Sunday, September 06, 2009

Highlight #226: First anniversary - Restaurant: South Beauty (Shanghai)

Busy with work, neither of us remembered our anniversary until emails arrived from friends with well wishes. To make up for our oversight, we celebrated with a bottle of aged Shao Xing wine given to Jason by one of his suppliers. Shao Xing wine is famous for pairing well with Shanghai's equally famous hair crabs. But we were too lazy after our long work days to go find some of that. The wine looks like cognac in the glass and has a very floral nose. The taste is light and reminiscent of a high quality mirin (Japanese cooking wine).

It's hard to eat just Shanghainese food in Shanghai. Like nyc, Shanghai is a commercial hub that has attracted some of the best chefs of various regional cuisines. One of the favorite cuisines in this city is from my native region of Sichuan.

South Beauty made its name serving Sichuan cuisine. In recent years, the mother and son team expanded the empire all over Shanghai and Beijing. Like many chain establishments in China, the standard remains very high. The truth is China is a country obsessed with food and eating. Mediocrity is easily identified by the public at every price level and rejected. Almost everyone I meet here in Shanghai qualifies as a foodie by the western definition. It's hard to find a Chinese person who can't talk at length about something good to eat.

We started our meal at South Beauty with its signature you mai cai. This slightly peppery vegetable is served raw in little bundles secured with a thin slice of summer cucumber. To eat, one dips a bundle into a dish of peanut/sesame sauce made from 18 different ingredients. The complexity of the sauce really enhances the refreshing quality of the vegetable. Simple, elegant, and tasty.

Here is a classic Sichuan dish (direct translation: water boiled fish) found at every restaurant of this genre, but rarely prepared with green Sichuan peppercorns, which cannot be exported. The difference due to the choice of peppercorn is subtle yet profound. While the more common mature peppercorn imparts the intense numbing sensation, the green version is gentler with a slight nuttiness and fragrance. As you can see, the water that is used for boiling is really a pot of hot chili oil. The fish slices are quickly dropped into the hot oil once the oil had released all the flavors and fragrances from the chilies and spices. When done right, as it is here, the fish slices are very tender and, once removed from the oil, rather light in taste with a lingering spiciness that builds as one eats on.

I ordered this dish to show my dinning companions that not all classic Sichuan dishes are spicy. This steamed pork patty looks solid but breaks off into impossibly soft morsels, a favorite of my dad's. The trick is to make the patty with pork and a mixture of roughly powdered plain and sticky rice grains. When the rice particles are of the perfect consistency, they hold the meat together but do not bind it into a solid mass. So when attacked with chopsticks, the patty easily separates into soft pieces. This patty is also seasoned very well with soy and lots of black pepper.

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