A few weeks ago in Nanhui, Shanghai I went out with a college student whom I was working with for a bite to eat, something spicy to warm me up after having lost my coat at the Beijing airport and thus having been freezing my butt off for days. Long story, but suffice it to say that 40 minutes is not nearly enough time to go through the painfully inefficient baggage claim and customs and then back through security at this airport… Thankfully, I got what I wanted at a neighborhood hot pot joint near the campus of Xing Wei College. I would specify where exactly this place was but, well, there was nothing in English to help guide me, and it’s not like I can look it up on Google maps… If you are planning to visit the Nanhui suburb of Shanghai anytime soon and you would like more info on where to find this place, let me know and I will try my best to direct you.
The restaurant is a hole-in-the-wall joint with no counter and a kitchen hidden behind some wall. It caters mostly to college students in the surrounding area. The food is hearty, seasoned heavily, very filling and shockingly inexpensive. This became obvious when I realized that we paid 25 Yuan altogether for a huge bowl of stew and a hot pot, which filled us both up completely, and that I had paid 50 Yuan (twice as much!) for a not-very-good double espresso at the Shanghai airport a few hours later, on my way to Hong Kong. So, about $4 USD for this dinner. Not bad. As we sat down, our waitress brought out some very mild green tea in porcelain cups. She, along with everyone else at the place, never stopped staring at me since they probably don’t see too many white folks around these parts. It was not a harsh stare of suspicion, but rather one of playful curiosity, so I did not mind at all.
My dinner companion asked me two questions before ordering – whether I liked pork and whether I was okay with spice. I eagerly nodded at both, so he ordered a bowl of spicy pork stew and a Sichuan hot pot with cabbage, chiles, pepper, onions and twice cooked pork. The hot pot seemed like an especially popular choice, as many of the tables around us were sharing the same. These dishes were two of what were probably like 5-6 items the place had on its menu. Both were very comforting and delicious on an uncharacteristically cold and windy spring day.
Sorry about the quality of the photo… iPhone have their limitations. The Sichuan pork stew came with a broth that was packed with chiles and Sichuan peppercorn, the latter of which gave it a wonderfully acidic heat and flavoral depth. There was also plenty of garlic, ginger, anise, some soy sauce and maybe some oyster sauce mixed in as well, to make the broth very deep in flavor, besides just being spicy. The pork (shoulder, I think) was tender and fell apart into juicy pieces on my tongue, without having to chew too much. There were also some tender, slippery white noodles in there but not enough to make it a noodle soup, as well as some fresh chopped scallion sprinkled over the top for a crunch. A delicious soup with very complex flavors.
We also got a hot pot of cabbage and twice cooked pork, which came in a metal pot hoisted up onto a cast iron container that kept the food at the same temperature (hot, hot, hot!) throughout the meal. The protagonist of this dish was clearly the twice cooked pork, which is a traditionally Sichuan style preparation of pork belly. Chunks of belly are boiled in water along with slices of ginger and salt, then cut into even thinner slices, thrown into a wok with some oil and fried. The preparation results in deliciously fatty bits of pork belly which are very similar to the fried chicharron prevalent in many Latin American cuisines. Mixed in with the twice cooked pork slices was a ton of chopped cabbage which wilted from the oil into a slippery, tender texture but which still retained a juicy bite. There were also some red and green peppers mixed in, some sweet and mushy Chinese dates (which take on a role similar to that of a golden raisin would in a European dish), and some leeks. The thing was seasoned with garlic, ginger, bird’s eye chiles, something which tasted like anise, soy sauce and vinegar. I kept picking at different parts of the dish and it was a bit difficult to stop doing so, even after the cabbage and pork, and the fantastic white rice I slapped these on, had filled and warmed me up.
A fun dish to eat and one that left me very satisfied, putting me to sleep a few minutes later with a smile on my face.