TWO weeks before the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday which starts from this Saturday, Shanghainese housewife Zheng Meilin began her busy festival shopping at nan huo dian 南货店(literally store of delicacies from south China), a traditional Shanghai-style food store known for preserved and dried food.
"Without visiting nan huo dian, it's not like celebrating Spring Festival," says 55-year-old Zheng, who speaks for many Shanghainese.
Molly Gao, a 25-year-old Chinese Australian, has returned to her hometown Shanghai for the holiday and she too heads straight for nan huo dian.
"The distinctive scent (from nan huo dian) awakens my childhood memories," says Gao, speaking at one store. "It's a mixture of la chang 腊肠 (Chinese sausage) - smoky, sweet, savory and fatty - and xian yu 咸鱼(preserved fish) - salty and slightly fishy. That's the authentic and traditional Shanghai flavor."
Nan huo dian, which originated in Shanghai, are emporiums overflowing with various dried, marinated and preserved foods - meats, poultry, seafood and vegetables mostly from Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Guangdong provinces.
Notable are the Jinhua ham (dried, aged and cured) from Zhejiang, Cantonese dried sausage from Guangdong and drunken (marinated in wine) crab from Ningbo in Zhejiang.
Dried seafood from Shandong Province and dried mushroom and fungus from the northeast are also available. Foods are sold in open counters. The eye-catching meat counters feature lines of ham, dried chicken and smoked duck.
Salespeople are mostly middle-aged locals, experienced and easygoing, happy to give suggestions about choosing and preparing ingredients - as if they are chatting to a neighbor.
Shangfang 上方, the top grade of Jinhua ham, is best for steaming and frying due to its tender texture and good proportion of fat. Zhongfang 中方, the middle grade, is suitable for making soup because it doesn't come apart with long cooking.
"I try them at home and they work well," says a saleswoman at Shao Wan Sheng, a famous nan huo dian with a long history on Nanjing Road Pedestrian Mall.
Linked with city history
Most products are sold by weight and some are in gift boxes for the Chinese Lunar New Year.
"I prefer nan huo dian to supermarkets because the food is displayed in an open counter so I can smell it and feel it. It's also my one-stop shop for the new year holiday," says shopper Zheng.
She usually buys dried seafood and vegetables, preserved ham and duck for the New Year's dinner, nuts and candies for guests and packaged nutritious tonics that she can give as gifts when she pays visits.
Nan huo dian are linked with the history of the city.
According to famous food critic Zhang Xiaochun, the earliest nan huo dian were started by immigrants to Shanghai from east and south China; they wanted hometown food when they were homesick.
Around 1949, there were a record of 87 such stores, Zhang says.
Originally the stores were of four basic kinds, depending on the origins of owners: Cantonese, Ningbo style, Jinhua and Suzhou style.
Today there are no more than 10 authentic and comprehensive emporiums in Shanghai, but the four kinds of distinctive foods remain, though the flavors are changing a bit. Old Shanghainese may like the very strong, salty tastes, but younger people prefer somewhat healthier food with less salt.
"Zao huo 糟货 (cooked food marinated in rice wine) and zui huo 醉货 (raw food marinated in alcohol) doesn't taste as salty and strong as in the past because more customers consider the intense, salty flavor to be unhealthy, says a saleswoman in Shao Wan Sheng.
"I don't like the change. When the flavor is changed, how can it label itself as 'traditional and classical'?" says Gao, the Australian born and raised in Shanghai.
Many Chinese chefs source ingredients for their Spring Festival menus from nan huo dian because of their wide variety and traditionally prepared foods.
Although these foods are generally secondary ingredients, chefs consider them as important as, and sometimes more important than, the major ingredient, says Du Caiqing, chef de cuisine at Hyatt on the Bund.
"The smell and taste of food, after being dried and preserved, is concentrated and intensified, which helps bring out the distinctive yet delicate flavor of the main ingredient, giving it totally a new interpretation," chef Du explains.
Shanghai Daily takes a stroll with chef Du at the Shanghai No. 1 Food Department Store, one of the city's biggest food emporiums that features all four different nan huo styles, from Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Guangdong provinces.
Chef Du offers advice on selecting and preparing dried and preserved foods at home.
The meat counter is the first stop because in winter people like a bit of savory and fatty food. Jinhua ham, Chinese bacon, barbecued pork, dried goose and chicken, soybean-flavored duck are displayed.
Foods with intense flavor and firm texture are best cooked slowly to release all flavors and aroma, Du says. He recommends stewing, braising, steaming and simmering.
According to the chef, Jinhua ham and Chinese bacon can be stewed with dried bamboo shoots to make a classical Shanghai New Year's dish called yan du xian 腌笃鲜, a rich, savory, fatty, umami-flavored soup.
La chang sausage can be steamed with rice and Chinese cabbage in a dish called cai fan 菜饭. Dried goose can be braised with radish. Soy sauce-flavored duck can be steamed simply with scallions and ginger.
"In choosing meat, first check the appearance," chef Du says. Quality Jinhua ham, for example, has a jujube-red color. Then check for a pure aroma.
The next stop is the nuts and fruits counter. Walnuts, hazelnut, peanuts, cashews, dried jujubes, longan, lotus seeds and dried persimmon are popular as snacks.
The chef suggests stir-frying crunchy nuts with many vegetables, which adds more texture, flavor and aroma. Cashews stir-fried with celery and peanuts stir-fried with celery are classic Shanghai dishes.
Jujubes and longan, together with colorful preserved fruit, are the basic toppings of ba bao fan 八宝饭, sticky rice filled with red bean paste, an essential dessert for the Lunar New Year's Eve dinner.
Chinese cooking balances vegetables and meat. The dried vegetable counter is often crowded.
Dried lily flower, bamboo shoots, black and white fungus are favorites.
During Spring Festival, Shanghainese people traditionally eat si xi kao fu 四喜烤麸, meaning "four things bringing happiness." It refers to black fungus, chestnuts and dried lily flower braised with wheat gluten.
The wild fungus, with a stronger aroma and firmer texture, is more expensive than the commercially farmed fungus.
All the dried foods should be soaked in water until they enlarge and turn soft before cooking, so cooks should make sure they don't use too much, the chef emphasizes. In general, the soaked fungus expands to three times its dry size.
Then comes the seafood counter. The right side sells delicacies such as abalone and sea cucumber. One kilo of sea cucumber can sell for as much as 12,800 yuan (US$2,064.5). There aren't too many customers. But on the left side, there are plenty of customers for dried shrimp, eel and scallop.
Chef Du suggests buying luxury ingredients as gifts, to give friends "face."
For home cooking, dried shrimp can be braised with tofu. Long cooking makes the mild tofu absorb all the umami flavors from the shrimp. Or cooks can simply soak jelly fish and add vinegar for a cold dish.