The Chinese alternative to Thanksgiving. Carving turkeys stuffed with moist bread is for suckers. The Chinese have it all figured out.
Eat It is a regular feature that cuts to the core of a given restaurant's menu, highlighting a specialty, favorite, or otherwise good thing to eat.
A large bird with little flavor was never going to cut it in China. The Chinese are too smart to get mixed up in this turkey business. This is a crowded country; any animal that takes up so much space better be delicious. Pigs, chickens and pigeons are all justified. Ducks and geese too – small frames, plenty of fat. Turkeys? No. I shudder to think how ridiculous we Americans look in Chinese eyes as we struggle through Thanksgiving, shoving wet bread into a dry bird, a futile attempt to salvage something edible from a silly storybook tradition. It’s embarrassing enough without them knowing how much we pay to recreate this ritual 10,000 kilometers from home.
But it’s not an idea without merit, this stuffing a bird thing. If Americans could break the yoke of tradition, come at this idea again with fresh eyes, we might come up with something like the eight treasure duck. We should probably copy it. First, a duck is the right bird to stuff. It is not too large to handle. It has a nice layer of fat under the skin, for moisture and flavor. It is delicious all year but seems especially suited to fall, when colder weather gives us excuse to eat fattier food. That’s compounded by the things that go into the stuffing: chestnuts, sausage, mushrooms.
Rock music, the atomic bomb, the iPhone. America.
A very nice stuffed bird? China. Ba bao ya. The eight treasure duck. No contest. This is the perfect time of year to eat it. Escaping the Thanksgiving kitchen is the perfect excuse.
There are two eight treasure ducks I go for in Shanghai: Xinyuan’s
and Jianguo 328’s
These are them.
For a listing of Jian Guo 328, click here. For a listing of Xinyuan, click here
The nice and neat one, that is Jianguo 328. The one with the 1980s garnish is Xinyuan.
Let’s talk about Xinyuan first. Like a lot of good Shanghainese restaurants, it has grandparent credibility. The combined age of most patrons is about 1,000. From the outside, it doesn’t give much indication that it’s anything other than Just Another Chinese Restaurant with bad décor. And, well, it is. But it's still great. A friend turned me on to it a few years back for two of its banquet dishes, which have to be ordered at least a day ahead of time, the duck and the fish head.
There is a lot of variation in the eight treasure duck category. The chefs at Xinyuan opt for the boneless method, which involves removing most of the bones before putting the duck through its cooking process. It’s not exactly stuffed into a tidy duck-shaped package either. Instead, it’s more of a mountain of sticky rice (seasoned with soy sauce and full of the “treasures” – chestnuts, pine nuts, shitake mushrooms, etc) with a duck cover. It looks like a flying squirrel. The older demographic clearly likes a lot of rice in a dish like this. It goes far.
It’s an impressive dish to receive at the table. (Those are two Americans being impressed.)
As is the fish head. This is it below, the pale yellow dish as large as the duck.
You will have noticed this is not your average fish head, the spicy Christmas-colored one from the Hunan restaurant. It is an old Huaiyang dish, from the area of northern Jiangsu that developed an understated but refined cuisine all its own—the Cantonese of the north, perhaps. It relies a lot on technical skills, like cutting a block of soft tofu so finely that it looks like mush but then blossoms into 10,000 individual slivers
in soup. Or blanching a fish head, then carefully removing all of the bones
while leaving the head intact, and making fresh fish balls that burst with crab roe, a bit like xiao long bao – that’s what this dish is, all swimming in a rich chicken/fish broth—mild, restoring. Part of Yangzhou’s special “three head” banquet: a fish head, a pig head and a "lion’s head" (i.e. the meatball).
Like any Thanksgiving, you will need sides, and Xinyuan does good ones—ones you don’t see in many places.
This falls somewhere between the spring-onion-covered fish head
at the Old Jesse restaurant
, and xunyu, the classic Shanghainese starter of fish that has been marinated in soy sauce and then fried. At Xinyuan, this meat comes from the collar around the fish’s head.
Next is simple, delicious, and smart. It’s celery, with the strings removed, in a light, sweet sauce of soy, rice wine, and sugar. It’s crunchy and sweet and salty, and it’s smart, because it makes you realize celery is a perfect vegetable for a cold Chinese dish. It’s a new take on a boring and familiar face. More restaurants should do this.
Drunken crab! This is for advanced eaters who like how the alcohol firms up the crab meat, and cuts through the rich roe. The chef has the balls to eschew hairy crab—in a Shanghainese restaurant, in hairy crab season!—and the wiles to add what smells like rose water to the booze. Fragrant as a flower, different from the rest. It ain’t pretty though.
Other nice stuff at Xinyuan: the daikon radish "pickled" in soy sauce, a real countryside dish; the xiefen doufu, tofu with hairy crab meat and roe; and, of course, the hongshao rou. A well-cooked hongshao rou has melting fat but moist, tender meat—that’s the ideal. Xinyuan nails it. For those with guts, the red-braised large intestine is clean-tasting (the first and major hurdle), supple (the second) and quite delicious under that thick Shanghainese motor oil.
Now, Jianguo 328. High in the running for best Shanghainese—at least among friends of mine who favor Old Jesse or Fu 1088
. Shanghainese by a Taiwanese owner. Tiny place.
Let’s refresh. This is their duck.
This is why it’s different: they leave the bones in but steam the hell out of them, so they’re soft enough to chew. It’s a different approach and none too common (the Peace Hotel
is the only other place I know of in town that employs the bone-in method). The result is a duck that looks like a duck, until it’s cut open, and then looks like this.
The key here is that the duck is steamed for 12 hours, once it’s been filled with the rice and the treasures. It’s a three-day process. Marinating and drying is day one; stuffing and steaming is day two; a quick fry and a glaze with the soy-sugar sauce is day three, the day you are eating it. It’s a clever piece of engineering, not unlike this approach
, where you cook for tenderness first and then crisp up the outside—reverse roasting, you might call it. Nice.
The long, long steaming means soft bones, but it also means that the 12 other treasures in the rice—hey, who’s counting —soften to the point of invisibility. I picked out five: sausage, gingko nuts, pine nuts, peas, and shitake mushrooms. iPhones, pffft!
Sides. There are many other things to order at Jianguo 328 and not many ways to go wrong. I like my table to look like this.
That’s a pot of Liu’an guapian, a long leaf green tea from Anhui, more pickle/soy radish, and two vegetables we all should be eating more of. On the left is wo sun. In the center is caotou.
Wo sun is a China-only thing. It’s lettuce that you eat for the thick stem, not the leaves. It has a fantastic crunch and light nutty flavor, and, dammit, you should order it. Especially the way Jianguo 328 does it, tossed in oil flavored with spring onion and then more fresh spring onion. Double onion. One toasted and mellow, one fresh and green. It’s crinkle-cut too, giving the spring onion oil more nooks and crannies to hide in. Rock music, bah!
Wo sun gets called all kinds of names in English, causing a bit of havoc for Chinese restaurants trying to translate it into English: asparagus lettuce, stem lettuce, lettuce stem, lettuce shoot, celery lettuce, celtuce, blah blah blah. The "sun" character (笋), which also pops up in bamboo shoot and asparagus, makes things even more confusing. Be on the lookout.
Caotou. This is clover. Not the lucky Irish one. A very tender and very seasonal green that’s pretty specific to East China. We are right in the middle of the season. The classic Shanghai way to cook it is with a splash of baijiu, better than you are thinking right now.
On the sad chance that you have already committed to shoving a huge bird into a toaster oven for you and your 30 closest friends tomorrow, and will spend the next 24 hours frantically running from market to market to market to City Shop
to Fei Dan
These are wo sun and caotou in their raw state, at the market. At least pick some up.
Boring old Thanksgiving. Be better than that.
A few other notes: You need to reserve the eight treasure ducks at both places. At Xinyuan, it’s mandatory. You’ll also have to go at least a day ahead of time to pay a RMB 100 deposit. Same for the fish head. At Jianguo 328, it’s not mandatory but they limit the eight treasure duck to five per day, and you really should reserve a table ahead of time anyway. They don’t require you to pay a deposit in person. At Xinyuan, the duck is 208rmb and feeds a billion. At Jianguo 328, it’s 298rmb and feeds four to five. These are Shanghainese restaurants; you’ll have to eat on the early side. Definitely before 8pm.