In Search of the Glories of the East


The heavy spices of western Chinese cooking can conceal a multitude of sins: namely, raw ingredients that are themselves rather tasteless. But try cooking delicate Cantonese or eastern dishes with poor-quality produce and you won’t get away with it. The other night, I was looking forward to visiting a smart Yangzhou restaurant offering notable dishes like lion’s-head meatballs, Yangzhou fried rice, and steamed pork buns so replete with stock they are served with a straw, so you can suck it out before you attempt to attack them with your chopsticks. But the meatballs were greasy, the chopped ham in the fried rice was some horrible processed stuff, and the stock in the dumplings was so unspeakably lardy I couldn’t bear to drink it. I found myself imagining how delicious all these dishes could have been had they been made with top-quality meat and fine stock, rather than mediocre materials and lots of MSG. Foreigners often complain that the local food of the Shanghai region is too sweet, bland, and oily. I know it can be superb, having been won over initially by a chef who used to work at Sophia’s Teahouse in the French Concession a few years ago, but a class act is still hard to find.

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