THE scents of autumn remind us of the passing season. The intoxicating aroma of osmanthus flowers along the streets of Shanghai is now giving way to the sweet smell of sugar-roasted chestnuts.
Chestnuts are a popular treat this time of year. Although there are seven to nine species of the nuts around the world, China has two main varieties — one in the north and one in the south.
The chestnuts of northern China are smaller and waxier. They are typically roasted with sugar as a popular street snack. The larger southern chestnut has a harder shell. It is commonly used in dishes such as braised chicken with chestnuts.
Chinese people have a long history of eating chestnuts. In some places, the nuts are a staple food because of the high sugar and starch content. Dried chestnuts also can be milled into flour to make steamed buns and pancakes.
Chestnuts can be eaten raw but the fruit is crunchier and many think much more tasty when cooked to bring out the natural sweetness.
“Chestnuts are widely used in Chinese cooking,” said Lu Ming, chef of Chinese cuisine at the Langham Shanghai Xintiandi. “They can be a cold appetizer, a hot main dish or a dessert.”
In traditional Chinese home cooking, chestnuts are often used in rich meat dishes.
“Because chestnuts have a sweeter taste and the texture is quite hard, they require a longer cooking time,” Lu said.
Raw chestnuts often go into the pot at the same time as the chicken, ribs or pork chunks, allowing the nuts to stew with the sauce.
Lu also mixes granular-sized cooked chestnuts with flour to make a thin pancake that’s served with bao ta rou, a braised layered streaky pork dish in the shape of pagoda.
“I think chestnut is best when you can taste the chewiness, and adding them to pancakes balances out the greasy taste of meat,” he explained.
Another of Lu’s signature dishes is braised eel with chestnuts. Because the eel cooks quickly, the chestnuts need to be pre-cooked.
Chestnut are also used in making porridges or in steaming with rice to add a different layer of texture and flavor.
“Chestnuts go well in porridges with pumpkin in them,” said Lu.
Chestnut are even more versatile in desserts. Steamed chestnuts can be turned into a simple paste that goes into pastries and cakes.
The famous Ruby bakery in Shanghai is known for its chestnut cakes featuring sponge cake layered with chestnut paste with fresh whipped cream.
When using raw chestnuts in home cooking, shelling is no easy task. The shell is difficult to crack with knives, and cooks have to be careful not to hurt themselves.
“The trick is to pop the chestnuts into the microwave to heat them up,” Lu said. “The chestnuts are ready when you can hear cracking sounds, which usually takes about 10 to 20 seconds, depending on your microwave. The chestnuts then will be very easy to peel.”
Chestnuts are also a mainstay of Western cuisine, most commonly in desserts such as the famous Mont Blanc, which actually originated in Italy but became popular in France.
The dessert is made with pureed and sweetened chestnuts, topped with whipped cream. Once sold mainly in autumn, you can now find this dessert treat all year around in pastry shops and bakeries.
In Shanghai, an authentic Mont Blanc can be found at French patisserie Angelina. Here it is made with meringue, light whipped cream and chestnut cream vermicelli flown in directly from Paris.
The Mont Blanc is best enjoyed with tea because the sweet flavor can be a bit overwhelming.
Snacking with chestnuts
The most popular way to enjoy chestnuts is as a hot snack. Through food preservation technology, roasted chestnuts can be bought all year round in Shanghai, though the best quality nuts are still found after October.
There are many shops and stands selling sugar-roasted chestnuts at this time of the year. The chestnuts in Shanghai are the smaller variety with thin shells, making peeling them with the fingers quite easy.
If you are buying the chestnuts to take home and eat, they can be re-warmed in a hot flat pan over a low heat.
Here are the top three chains selling chestnuts in Shanghai.
Xin Chang Fa 新长发
This is the most famous chestnut brand in the city. Hot chestnuts here are priced at around 24 yuan (US$3.87) per 500 grams. That’s a bit more expensive than in other shops.
The quality of the chestnuts is consistent and reliable no matter which outlet you patronize. The chestnuts come from Qianxi in Hebei Province and are chewy and very easy to peel. They are served up in paper bags, allowing the heat to come through.
986 Nanjing Rd West
766 Nanjing Rd East
870 Weihai Rd
Haohao Chestnut 好好栗子
This sugar-roasted chestnut franchise currently has eight shops across Shanghai. Haohao sells two kinds of chestnuts, priced at 13.8 yuan and 18.8 yuan.
The line in front of their main store on Haining Road North is often quite long at this time of the year.
The chestnuts are medium sized, quite sweet, fragrant and soft.
86 Wensu Rd
239 Damuqiao Rd
185 Ningbo Rd
Xiangxiang Chestnut 祥祥栗子
This chestnut franchise has only two stores in Shanghai and sells the classic sugar-roasted chestnuts for 13.8 yuan per 500 grams.
Xiangxiang roasts the chestnuts right in the store after the staff have weeded out any bad nuts. The nuts are roasted with sugar. They are sweet and easy to peel.