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This Family of Pudong Chefs is Keeping Shanghainese Tradition Alive

From cooking for gangsters to A Bite of China, five generations of Li family chefs.
2020-06-19 14:00:00
Photos: Brandon McGhee

They started with shovels. The chefs of a specific part of Pudong were famous for catering big life events: weddings, funerals and new baby birthdays. They would show up in a village with all of their equipment and set up a temporary outdoor kitchen, a countryside tradition that goes back to antiquity. They had the big woks, they had the big pots, but they didn't have big enough spoons to stir and mix food in the quantities they cooked in. So they used shovels and eventually became known as the Shovel Gangs of Sanlin (三林塘) and Linjiang (临江村). Restaurants across the city recruited them for their skills cooking Shanghainese benbang cuisine. They were the best.

So it wasn't hard for a 15-year old Li Borong (李伯荣) to land an apprenticeship under the old system at a famous restaurant in Puxi in the 1940s. He came from Sanlin, from a family of chefs — he would be the third generation to work in kitchens — and would spend the next 30 years running the kitchen of the famed De Xing Guan near the Shiliupu docks, cooking for Shanghai royalty and well-known gangsters of the time, under the tutelage of famous Shanghainese chef Yang Hesheng (杨和生). (The restaurant later moved to its current location on Guangdong Lu but his son calls it the same in name only.) When he retired, he was recruited to revitalize the flagging kitchens of old dinosaurs Lao Fandian and Lu Bo Lang, before passing away in 2016 at the age of 84.

Li Mingfu

His son, Li Mingfu (李明福), tried to escape. He spent his teens and early 20s working in a cultural center, playing the pipa. And then the cultural center decided to open a restaurant so that it could host officials when they came to visit. Bang. Of course he was made the chef, given his family background, even if he was a musician. So, as it works in these affairs, his father would not teach him directly but instead assigned him a shifu, a master that would teach and guide him and eventually take the training wheels off. It took years but they turned Li Mingfu into a chef too. His father approved.

Now retired, I met Li Mingfu for the first time at Sanlin Benbang Guan, an eight-year old restaurant in Sanlin Old Town. Outside, the kind of shambolic canalside street is lined with vendors selling puffed and fried pork skin (chicharrones where I'm from) and benggua (崩瓜), a "cracked" melon that splits in the fields.

Inside, the restaurant feels much older than its 2009 construction. Like a Suzhou house, it's divided into three wide, rectangular dining rooms stacked against each other. The kitchen, which Li Mingfu's son Li now runs, the fifth generation, is open and visible when you go to the bathroom. No one is using shovels.

These days, Li Mingfu gets up before dawn to do the shopping for the restaurant. Much of the produce comes from the farms in the area, and, interestingly, has gotten more seasonal as the years have passed and the centralized and state-run supply system has vanished.

On a recent weekday, I convinced him to put his chef's jacket back on and return to the kitchen for his most famous dish: a hongshao river eel braised in soy sauce and sugar with fried cloves of whole garlic. It was, he told me, the best example of huo hou — fire control — an essential skill in any kitchen but particularly prized among Chinese chefs, who are constantly tweaking the heat of their woks with the gas lever just above their right knee. (Old chefs from Western kitchens complain about knee and back injuries. Old Chinese chefs complain about their right knee and right elbow, from tossing the wok and adjusting the flame.)

Hongshao river eel (红烧河鳗, hongshao he man), 138rmb/500 grams

Glossy and deep brown, it looked like the stereotypical criticism of Shanghainese food — too soft, too brown, too sweet — and rose well above that. Fatty, tender, just sweet enough. I don't like eel; I ate half the plate before anyone else could get in there.

Their other standout, the other dish that propelled them on to A Bite of China, which then blew up their business for three years, is the kou san si (扣三丝). Originally a Huaiyang dish from northern Jiangsu designed to show off knife skills (kind of like the 10,000-thread tofu), it's a laborious and exacting dish of finely sliced bamboo shoots, ham, pork tenderloin, and, before modern tastes changed, pork fat. It takes an hour of a chef's time to make one. Li Mingfu used to do the knifework; his son Li Yue (李悦) now has that honor.

Kou san si (扣三丝), 98rmb

At Sanlin Benbang Guan, you are only granted permission to request it — request it, not order it — if you spend 1,200rmb or more, which is basically an impossible task with less than 10 people. And then, if the season is right (and there is bamboo) and the restaurant is in the right mood, they grant it to you. Having eaten it, I'd say it's more about the knife work than the taste. I wouldn't ask for it a second time

That's not the case for another one of their very Shanghainese dishes: you bao xia (油爆虾). The tiny river shrimp are quickly fried in their shells, heads-on, and then glazed with soy, sugar and huangjiu. The quick fry makes the shells and heads crunchy and you eat the whole thing. The Li family's version was too sweet for several of my Shanghainese friends, but they were young. When I asked Li Mingfu about this, he told me tastes have changed in the last generation in Shanghainese food, and his restaurant cooks for the older generation, who still want their food to be noticeably sweet. I loved the dish.

Flash-fried river shrimp (油爆虾, you bao xia), 88rmb

The last must-order dish is perhaps not a blockbuster but still very representative of the Pudong school of Shanghainese chefs: the three delicacies. A large, brothy bowl is filled with fried pork skin (again, like a chicharron, and much better than it sounds), braised chicken, fried fish, the restaurant's well-known pork-and-egg roll (not an egg roll), and snappy pork stomach — the "three delicacies" here being pork, chicken and fish, in one pot. It's on every table.

The three delicacies (蒸三鲜, zheng san xian), 68rmb

When I started going for this article in spring, caotou (草头, clover) cooked with huangjiu was on the menu, tiny tender green leaves that stole the show from all of the other dishes. By the time we went back for the photo and video shoot, it was out of season, too delicate to survive the summer heat, but replaced by something equally as good and typical of the Shanghai/Jiangnan region: mixian (米苋). Known as amaranth in English, it's a larger leaf stained with purple, releasing its color as it's cooked to make a pink broth in the dish. Super.

Amaranth (米苋, mi xian), 26rmb

I didn't get to chat with Li Mingfu's son, Li Yue. He was busy cooking at the lead wok every time I visited, and quickly left on his break when he was finished. In his early 40s, he is now the one keeping the family's legacy alive one braised river eel and kou san si at a time. He has plenty more time ahead of him to carve out his own reputation from the family history. And when he's ready — hopefully, probably, eventually — he'll find another shifu to start the training of the next generation. Li Yue has a son.

Sanlin Benbang Guan is located at 65 Zhonglin Jie, at the foot of the People's Bridge, about a 30-minute drive from downtown Puxi. Click here for more details.