In case you had any doubt that flying on a commercial airline has lost all its olden day glamour, I invite you to hop on any US airline for an economy class flight across the Pacific. I thought I was mentally prepared for the discomfort of the 20+ hour trip duration (including a 3 hour layover at SFO, thanks seatguru.com for directing me to one of the roomiest seats in coach), the potential jetlag, and the bad airline food (ate an airy focaccia pizza from Caffe Del Mondo in SFO’s Terminal G before the 13.5 hour flight to Shanghai), but I was dead wrong.
I could pick around the frozen dinner quality orange chicken stir-fry and mystery meal oval of Salisbury steak. I could scrape off the excessive oozing mayonnaise from the turkey sandwich that had less meat than dressing. I even laughed whole heartedly at the flight attendant’s joke that the Gallo Merlot was a “2011 vintage” since the year was curiously missing from the label. I was, however, unprepared for our in-flight snack of “Chinese noodles.”
It’s exciting to know that I would fly 17.5 hours just for the chance to indulge in an old college favorite. I’ll give the airlines credit for one thing, the airline Ramen noodles tasted just like regular Ramen noodles, and that’s more than you can say for most of the other food.
We somehow suffered through the long hours of no in-flight entertainment (something was wrong with the audio system) playing cards and reading under an Itty Bitty Booklight (the reading lights didn’t work in our section). Our only distraction (and delight) was the completely unobscured, magnificent view of icy northern Siberia.
We arrived in Shanghai late Sunday afternoon. My legs were stiff but I was excited. Behold, my first ride on the world’s first magnetic levitation train, zooming from Shanghai Pudong International to the city in a mere 12 minutes.
Since we were riding the MagLev during an off peak period, the train capped its top speed at 190 mph. Had we been riding during peak periods, the train would’ve reached top speed at 268 mph.
Suburban Shanghai became a blur through the panoramic windows as the MagLev train tilted left and right through the curvaceous turns of the track. I couldn’t make out much through the blurred vision, just widespread construction everywhere. With all the tall buildings, how do you know where downtown is?
The MagLev train ride ended at the Longyang Road Metro Station, but we still had a ways to go. We chose to stay at the visitor’s hotel at East China Normal University just west of central Shanghai, but still connected to the heart of the city by the metro system. Mom was staying at ECNU chaperoning her class of American college students for a summer cultural immersion experience. Like the lot, we also wanted to experience campus life at a Chinese university, even if it’s just a sneak peek.
As soon as we checked into our basic hotel room and cleaned up a bit, it was time to head out for a late dinner. ECNU, like any other Chinese university, has a little area known as “xiao chi jie,” or ”little eats street,” just outside its gates. Two blocks of quick service restaurants and street vendors, all offering cheap but satisfying alternatives to poor college students tired of cafeteria dining. Unsure of the street food situation in the area, we cruised through stall after stall of grilled meats, wok fried noodles and rice, savory pancakes, and fascinatingly, spicy boiled crawfish,
before settling on a Sichuan style restaurant at the end of the block. Sichuanese in suburban Shanghai + half empty restaurant = an average casual dining experience. I should’ve known better, but between the jet lag and being overwhelmed with the excitement and anxiety of being in a new place, my chowhound radar was off. This restaurant put its own Hangzhou (a city directly southwest of Shanghai) spin on Sichuanese food. It’s not surprising, seeing as how Sichuanese food is the most frequently exported style of cuisine domestically in China, sort of like how Tex-Mex is ungraciously exploited all over the US. Sichuan food is all the rage in Shanghai, with every mom and pop pair trying to get in on the action.
Our meal included a slightly bland plate of water boiled white fish (“water boiled” in Sichuanese cuisine means cooked in a pool of hot oil) on top of bean sprouts,
a tasty plate of twice cooked pork made with local Hangzhou peppers instead of Sichuan peppers, making for a milder version of the Sichuanese classic, (The green peppers, when eaten by themselves, had great flavor despite the tameness.)
a delicately (perhaps too delicately, the broth hardly had any seafood essence) flavored tofu and mussel stew that definitely suited east coast Chinese taste more than that of the Sichuan mountains,
and a simple plate of wok fried fresh baby bok choy, which was a welcome change after all that frozen and reheated airplane food. Total damage: 150Y ($21).
Though I was full, I was not satisfied with solely eating inoffensively mediocre food on my first day in China. My audacious side set in (a few swigs of that Shanghai rice wine probably helped), street food here I come! But where to start? There were so many options but so little room left in the stomach.
I wasn’t in the mood for seafood, so it was a definite “no” for Shanghai-fied Cajun crawfish and grilled oysters.
But even within the non-seafood-on-a-stick category, I still had plenty to choose from: mushrooms, eggplant, cucumbers, tofu, unidentified meat and offal, and even some stuff that looked like hot dog franks.
All over China, Uyghur street vendors sell their famous mutton kebabs seasoned heavily with cumin (though I suspect that the popularity of the street vendor career among Uyghurs is more so the result of social immobility due to societal biases than an innate culinary desire, but alas, this is a food blog and not a political blog). The popular original has evolved into limitless options as witnessed in the stall photographed above. I stuck with the original street food on a stick, the mutton kebab, while my partner-in-crime braved more adventurous choices, chicken hearts and chicken gizzards. We watched as our post-dinner snacks were doused in seasoning and cooked over the pit grill.
Time to dive in!
The mutton kebab was tender and juicy, but overseasoned (someone grab me a bottle of water, stat!). The chicken gizzards had a strange texture with a crunchy exterior and a chewey interior, and required extensive toothwork. The chicken hearts were surprisingly palatable. They tasted just like chicken meat but lacked the stringiness of the muscle texture. At 2Y (less than 30 cents) per stick, it was quite the affordable adventure.
The combination of an adrenaline rush from exploring street food and jet lag is a dangerous thing. It was almost midnight but we had caught our second wind.
We decided to trek across the ECNU campus to the local TrustMart, a discount supermarket, to stock up on some essentials like bottled water and two-ply toilet paper. We were befuddled by the masses of people walking around the university’s running track at such a late hour, thinking it was some sort of organized event. As it turns out, Chinese university students enjoy brisk late night walks/runs… in their normal street clothes.
Supermarkets in China are amazing. The bakery and deli section is extensive beyond imagination, at least quadruple the size of that of my neighborhood Kroger. The seafood is alive, the mushrooms are exotic, and the Pringles are sophisticated with flavors like “salad de provence,” “mediterranean meze”… and “stewed eggplant”???
I wonder why they don’t just make these chips from eggplant.
And just as the energy was quick to come, we were crashing fast. Groggily standing in the checkout line (though not too groggy to notice the individually packaged flavored condoms placed right next to the gum and candy, I thought this was a repressed country?), I couldn’t wait to crawl into bed. It had been more than 30 hours since I had slept lying down. But as much as I looked forward to getting a good night’s sleep, I was more excited about the agenda for the next day, a XLB (xiao long bao) tour of Shanghai.
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