UnTour Shanghai: eat your heart out

Culture | by James Weir
Posted: March 8th, 2012 | Updated: July 13th, 2012 | Comments
What to eat in Shanghai Last Tuesday, 6 March 2012, I strapped on my eating pants and took to the streets. I had been invited to participate in an UnTour Shanghai breakfast excursion, a process they describe on their website as an "urban adventure". I wore boots, carried water and packed no lunch.>>> 08:43: Depart from home. Hungry, William Bell on iPod, pale sunshine making its first appearance in weeks. Shoes tied, belt loose, spirits high. 08:58: Arrive at Xiangyang Park (Xiāngyáng Gōngyuán, 襄阳公园). Kyle, UnTour Shanghai's Chief Running Officer and American native, is filling in for Chief Eating Officer Jamie Barys on this morning's tour. Kyle wears high-top Feiyues with thick tongues and a dark brown leather jacket with a side-winding zipper over a hooded sweatshirt. His close-cropped hair comes to a subtle peak in the front of his head, like a shy mohawk. He is standing with a middle-aged pastry chef from New Zealand, Nick, who is passing through Shanghai on his way to London, where he lives and works. 08:59: Idle banter. Kyle has lived in China for around four years. He is at ease and inquisitive. Nick has been to China one time before; he once took passage on an intercontinental shipping vessel that offered a small number of passengers room and board and stopped in Shanghai for a day. He informs us that you can still make similar travel arrangements, but with the ever-increasing complications surrounding visa regulations it is more difficult and less often done. I silently lament the loss of 40-day voyages from Asia to the Americas: though impractical, there is something romantic in the idea of such pronounced isolation. 09:18: Final two participants on the urban adventure arrive, a pair of young American girls visiting from California. They both wear scarves and bright lipstick. High boots. The brunette wears a black coat that falls to her knees; the strawberry-blonde a waist length number in a bright blue. Both jackets appear to be made from a felt-like wool or cotton. Both women are very ebullient, excited and on vacation. They introduce themselves to us. I immediately forget which one is Marissa and which one is Jessica. I will feel mildly guilty about this for the rest of the day. They are the founding and only members of what they call Team Vacation. (Later, they will grant the rest of the group status as honorary members of Team Vacation. We are all appropriately honored.) Continue reading after the jump for more on sampling some of Shanghai's best street food... 09:21: Kyle, Nick, Team Vacation and I stroll through Xiangyang Park, winding around locals: dancers, smokers, dog-walkers, gamblers, crowd-watchers, calligraphers. There is a group of (mostly) men moving in unison, tossing rubber balls up and down on their cloth-strung paddles, spinning in circles and dipping towards the ground in an odd and soothing display of coordination and discipline. Tinny music blares from at least three separate boomboxes around the park. Shanghai tours 09:27: A calligrapher paints facial profiles on the dusty cement with water as his ink. He and Kyle greet one another like old pals. The calligrapher, who has few teeth and wears a worn winter cap, speaks to the group in fragmented English. He is very enthusiastic and endearing. In Chinese, he tells one member of Team Vacation that she has small nostrils and is therefore likely to be successful. Kyle translates and this pleases her. The water calligrapher then paints her facial profile on the ground—it's quite good. Pictures are taken, bystanders chime in. A Chinese park in the morning is the office water-cooler for the unemployed and retired. 09:40: At the corner of Xiāngyáng Lù (襄阳路) and Chǎnglè Lù (长乐路) there is a stretch of vendors and street-side restaurants that boast a bustling breakfast trade and share a dining area that opens to the sidewalk. Kyle leads the charge, first acquiring some dànbǐng (蛋饼) and guōtiē (鍋貼). The dànbǐng is fluffy, crepe-like and delicious, with a sweet and spicy jam-like sauce slathered across the top. The guōtiē taste like American-style pot-stickers except they're not shitty and the texture has no trace of rubber. In fact, they will remain the second best thing I eat all morning. They are simultaneously crunchy and chewy, and are a classic Chinese breakfast. Kyle vanishes for a moment and returns with a pair of fried rice cakes that look and taste eerily similar to McDonald's breakfast hash-browns. I have never tried these before. I consider this chasm in my street-food repertoire and feel entirely crestfallen; how have I lived a life in Shanghai devoid of such a pleasure? I will no doubt return to this stretch again. I will bring ketchup. 10:03: We emerge from the slightly sunken dining room to the sidewalk. We watch the vendors cook. A woman pries apart sticky slabs of day-old rice and drops them into a vat of boiling oil. A man cracks eggs on a thin layer of batter. Kyle orders two large jiānbing (煎饼) to split and consume on the way to our next destination. They are thin, crispy sheaths of flatbread folded in on themselves and filled with egg, spices and cilantro (AKA coriander or xiāngcài, 香菜). I abhor cilantro (I am not alone), and neglect to make this known in time. I abstain from the jiānbing, though this is no problem; I eat them, sans cilantro, on a regular basis. My tour-mates enjoy them while we walk through an old neighborhood towards our next eatery. Eating in Shanghai 10:21: Kyle treats the group to coffee at a western chain. We embark on a restroom detour that sees us navigating an endless maze of staircases and unmarked doorways. This eventually leads us through a basement car park, complete with three-level mechanized automobile shelves not unlike what I stored my Hot Wheels cars in circa '93. I enjoy this adventure, though the bathroom smells strongly of urine. 10:29: At Hénán Lāmiàn (河南拉面), a small, two story establishment at 607 Chǎnglè Lù (长乐路607号), they pull their noodles on-site. A young man rolls the dough and clenches one end in each hand, spreads his arms and slams the center of the dough on the flour-coated table before him in a trampoline-like motion. He passes one end of the dough to the other hand and seizes the vertex of the noodle-parabola with the other. He stretches, again hits the dough onto the table with a satisfying thwack, and repeats. This continues until he has created one incredibly long, single noodle. This is the process of making lāmiàn (拉面), or pulled noodles. Shanghainese tofu 10:33: We retreat upstairs to the main dining room to consume some cōng yóu bàn miàn (葱油拌面) and qīng jiāo fǔzhú (青椒腐竹). The former are thin noodles tossed with a healthy dose of sesame oil and scallions. These Kyle dices up with scissors he carries in his backpack to ease distribution amongst our various bowls. These noodles are a well-trodden culinary path with which I am familiar, and I enjoy them as much as I always do. The latter is bamboo tofu and green peppers. For most of my life I found tofu unfulfilling at best and unsettling at worst. Since moving to China, this dish and má pó dòufu (麻婆豆腐) have silenced my doubts. 11:05: We pass through a wet market (meats, vegetables, strong odors) on the way to the next stop, a xiǎolóngbāo (小笼包) restaurant. Xiǎolóngbāo are soup dumplings, and are a regional specialty of Shanghai. I find them uninspiring and unsatisfying, always, and have therefore developed a grudge against the cute, soup filled "delicacies." My tour-mates and everyone else I have ever met disagree. I eat two, and keep my opinions to myself. That is all I have to say on the subject of xiǎolóngbāo. 11:23: Kyle stops at a convenience store to pick up a bottle of tea for the proprietor of our next destination. He tells us that the tiny shop often has lines down the block, and that he calls ahead and brings tea to expedite the ordering process for members of the UnTours. He tells us that it often infuriates those waiting in line; I consider the situation and conclude that their reaction is understandable. I secretly hope there is some conflict and spirited debate when we arrive and cut in line. There is not, in fact, even a line at the time of our arrival. I am mildly disappointed by this development. Street food in Shanghai 11:31: Though there is no line to speak of, we still wait a quarter of an hour for our scallion pancakes, or cōng yóu bǐng (葱油饼). The old man, who wears a grease-stained white smock and hunches like a man from a fairytale, is an artist. His grill shimmers with a 30-year sheen of pork fat and bears the signs of a well-used instrument. Each pancake, which begins its life as a completely round ball of dough, is pored over individually and fried to perfection. We watch him work, his eyes barely leaving the cast-iron canvas before him. Kyle continues to tell us how good they are; I am skeptical of his hyperbole. The man takes his time with the cōng yóu bǐng. It is this discipline I will later be thankful for and in awe of. 11:46: I take a bite of cōng yóu bǐng. City walls crumble, cries of victory echo overhead, eagles soar majestically. I swoon. I go blind, see the light. It is out-of-this-world crispy on the outside and melt-in-your-mouth soft on the inside. 11:52: I finish my cōng yóu bǐng. It is unlike anything I have ever eaten before. For the second time in as few hours I wonder how I have lived in such epicurean ignorance. I suddenly realize we have left the corner of Nánchāng Lù (南昌路) and Màomíng Lù (茂名路), where the man hawks the cōng yóu bǐng, and Kyle is handing me a dàn tà (蛋挞) on Huáihǎi Lù (淮海路) while explaining the egg-custard's Portuguese roots. I eat the treat while thinking of my now-gone cōng yóu bǐng. I lick my lips, savor the leftover oil. I enjoy the egg-custard pastry, though I am distracted and considering only the possible return to the hunchbacked man for an encore. 12:03: We pose for an UnTour group portrait. I thank Kyle, and wish the travelers luck on their journeys while gazing into the middle-distance. I lurch towards a cab in a daze, thinking only of cōng yóu bǐng. I will never be the same. Group tour in Shanghai

  UnTour Shanghai offers eating, drinking and running tours in Shanghai. To book a tour, visit their website.

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