Shanghai may be a melting pot of cultures and cuisines – from within (countless provinces within the country, each with their own style of cooking) and without. You’d be surprised to learn that the Chinese city is even more cosmopolitan than our little red dot, Singapore – that was my takeaway from my short trip there. What makes the city different from Singapore is its relatively strong heritage and influence that still permeates the streets, the people and the cuisine.
In Shanghai, you’ll find yourself spoilt for choice food wise but you cannot miss tasting Shanghainese cuisine. A good option that was recommended to us was 蝶园, which literally translates to Butterfly Garden. This theme of butterflies is carried through the interior of the restaurant with the trio of us being greeted by this ornate panel upon arrival.
If you’re under the impression or have heard horror stories of Chinese food being overtly oily or spicy, let me assure you, that is not what Shanghainese cuisine is. My best guess? Those dishes are likely from the Szechuan province where most of the food is 麻辣 which literally leaves your tongue numb and stinging from the heat/ spice.
What is Shanghainese cuisine you ask? So I’ve learnt, Shanghai does not have a definitive cuisine of its own. Rather, it modifies the cuisines from the surrounding provinces (mostly from Jiangsu and Zhejiang coastal provinces). What epitomizes Shanghai cuisine is the use of common ingredients – alcohol and sugar. The most common complains of the cuisine is a result of the overhanded use of the ingredients mentioned – the food is too sweet, there is too much rice wine or its too oily.
The key to an enjoyable Shanghainese meal is balance. A careful balance of flavors will ensure that the dish is not overwhelmingly sweet, reeking of alcohol or drenched in saturated fat. And 蝶园, Butterfly Garden, has perfected that balance.
A stone’s throw away from Xintiandi (a popular expat area), 蝶园 serves up 100% Shanghainese fare that will leave you craving to for more. Or at the very least, to try every item on its extensive menu. If you’re bad in mandarin, like me, do request for the English menu as you page through item after item of authentic Shanghai classics.
Our host recommended his top picks that includes a selection of cold dishes/ starters. Missed out on the names for several of the dishes, pardon me there.
This particular cold dish this is a mixture of familiar items in Chinese cuisine such as black fungus, beans, beancurd skin and innards of sorts. As mentioned earlier, unique to Shanghainese cuisine, the dish is sweetened and lends for a different rendition of regular Chinese cold starters.
The next dish, a specialty of the restaurant and a Shanghainese staple is cured pomfret that had a lightly salted yet sweetened flavor with a firm consistency in the flesh of the fish. I’m typically used to consuming freshly steamed pomfret and was pretty hesitant to taste this dish for fear of an overpowering fishy flavor but i must say i was pleasantly surprised.
The main dishes rolled in and a standout for me was the hong shao rou [braised pork belly in soy sauce]. At this juncture i have to declare that i’m a pretty conservative eater in that i don’t eat sweet meats – the notion is almost an alien concept that my tongue and mind cannot reconcile and accept. Needless to say, i was skeptical but willing to give it a whirl and boy did it take my mind by storm. The pork belly was fatty but not greasy, the texture firm yet tender without disintegrating on bite. The flavor, it blew my mind away. The soy sauce was in perfect harmony with the sugar, forming a tantalizing caramelised coat on each slice of pork belly.
To balance out the strong flavors of this dish, our host ordered light yet full-bodied accompanying dishes to complement and balance out the assault on our tastebuds. They included a dou si [finely sliced toufu slow cooked in stock with dried baby scallops] and stir-fied dou miao.
Completing the meal with dessert, we bring in an other key ingredient of Shanghainese cuisine – rice wine. The dish, 酒酿圆子 [glutinous rice dumpling in fermented rice wine] kinda felt like a Fear Factor type dish for me. After all, who wants to have fermented food? I didn’t take to it too kindly and i would say that it is an acquired taste but it was an interesting experience to say the least. The flavor was complex, sour because of the fermentation of the rice wine, sweetened with wolfberries and likely sugar, with whole grains of rice that leaves a pop in your mouth when you press against it and a chewy dumpling that is almost tasteless.
Dieyuan Restaurant, Taicang Road Branch
70 Taicang Road (near Songshan Road), Shanghai, China 上海市卢湾区太仓路70号(近嵩山路)
Reservations: +86 21 5383 733
Operating hours: 10:30 – 23:00
Budget: ￥ 80-100
Public transport: Metro Line 1 (South Huangpi Road),Line 10 (Xintiandi); Bus Lines: 109, 146/ 谈水路(地铁13号线 规划中) (373 m W) 地铁13号线(规划中)