Hungry Dan delves into Shanghai's Friday Muslim Market in search of fabled super-tasty eats. Will the Market cure the Hungry One's hangover? Only Dan can tell....
On many an occasion, I'd heard tales of a rare vestige of authentic Muslim life still intact amidst the concrete jungle of Shanghai. As the legend goes, every Friday sometime around 11am, before dhuhr, the second of five daily prayer sessions, the local Hui (Muslim Han Chinese) and Uyghur populations congregate outside the Hu Xi Mosque for the weekly Muslim Market, constructing tents and mobile kitchens and lining the street with tables and chairs both for themselves and for any lucky enough to stumble upon this urban bazaar.
Still ravaged from an intense evening of boozing the night before (beer, wine, tequila, whiskey, vodka and huangjiu), I approach the corner of Changde Lu and Aomen Lu, my stomach ever-turning, a few dry heaves threatening a total purge.
The mosque's gigantic minaret rises before me and I wonder if a little prayer and absolution from above might ease my pickled insides, allowing me to enjoy the halal delights I came for: lamb and bread galore.
A man in a white skull cap sits outside the entrance huddled next to a large box. I deposit RMB 5 in his donation bin before entering the Hu Xi courtyard.
The architecture, grounds, greenery and alabaster walls are all quite lovely. However, as soon as I notice the pile of shoes, sandals and slippers marring the scene, I realize that I have no recollection of having changed my socks from the night before. The potential foot odor, combined with high percentages of sock lost to holes in toe and heel, forces me to abandon my plan to petition the powers that be for a quick hangover remedy. If anything, I muse, I'll be forgiven for not forcing my foul foot stank on a legion of devout prayers.
As I exit the grounds I slip the gatekeeper another fiver, feeling slightly guilty that I would ask someone else's God to bail me out of such an inconsequential predicament. In the future I'll save these theological inquiries for a serious situation—like if I'm being robbed at gunpoint, held for ransom or wrongly accused of a heinous crime. For now I'll just sweat out those last drops of liquor and flush the system with plenty of cold water.
On the Muslim market's main drag, the normally tranquil street is alive with Hui and Uyghurs dishing out food to their own along with several groups of tourists. The scent of roasting and boiling lamb is ever-present. Women congregate in traditional garb and men heartily laugh and converse while chopping meat on the block.
The scene is vibrant and unlike any I've ever seen, but before I can commence a series of taste tests, a beverage is in order.
To my surprise, there is not a convenience store in sight and none of the vendors seems to carry bottled water. The only liquid available is being constantly ladled by a young Uyghur man, who is pouring it over a bed of ice and dates, whence it flows into a large metal basin. Parched beyond belief, I ask what exactly he has in said tub and he emphatically responds: "bing tang shui." With no other option available, I purchase a glass for RMB 3 and sip, my sips quickly turning into gulps.
Not only is this sweet date water one of the most refreshing drinks I've ever enjoyed, but it totally settles my stomach. The man realizes I'm pleased with the flavor and goes on the upsale for a second glass, but the quick realization that I may be drinking Chinese tap water makes this an easy decision. I return the glass with several sips remaining.
I roam the street, constantly perusing the stalls when I'm bit by a sudden craving for some famous Uyghur bread. While I'm normally partial to the thin, flat bread, off in the distance I see what appears to be a large tub of bagels! I quicken my pace to determine whether this is merely a mirage stemming from my dilapidated condition.
Upon arrival I notice that the "bagel" holes do not go all the way through the bread, but the shape is close enough and I'm compelled to at least try one. I question the merchant about price and his replies "wu kuai." While I consider RMB 5 roadside robbery, I'm well aware that my chances of receiving an honest price are slim, so I fork over five coins, hoping that, at the least, the "bagel" will satisfy.
I two-hand the bread and bite down, but even my sharp canines are no match for the rock in my hand. The "fakel" is a bust and I deftly place it on a table top and walk away.
The faint patter of footsteps alarms my hangover-sensitive ears, and I quickly about-face midstride to see two beggar women descend on my "fakel" remains. They go at it and I turn to quickly stake out the local scavengers. I am careful not to make eye contact with any of them, but the brief scan reveals lone moochers at 3, 4, 8 and 11 o'clock. I'll have to be crafty to avoid them all, so I take cover near a man making dumplings.
A large plastic bowl, full of a soft carrot and pepper filling lies between a mound of dough and several steam trays. I inquire about the price and the exact contents of the stuffing and gladly agree to give the man RMB 2 for a couple of large dumplings. I make sure to draw the coins from a pocket that is not exposed to the street and complete the exchange, dumpling now in hand.
The man warns me that they are still quite hot, but I ignore his advice and place the jiaozi in my mouth. My inexperience is clear and the dumpling man offers a quick smile as I spit the dumpling back onto the styrofoam plate. A minute later I make a second attempt, this time successful, and I am amazed by the strong flavor of the carrots. These dumplings are definitely a winner and I commend the man before moving on.
The Uyghurs are famous for their langfen: cold shaved noodles, topped in peanut sauce, cucumbers and spicy red peppers. I decide that this will be my next culinary encounter and I start off in search of a hearty portion. Before I can walk any further however, I notice a man with some gorgeous slabs of lamb and an even better moustache, one that would make even Tom Selleck himself proud, so I decide to inquire further into his meat.
I ask if I can buy two keys of lamb, unsure of how big the piece will actually be, and the man quite politely informs me that I can either buy an entire half-slab of lamb or deal with another vendor. He explains that he generally sells to restaurant owners and that smaller cuts of lamb for personal use can be purchased across the street. We quickly admire each other's facial hair and I dart off in search of the langfen.
Two stalls to the south, I see a man and a girl I presume to be his daughter shaving noodles. I reach in my rear pocket and grab an already-used napkin. The very thought of langfen—a splendid daydream of food and joy—is causing me to salivate.
I've drifted too deep into my Happy Place, however, and am accosted by the two very same beggar ladies who divvied up my uneaten bread! They ask for cash and I politely respond "mei you." But these women are persistent, shoving their outstretched palms in my face and jabbing at my ribs while hollering for spare change, so I head fake left and pull a reverse spin to the right, escaping their clutches. If this were the Nation (American) Footbal League, I would definitely be headed for a first down and then some, I approach the langfen man with a smile.
"Shi kuai," he exclaims, not even waiting for me to ask about price. I retort with the standard "tai guile, gei wo pianyi yi dian," hoping for a bargain, but he's heard this song before and reaffirms his initial price. I part with a ten spot and walk my bowl of noodles behind the tent to a row of tables.
This is not my first time on the langfen bandwagon. I enjoyed a serious bout of addiction back in 2007 after a series of trips to Xi'an, so I know how they should taste.
I carefully inspect the man's technique prior to purchasing and everything seems fine, but upon consumption it's clear that something is awry.
Perhaps he's cut the noodles too thick, or maybe it's the overly spicy sauce, but something just isn't right.
I decide to retire from the bowl and pursue another option, but aware that the begging population is watching my every move, I figure that abandoning the dish will only attract a larger following, or at least continued harassment from the women I'd managed to escape from. Quick logic helps me decide to place the uneaten noodles on the ground, under the table out of sight; at least I'll have bought myself a few extra seconds as the scavengers survey the area looking for edible scraps.
Unsatisfied with the langfen experiment, I mosey to the next stall and purchase some kebabs, or chuan. The two lamb meat sticks hit the spot, but this snack is merely a stopgap and I know that the big score still lies ahead. I decide to pursue somewhat more exotic game and request two liver chuan. Nice and creamy, the liver pieces are a great find and I'll keep them in my rotation during future snacking adventures.
The spice from the lamb has numbed my lips and I seek relief from another beverage, but decide against returning to the date water for fear of once again crossing paths with the local vagrants.
Instead, I continue south another five meters to a man and his large block of ice. He appears to be making some sort of cold yogurt drink clearly popular with the Uyghurs, many of whom sip the concoction contentedly from styrofoam bowls. I decide to sample the treat.
Completely unaware of the flavor my mouth is about to encounter, I observe as the portly vendor mixes shaved ice, yogurt and some sort of brown liquid in a bowl. He hands it to me and without a moment's hesitation, I dive headfirst into this mystery drink.
Sour, spoiled and even a bit chunky, this yogurt is the not the refreshing drink I was hoping for! I regret even putting my lips to the bowl. Still, I force a smile and thank the man before quickly fleeing the scene to find something to kill the taste of old, tangy and bitter milk.
The very next stall immediately sparks my interest, in part because I am desperate to forget the yogurt, but also because it's overflowing with samsa, Xinjiang meat pockets, stuffed with fatty lamb. I've always been a fan and I order three, convinced that they're a sure thing.
I eat each samsa in two bites and decide that three just isn't enough. I order five more and have a friendly chat with the young man behind the counter. He claims to be from Kashgar, but currently resides in Shanghai, coming to the market every week to sell his homemade bread and samsa. Whether his cordiality is genuine or not, the man is at least pleased with my purchase, and is happy to talk for the RMB 16 I have just given him.
Obviously I've become too comfortable, forgetting that this street is aflood with beggars who have just seen me stuff my gullet with eight samsa. Before I can hightail it out of there, I'm swarmed by an angry mob of mendicants who pin me against the counter.
The mere thought of simple physical contact with even one of these vagrants triggers my latent OCD, and with no other option, I bull my way through them, finally breaking free. Though still hungry, I decide that the human hassle isn't worth the additional frustration at the moment, not to mention the fact that I must wash my hands three times before even considering touching any food. I continue my walk south on Changde Lu away from the Muslim market.
This adventure definitely ranks as memorable and the food, overall, worth the trip, but, as usual, my hunger remains unsatisfied. If or when I'll meet my match I do not know, but for now, this episode of the chronicles of Hungry Dan must come to a close as I wander China, looking for my next meal.
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