BUTTERFLY GARDEN [Die Yuan, 蝶园] – Shanghai, China

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. 

These dishes were accompanied as with Chinese tradition – a bowl of white rice for a well-rounded diet.

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.

I left the restaurant with a new found taste of Chinese cuisine and a crave for sweet meats. Only this one though. Bakkwa, lap cheong and char siu still does not make the cut for me.

GETTING THERE

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)

Advertisements

Cuc Gach Quan – Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

If you happen to find yourself stranded and starving in HCM w/o an inkling of where you can satisfy that tummy grumble, I’ve got a good spot to recommend.

Off the city track [that’s out of District 10 for you], tucked away in an isolated lane is a gem of a find – Cuc Gach Quan. Frequented by long-living expats in HCM, it’s a place that you can only find if recommended to.

Occupying the ground floor of a tube house, the restaurant will take your breath away upon entry. A visual treat, the owner has treated the space with such careful consideration that the narrow and tight space that is typical of a tube house cease to make its mark.

The entrance lures you in with its intimate and antiquated touches, bidding you to enter, much like a visit to a long-lost friend’s home. We couldn’t resist exploring the space, capturing the images on film despite the hunger pangs.

The visual treat only gets better – at least it does for me, indulging my love for all things that harks back to an age i can only read or learn about, but not live it.

It gets even better. With the promise of a Vietnamese meal, we settled at our table to give the menu a once over before deciding to leave our host the honor of selecting the dishes for us. After all, she’s been here more times we can count on both hands.

Cuc Gach Quan is a tribute to the owner’s grandmother, where the “true values of a ‘countryman’ are reigning under the motto “eat green, live healthy”, every action designed to demonstrate respect to our environment.” Perhaps it’s that sentimental value coursing through the space and dishes that appealed to me, but boy was i captivated.

Craving a drink to refresh from the day’s brutal heat, i settled on an order of guava juice [Nước ổi ép] that came served in such a unique manner, i was kept occupied for a while, remarking at the ingenuity of it all. Served in a glass jar, the bottle was corked with a strip of leaf held together by a wooden toothpick carrying through the theme of paying respect to the environment. Keeping the drink true to the fruit’s natural flavor, a side serving of honey accompanies the drink if you’re craving for a sweeter taste.

As i placed my lips to the straw for a sip, i noticed that this was no straw. Instead, it was a fraction of the stem that we Chinese know as “kong xin cai” or water spinach in  English. I’ve since learnt that this is also referred to as morning glory. Am no vegetation expert and stand corrected, so do let me know if it’s a case of mistaken identity.

Rollin’ on the chow, we started with lotus root salad [Gỏi ngó sen] which was perfect to beat the heat from the day. Refreshing, light, crunchy and sweet in a single bite, the dish prepped us for more to come.

Very much the Asian style of dining, we had a variety of dishes consumed with a healthy serving of rice. At Cuc Gach Quan, order the brown rice for a fragrant and healthy experience. The grains served here is fluffy with bite and nutty flavor to boot. Do not miss it.

The one dish that got us coo-ing after was the crispy sea bass with passionfruit Sauce [Cá chẻm chiên giòn sốt chanh dây]. This is where my friends will start to question my sweet-savory dislike but this dish packed a punch. Fresh sea bass, deep-fried and tossed in passion fruit sauce. The end result is a riot of flavors and texture with added crunch from the passionfruit seeds. This dish is a definite must-order.

Accompanying the star of the night, but not falling short in the flavor department included bitter melon with pork [Canh khổ qua hầm thịt]sauté morning glory [Rau muống] and fried tofu with salt-pepper and lemon sauce [Đậu hũ trứng chiên giòn muối tiêu chanh].

A meal is never complete without dessert and i present you the Vietnamese version of goreng pisang. Be sure to request for a side serving of condensed milk to be consumed with this banana delight to end your meal on a sweet note.

GETTING THERE