When In Roam

Carl Chu's Food & Travel Blog

Monday, May 28, 2007

Pine Crane Pavilion (Songhelou; 松鶴樓), Suzhou

In the heart of Suzhou is a remarkable bazaar stretched along two parallel streets: Guan▪qian▪jie (觀前街) and Tai▪jian▪nong (太監弄). Among the scores of silk shops, department stores, and throngs of gawkers and shoppers, there are several of the city’s most illustrious restaurants. Among them, Song▪he▪lou (松鶴樓), meaning “Pine Crane Pavilion,” stands out as the grandest and most famous. Specializing in traditional Suzhou cooking (蘇幫菜; su▪bang▪cai), a variation of Jiangzhe cuisine, the restaurant has been in business since 1757, serving host to emperors and ordinary folk like me in search of links to the past.

Songhelou is the creator of “Squirrel Fish” (松鼠魚; song▪shu▪yu), a fried boneless fish dressed with a sweet-and-sour sauce. It is one of the most famous Chinese dishes, but also one of the most difficult to make. Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) tasted it while on his way touring southern China, and praised it to no end. It starts with a whole “mandarin fish” (桂魚; gui▪yu), a type of freshwater perch. You can spot a mandarin fish in the market by the brown spots on its tail. The fish is completely deboned with a cleaver in a manner difficult to describe without pictures, but the result is a boneless fish with the head and tail still attached. And the meat is cut in such a way that after being coated with flour and deep-fried, it resembles a squirrel. The sweet-and-sour sauce is ketchup-based. Though not my favorite, it has a nice tanginess without being exceedingly acidic.

The two other dishes I ordered were both “drunken” but of altogether different flavors. The first was called “Ao▪you Chicken” (奧油雞; ao▪you▪ji), which was the local take on Shanghai’s Drunken Chicken. It was straightforward enough: boiled chicken marinated in salt and Shaoxing rice liquor, as far as I could tell.

The second dish, which I ordered on account of the poetic name alone, was loosely translated as: “A Liquored Life; A Dreamy Death” (醉生夢死; zui▪sheng▪meng▪si). It turned out to be a bowl of periwinkles with a few clams thrown in. As alluded by the name, they were marinated in Shaoxing while still alive, and then cooked. Star anise gave the dish a touch of dry and sweet flavor. To eat the periwinkles, you have to hold one between your fingers and suck out the inside. Sometimes you need to spit out the little hard flap that gets in the way. But no biggie, they were delicious and lots of fun to eat—especially enjoyable with a cold beer.

In China, people eat dinner early. By the time I arrived Songhelou at around a quarter of eight, they had already run out of rice. The waiter told me, “In honestly, people around here finish eating by eight.” To have my starch, I ordered a rather fancy stir-fry of pearl barley, river shrimp, and gingko nuts. Together with Squirrel Fish, the meal was beyond rich. As an ordinary folk, I imagined it was a meal for the emperor.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Little Blue Whale Restaurant (小藍鯨; xiao▪lan▪jing), Nanjing

Around the corner from the Crowne Plaza in central Nanjing is Wangfu Broad Street (王府大街; wang▪fu▪da▪jie), a boulevard filled with bars and restaurants. Although it’s not New York’s 54th Street or L.A.’s “Restaurant Row,” the collection of eateries features an eclectic mix of the trendy and the traditional. What I really like about the place is that much of these restaurants cater to the locals and not the tourists. So, no matter where you go, you can expect good food with a good local flair.

Somewhere in the middle of Wangfu Broad Street, I came up to a signboard that read “Home Cooking Served Here.” So I went in. The waitress greeted me and pointed to several glass aquariums lining the wall. “We only serve fresh fish from the Yangtze. Are you familiar with Lower Yangtze cuisine?” Obviously, she knew I was not from around here.

I said I was willing to try anything, so show me the menu.

You could tell this was a privately owned restaurant, because unlike the state-owned places, the waitress actually cared about the service and the food. She turned out to be the daughter of the owner, who was the kitchen in the back. Thoroughly she explained the menu, which included a good number of Lower Yangtze dishes that I immediately recognized, but others required a bit of explanation:

“The loach we use in our restaurant weighs about a kilogram, so it’s fairly large. It is simmered with fermented-chili-and-bean paste, tofu, and cellophane noodles. The dish comes with potstickers, which you eat together like soup and bread.”

“The meatballs are made with ground white pork and jicai (薺菜; a type of dandelion), and then cooked in a casserole with black tree fungus, sliced jinhua ham, and cellophane noodles.”

“The braised chicken is cooked in soy sauce and rock sugar for two hours. My father likes to add a shot of Shaoxing rice liquor at the beginning, which creates a penetrating flavor. It’s a family recipe.”

“I also recommend chrysanthemum stems (蘆蒿; lu▪hao), just stir-fried with julienne dried stinking tofu and salt. If you’ve never been to Nanjing until now, you’ve never had this before because only in Nanjing during springtime can you find chrysanthemum stems.”

I’ll have them all. Plus the foil-roasted chicken wings, the stir-fried nira with river shrimp, the tofu earthenware hotpot, the …

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Chongqing to Nanjing: Hot Breakfast Is Served

I took an Air China flight from Chongqing to Nanjing. The flight, scheduled to depart at 8:00 am, was a typical Chinese domestic flight. The 1,000 mile journey down the Yangtze took just 2.5 hours to make, and came with a breakfast. That’s something you don’t see much in America anymore—a hot meal on a domestic flight. But this was China, where the airlines are still regulated and the fares controlled. So everyone got a hot breakfast. And what an eye opener it was!

The friendly flight attendants went down the aisle with two choices: “Chinese” or “Western.” Not feeling adventurous, I chose the Chinese. It was a plate of stir-fried noodles topped with a peppery stir-fry of sliced pork, fresh soybeans, and juliennes of pickled mustard tuber (zhacai). Blech.

I also got a look at the “Western” entrée that my lady seatmate had ordered. It looked like ordinary scrambled eggs with a grilled cherry tomato, bacon, and a sliver of hash browns. She took one bite and said it was totally disgusting. Turned out, the scrambled eggs had chopped napa cabbage in it, and by the looks of it, not all too fresh napa cabbage.

We also got a box of goodies to go with our entrées. The contents inside were the same no matter what we ordered: a bread roll—a strange combination to go with my Chinese noodles, I thought; a packet of chopped salted turnips—something Westerners probably wouldn’t know that it made their scrambled eggs taste better; and six longan wrapped in cellophane.

There was also a toothpick with a rather amusing message: “You Are Welcome To Travel By Our Plane.”

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Dining Al Fresco, Chongqing Style

Chongqing, sweaty, sultry, and skanky, sits smack the center of China. Located at the confluence of Jialing (嘉陵江) and Yangtze (長江) rivers, it is also the crossroads of Chinese society, a city of cascading hills, towering skyscrapers, and crowded tenements teeming with the best and worst of humanity—old and new, poor and rich, humble and proud, good and wicked. It is a city like no other in China.

Chongqing is also famous for its hot weather and hot food—San Francisco and San Antonio rolled into one. One thing you notice right away is that people prefer eating outdoors. At a vegetable market near my hotel, I sat down for lunch tasting some of the hottest dishes in all of China.

They were all classic Chongqing dishes. The first was Water Boiled Fish (水煮魚; shui▪zhu▪yu), a stew of sliced freshwater fish cooked in a seasoned broth covered with dried red chilies and Sichuan peppercorns. The stew was ladled over a bed of blanched yellow bean sprouts before serving. The words “water-boiled” are deceiving. This was not a bland dish by any means. Everything about it was hot, hot, hot!

Next was Tiger Skin Chilies (虎皮青椒; hu▪pi▪qing▪jiao) The name comes from the appearance of the pan roasted chilies, which become wrinkly and blistery in the searing heat, like the stripes of a tiger. The chilies are served simply with a dash of salt, soy sauce, and black rice vinegar.

The locals eat soft tofu (豆花; dou▪hua), served hot in its own whey, with these dishes in addition to plain rice. For some people, the tofu and the chili sauce served alongside are enough to call their entire meal. I trust the locals on this one—tofu is an effective way to cut down the heat of the chilies.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

The Real Mapo Tofu and other Numbing Tidbits About Sichuan Cuisine

Going to Chengdu without eating at the “Pockmark-face Lady’s” tofu restaurant is like climbing Mount Everest without taking a picture of yourself at the top. Otherwise known popularly as “Chen Mapo Tofu Restaurant” (陳麻婆豆腐川菜館), it is a must-do in the itinerary of any lover of Chinese food.

As the name suggests, Chen’s is not a tofu restaurant but a mapo tofu restaurant. Only one dish matters there, the eponymous tofu dish that has earned its rightful place on the world’s culinary map. “Mapo” literally means “pockmark-face lady.” As the story goes, a woman surnamed Chen, whose face was marred with pockmarks, sold this tofu dish from her street stand in the mid-1860s. It was just a ramshackle place to grab a quick bite, but people were so enamored by her tofu that they soon referred to it by her nickname. Mapo Tofu was scribed into culinary history ever since.

The dish features cubed soft tofu simmered in a sauce of minced beef and fermented chili-and-bean paste. A layer of red oil burbles on top, and a dusting of ground Sichuan peppercorns rounds out on top. The dish has all the classic characteristics of Sichuan cooking: hot from the chilies, numbing from the Sichuan peppercorns, fragrant from the fermented chili and bean paste, and frittery from the fried minced beef. Who said tofu is bland?

I also ordered a dish literally translated as “Onion and Pepper Chicken” (蔥椒雞; cong▪jiao▪ji). The “onion” part was pretty straightforward—large sectioned scallions. And being in Sichuan, I expected the “pepper” part to mean Sichuan peppercorns; however, I didn’t expect to find a whole sprig of fresh Sichuan peppercorns adorning the top. This was the first time I had ever seen fresh Sichuan peppercorns. In America, as you may know, they cannot be imported without being first pre-roasted.

In this dish, the peppercorns were lightly fried with onions to make a fragrant oil infusion, which was then drizzled over diced boiled chicken. On the bottom was a bed of blanched yellow (soy) bean sprouts. The combination of the sweetness of the onions and the numbingness of the peppercorns was intense and magical. Wow!

I also had some fresh yu choy stir fried with fresh red chilies. Yu choy is a green vegetable whose seeds are used to make canola oil. The fresh leaves are tender and sweet, with stems that are crunchy and a tad bitter. All around the Chengdu countryside, I saw yu choy growing in abundance, their bushy flower plumes turning the fields into flickering waves of gold.

Chen Mapo Tofu Restaurant is located in central Chengdu, on Qinghualu 19.
陳麻婆豆腐川菜館四川成都市青華路 19

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Day Trip to Leshan -- Sichuan Province

I took a day trip from Chengdu to see the Giant Buddha of Leshan (樂山), a stone sculpture carved out of a tall cliff facing a spot where three rivers converge. In 1996, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and since 2001, it is the world’s largest Buddha following the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan by the Taliban.

Legend tells the story of a local monk named Haitong who devoted his life to building the Buddha so that boaters would be protected from the rivers’ turbulent waters. And indeed the Buddha has accomplished that. The stones chiseled off the cliff were dropped into the rivers, slowing the currents such that the rivers became forever safe for sailing.

It is a two hour drive to Leshan. You could either take a bus or hire a car. The concierge at the Sheraton suggested a private van tour for RMB 2,200, or roughly $275. I went outside the hotel and found a taxi who agreed to take me there and back for RMB 600, plus tolls (about $75). So off I went.

There are actually a lot more things to see at Leshan than the Giant Buddha itself. On the hills behind the sculpture is a sprawling complex of Buddhist shrines and monasteries. There are also several hiking trails, gardens, and true to the Sichuan love for ambience, teahouses.

To get to the Buddha itself, you have to make a grueling hike up to the top of the sculpture. Then you walk down a steep staircase down to the feet, and then climb back from the other side. It was nearly three in the afternoon when I finished my climb. The taxi driver was waiting for me in the parking lot, as promised. I bought him lunch before heading back to the city.

We drove through the town of Leshan itself and found it a colorless assortment of stores and apartments. Nothing struck us as particularly appetizing, so we decided to just bear our hunger and head back. Then, across the street from the bus station at the outskirts of town, we came upon an eatery filled with local people. We stopped in.

I was overjoyed when I first glanced at the menu. I did not recognize a single dish on it because everything was local! The proprietor of the place was a saucy lady with a curvaceous smile. She recognized right away that I wasn’t a local. She didn’t believe me when I told her I was from Taiwan, so I elaborated that I came from Taiwan via America. That satisfied her, and she began answering my questions about the dishes and describing them in tremendous detail. She wasn’t really trying to hard sell me, but obviously she recommended much more dishes than the driver and I could possibly eat. But I happily obliged, not wanting to miss out on this opportunity to taste some real local flavor.

The food was delicious—simple and rustic, yet the flavors were pleasingly complex. It was true Sichuan cooking, deeply ingrained with the prosperous peasantry that has long inhabited this blessed land. And yet, despite the generally accepted reputation of Sichuan food, these dishes were not exceptionally hot. Yes, you see a lot of red chilies, but their use is controlled and balanced with the multitudes of flavors from the other ingredients.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Chengdu's Street Snacks

In Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan, there are many yummy things to eat. The city’s street snacks are especially appealing. Eateries and vendors line the streets and markets offering quick bites to go. Among the myriad of choices are these favorites of mine, classic street snacks that have now become symbols of the city’s colorful cuisine.

Cold Noodles (涼麵; liang▪mian) and Cold “Fun” (涼粉; liang▪fen) – Chengduers love hot foods from red chilies. But when the weather gets hot, they get their hot noodles cold. The cold noodles are mixed with a numbing-hot sauce made of sesame paste, dried red chilies, and ground Sichuan peppercorns. Blanched bean sprouts are garnished on top. The same dish can be made with noodles made from mung beans or konnyaku, a type of potato. These noodles are called “fun,” or fen in Mandarin. (In southern China, fun refers specifically to noodles made from rice.) Chengdu’s cold noodles and cold fun are the inspirations for Japanese cold noodles called “hiyashi chuuka” (ひやし中華), which translates as “Cold Chinese-style (Noodles).”

Mr. Zhong’s Dumplings (Jiao) (鐘水餃; zhong▪shui▪jiao) – Chengdu’s “Zhong Dumplings” look like the jiao dumplings found throughout China, so what’s the big deal with these? A local chef surnamed Zhong first made his famous dumplings in 1931 with an all-meat filling, as opposed to the northern style of mixing meat (usually ground pork) with a vegetable like napa cabbage. The dumplings are boiled in water and served with a peppery chili oil.

Mr. Lai’s Rice Ball (Yuan) Soup (賴湯圓; lai▪tang▪yuan) – Yuan is a rice ball made from sticky rice flour, and tangyuan, or rice ball soup, is a dish eaten primarily during the winter, in particular on the Lantern Festival 15 days after the Lunar NewYear. So, what’s the big deal with these rice balls in comparison to the other rice balls found throughout China? Nothing really, except for the name. Mr. Lai first made his dumplings on the streets of Chengdu in 1894. The original filling was ground black sesame. Today, other fillings include sweet ones like ground peanuts, and savory ones like meats and vegetables.

Beef Cold Cuts (夫妻肺片; fu▪qi fei▪pian) – Also called “Husband-and-Wife Beef Slices,” the beef, generally brisket and tripe half and half but can also be offal, is sliced thinly and served cold with a dousing of numbing-hot sauce made of sesame oil, red chilies, soy sauce, and Sichuan peppercorns. A sprinkling of peanut powder completes the dish. I first discovered fuqi feipian (pronounced foo-chee fay-pian) while in graduate school at Northwestern, at a place in Chicago’s Chinatown called “Lao Sze Chuan.” It was so lip-smacking good that I ordered it every time I went there.

Dan Dan Noodles (擔擔麵; dan▪dan▪mian) – On the surface, dan dan noodles doesn’t look like much—it’s just some noodles with a generous smattering peanut powder on top. But once you dig into it, you discover that there is a magical sauce of sesame paste, black rice vinegar, and pickled mustard tuber underneath. The flavor is perky and complex—sweet, savory, numbing, sour, and hot, all at the same time.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Tianxianglou -- Hangzhou

Tianxianglou (天香樓), recently relocated to the newish Zhejiang Hotel in central Hangzhou, literally means “Pagoda of Heavenly Fragrance.” It is another pre-communist icon serving traditional Hangzhou fare. I came here to try two other famous Hangzhou dishes: Dongpo Pork and Shrimp with Longjing Tealeaves.

Dongpo Pork (東坡肉; dong▪po▪rou), named after the Song poet and the dish’s creator Su Dong▪po (蘇東坡; 1037-1101), is a sebaceous square of pork belly (bacon) slowly simmered in soy sauce, rock sugar, and cinnamon bark. Rich and sweet, soft and tender, it is the absolute dream of the meat lover. The connoisseur’s take on the dish is to first gather a whiff of the aroma. Dark and brooding, the scent is both sensuous and alluring. Then, breaking off a piece of the pork with your chopsticks, let the meat melt in your mouth and savor the contrasts of the firm skin, soft fat, and tender meat.

Shrimp with Longjing Tealeaves (龍井蝦仁; long▪jing▪xia▪ren) is light and ethereal—a complete 180 from the dark-and-brooking Dongpo Pork. Freshwater shrimp, which turn white when cooked, are stir-fried with a locally grown green tea called Longjing, also known as “Dragon Well.” The tea adds a bit of bitterness and nuttiness into the dish, which combined with the delicate and sweet flavor of the shrimp make this an instantly likeable dish.

I also ordered a dish of steamed stinking tofu with mature amaranth stems. I had never seen this dish before, so I asked the waitress about it. She explained that this is a classic peasant dish from the surrounding countryside. Stinking tofu, as the name suggests, stink because it is fermented like blue cheese. And when it’s steamed, it stinks more. Mature amaranth stems are so tough that the body cannot digest them. You are supposed to just chew these stems, suck up the creamy pulp, and then spit out the fibers. They have a slightly smoky flavor that can stand up to the brashness of the tofu.

To sop up all the juices and flavors of the dishes I ordered, I also got some steamed black wouwoutou made from buckwheat flour.

Tianxianglou is located at the Zhejiang Hotel, 447 Yan▪an Road.
浙江飯店 -- 杭州市延安路 447

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Louwailou Restaurant On West Lake, Hangzhou

Hangzhou’s Louwailou (樓外樓) is one of China’s most renowned restaurants. Located on a scenic corner of West Lake, it is also one of the most beautiful. Equally famous are restaurant’s two signature dishes: Beggar’s Chicken and West Lake Vinegar Fish. Together with other classic Hangzhou dishes, they make Louwailou an icon of the city. On my visit, naturally, I dropped by and tasted them for myself.

The origin of Beggar’s Chicken (叫化雞; jiao▪hua▪ji), so the story goes, is owed to a beggar who once caught a chicken but had no kitchen to cook it in. So he dug a hole in the ground and buried it with some burning coals. Hours later, when he took the chicken out of the ground, he discovered that the skin and feathers had stuck to the mud, which he easily removed, leaving a pile of moist and tender meat that he quickly devoured because it was so good.

At Louwailou, a whole young chicken is first wrapped in caul fat and then lotus leaf, and then baked in a mud crust. Upon serving, waiter removes the mud and unwraps the package before everyone’s eyes. What you find inside is a delicate chicken so moist that with a little effort with the chopsticks, the meats fall entirely off the bones. And the flavor is light and floral, with scents of lotus leaf and soy sauce permeating the surrounding air.

West Lake Vinegar Fish (西湖醋魚; xi▪hu▪cu▪yu) is perhaps the quintessential Hangzhou dish. After all, it is named after the lake for which the city is renowned. The fish is a carp raised right there in the lake, split lengthwise and poached, not boiled, so as to preserve a tenderness as soft as whipped cream. A sweet and sour sauce made from Zhenjiang black vinegar is poured on top. The flavors are light and delicate, without weighty extras like oils and spices that can easily destroy the natural characteristics of the fish. Most amazingly, the grass-feeding carp does not have that earthy taste that makes most carp dishes so unappetizing.

I ordered two other dishes The first was fresh spinach braised in broth, fried garlic, and dried freshwater shrimp. It was a sumptuous vegetable dish that matches well with the meat dishes. The second was a noodle soup with fried “eel,” which is actually loach. The juliennes of loach, battered and fried, are sweet and crispy. They complement the firm thick noodles quite well.

Hangzhou’s dishes, I discovered, are remarkably mellow in flavor. This is the single characteristic that distinguishes Hangzhou cooking from nearby Shanghai, which tends to be oily and heavily seasoned. If I were to pick between the two, I would choose Hangzhou every time.

Louwailou is located right on West Lake, at 30 Gu▪shan Road
樓外樓 -- 杭州市西湖孤山路 30

Friday, May 11, 2007

Shanghai-style Tangbao (湯包) -- Soup Dumplings

On any stretch of street in Shanghai, whether it is in a restaurant or a sidewalk stall, you can find someone selling soup dumplings. Locals call them “tang▪bao” (湯包), while American foodies are more familiar with the term “xiao▪long▪bao” (小籠包), or “XLB” for short. But XLB refers specifically to dumplings served in little steamer baskets (xiaolong means “little baskets”), whereas tangbao refers to the entire category of dumplings stuffed with meat and most importantly, soup (tang) on the inside. In Shanghai, birthplace of the tangbao, there is a different type for every kind of appetite.

Around the Chenghuang Temple (城隍廟), a touristy area filled with restaurants and snack shops, I came across these huge, and I mean huge! soup dumplings served with a straw sticking out of them. The idea is to sip the soup through the straw. It’s quite a novel idea, but I’m not sure about the wisdom in sucking hot soup from a straw. Then there is the fact that the soup is essentially a fat laden consommé, so basically, you are sipping lard.

At another location in the temple, tangbao are sold in the form of pan-fried dumplings. They call these sheng▪jian▪bao (生煎包), which literally means “dumplings pan-fried from the raw.” That is, without boiling or steaming first, the raw dumplings are placed directly in the frying pan and fried in oil until the outer dough is golden and crispy. For RMB 5 you get a little sachet of 8 shenjianbao—enough for a heartwarming snack.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Lubolang Restaurant (綠波廊) -- Shanghai-style Dim sum

In America, dim sum means a certain type of breakfast, brunch, or lunch, served in Cantonese restaurants, featuring little steamer baskets of dumplings, rice cakes, and chicken feet dished out by women pushing carts around the dining room. In China, dim sum (點心; dian▪xin) has a much broader meaning: snacks, period.

In Shanghai, snacks take on the form of flaky pastries, mostly sweet (there are a few savory ones as well), stuffed with ingredients such as red beans, lotus seeds, and candied fruits. Shanghai-style dim sum are generally sold in bakeries and confectioneries, but can also be found in some high-end restaurants. One such restaurant is Lu▪bo▪lang (綠波廊), at the Cheng▪huang Temple (城隍廟).

Located on an artificial lake in one of Shanghai’s most touristy districts, Luubolang looks like a dead-ringer for a tourist trap. But don’t let the crowds fool you. This place has been around since the Pearl of the Orient days, and the traditional dim sum it serves are true and authentic. Also, from the menu, there is a good sampling of Lower Yangtze cuisine.

Having come here after eating around numerous food stalls within the temple complex, I didn’t order much here. The stir-fried noodles with river shrimp and gingko nuts was a bit oily—true to the Shanghai way of cooking up things. The noodles were well made, with a nice firm texture. The gingko nuts had a nice medicinal flavor to it, slightly bitter, and the shrimp was sweet with a delectable crunchiness that can only come from freshness.

I also ordered braised shanghai cabbage with crab meat—a classic Shanghai dish. In a Chinese banquet, this dish would have been presented much more elaborately, but here at lunch, I was perfectly happy with it. Fresh shanghai cabbage are first blanched and then quickly braised in broth and crabmeat. The crab roe, which appear as red-orange clumps among the crabmeat, adds an extra touch of sweetness to the already sweet flavor of the river crab.

Lubolang is located inside the Chenghuang Temple complex, at the base of the “Crooked Nine Bridge” (九曲橋; jiu▪qu▪qiao), or by address at: 131 Yu▪yuan Road
綠波廊酒樓 -- 上海市豫園路 131

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