I draft this note a couple of days ago. Since then Anthony Bourdain has left us. R.I.P Anthony…you’re one of my food inspirations.
Every country and culture has its own unique food. I’ve eaten goat and springbok in Africa, sushi in Japan, kimchi in Korea, etc but I’ve not encountered anything quite as exotic as Shanghai cuisine.
Being in Shanghai with colleagues provided a unique opportunity to move behind the curtain which so often separates even the most adventurous tourist from the true, local culture and traditions.
One night for example, we went out to eat Shanghainese food. My Chinese colleagues based in Shanghai and those based in the U.S. with me we’re craving the dishes we had. Many were very new to me.
Our dinner that night consisted of river eels (sometimes referred to as yellow snake): silver and indeed snake-like, only lightly braised, surprisingly not deep-fried (like lots of food here). Lake snails: garlicky and small and jelly fish. Oh and chewy sea cucumber in a soup – it looked like an enormous slug with bumps on its back.
We had a fresh water fish that tasted strongly of dirt, or thick mud. In a bad way. I eat all fish but couldn’t bring myself to eat this. My colleagues were concerned about ordering it “because of the bones” which I thought was odd but then I saw why…one type of bone was wishbone-shaped, razor thin and sharp as a syringe. Impossible to see before you ate. The other type looked like rough-hewn daggers.
The duck soup seemed innocent enough. Broth, tofu and…cubes of congealed duck blood lurking within. I felt oddly guilty eating this soup. Even more so the next day when I was served duck tongue (I didn’t realize ducks HAD tongues!). I was surprised at the Y shape, the fleshiness of the tongue and the BONE.
By far and away most unpleasant food on the table for me was “stinky tofu.” They first described it as “fermented” but then, after I tried some, they confessed that its more “rotten” than fermented. I was bowled over by the odor and I was eating the milder, fried version (with a very helpful) red sauce.
The smell was putrid, like acrid horse urine after it sits in a stall in the hay for a couple of days. And maybe the horse had asparagus for lunch. I had to think a lot about what happens to blue cheese during its maturing process just to swallow what was in my mouth.
What was worse than eating the stinky tofu was living with it for the next 24 hours. It hangs on your breath, giving you unparalleled, epic halitosis. It makes an encore appearance during your “morning routine” the next day and then, just when you think it’s all finally over, you almost always bump into someone who has seemingly just eaten three plates of it.
I’m really glad I tried everything. There was a lot that I liked even if I struggled a little bit about where (or what) it was coming from. So I encourage you to dive right in. Try different things and most importantly…always eat with a local!