European row houses and Chinese courtyard homes), the Shanghainese dialect and especially in its food. Grandmothers still whip up the Shanghainese version of borscht at home, brought over by the Russians, though the lack of beets makes it more like a tomato soup, or cook a pork schnitzel (from the Austrians) for dinner. In the last few years, this spirit has started to re-emerge in modern restaurants, from Chinese chefs and the city’s international residents alike.
Corporate hotel chains aren’t the usual breeding ground for innovative food. So it’s to Hyatt’s credit that their Andaz brand really picked up on Shanghai’s spirit, and allowed Shanghainese chef Jacqueline Qiu room to re-think the city’s typical menu. What came out is an appropriate jumble: a mix of totally new dishes, a handful of Shanghainese staples no one dares mess with (done the five-star hotel way, of course), a few showstoppers and some clever takes on the classics.
Qiu’s drunken shrimp, a boozy classic from the wine town of Shaoxing, swaps tiny river shrimp for sweet Canadian Peony prawns, marinated with ten-year-old Shaoxing wine and preserved plums. Her “beggar’s chicken” is scented with osmanthus flowers and stuffed with abalone before being wrapped up in a lotus leaf, painted with egg whites, baked and then broken open at the table. But the cleverest dish comes at the end of the meal, when she turns the city’s ubiquitous breakfast – hot soy milk and a fried pastry cruller – into a deceptively simple dessert: a lightly sweetened soy milk ice cream with crunchy slices of cruller, dusted in powdered sugar.
Jenny Gao was born in Sichuan, grew up in Canada and eventually came back to China, where she began writing about Chinese food. She has now left the computer for the kitchen, and is advocating for a kind of cooking: Baoism. Her approach is persuasive, everything from Korean fried chicken to red-braised pork shoulder is stuffed into soft white steamed buns known as gua bao. In addition, Baoism’s homemade beverages include a Chengdu chai, made with Ceylon tea, soy milk and red and green Sichuan peppercorns, and a mild artisanal rice wine from central China, with osmanthus flower honey. Gao is not the first to come up with the idea of ‘baoism’ – it has existed for thousands of years and is extolled by many chefs, including David
Chang in New York – however Gao and partner Alex Xu are aiming for no less than a revolution in the food system in China through accountability, transparency, accessibility and by promoting small-scale farmers. A bit ambitious for a steamed bun shop? Perhaps. But one factor in their favour is how easy it is to grasp the political theory at the everyman level: baoism is delicious.
This restaurant in a quiet lane house purports to be the home of the fictional Xixi, a glamorous lady who soaked up the cosmopolitan aura of 1930s Shanghai and incorporated it into her kitchen. What she was doing with a full marble bar on the ground floor, er, in her living room, is not clear, but that’s a minor detail. The space is a stylish homage to Concession-era Shanghai, decorated with whimsical Chinese details such as the dish of sunflower seeds and nostalgic fruit candies set out on the tables.
From the menu, we learn that Xixi was particularly taken with Italian food, and when two of the world’s great cuisines – Italian and Chinese – cross, it seems both new and completely natural. What is a ravioli if not just another type of dumpling? (The fact that the restaurant is owned by a group of Italians might explain her preference. The chef is Shanghainese.) The menu goes further than just the dumpling or noodle parallel though. Besides the potstickers filled with spinach or pumpkin, there is pesto-fried rice, homemade ricotta with toasted Chinese buns and a whole section of “rice bruschetta”, which swap the toast for a crispy rice cake.
The one thing you don’t want to have at this coffee shop is the coffee, which is not great. But that is hardly the point. The ground floor of this historic restaurant (once named Christopher’s) is the de facto clubhouse of Shanghainese men of a certain age, who were born early enough to soak up café culture before World War II and Mao wiped it out. These days, they show up at a quarter past seven in the morning to wait in line, though it’s mostly for show. At seven thirty, the doors open and they stroll to the same seats they had yesterday, last week, last year, and many years before that.
No one orders but everyone has coffee. The 12RMB (£1.30/$1.85) cup is the price of admission to this club. A can of evaporated milk is passed around the tables, but it’s merely a gesture: green tea, brought from home in a flask, is the drink of choice. The gossip slowly begin to fill the air, the waitresses slide the token coffee onto the tables, and the talk turns to city life, big and small. At 10am the price of coffee goes up, but by then it hardly matters. The day’s gossip done, the men have slowly drifted back out into the glitz and glamour of downtown Shanghai.