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Old-time twist on foreign fare loses fans
By Gao Ceng

One of the little-known and fast-vanishing features of Shanghai cuisine is Shanghai dacai (literally "big dishes"), which adapts European food to local Chinese taste.

It features dishes such as borscht (no beets), baked noodles (no lasagna) with cheese, deep-fried pork chop (chopped into pieces) with Worcestershire sauce and beef Burgundy.

It's homey fusion, but it's neither fish nor fowl and it's dying out. Westerners today want authentic Western food, and so do Chinese, who also find dacai not really Shanghainese.

It was very popular in the 1920s and 1930s, when Shanghai was flooded with foreigners. There were once more than 200 dacai restaurants. Today there are only a handful.

It arose in the entertainment and red-light district around Fuzhou Road in Huangpu District and was once considered chic. Prostitutes hung out in some eateries, looking stylish, hoping for a free meal and some business.

"Shanghai dacai is a kind of European food adapted by Chinese cooks to suit locals' taste," says Shanghai-born, Cambridge-educated author Lynn Pann, who has researched Shanghai history, including its food. She recently lectured at M on the Bund.

"If culinary insiders continue to ignore the need to protect this cuisine culture and rescue those old recipes, Shanghai dacai is destined to vanish," says Larry Zhou, owner of Le Cygne restaurant, which serves dacai.

Zhou, who grew up with dacai, has dedicated himself to preserving it.

Dacai originated in the late 19th century and reached its peak in the 1920s and 1930s. It was mainly Chinese treatment of Italian, French, Russian and British food favored by expatriates from those countries.

The dishes often included Chinese substitute ingredients and used Chinese cooking and serving techniques.

Pann, Zhou and Shanghai food critic Shen Jialu have studied the old-time home cooking. It's a combination of Chinese and Western ingredients, says Pann. She cites signature dacai dishes such as noodles baked with cheese (芝士面), a pasta-type dish with Chinese noodles; Shanghai salad (上海色拉) of diced potato, Russian sausage, green beans, seasonal fruit and dressing of egg white, salad oil and vanilla ice cream; Russian soup (罗宋汤), a borscht made with tomatoes and cabbage instead of red beets.

Chinese cooking techniques are used too, says Zhou.

He cites deep-fried pork chop with Worcestershire sauce (炸猪排), which is not a pan-fried whole pork chop, but chopped up, pounded and tenderized and deep-fried pork.

"Service and ambience are also adapted. Dacai restaurants typically offer traditional Chinese yellow wine instead of red wine on set menus. In the old days, a customer could invite a prostitute to join him," Shen says.

Author Shao Wanshu, who focuses on Shanghai food culture, describes a seven-course meal at Yi Pin Xiang, a popular dacai restaurant in the 1930s.

The meal is documented in the Shanghai Archives Museum.

The menu is in Western style, while many dishes are authentic Chinese.

Starters include cooked asparagus, dry-cured Jinhua ham, abalone and lettuce - all served in one plate. Soups include shark fin and pigeon egg cream soup with abalone.

Main courses include Western-style fillet steak and Cantonese-style deep-fried chicken wrapped in tin foil. The meal is concluded with a Western dessert (apple pie or vanilla pudding) and coffee.

Red-light origins

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as China was trying to modernize, dacai restaurants were opened by Cantonese living in Shanghai who were familiar with Western culture because of Guangzhou's and Hong Kong's trade with the West.

Prostitutes, attracted by Western men, the chic ambience and cheap food, flocked to dacai eateries.

Since Shanghainese were not familiar with authentic Western food, dishes were adapted. Steak was chopped up and served well-done, not served whole and medium-rare. French wine was replaced by Chinese wine or liquor.

Because of Japanese occupation and civil strife in the 1930s and 1940s, the center of Western dining was forced to shift to the French and British concession areas. At the same time, quite a few Russians and some Indians settled in the city, bringing Russian and South Asian influences to dacai.

"Since dacai didn't originated as fare for nobility, it was affordable for ordinary people and soon became popular," Zhu says. He cites eateries such as Red House Restaurant (红房子), Deda Restaurant (德大) and Swan Mansion (天鹅阁).

"To have a meal at a dacai restaurant was what every tourist from out of town aspired to - it was a bit like going to Xintiandi today," Pann says.

Dying out

But dacai is dying out as authentic Western food has become very popular.

"It's probably impossible to taste authentic dacai flavor today," says Shanghainese Carol Chen, who is over 80. She has tried Jimmy's Kitchen and says it reminds her of the old days.

According to the Shanghai Archives, dacai restaurants once numbered more than 200. But today there are only a handful and they are having a hard time because of high costs and low prices.

Cheng Qingchao, manager of the Red House Restaurant started in 1935, cites the signature dish onion soup as an example of scant profit margin. It takes around six hours to prepare the soup, "but we still can't charge the right price since most Chinese consider onions cheap ingredients."

Food critic Shen cites the anti-Western "cultural revolution" (1966-1976) as another reason dacai restaurants closed. Western dining was considered decadent and capitalist; restaurants were ordered to close.

Many switched to Chinese food and many dacai cooks lost their jobs and found other work.

According to Zhou, owner of Le Cygne, most dacai chefs have died or retired and young Shanghai chefs are not interested in carrying on.

They typically prefer to pursue classical French cooking.

"Our kitchen is dominated by Shanghainese born in the 1950s and there are very few young chefs," says Red House manager Cheng.

"Its embarrassing marketing position is another reason dacai is dying out," Zhou says.

"Westerners dislike its being not authentically Western and Chinese consider it not really Shanghainese," he adds.

However, dacai does have a few Western chef proponents. Inspired by Shanghai dacai culture, Hamish Pollitt, executive chef at M on the Bund, created what he calls a Chinglish main course of red-braised sea bass with vegetables.

It uses typical Shanghai "red" cooking, a slow braising technique with soy sauce that imparts a red color.

"This menu was a retrospective look at Chinglish food. Actually, this distinctive cuisine has inspired western chefs since 1990s, when they started to use red glaze (hongshao, 红烧) in Western cooking," chef Pollitt says.

Larry Zhou says dacai can also represent an improvement on traditional fare. He cites noodles baked with cheese (芝士面), saying the long, thin, silky Chinese noodles are more easily coated with cheese than traditional Italian pasta, so each bite is more flavorful.

Baked crab with cheese (蟹斗), a Red House signature dish, has been popular for more than 50 years. Smaller Chinese hairy crabs are substituted for Western sea crabs, giving the dish a more delicate taste and highlighting the creamy cheese flavor.

For another well-known dacai dish, Burgundy beef, Chinese chefs add carrots, celery and Worcestershire sauce, which gives the whole dish changing layers of flavors and aroma.

Saving the flavor

Zhou grew up in a wealthy old Shanghai family with its own Chinese chef cooking Western food, and he is one of the few people dedicated to preserving dacai.

"I tasted lots of dacai during my childhood and retain those food memories that help me identify authentic flavor today," Zhou says. By chance, he came upon a record of around 50 dacai recipes written down by his father.

It's not very detailed, so Zhou has been experimenting in his restaurant kitchen to come up with the authentic taste.

"Frankly, this restaurant can barely survive," Zhou says. "But when I saw a 90-year-old lady, the granddaughter of Yuan Shikai (the most influential politician during the late Qing Dynasty, 1644-1911) break into tears after tasting my noodles baked with cheese and say it reminds her of childhood, I feel a great sense of achievement. I told myself all the effort was worthwhile."

Some Shanghai media have focused on dacai of late, emphasizing nostalgia, but not the importance of preserving this little-known aspect of Shanghai food culture.

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