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Chinese Food Recs Ep. 1: Shanghai (Part 2: Appetizers)


Are you having a hard time deciding what to eat tomorrow? Are you facing the dilemma of having to eat the same food over and over again? Luckily, I’ve got several solutions for you! Welcome back to part 2 of the Shanghai food recommendations! If you have not read part 1, go give that a read first! It is named “Chinese Food Recs Ep. 1: Shanghai (part 1 breakfast and soups).” Anyway, let’s continue with our food journey…


马兰头香干 (ma3 lan2 tou2 xiang1 gan1)

Are you a fan of cilantro? If you hate it, still give this dish a chance! If you love it, then try this dish! Unlike the two extreme views from those who have tried cilantro before, so far, I have not met a single person who dislikes 马兰头香干 yet! 马兰头 is classified as a 野菜 (a special type of vegetable)—they are wild greeneries found in nature, rather than regular vegetables, which are home-cultivated. This makes this dish heavily seasonal, as 马兰头 is not always available. Due to its high dependency on the correct environmental conditions, 马兰头 grows the most exuberantly around March. On top of the plentiful supply that’s produced, March is also the sprouting season of 马兰头, when this vegetable is the most soft, tender, and juicy—it will literally melt in your mouth. In fact, the season for 马兰头香干 is now! 马兰头 is extremely rare in America, but if you’re lucky enough, you may find yourself some fresh 马兰头 at a Chinese supermarket. Otherwise, go try it at a Shanghai restaurant near you! I mean…I’d recommend traveling to Shanghai for this though…the dish is much fresher in Shanghai! 

Similar to cilantro, 马兰头 also has a special fragrance to it. It’s hard to describe, but to me, it smells like nature—refreshing and clean. On your first bite, 马兰头 hits your tastebuds with a slightly bitter flavor, but it immediately dissolves into a fresh, delightful aftertaste that will linger in your mouth for a few moments. Its fresh taste makes a great appetizer for those who like to start with lighter flavors. 马兰头香干 also provides countless health benefits. For instance, when you’re sick, eating a bowl of this dish can instantly cool your body and relieve your swollen throat; you can thank me later for offering such wise life advice! With its rich Vitamin A content, it protects your vision, prevents cancer, and boosts your immune system. Moreover, it is also high in protein and dietary fiber, which can improve your digestion. 马兰头 is often served with 香干, a more compressed form of the usual tofu. The addition of 香干 to 马兰头 creates a perfect combination of freshness and savoriness. I mean…who doesn’t love a healthy yet delicious dish? Trust me, you will soon find this weirdly appetizing dish extremely addicting. 


烤麸 (kao3 fu1)

Let me guess…you have not heard about this dish before. Worry no more, if this sounds exotic to you right now, you will be dying to try this after I give you a brief description. The best part about this dish is that it’s friendly to everyone—even vegetarians will be able to enjoy this! For those of you eager to explore new traditional Chinese dishes, 烤麸 would also be a great option for you! According to ancient legends, a Han Dynasty emperor found that the flour became moldy after being left in the rain. After he discovered this, he formed a moldy dough from the flour and washed it in the river. What resulted became the gluten that is used to create 烤麸 today! A truly weird but fascinating story… 

烤麸 is dried wheat gluten that tastes similar to tofu. Its dark brown color may not look too appetizing, but its chewy texture will make you love it instantly. 烤麸 is cooked and braised in a flavorful, semi-sweet reddish-brown sauce, and its sponge-like quality absorbs all the sauce, creating a burst of flavors that will explode in your mouth when you first bite down on a 烤麸—it is juicy, it is sweet, it is savory, it is sooo good. 烤麸 is usually served with 黑木耳 (earwood mushrooms) and 花生 (peanuts), which may sound like a weird combo. However, the chewiness from 烤麸 perfectly compliments the crunchiness from 花生 and the crispiness from 黑木耳. It is an excellent appetizer for the summer as its juicy fillings will surely quench your thirst and cool your body! If you are currently trying to lose weight, good news for you too. This dish will satisfy your cravings, yet it is also low in fat and carbohydrates. I highly recommend you to go try 烤麸 now!


白斩鸡 (bai2 zhan3 ji1)

白斩鸡 is a popular traditional Shanghai dish that has become an indispensable and integral part of Shanghai culture. It can be found anywhere—street food vendors, restaurants, etc. Myths say that, in the last years of the Ming Dynasty, a peasant rebel army invaded Beijing and rescued the emperor’s son. As a token of gratitude, the emperor rewarded a chicken to the peasant rebel leader. However, the peasant did not know how to cook the chicken, so he simply just boiled it in hot water. Surprisingly, he found the chicken to be exceptionally tender, with an overall white-colored appearance, thus terming it 白斩鸡. 

*Warning: if you do not want to hear about a chicken getting cooked, skip this following part!*

A perfect dish for meat lovers. This is such a simple yet still incredibly mouthwatering appetizer. To make 白斩鸡, a chicken is steamed and served with a simple handmade sauce, which is prepared by mixing vinegar, soy sauce, ginger, green onion, and a bit of oil. And BAM…we got a full-on appetizer! That’s it. It is this simple. What makes this dish different than other chicken dishes is the texture of the meat. I cannot describe in words how soft and tender the chicken meat is. The moment you take a bite of 白斩鸡, it melts in your mouth in an instant. It quite literally feels unreal—I’ve never imagined that a cooked chicken can be so easily chewed. Eating the meat alone is undoubtedly bland, but, when 白斩鸡 is paired with its special sauce, it creates a rich and flavorful taste with a hint of saltiness, making this appetizer irresistible. Regardless of whether you like bolder seasonings or lighter flavors, you will find 白斩鸡 palatable since the amount of sauce you put on your meat is in your complete control. Depending on your preferences, you can either dip your slice of chicken slightly in the sauce or completely soak it in to enjoy its complete flavor! I personally like to go somewhere in between, but it’s entirely up to you. Make sure to tell me what you prefer! If you are a pro chef who wants to try to make this at home, make sure to select the right type of chicken! Or else, you may find your chicken meat extremely tough. I will leave you to experiment with what type of chicken to buy :). 


熏鱼 (xun1 yu2)

Whether you are a fan of fish or not, I guarantee that you will find this one interesting, if not delicious. Made from grass carp, 熏鱼 is a special type of smoked fish that originated from Shanghai. Now, you may imagine this in your smoked salmon mindset—a salty, buttery taste paired with your cream cheese and bagel. However, 熏鱼 would give you a completely different perception of smoked fish. 熏鱼 is first deep-fried, then marinated in a special sauce made from soy sauce, sugar, and a pinch of salt until it cools down. In this way, the fish soaks up all the flavors from the sauce, leaving it with a deliciously sweet taste with a tinge of saltiness. Crispy on the outside and flavorful on the inside, 熏鱼 makes for a perfect starter as it will surely open up your appetite! Just a warning though…however hungry you are, be sure to look out for the fish bones. A trip to the hospital for this will definitely be troublesome (I mean…it’s arguably worth it though), but don’t come blaming me if a fishbone does get stuck in your throat. I warned you! Although I do respect our fellow smoked salmon lovers, I would argue that 熏鱼 is better! If you don’t agree, go give this a try first and we can debate it out :). Bet.


Sadly, this marks the end of our appetizer descriptions! Next time, I will cover the common Shanghai main dishes (finally!). So, be sure to come with an empty belly and get ready to try more new (or not-so-new) dishes! If you’ve read this till the end, I will praise you by revealing what type of chicken will produce such a tender texture for 白斩鸡. It is 三黄鸡. Happy eating!!


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