Explorations both culinary and geographic in Shanghai

Mr. Gustavson checks in with today's report from Shanghai/EFZ, continuing his culinary and geographic exploration of the city.

     On Tuesday, Andrew went into the city to visit the Shanghai Biennial, an art exhibition, located near the river and somewhat off the normal tourist track.  It includes many international painters but gives pride of place to Chinese artists.  Meanwhile Anne-Marie and I were busy around campus catching up on a variety of things.  We visited the television studio and watched a student-run discussion as the club planned a video to submit to a competition among the various high schools of Shanghai.  A couple of students helped us with translations, so we could follow the discussions.

 In the evening Shaun took us out to dinner in a new area.  Five minutes from school, we crossed a road and suddenly were into a boom city with high rises sprouting everywhere, testimony to the fact that Shanghai is continuing to expand.  A little further, our little road went under a massive, almost monstrous, cloverleaf with at least ten roads intertwining above us.  Finally, we came into an agricultural zone and turned into an agricultural park.  We first drove by an immense outdoor market and then a variety of greenhouses and fields as we worked our way through a maze of roads until, at the end of it all, very far, physically and psychologically, from the city as we had seen it to this point, we came upon a restaurant.  There, we had a private room with a magnificent golden tapestry hanging behind Andrew’s seat.  Shaun spent a good 15 minutes working through the menu of 30-40 pages and ordering a dinner that went beyond anything we had yet had, and that’s saying a lot.

 We began with munchies:  peanuts and spicy pickles then moved to lotus root, pig’s knuckles, mushrooms, tofu, another root we could not identify, and a delicious salad with garlic and sesame seeds.   We proceeded to ramp it up to a succulent spicy fish soup; chicken; Shanghai pork, which tastes something like spare ribs; and tender beef with onions.  Finally, we finished with a sweet red bean soup and sweet cabbage rolls.  All the while, we were talking and eating as we spun these dishes slowly around on a lazy Susan, so we consumed small portions of each, one after the other.  We had a great time!  Afterwards, Shaun drove us to his home where we had tea with his wife and daughter and topped off our meal with grapes, strawberries, and golden oranges, which you consume by eating the skin of the orange.  It was a charming moment in a wonderful evening.

The next day, our familiar and talented guides, Zoe and Yvonne, came to pick us up, and we proceeded to visit some more touristy places.  We began with Tianzi Fang, an old, traditional area now full of shops.  There, we did our first bargaining, with a little help from Zoe.  We weren’t very impressive, so I won’t tell you what we paid for t-shirts.  For us it was a reasonable price but still too much.  We rested for a moment within this warren of streets and tried a Shanghai specialty, tofu soup, on the face of it not very tempting to my palate, but it was in fact very tasty because of the variety of tastes and textures, most notably peanuts to balance the slippery tofu with something crunchy.  A bit later, we headed off for a hot pot lunch in which we cooked our own meals at our table with a choice of spicy or non-spicy oil to prepare the food.  For one of our pots, we took half the usual ration of spicy sauce.  The other pot was mild and safer.  Finely sliced lamb and beef are ready in a minute, and veggies are good to go when they have reappeared on the surface after being dunked in the boiling oil.  We created our own dipping sauces from a table containing perhaps 40 or so condiments, nuts, and spices with a wide range of tastes and spiciness.  As usual, we performed well, but for once Yvonne and Zoe outdid us.  We liked everything, but did not make much of a dent in the congealed blood cakes.

From here, we took the subway to the Yu Yuan Gardens, perhaps the most visited tourist site in the city.  The gardens themselves, with a variety of pathways weaving their labyrinthine way through striking rock formations, grottoes, and little ponds, are superb and justly famous.  Everything is designed to appear natural but has in fact been very carefully calculated and constructed.  It is a wonderful space to enjoy some moments of silence because outside the walls of the garden, the city, despite its traditional and beautiful architectural style, is aggressively alive.  To this point, in all of our encounters, the Shanghainese had been extremely courteous and friendly.  Here they were aggressively in pursuit of business:  “You want a tea shop … dumplings … a good view of the gardens?  What you want?”  This was Shanghai as we might imagine it was in the 1920s when Anne-Marie’s grandfather was police commissioner in the French Concession.  We wanted some peace, so we were happy to slip away to a more restful place.  The evening meal was very light, some excellent dumplings, and then we headed off to a river cruise.

Before coming to Shanghai, we did not have any real idea of what to expect and were mostly full of question marks.  We certainly did not imagine what Shanghai looks like from the middle of the Huangpu River at night.  On the one side, as I’ve already described, lies the new Shanghai with hundreds of skyscrapers, one the tallest building in China.  In construction is a tower that will become the tallest building in the world at over 2,000 feet.   Some of these buildings are tastefully lighted, and some of them are garish, but we are starting to develop some affection for them all, even the outlandish Pearl Tower.  We can’t imagine this skyline without it.  On the other side lies the Bund, the colonial port with its European facades lighted more soberly in whites, yellows, and bronzes, but with many more modern structures behind it illuminated by a mixture of sober and colorful lighting.  One can imagine all kinds of metaphors here to describe different Shanghais and to represent Shanghai’s place in the world, but my eyes simply saw a magnificent spectacle.  After this excursion, we said good-bye to Zoe and Yvonne.  I don’t think we will see them again, and we will miss them.

Recently, we’ve spent a lot of time in Shanghai.  During the next couple of days, we will spend more time at EFZ.