AS summer officially arrives — the summer solstice arrived on June 21 — now is the season for Shanghainese people to make their favorite food like cold noodles and wontons, mung bean soup and cold dishes marinated in rice wine or zao huo.
Almost all local mothers can make cold noodle at home. It’s one of the best dishes for summer — cooling, easy to prepare and preserve, and most important, it’s delicious.
“It’s an important and impressive childhood memory of my generation,” says Liu Hongbing, a 32-year-old Shanghai resident. “I still remember that when my mom prepared the dish when I was little, she put the noodles from a big flat bamboo basket and waved a bamboo fan herself by the side; years later she used an electronic fan to cool it down.”
The first and most important step is as what Liu remembers — the noodles are cooked and then fanned to cool down, creating tenacity while not losing the moisture. Then green pepper, bean sprouts and cane shoots are mixed in to form a crisp chew, according to Liu.
In authentic Shanghainese style, there are four typical garnishing foods for cold noodles — “three slices” (pork meat, pepper and water bamboo), spicy meat, eel and “fried gluten puff mixed with jew’s-ear.”
They are commonly prepared at home and also are easily found at small roadside food stalls and noodle shops. Shanghai has several famous old labels for cold noodles, such as Meixin on Shaanxi Road N. As a seasonal food, cold noodles are available only in summer.
“An average price of 15 yuan (US$2.40) for a big bowl of cold noodles is very reasonable,” Liu says.
The toppings are cooked and ready to add when you order the noodles, usually present in big square plates.
The essential element is the sesame sauce, while every housewife might have her own secret recipe. The common seasonings are vinegar and teal oil before you start to eat.
“I always ask the ayi (the middle-aged waitress in local food stores are usually called ayi by young customers) to add more sesame sauce and vinegar — smell good and taste perfect. I love the mixed flavors in my mouth with those sauces and crispy chewing,” says Liu.
“Although the ingredients are simple, they are fused together in perfect proportions to become something truly delicious,” says Jacqueline Qiu, executive chef of Hai Pai, a Shanghainese restaurant at Andaz Xintiandi, Shanghai.
These homemade traditional local foods can be found not only at small food stalls, instead high-end restaurants, even in five-star hotels, also put them on the summer menus because of their high popularity.
As one of the few female executive chefs in the city, Qiu adds cold noodle soup to her seasonal menu. Her cold noodles (38 yuan+15%) are topped with green pepper, bean sprouts and cane shoots, as well as her secret sesame sauce.
Like the twin of cold noodles, cold wontons are also extremely popular during Shanghai’s summer. Wonton is the must-eat food on the summer solstice as it means reunion.
Cooking and cooling down in a similar way, cold wontons are mixed with sesame sauce, vinegar and teal oil. The food stalls serving cold noodles usually offer cold wontons, as well — generally with pork meat and vegetable fillings. Sometimes you can find other stuffings like vegetables and mushrooms.
Besides main courses like noodles and wontons, Shanghai residents generally are good at preparing local desserts and light food at home — pumpkin congee and sweet mung bean soup are suitable for everyone.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, both mung beans and pumpkin are very good at relieving summer heat.
The cooking method is easy too, as people don’t like to spend long time in a hot kitchen.
Wash the beans and dip them in cold water for one to two hours, and then cook them until boiling. After 20 minutes to half an hour, turn off the fire and wait for the soup to cool down.
For health reasons, people usually don’t eat mung been soup that is too sweet to better dispel the inner heat, adding less rock candy or white sugar than before.
Other ingredients are also added to the soup depending on different taste, including lily bulbs and mint.
Cooling them in the refrigerator or adding ice before eating it makes the best dessert and beverage for local people.
Typical Shanghai-style cold dishes
IN Shanghai, there is a series of dishes that can be eaten not merely at meal time but also as starter while you wait for the main course, as side dishes for cold noodles, or as snacks while you watch TV. They are zao huo, different ingredients for dipping in rice wine.
The flavor, a taste unique in Shanghai and neighboring cities is salty, umami, a flavor combining spices such as star anise and fennel and a bouquet of Chinese yellow wine, which is sweet, mellow and a little spicy.
The flavor comes from zao lu, an alcoholic drink traditionally made by local in summer.
In Shanghai in summer, not only chefs but also housewives open the fridge and bring out their secret-recipe zao lu, a thick translucent liquid decocted from Chinese yellow wine, fragrances and spices, usually including dried orange peel, bay leaf and cinnamon. Individual tastes vary.
Then, various just-boiled ingredients, from maodou (young soya bean), chicken’s feet to freshwater shrimp, are marinated in cold zao lu for a couple of hours.
At the instant the hot ingredients cool and absorb all the flavors from zao lu, which becomes savory and rich. These foods can be preserved in for several weeks in the refrigerator.
One traditional dish is prawn, duck’s tongue and maodou marinated in zao lu, a traditional cold dish.
After it is marinated, maodou loses some of its bean flavor but expresses the flavors of yellow wine and cinnamon. The wine brings out the sweetness of the prawn.
The rice wine sauce takes away the grease of food. The meat of chicken, duck and fish dipped in the sauce smells good, tastes salty and fresh — regarded as the best accompaniment of wine and beer for local people.
Shanghainess people prefer animal organs such as duck tongues to be the basic ingredients. The usually oily food can be balanced in taste with the rice wine sauce.
Local residents usually put the ready zao huo in fridge for some time before eating to get the flavor fresher.
Eating, however, seems a bit complicated for foreigners, since the duck’s tongue is surrounded by a papery layer of cartilage. The shrimp is served in its shell to lock in the flavor and the maodou is inside its pod. But, as they say, authentic Shanghai food is best served in Shanghai style.