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Nothing beats bamboo shoots, cooked at height of season
By Lu Feiran

TIMING is of the essence in Chinese cuisine. The best taste is achieved when dishes use ingredients that are in season and at their freshest.

Bamboo shoots are a prime example.

Every year, spring bamboo shoots appear in markets in March and disappear in late May. But for a popular dish like bamboo shoot and pork shaomai, a form of traditional steamed dumpling, the optimum season is even shorter because the bamboo shoots in early March or late May are not as good as those bought in the middle of the season.

At least, that’s what Ni Kezheng thinks, and he ought to know. Ni has been making and selling bamboo shaomai — sometimes written as shumai — for more than 20 years in Minhang.

“Usually the year’s first batch of spring bamboo shoots tastes rough, so we don’t use them,” said Ni. “Bamboo shoots in May have a slightly bitter aftertaste, so they are not good options either. Thus, every year, we sell shaomai for only about 45 to 60 days.”

Many people in Shanghai associate shaomai with a glutinous rice filling. But in Minhang and Pudong New Area, bamboo shoot and pork shaomai is a tradition dating back at least three centuries.

An almost transparent wrapper envelops minced pork and diced bamboo shoots. Like xiaolongbao (steamed mini dumplings), pigskin jelly is added to the filling so that the shaomai remain juicy to the bite. In fact, they taste better than xiaolongbao because of the sweetness imparted by the bamboo shoot juice.

“The best match for shaomai is rice vinegar,” Ni said. “It is sour but not as sour as mature vinegar, so it brings out the sweetness of the juice, neutralizes the fattiness of the pork and doesn’t overshadow the original flavor of the shaomai.”

Another version of this shaomai goes for a sweeter taste by using bean paste and nuts.

“Some people may not be used to the mixture of sweet and savory,” said Ni. “But, in fact, the more you taste it, the more you’ll find it subtly fabulous.”

Ni’s shop is called Yuanjie Shaomai, but frequent customers call it Kezheng Shaomai in honor of the chef. Opened in Zhaojialou, Pujiang Town in 1992, the shop is crammed with customers every year when bamboo shoot shaomai appears. Sometimes thousands of shaomai are sold in a single day.

 “You know what’s best? It’s that you can never have enough bamboo shoot shaomai,” Ni said. “Every year you spend 10 months missing it and craving its flavor.”

Ni’s secret is the proportion of the fillings. He said he believes the golden ratio is 40 percent bamboo shoots, 48 percent lean pork and 3 percent pigskin jelly. Chopped green onion is also added for extra flavor.

“Usually we only use the front-end of the bamboo shoots because that part is the crispest,” he said. “And, of course, no leftover bamboo shoots from the previous day are used because they can develop astringency.”

The shape of Ni’s shaomai is different from glutinous rice versions. They are taller and thinner, and the wrapper is closed at the time to create the image of a peach blossom.

“A wrapper should be thicker in the middle and thinner on the edge,” he said. “When the shaomai is steamed, the edge of wrapper unfurls a bit for a flower bloom effect.”

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