Friday, April 22, 2011: Family Day
Feng Jing Zhen 楓涇鎮 – Culinary Delights
As you would probably expect by now, I downed more authentic Shanghainese food! Ah-Gu and his wife, whom I was told to call Yi Fu and Shen Shen, owned the local restaurant called 萬福來 Wan Fu Lai, roughly meaning 10,000 Happiness Enters. My ‘uncles and aunts’ in the restaurant cooked us a whole table of food; steaming plates of meat and vegetables just kept rolling in.
Since day 1, I have formed a loving relationship with Coconut Milk Drink, or 椰子 Ye Zi. I drank it in a shot glass. I kept pouring, or at least my uncle and aunt kept insisting I replenish the shot glass. By the end of the meal, I believe I finished 2.5 cans of those babies. The coconut juice has a milky white color; it is not thick or creamy. Instead, it is quite watery and sweet, but not too sugary. And yet, I still felt like a sugar drunk. When it was time to do our family Cheers!, or 乾杯 Gan Bei, I was raising a glass of coconut milk to some alcohol and beer. Asian sweet drinks are THE BEST… Cavities not guaranteed.
A Shanghai specialty dish is Di Pang Niu (said in a Shanghainese accent), or Shanghai-style Braised Pork Belly. It is marinated and stewed in dark soy sauce, wine, sugar, garlic, ginger, and various spices for a viscous medley of sweet and salty flavors. !!Warning!!: it is very fatty with the skin and underlying adipose tissue attached. Even though the fat and skin complement the scrumptious pork, you do not have to eat the layers of fat and get a heart attack; simply pull it all off and at least eat the lean meat. At least the health-conscious Asians like me out there do this. It is a typical family-style dish. The aroma is intoxicating, emanating to every olfactory cell and orifice on the body. The meat is cooked so tender it falls right off the bones. It was one of the grandest dishes at the table. Uncle Ah-Gu served the whole table, scissors in hand and ready to cut the servings.
1) 炸蝦球 Zha Xia Qiu (Fried Shrimp balls) – This has been a recurring dish, from America to Shanghai. Mom makes amazing shrimp balls, which taste as authentic as the many balls I ate this week. Shrimp are de-shelled, de-veined, and pounded together. Roll them into balls and fry away!
2) 水晶蝦仁 Shuǐ Jīng Xiā Rén (Sauteed Shelled Shrimp w/green onions) – nice and tender, just annoying to bite and chew off the shell.
3) 蘿蔔 Luo Bo (Daikon Radish, freshly marinated in light soy sauce) – Mouth-watering and crunchy appetizer.
4) 紅燒河鰻 Hóng Shāo Hé Mán (Braised Eel) – Made with soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, ginger spice, and green onions. I used to love this as a kid, until I saw swimming eels at the Chinese market and put two and two together. That day, I dared to try it again, because I was respecting my hosts. The conglomeration of savory flavors definitely overshadows the slimy fish, so I would say I enjoyed it.
5) Plates of steaming, stir-fried Chinese vegetable greens.
6) 臭豆腐 Chou Dou Fu (Stinky Tofu) – This is truly a Taiwanese dish, and truly a smelly dish, if odors could kill… Mom always complained when my paternal grandfather and Dad’s family ate Stinky Tofu, because the name says it all. It’s fermented tofu that is then fried and dipped in hot chili sauce. The Taiwanese half of me was itching to eat these honeys, the real deal and not the bootleg take-out type NYU Asian clubs served. True, it was stinky, but anything spicy hot never failed to disappoint me.
8) Steamed Bass with ginger and green onions – Say hello!
12) 青蛙 Frog – Yes, I ate frog by accident. You may wonder how on earth I ate frog accidentally? Again, my Uncle Ah-Gu served his guests. I got a happy little portion. I thought it was chicken, like it was stretched out. The shape was a bit bizarre, but I believed it looked like a smaller-than-normal midget chicken. The ‘drumsticks’ were small and interconnected. It looked more like a meaty crab with ‘drumsticks’ and small bones. I bit down into the meat, which did not have the consistency of chicken. The mysterious meat was more stringy and rubbery, certainly not white-meat tender. Nevertheless, I still believed I was eating an exotic chicken.
Only later did Kelly say something to me. She knew it was a funky looking animal, and knew it was NOT chicken. The entire time I was munching merrily on this ‘chicken’ she was staring at me incredulously. She thought to herself, “I guess Connie does not know what she’s really eating…” When she told me this, my jaws dropped to my knees and I just glared: “You did not think about STOPPING me?!” Kelly responded, “Nope, you looked like you were enjoying it and I didn’t want to bother you.”
It was a splendid family gathering. The small, dim restaurant setting created a tight-knit, backcountry feel. Cigarette smoke floated over the table like the London smog. Nearby men at tables were smoking and laughing over a hearty lunch. Camaraderie echoed from wall to wall, table to table. My ‘Aunt and Uncle’ showed their love for Kelly and me, even though this was our first encounter. I would like to thank them for the unique visit and open hospitality to their home village. I hope to meet everyone again.