Right now I hate people like Anthony Bourdain who jet into places like Shanghai and show us all how “easy” it is to eat wonderful amazing food. Well, it is easy to eat like that when you have your own TV show, and you arrive in some place and you’re greeted by your local fixer who then proceeds to take you where you should go, and orders the food in the native language for you and tells you what you’re eating and how to eat it. All without the challenge of having to tug along two small kids who don’t want to try any of the local food with you, and need potty breaks at the most irregular times.
Plus, the language bubble in which my family and I reside (punctured here and there by calls of “laowai” and short conversations about our kids), doesn’t exist for these travel professionals. They’re also only there for a very short period of time. They’re not there for an extended period like we are, trying to figure out how or what we’re going to eat on a daily basis, using our limited knowledge of the local language, customs, and sometimes learning the hard way about what to eat.
We’re staying in the hotel portion of a campus guest house. The guest house is usually filled with college students, like it is now with a bunch of Europeans and a large group of Russian college and high school students. On the elevator we are often stuck with them as they yap at each other. When I hear Russian spoken it all sounds like, “borzhka borzhka, Putin, vodka!”
College and high school students the world over are the same bunch of loud, self-centered, fun-loving, and immature types of people. Fortunately, they reside on the floors below us. Another benefit is that their floors have washing machines, clothes dryers, and microwaves. Otherwise we’d have no way to do our laundry or re-heat leftovers.
The complementary hotel breakfast is Chinese food, consisting of congee (a rice porridge in which you mix in pickled vegetables), many kinds of fried bread, tea eggs (yummy), hard-boiled eggs, egg-fried rice, fried rice cakes, and maybe, if you’re lucky, there’ll be some cold cucumber (a poor version of the traditional Chinese dish) or fried bok choy. You get to wash it all down with hot soy milk. It would be better with water or hot tea because the food is oily. This food was new and interesting the first few days we were here….and now my wife avoids it whenever she can.
Look, as an American, born, bred, and raised, you can only take so many mornings of food meant to slide down your gullet and stop up your colon. If I’m going to stop up my colon I want to do it with pan-fried bacon.
One morning, my wife had gone to breakfast first while I stayed in the room with the sleeping kids, and returned saying she had saved me a small plate with some bok choy that two of her colleagues were down there guarding. When I came down and saw it, I thanked them and declared, “Wow! I can crap again!”
The kids don’t do the complementary hotel breakfast. They tried it the first two days. They didn’t like it. They are surviving. Henry has been living off of peanut butter, chocolate milk, french fries, noodles, donuts, Cheerios, kids’ yogurt, grape juice, ice cream, and the occasional apple or banana. Meredith has been living off of skim milk, Cheerios, french fries, Alpen chocolate granola bars, apples, ice cream, white rice, peach juice, and the occasional banana. Oreo cookies, too. They’re each getting vitamin supplements.
We have a small refrigerator in our room, so we have a place to keep perishable items like milk, yogurt, juice, and leftovers. But we have no way to prepare our own foods.
In the beginning, my wife and I ate cheaply at fast food chains like Yonghe King which is close to the hotel and where we can get big bowls of noodle soup with pork dumplings for around 15 Yuan. But then we got tired of the cheap cardboard flavor and branched out to other places.
The results have been mostly good. I have come to love picture menus. So here is a run-down of some of our eating experiences.
Lillian Cake Shop
Lillian Cake Shop is a Macau-based chain that makes pastries. They make the most amazing Portuguese egg tarts. No one else can make egg tarts that compares to theirs. My wife is addicted to them and eats them for breakfast whenever she can. Luckily, near our hotel there is a Lillian Cake Shop in both the Chi Feng Metro station and the basement food court of Hongkou Plaza.
They also make many other kinds of sweet and savory pastries. Here are two savory pastries I bought from Lillian Cake Shop last week for lunch.
I have no idea for sure what’s on the left one other than bell peppers, maybe pork and dates, too? Maybe someone can tell me. It was very good. But the one on the right had some kind of bacon covered with cheese. It was even better. It’s hard to go wrong with bread, cured meat, and cheese. I have since eaten a few of these for lunch.
Coco is a chain that is as ubiquitous here as Starbucks is in the U.S. They make fresh juices and smoothies. You can get all kinds of juices or smoothies made with blueberries, dragonfruit, passion fruit, mango, pear, etc. in many different combinations. (The smoothies are not as thick as those in the U.S.) All of it freshly run through a juicer. On these hot Shanghai days, those drinks are especially refreshing.
Cha Shao Bao
Cha Shao Bao are steamed barbecued pork dumplings. I love them. You can get them at many restaurants. I ate some good ones at a place in Hangzhou. There’s a place in the food court in the basement at Hongkou Plaza that makes some very good ones, along with several other tasty pork dishes. And they’re cheap.
My wife ate at the restaurant known as The Grandma’s and said it was awesome. A chain, it’s a favorite of many Chinese and there is always a wait to get in for lunch and dinner.
The worst Thai food my wife and I have ever eaten was at the Hongkou Plaza mall. As far as I can tell, Thai Princess (which has a very friendly staff) is Thai food as imagined by Chinese people. The starter we were talked into ordering was cubed dragon fruit and watermelon drizzled with mayonnaise. Everything else we tried tasted like Chinese food we’d eaten at other restaurants. No fish oil. No cilantro. Few noodle and rice dishes. Or maybe we’re wrong and this is real Thai food and the Thai food we repeatedly ate in Thai Town in Los Angeles alongside thousands of Thai-Americans is the fake stuff.
Din Tai Fung
This past Wednesday night was the first time we had gotten to eat some of the legendary Xiao Long Bao, aka Soup Dumplings. It was excellent. If you don’t know what soup dumplings are, well, they are dumplings made of pork and/or crab or shrimp, but with soup/juices inside, too. At restaurants like Din Tai Fung, you can even watch the cooks make the soup dumplings. It’s quite a sight to see. It’s something even better to taste.
We ate at the Din Tai Fung located inside the bottom floors of the World Financial Center. We, along with some of my wife’s colleagues in the Summer China program, had some vague plans of getting up to the Park Hyatt on the 91st floor to eat and take in the night view. But since that proved more confusing than the group of us could deal with, we opted to eat some Xiao Long Bao.
It was a late night for us. We didn’t leave the restaurant until 10pm. So by the time we got back to the hotel, we were all very tired, especially the kids. I did manage to get some nice pictures of the SWFC at night and up close.
Going to the observatory on the top floor of the building is on our Shanghai To Do List. It will be done before we leave.
We found out later from one of my wife’s TAs that Din Tai Fung is considered an expensive place. Based on the prices (22 Yuan for 5 soup pork dumplings) it is by Shanghai standards. But they were oh so good….
Thursday was a low-key day since we were all tired from our late night the day before. It was marked by me eating the first peanut butter sandwich since leaving the States. With the help of one of the other professors teaching in the same program as my wife, I tracked down a small loaf of multi-grain bread at the Carrefour in Hongkou Plaza. It was hard to find. Western style bread is not plentiful here. This is the loaf I bought.
Yes, I’m eating Bimbo Multi-grain bread. That’s the brand. Despite how good it tastes, I don’t think it’s coming to the U.S. any time soon. No matter that it’s bimbo-approved.
That sandwich, made with Skippy peanut butter (bought at Carrefour), coupled with some Pringles (also bought at Carrefour), sated my desire for something that tasted like home. After two and a half weeks of constantly having to go out to a restaurant of one kind or another for a meal, I just wanted to sit inside and eat a peanut butter sandwich.
So Carrefour has become essential to our existence here in Shanghai. It’s where we buy all of our cereal, milk, and fruits, etc.
After talking with several of my wife’s colleagues here, we’ve come to the conclusion that what Shanghai needs is an American Ghetto. My wife suggested that that might be Pudong. I said there aren’t enough though. We need a good-sized American population of at least 50,000 so that there can be plenty of American-style grocery stores, and diners to make American breakfasts. Honestly, a Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast right now would be awesome.
But first, there needs to be a compelling reason for 50,000 Americans to come here and congregate in one neighborhood….That’s not going to happen any time soon.
What goes in must eventually come out. One major note about restaurants in China: they don’t have restrooms.
The U.S. Tourist gambit of diving into a McDonalds, buying something small, and then using the restroom doesn’t work here. There are no restrooms in the McDonalds on the East Nanjing Road pedestrian way. How do I know? Earlier this week I needed to pee and went in there with the kids. I bought them some french fries and thought I was going to use the facilities to empty my bladder, except there were no facilities for patrons.
This is one of the reasons, when it comes to eating out, we often stick to the malls. (The other is that the new malls here have excellent restaurants; the opposite of mall food in the U.S.) The malls have restrooms that are modern and clean. If one of us needs to go, we can scoot out of the restaurant and then it’s usually a trip around the corner and down the hall for the restroom. Parks, too, have restrooms and they’re usually clean enough.
This might seem like a trivial thing, but when you’re out and about with children, knowing where the potties are is a top priority. Why travel books don’t have information on toilet locations in the “For Kids” chapters I’ll never know.
Toilets, publishers. The people need to know where the toilets are in toilet-deficient countries.
Postscript: Tonight we were at an Italian cafe. We tried to order plain pasta for the kids. The waitress said they couldn’t do it. I’m sure there was something lost in translation. So we ordered them Spaghetti Carbonara. Stephanie pulled some spaghetti out of the bowl, removing the ham and mushrooms, and set it on Henry’s plate. Meredith refused to try it, saying it wasn’t her pasta. (She was tired, hungry, and nearly had a melt-down.) We had to nudge Henry a bit to try it. He did, slurping up one long noodle. Then he said, “I like it. It tastes much better than the plain pasta I eat at home.”
I wanted to slap my forehead. Some of you dear readers know just how picky an eater our son is. My wife and I have spent the last several years trying to get Henry to eat pasta with something other than olive oil on it. Wonders never cease.