This past Saturday saw the second installment of Chowtimes’ Eight Great Traditions of Chinese Cuisine dinners, which – as full disclosure – yours truly helps out with. This dinner featured the cuisine of Jiangsu, a large region whose name basically refers to “south of the Yangtze,” home to cities such as Nanjing, Suzhou and Yangzhou.
It can get a bit confusing, then, that the dinner was held at a restaurant called “Shanghai Village,” which, despite the name, features a chef from Nanjing, and a Chinese name that translates to “Remembering Jiangnan,” an even larger region that encompasses portions of Jiangsu and Shanghai. This sort of confusion is commonplace: a large majority of Chinese restaurants in town feature some pan-regional jumble of Chinese fare, and the goal of these dinners is to help a brother (and sister) out in distinguishing your potstickers from your soup buns.
Jiangsu cuisine falls into the larger category of Huaiyang cuisine, which, according to Jen Len Liu in Serve the People, is “fading fast into irrelevancy,” ranking twenty-third in popularity among diners in Shanghai. The regional fare, however, is still revered as the basis of modern Shanghainese cooking, the options of which have grown exponentially in the GVRD over the last few years. Though many of those restaurants might not fit the bill, this regional subset of Chinese cuisine has traditionally emphasized seasonality and simple, fresh ingredients, prompting Liu to call it the “Chinese equivalent of California cuisine a la Alice Waters.” One has to assume that a traditional Jiangsu or Huaiyang restaurant would have to do well in these parts.
The evening started off with two double-boiled soups, a specialty at Shanghai Village: a pork sparerib and lotus root soup and a free range chicken with tea tree mushroom soup, only two of the multitude of choices. Neither were particularly reflective of Jiangsu by ingredient (and were probably more Cantonese in style), but the choice of free range chicken perhaps reflective of the same mindset.
The appetizer course featured the Nanjing salted duck, a hallmark dish from China’s former capital, salty and flavourful despite its neutral colour, a marked departure from the dark brown colour that most associate with Chinese duck dishes. A marbled egg, a hallmark dish of Shanghai Village, is the bastard lovechild of a thousand year-old egg and a salted egg, both being a treasure for the adventurous or a cause of concern for the trepidatious. The Qinhuai bean “jelly” is more glass noodle-like than amorphous, chilled but spicy, offering a pleasing contrast in flavours. The five-spice smoked fish was probably the least straight-forward in flavour, having been red-braised and flavoured with an assortment of anise, cloves and other spices.
Seasonality triumphed early into the main dishes, with spot prawns braised simply in soy sauce, ginger and scallion, letting the sweet buttery-ness of the meat ring through without meddling. A deluge of seafood continued, with fried crab and lobster resting atop nian gao, slices of sticky rice flour that absorbed the shellfish flavour from above, all in a swarm of deep fried garlic and other crunchy bits. The Suantang fish noodles, for which Shanghai Village won a 2010 Chinese Restaurant Award for “Most Innovative Dish,” is more than aptly named, and features noodles made entirely of fish meat, served in a hot and sour broth. A deep-fried grouper swam in sweet and sour sauce among egg-white foam, the chef’s visual play on a dragon flying through the clouds.
For other visuals, order the beggar’s chicken. As legend has it, the beggar’s chicken was traditionally made by – ahem – a beggar, who had assumedly stolen or caught a chicken, and lacking in your usual kitchenware. The chicken was thus be caked in mud and clay and roasted over a fire. The makeshift earthenware sealed in the juices of one of the tastiest chickens around, the aroma of which caught the attention of a Qing Dynasty emperor that happened to be strolling by. The beggar shared the chicken with said emperor, who added it to the Imperial Court menu soon afterward.
Mud is presumably frowned upon by our local health authorities, and thus Shanghai Village prepares its beggar chicken with flour, first wrapping the chicken in a lotus leaf. These flour chicken bombs were then carted out to the dining room, where Chef Ming took a cleaver to them to free the poultry inside. The first one smells is the lotus leaf, which imparts a bit of its flavour to the roast chicken inside. Juicier roast chickens could perhaps be found elsewhere, but the entertainment value involved is worth it alone.
While other dishes were standard fare that one can find elsewhere (pea shoots with prawns, Jinling spareribs with a sweet sauce not unlike Chinese bbq pork), try the Yangzhou Lion’s Head meatball, a healthy orb of pork braised for a long period of time which melts in the mouth. It’s generally a must-have on most menus featuring the region; Shanghai Village serves it simple and straight, often the best way to have it. Soup buns are thrown in for free for any order over $20, and though these aren’t the best in town, they’re certainly better than average.
There was only one disappointment. After a lifetime of eating Yangzhou fried rice in all of its bastardized forms offered at every Chinese restaurant known to man, I was looking forward to what could and should have been the authentic version. The Huaiyang Culinary Association, based in Yangzhou, have a museum immortalizing the dish by way of wax sculpture, and sought to trademark the recipe and reap licensing fees this world over. That didn’t quite play out, and the dish is now so ubiquitous that it could well be that no one can remember what the original version tasted like (the recipe given in Liu’s book features ingredients such as sea cucumber, dried scallops, and bamboo shoots, and not the Chinese bbq pork and peas one is usually served). The version at Shanghai Village is no different than any other, and though it was good, it certainly doesn’t go over well for someone expecting a life-changing revelation.
This was made up for in spades by dessert. Shanghai Village’s ‘quartz’ dumplings are exquisite, and riff visually on the marbled quartz stones that the Yangtze region is famous for. Unlike the diabetic nightmare that most Chinese desserts often impose, these were light, not too sweet, and served in soup – really heated sugar water – lightly steeped with flowers.
Shanghai Village3250 Cambie Street
(604) 872-3618 (Reservations highly recommended)