The cities visited were Shanghai, Nanjing, Shenzhen, and Hangzhou, each with a different kind of cuisine. Shanghai of course is very much the most cosmopolitan of them all withal sorts of international as well as regional cooking available. I find that my colleagues and friends quite like to take me to impressive European-style restaurants when I am there but that’s not why I go to Shanghai; it’s Chinese cooking that I want to try. As always, my preference is to wander the streets and find a decent looking, clean neighbourhood restaurant and try the food there. Often enough there is no English menu but that just means looking to see what the locals are eating and pointing at it. Easy, really, and it occasionally results in a few surprises.
That said, one of the best places in the city is Noble Seafood Restaurant which is conveniently situated in the same building where I often have meetings and, this time, where I was teaching a Masterclass. Consequently I was taken there twice – and I didn’t complain. The setting is indeed somewhat noble, being decorated in a sort of mix of Olde Englishe and Louis Quatorze styles. The bone china crockery is very aristocratic looking and the cutlery would grace any English country house table. Somehow or other the silver plated chopsticks rest and the rosewood chopsticks themselves seem perfect in the setting.
The food is excellent, tasty, gently spicy, and full of textures from the delights of shrimps which offer substance, flavour, and bite to the saffron rice and noodles of many sorts which just glide into the mouth once you master the exact amount of “slurp” required.
It is more or less in the Cantonese style, slightly spicy but not overly so. In Britain most of the Chinese restaurants we encounter are in the “Cantonese” category but it means something much more complex and varied in China.
Normally, friends are keen to show off a little and explain something about the food so, when I am with them, there is absolutely no stress in deciding what to eat: I am happy to leave it to them. “Surprise me”, I say. And they usually do.
Noble is always a delightful experience. Food tends to come in quick succession. The concept of separate courses seems strange to most Chinese and things will just be brought to the table as they are prepared so the diners can dip in and out of several dishes during the course of the meal. Highlights will usually be the Tofu, Crab with Crab Roe, sometimes with Quail’s Eggs. The Abalone is delightful, not rubbery or slimy, just tender and more or less melt-in-the-mouth. Sashimi is also a good bet here and what they describe as baked Codfish is always tender and flaky. I am not certain that it IS cod but it’s delightful anyway. The fish that I most enjoy is usually one of the freshwater types – pike, perch, carp - which always taste slightly “earthy”. It’s a strange taste for a Westerner at first but kind of grows on you and eventually is delicious. It may be baked, poached, or deep fried in a tempura batter. The bones are always a bit of a trial and require careful sifting but the delicacy of the flesh makes the trouble worth it. Other meats are available, of course, too and one of the best at this place is the Peking Duck and the Roast Goose with Sweet Chilli Sauce.
Desserts in China are sometimes a bit hit-and-miss. The commonest authentic ones tend to be based on some form of sweet(ened) bean paste, often wrapped in a pastry of some sort. To a Western palate these are not at all sweet but, given all the current angst around sugar consumption, probably not a bad thing. Certainly they are an acquired taste but soon become quite delicious in their own way. Alternatives usually include some form of ice cream and/or sorbet, not really so very “Chinese”, I would say.
As I mentioned once before, wine is usually only drunk sparingly, often there may be just one glass to accompany a whole meal. That may seem niggardly to a Westerner but is an indication of its value in Chinese society. That said, wine consumption has risen incredibly over the past five or six years to the point where even quite ordinary stuff is expensive by Western standards. At the top end, it is Chinese buying which has driven the market to ridiculous highs. Once upon a time, an “ordinary” wine drinker here might have aspired to save up a bit and enjoy a bottle from one of the better French houses but now it’s virtually out of the question.
The steadily rising affluence of the Chinese middle class makes them more and more interested in the trappings of a suitable lifestyle and overt wine consumption is one of the markers of this.
The local wine is getting better too. For a long time only Chinese wine was available in most restaurants and it was pretty poor stuff but now much of it is pretty reasonable. It may not be a match for anything imported yet, but give the vignerons time……………
#KnifeandFork by Big Enn who can be contacted on @NcherryNorman