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May 30, 2010

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Lip-smacking Shanghai snacking

Many people don't consider traditional snacks as an integral part of a city's heartbeat. But mention sushi, and we think of Japan. Talk about tapas, and we are reminded of Spain. In this issue, we highlight six snacks that have been around Shanghai for many generations. Although some local snacks have disappeared as people's tastes have changed, those such as shengjianbao (pan-fried buns) and xiaolongbao (steamed dumplings) have survived the test of time. As most of these dishes are found at roadside stalls and neighborhood tea houses, people keen to get a true taste of popular local bites need to walk the streets of the city to find them. And that is appreciating Shanghai's heartbeat at its best.

Soup dumpling

Xiaolongbao, or steamed dumplings, is a dish synonymous with Shanghai. It is a bun filled with minced pork and steamed in bamboo baskets, hence earning it the name xiaolongbao. Unlike mantou (steamed plain buns), xiaolongbao are made with unrisen flour. This gives them a smooth and translucent skin rather than white and fluffy. Traditionally, they are filled with pork but also come in variations of minced crab meat and roe. A small nugget of pork gelatin is usually added to the filling to create flavorful stock. To enjoy at their best, the dumplings should be dipped in vinegar before eating. The fluid should burst out of the dumpling if is a good one.

Spare ribs with rice cake

Paigu Niangao, or spare ribs with rice cake, is a cheap and flavorful Shanghainese snack. The spare ribs are first marinated in soy sauce before being coated with a flour batter, egg, wine and seasoning. After deep frying, the ribs are crispy on the outside and tender inside. The plain rice cake completes the dish. Its chewy texture is a contrast to the ribs. The gravy made from the marinate is usually poured over the dish before serving.

Pan-fried dumpling

Shengjianbao, a Shanghai specialty, is like a small baozi (filled bun) in that it has a meaty filling roughly shaped like a xiaolongbao but pan fried. Made from semi-leavened dough, it is filled with pork and gelatin that melts into soup when cooked. The buns are lined up in an oiled, flat pan, which is usually more than a meter in diameter. Chopped green onion and sesame are sprinkled on during the cooking process and the bun's bottom becomes crunchy during frying. Two popular restaurants making the best shengjianbao are "Xiao Yang Sheng Jian'' and "Feng Yu Sheng Jian.''

Stuffed rice ball

The best-known foods for breakfast are the "Four Heavenly Kings," which include dabing (Chinese pancake), youtiao (deep-fried dough stick), cifantuan (steamed sticky rice ball) and soy milk. Among "Four Heavenly Kings,'' cifantuan is typical Shanghainese food. The classic version is usually made by tightly wrapping a piece of youtiao with warm, steamed sticky rice. Some Shanghainese people prefer to put sugar inside steamed sticky rice and others love to put in rousong (pork floss) or other salty stuffings. It is usually eaten as breakfast together with sweetened or savory soy milk.

Yellow crab shell

Crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, xiekehuang, or yellow crab shell, is a popular snack in Shanghai. Shaped like a crab's body, it is coated with sesame seeds on the top and is available in two flavors -- sweet or savory. The sweet ones are stuffed with white sugar, rose essence, bean paste and Chinese date paste, while the savory ones are filled with scallions, pork, crab essence and grounded shrimp shells. It can be found at most establishments serving Shanghainese cuisine.

Beancurd with glass noodles soup

Youdoufu fensi tang, or beancurd with glass noodles soup, is a dish that one should order when eating xiaolongbao. The beancurd is normally stuffed with pork and scallions and cooked with the noddles in a clear soup. Chinese parsley is added to give it a refreshing fragrance. Served in individual portions, it is commonly eaten together with baskets of dumplings that are shared.


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