Chinese regional cuisine: Shanghainese - where to find some of the best in Hong Kong, and why you shouldn't count the calories
Shanghainese food is known for its rich, deep flavours, but the less healthy dishes might be toned down to suit local tastes. We speak to restaurateurs happy to serve up traditional recipes – but best you ask for them in advance
Humphrey Tai is a manager and one of the owners of 3.6.9. Restaurant Shanghai Food in Wan Chai, but he insists on preparing and making the wonton and xiaolongbao (soup dumplings) himself. This way, he says, he is sure that the dishes are true to the traditional flavour and style.
“The key to making xiaolongbao is to ensure that the skin is neither too thin nor too thick, and the ratio of lean to fat meat should be just right,” he says.
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The restaurant, located on an inconspicuous street in Wan Chai, was founded by Tai’s grandfather 54 years ago and now is helmed by Tai and his father. Tai’s grandfather, a Shanghai native, immigrated to Hong Kong in his youth, seeking a better career and life. Hungry for dishes from home, which were hard to come by back then, he decided to make Shanghai food himself and opened the restaurant with a few partners.
The founders’ concept was to deliver the most authentic Shanghai delicacies, so they used traditional methods to prepare the food. Tai is adamant in keeping these traditions alive as he considers them part of his grandfather’s legacy.
Simply decorated and furnished, the humble establishment is always fully booked during meal times. While a considerable number of customers are local elderly patrons, they have also been getting a lot of younger customers in recent years. “Local youths are open to new tastes and love to follow suit when they see others sharing positive food reviews on social platforms,” Tai says.
Shanghai cuisine is distinctive for its dark brown sauces and rich, deep flavours. The glistening brown colour comes from the ample use of soy sauce and sugar.
While Tai prefers to stick to traditional recipes, he occasionally tones down the flavour in dishes to cater to the more health-conscious local eaters.
One of the two most popular dishes is sautéed eel with hotbed chives. Just before scooping the food onto the plate, the chef would traditionally drizzle on top a concoction of sesame oil, soybean oil, minced garlic and a dab of sugar that had been cooked over high heat. The soul of the dish, this scorchingly hot flavoured mixture would emit a crackling sizzle as it was poured over the cooked eel, releasing all the flavours. But some Hong Kong customers cringe at this final oily touch, so Tai leaves it out unless diners ask for the traditional recipe.
“Hong Kong people are health conscious. They watch how much fat they consume,” Tai says. “You can imagine it is less tasty without the sizzling oil. But it’s more healthy that way.”
The other most popular dish is drunken chicken. The restaurant uses five-year-old hua diao – Chinese yellow wine – to marinate the chicken for one day in the fridge. It is served chilled because cooling it makes the meat firm and juicy, with the aroma from the Chinese liquor sealed inside. But, Tai says, some children and female customers find the smell of the liquor overwhelming, so he has reduced the marinating time and amount of liquor used. “Some nostalgic older gourmets prefer the traditional taste, so they call me ahead and book the ‘classic’ style,” he says.
Freshwater fish and shellfish abound in Shanghai thanks to its fortuitous location south of the Yangtze River and at the mouth of the Huangpu River. During the crab harvesting season from late September to December, hairy crabs, which are best harvested from Yangcheng Lake in nearby Jiangsu Province, inspire chefs to create new dishes.
Shrewd restaurateurs like to cash in on these limited seasonal creatures by offering lavish banquets of crabs. At Lao Shang Hai Restaurant, which has been in Wan Chai for more than 30 years, the male crabs’ meaty flesh and soft, gooey roe, and the female crabs’ more profuse golden roe, is made into dishes such as bean curd with freshwater crab roe.
“When people come in groups or celebrate [important occasions], they order a spread of crab dishes,” says Chan Hon-man, managing director of the restaurant. “We’re strict about the source and quality of the hairy crabs. They are harvested in Yangcheng Lake or [nearby] Tai Lake. These crabs allow our chefs to think up endless creations.”
He adds that the restaurant is one of the oldest Shanghai restaurants in Hong Kong. “I have watched many regulars grow up. In the past their parents brought them here to eat and today they come with their own children. It’s amazing.”
Shanghai people also have a sweet tooth, which manifests itself in dishes all the way from starters to desserts. One of the most famous is braised pork slices with honey, a classic dish in Zhejiang cuisine considered a “gongfu dish” – one that requires particular skill – due to its complexity and preparation time.
It starts with Jinhua ham, which is half fat, half lean with a thin layer of skin on top. It needs to be sliced thinly and precisely, showing off the chef’s knife skills. It is steamed for at least an hour, with a chef constantly skimming off the scum. Rock sugar and broth are added before is steamed for another hour. Boiled lotus seeds are then spread on top, followed by more steaming, then sweetened and thickened osmanthus paste is drizzled over everything to give the meat a lip-smacking gloss.
The meat is savoury but goes perfectly with the sweet sauce. However, as Chan says, “Hong Kong people find it too sweet and think it is not healthy to take in too much sugar. So we play it down, reducing the amount of honey and sugar to their taste.”
While Shanghainese food is popular in Hong Kong, some restaurants hedge their bets by offering dishes from other areas of China. Still, the owners of traditional places are eager for others to learn about the cuisine – not just in the dining room, but also in the kitchen.
“Except for two Shanghai-born chefs in our kitchen, all the others are Hongkongers,” Tai says. “Old chefs mentor the budding ones and the techniques are passed on through apprenticeships.”
Four places to eat Shanghainese food in Hong Kong, and their menu highlights:
3.6.9. Restaurant Shanghai Food
30-32 O’Brien Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2527 8611
Recommendations: xiaolongbao, fried river shrimp, sautéed eel with hotbed chives, drunken chicken, chicken with wonton in clay pot, lion’s head meatball
Hong Kong Lao Shang Hai Restaurant
UG1, Novotel Century Hong Kong, 238 Jaffe Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2827 9339
Recommendations: braised pork slices with honey, smoked eggs, steamed eight treasures rice
Kung Tak Lam Shanghai Vegetarian Cuisine
7/F One Peking, 1 Peking Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2312 7800 (Causeway Bay branch tel: 2890 3127; Sha Tin branch tel: 2362 1911)
Recommendations: deep-fried vegetarian fish with pine nuts in sweet and sour sauce, cold noodle with seven sauces, vegetarian sharks fin soup
1/F Lyndhurst Tower, 1-7 Lyndhurst Terrace, Central, tel: 2180 0768 (Causeway Bay branch tel: 2180 6578)
Recommendations: squirrel fish, Shanghai rice cakes, xiaolongbao