Traditional recipes

A Look Inside Eddie Huang’s Chinese New Year Feast, Topped Off with Hennessy Milk Tea

A Look Inside Eddie Huang’s Chinese New Year Feast, Topped Off with Hennessy Milk Tea

Chinese New Year 2015 starts Thursday, February 19, which means that if you’re planning to celebrate, all your real festivities should be scheduled for Wednesday. If you’ve never celebrated before, here’s a look at one Chinese chef’s interpretation.

Last week, a few days in advance of the real start of the Year of the Goat, Baohaus chef Eddie Huang hosted a New Year’s celebration in partnership with Hennessy, a label which will be especially familiar to anyone who’s attended his or her share of Chinese weddings.

Huang’s menu for the evening, a six-course affair put together in the tiny kitchen of No. 7 Restaurant in Brooklyn, featured lion’s head chicken soup, Hainan lobster salad, chili miso-braised fish, and Szechuan roasted black garlic chicken. As an interlude, guests were treated to a traditional lion’s head dance typically reserved for boisterous Chinatown streets around New Year’s.

The evening’s sponsor made sure that every glass was full of Red Ram, a cocktail created especially for the evening. Eddie, who has partnered with Hennessy in the past, even created a Hennessy Privilege Milk Tea (paired with egg tarts from Taipan Bakery in Chinatown) that actually made this author appreciate milk tea (black tea sweetened with condensed milk).

When we sat down with Eddie to talk about his love for the holiday, he brought over a full plate of roasted chicken and recalled his early role in the kitchen.

“My mom worked, so she would call me on the way home, and I would get things ready so that when she got home, she could just cook. I was always my mom’s prep cook.”

Quickly, that role expanded to one of household handyman.

“My mom bought a pressure washer and had me pressure wash the house. She would see other people get services, like this guy pressure washing or this guy cleaning the pool, and she would be like, ‘What chemicals do you use? Where do you buy the machines?’ and she would be like, ‘Guess what? You’re now pressure washing the house and cleaning the pool.’”

There are lots of things you wouldn’t think kids can do until parents force them to, I offer.

“Mulan joined the army,” Eddie says in agreement.

On Fresh Off the Boat, the ABC sitcom inspired by Huang’s memoir of the same name, we’ve yet to see a young Eddie face these challenges. The chef has made it clear that the resemblance between the show and its source material continues to diverge. Will there be, for instance, an episode of the show that features this holiday — the most important one of the Chinese calendar?

“I don’t know if any of this will be on the sitcom because they never do any of the real s--t on that show, but on Vice we’re gonna do it. You’re on Vice right now.”

And, lastly, who in Huang’s family is known for being the most generous giver of the all-important red envelope?



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A Look Inside Eddie Huang’s Chinese New Year Feast, Topped Off with Hennessy Milk Tea - Recipes

Sun, 28 Oct 2018 15:46:34 +0000

Back in July, I launched a preorder campaign for my Sichuan Chili Crisp, the first 100% all-natural Sichuan chili sauce to hit the market. It became one of the highest backed food projects on Kickstarter, with over 1600 backers helping me exceed my funding goal by 350% in four weeks. I was finally ready to scale up production for the sauces I had been making out of my kitchen.

If that sounds triumphant and glamorous, it was anything but. I spent most of my waking hours in August and September at a factory in rural Sichuan, coordinating production and resolving the numerous issues that kept arising. No sooner were small wins gained before another obstacle would appear, threatening to teeter me over the edge of sanity.

After a harrowing journey, four tonnes of sauce — 19000 jars — are packed and palletized, and about to embark a container ship on their way to the US. In the short break I have until they arrive and it is time to start fulfillment, I thought I would share some of what what I learned from my first time producing sauces at a large scale

1. No one will demand excellence from your product except you.

When I first brought my formulas to the factory’s test kitchens, it surprised me how different the results tasted as compared to my homemade version — even though we were still testing small batches and using the exact same measurements.

This factory was known for their R&D expertise, had stringent ingredient standards and was definitely head and shoulders more expensive than any other in the industry (read my essay on Cleaver Quarterly for tales of my previous mishaps in manufacturing in China), so I trusted that they were using the best available ingredients on the market. I was wrong. What they were using was good enough, even better than, what most of their clients demanded. But I found that it took away the flavor profile that made my sauce stand out, and that wasn’t going to fly. Through a long and slow process of elimination, I tested and changed the source of almost every single ingredient in the formula to better meet my demands of the product deep umami, fragrance, luster, texture and mouthfeel, all without the addition of any natural or artificial flavorings and extracts.

I was met with a lot of resistance from the operational team at the factory who did not want to upend their existing processes and add new tasks to their workflow just for my little chunk of business. It also increased my ingredient cost considerably, but after tasting the results, I have not looked back. The flavor differences are subtle and probably indiscernible to most, but it took the sauces from “oh yes this is really good”, to *eyes bulge out of sockets* “what is that?!” type of good. When it’s right, you just know.

Some of the ingredients that I changed include:

Chili supplier and blend: I found a supplier who stone-grinds their dried chilis the traditional way rather than using a machine, which retains the luster, natural oils and bright red color that I needed the sauce to have.

Sichuan pepper: the type the factory used was from the same region as the Tribute pepper I preferred, but not the premium kind I normally used. There truly is no comparison and I had to upgrade.

Fermented black beans : I kind of took these for granted before — how different could fermented black beans be from one another? But the answer is: a lot. The first beans they used were dry, noticeably underdeveloped in fermentation, and lacked the guttural punch and umami that I liked. I have come to realize that this little ingredient is actually the single most flavor-altering agent to impact the sauce over its life, as it continues to deepen and infuse its surroundings with time.

There were more ingredient changes, and I’ll share them with you if we ever sit down for tea one day.

I knew this insistence was the right decision, because no other product on the market was going to taste like it. The version that I’ll be shipping is even better than the original I cooked up in my kitchen 2 years ago that set me down this path, and that makes it all worth it.

2. Militant Precision Pays Off

One of the reasons the factory was so resistant to changing their suppliers was their very stringent process for ingredient approvals. It takes upwards of two weeks to approve a single new ingredient because the factory needs to run it through lab tests and request stacks of documentation from the supplier before they can allow it in their products. Food safety scares occur enough in China (and everywhere for that matter) to warrant extra caution, as even established suppliers have sometimes sent ingredients that contained impurities.

Because Chinese law states that a manufacturer is held liable for any issue with the product even if the blame lies with a third party, my factory was not about to take a risk. This meant that all my ingredient switching was a constant source of headaches for them, as well as frustration for me because I could not understand why they were so slow to implement my requests. In the end, their slow and steady approach paid off. I know we’ve done everything we could to eliminate potential points of risk, and that we’re working only with suppliers who have the same high standards that we hold ourselves to.

The labels were another painful lesson for me. I’ve been working with a designer I’ve adored for years to shape my logo and brand identity for Fly By Jing, and at my previous restaurant Baoism in Shanghai before that. I love the bold colors and eye-catching gradients in the labels he has designed for the sauces, but I quickly found out that what looks great on the computer screen was incredibly difficult to replicate in print. Printers in China aren’t quite as sophisticated as his designs demanded — a lot of them didn’t know what a Pantone swatch was. And to make matters worse, I had become enamored with rare neon colors that didn’t exist in standard Pantone books. Conversations with printers inevitably turned from ‘we can do it all’ to ‘sorry, we can’t do that’. I think I called up every printer in China in my search, and every single one suggested using digital printing instead of offset to achieve a 90–95% approximation of what I was looking for instead of dedicating the time and effort to create plates, color match to the exact Pantone swatches and run tests to smoothly blend the gradients.

After almost two months of running around in circles, we found a printer in Hong Kong with the deep level of expertise to finish the job. The bad news is that high quality color printing is expensive, and because this printer could only print in flat sheets, the stickers had to be applied by hand to each bottle instead of fed through a machine. This added extra cost during bottling — but time was running out so I bit the bullet and resolved to find another solution for the next run. The good news is, the labels look beautiful and are basically irreplicable — good luck to anyone who tries to knock off my branding.

3. Soft Touch Over a Hard Elbow

Early on, I was lucky to meet an elderly executive named Mr. T who acted as the right hand of the factory boss. He understood my mission, took a liking to me and has been my guardian angel throughout this whole sauce making process. Without him in my corner, I don’t think I could have pulled any of this off.

The factory I am working with is growing at such a rapid pace that bureaucracy and cumbersome processes are beginning to threaten efficiency and timeliness. Because of the complexity of what I was doing — introducing brand new products, changing formulations, and exporting to the US — I found myself running around to every department, from r&d to operations to finance and sales. Like my early days working as a brand manager at P&G, I had to corral and mobilize all the departments in order to achieve my mission, except now I wasn’t working on a billion dollar brand that everyone was paid to help with. I hated not being able to take things into my own hands, especially as promises to deliver on projects regularly ballooned from days into weeks, and sometimes deflated altogether.

It felt like pulling teeth, and I found it hard to hide my frustration and impatience. More than a few times, Mr. T had to tell me that my approach was too direct, too…’American’, and that things just didn’t work that way in China. Here, things are implied rather than said, a negotiation is more like a dance, and sometimes you need the help of a gift here and there. Needless to say, Mr. T had to dig me out of more than one hole and use his own social capital to help push my project through. I realized that attuning myself to needs and constraints of my collaborators may feel frustratingly slow in the short term, but would help me accomplish far more than I could ever do on my own in the long run.

4. The Human Element of Food Manufacturing

When I initially thought about producing my sauces at scale, the picture in my mind was of a well-oiled assembly line, an infinite snaking conveyor belt of glass jars with the perfect amount of chili crisp dispensed from magical spouts. I was going to make my riches from the millions of jars and single serve pouches I could produce at the drop of a hat.

I was immediately brought back to reality when the factory told me there was no way the jars or the single serve pouches I had dreamt up or even the jars could be machine filled. I didn’t understand. So many sauces and beverages were machine filled, and Heinz had single-serve packets, so why couldn’t I? The answer: Sichuan Chili Crisp was too chunky for the small spouts of all of those machines, and would clog too easily.

I thought of alternatives. Maybe I could puree the contents and make it a slurry. That would work in the machines, but the sauce would lose all its texture, the crunchy bits, the deeply umami bites of fermented black beans. The distribution of flavors in each bite would be off. Around this time, I met someone who had taken a tour of the revered Laoganma factory in Guizhou. He told me something that shocked me: not only is every bottle of Laoganma hand filled, every batch of chili sauce is fried by hand in cast iron woks instead of the industry standard stainless steel drums to prevent the fermented black beans from breaking.

In that moment, I realized why Laoganma has such a strong hold on the market — no other company in their right minds would invest in so much sheer unscalable manpower in the name of product integrity. It may be that the Guizhou countryside is the only place in the world where the cheap labor and land will allow for this business model, but that is the level of dedication necessary for world domination.

If that’s what it took for the OG player in the game, that’s what it was going to take for me. I have the benefit of being able to fill my products in China, where it will cost me far less than in the US. Still, this proved difficult for the 1 ounce single serve packs that I insisted on producing, and they weren’t able to fill everything I ordered on time for this shipment. At the end of the day, I’m glad I didn’t compromise quality for quantity. In a time when disregard for the experience of food has become the norm and is even celebrated — I’m looking at you Soylent, and all the sandy-textured protein bars out there — insistence on the human element in food production is more important than ever.

5. There Is Always A Way

I’ve been told ‘no’ about a hundred times during this process. Factories have refused to work with me. I was told my process couldn’t be scaled, that my sauces couldn’t be bottled, that my labels couldn’t be printed. Even the (very reputable) US fulfillment company that I had signed an agreement with suddenly and without explanation said they were no longer able to ship my orders, sending me scrambling to find a new fulfillment partner at the last minute. Every time I came back to square one, I found that there was another, and better way. There is no roadmap to success when you go down a path that hasn’t been tread before. In my case, the factories had never seen a product like mine, especially one that had such high demands of ingredient quality, craftsmanship, and no artificial flavorings and preservatives to boot. It took over a year just to find a factory with legitimate documents to export to the US, instead of just promises to deliver through ‘underground’ channels. But when the vision is clear — creating and bringing the first all-natural line of authentic and deeply flavorful Chinese condiments to the US market — you just keep trying every door until one leads you a little bit closer.

]]> What I Learned From Making Hot Sauce at Scale An Old Teahouse in Chengdu Culture Jenny Gao

Tue, 26 Jun 2018 18:01:55 +0000

Guanyinege Old Teahouse in Pengzhen county just outside of Chengdu is a century-old tea house that doesn’t seem to have changed with the times. Faded murals of cultural revolution era artwork and slogans adorn the walls and neighborhood seniors camp out with tobacco pipes and sip bottomless cups of tea from sunrise. It's become popular recently with domestic tourists, so it's best to beat the crowds as the local seniors do, and arrive before 7 am.

Sunlight trickles into the room through gaps in its wooden structure and a bright red stained glass cutout of a red star on the roof, hitting the smoke rising from tobacco pipes and the coal-fired stove just right. Kettles of boiling water are always on the ready to refill your cup as soon as it's dry. If you're lucky, they might even pour it for you from a traditional long-spouted teapot, which is really something to witness.

You may not understand anything being said around you, even someone like me who speaks Sichuanese can have a hard time getting the hyper-local dialects, but just sitting there, sharing a cup of tea and a smile is often enough to give you that essential feeling of connectedness to that moment in time and space. Guanyinge Teahouse has been around for a hundred years, but there's no guarantee it will make it through the next one hundred. Every time I visit, I approach with trepidation that I might find an empty structure, or worse, none at all.

Teahouses are everything in Chengdu, a city of leisure and relaxation. They represent the gathering of communities and the epicenter of culture. As the city races towards modernization, these are sometimes becoming collateral. I hope that while it's still there, you guys can go and experience it for yourself. Also, guided tours of Chengdu are still available as a reward on my Kickstarter, just saying :)

Shuangliu District Mashiba Street near Jiaotong Road 3rd Section
Open from 5am until 5pm

]]> An Old Teahouse in Chengdu Sichuan Rabbit Salad Recipes Jing's Picks Jenny Gao

Fri, 22 Jun 2018 18:54:44 +0000

My grandparent's kitchen in Guanghan

I wanted to share something I worked on last month in Chengdu with Gold Thread, an awesome new video platform about Chinese food and culture. Check out their page for my story and others, including an interview with the Chinese (female!) director of the new Pixar animated short "Bao", an ode to our beloved xiaolongbao.

One of my earliest food memories was eating around the dining table in my grandparents kitchen in Guanghan, the small town outside of Chengdu where I was born. The dish that always stood out to me was this 'red rabbit' salad, a glistening concoction of vermicelli, leek, lightly pickled celtuce (sort of a cross between celery and lettuce), and hand-shredded cured rabbit meat.


As I explain in the video, because of the warm and wet climate of Sichuan and its fertile, grassy land, there are a lot of rabbits in Sichuan, and people love eating its tasty and lean meat. If you've been to Chengdu you've probably seen the endless shops selling rabbit head and stewed rabbit meats, but 'red rabbit' 红兔 is a hyper local specialty from Guanghan that most people in Chengdu have never even heard of.

'Red rabbit' is made by hanging the meat to cure after its been rubbed in a mixture of its own blood and spices (hence the name), and then stewed in a rich and aromatic broth which gives it a deeply infused flavor and bouncy texture. You can buy them from specialty vendors (it's definitely not something you attempt at home) and they're awesome just straight steamed or in our family's preferred method of preparation, as a cold appetizer.

Vendor in Guanghan with red rabbit and other cured meats

The Recipe: Red Rabbit Salad

250g Guanghan red rabbit meat (replace with cooked chicken thigh or breast, although it would become a different dish all together)
250g celtuce
50g leek, white part only
150g thin vermicelli
cilantro to garnish

3 tbsp chili oil (or Sichuan Chili Crisp)
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp vinegar
2 tsp sugar
dash sesame oil
dash ground roasted Sichuan pepper

1. Chop the rabbit into 3 inch long chunks, shred the rabbit meat by hand, this takes patience, time and perseverance. The strips should be about half the size of your pinkie.
2. Chop celtuce into 3 inch long sticks, julienne. Sprinkle with about a tsp of salt, let it sweat for at least 15 minutes and squeeze excess water out. Should be lightly salted and crunchy.
3. Cut leek into 3 inch chunks and very thinly slice lengthwise.
4. Boil hot water and let vermicelli soak until soft but still chewy, drain.
5. Combine all the ingredients in a mixing bowl, pour dressing over and adjust to taste. You can add more chili oil, adjust Sichuan pepper depending on the freshness and potency of your variety.

You want to get a very balanced spicy, savoury, acidic, sweet, and numbing taste in your mouth alongside the smokey chewiness of the rabbit, vibrant crunch of celtuce, and slipperiness of the vermicelli. The leek cuts into the strong flavors with a kick as well.

Where can you get red rabbit? Only in Guanghan of course. I keep trying to smuggling it out in my suitcase, but alas, TSA always wins that battle. So you'll just have to visit and try it for yourself.

]]> Sichuan Rabbit Salad Saucy Business Jing's Picks Press Jenny Gao

Tue, 19 Jun 2018 17:32:00 +0000

I wrote an essay for seminal Chinese food magazine The Cleaver Quarterly about my journey into manufacturing Sichuan Chili Crisp in China. It was therapeutic getting everything down on paper, but I can't pretend I'm not still scarred from the experience. Enter the seamy underworld of unsavory sauce bosses, rotweilers, body bags of shallots, and baijiu.

The burlap sack is big enough for a grown man’s body. It bulges with the weight of a hundred kilos of shallots, but there is a problem. These aren’t the shallots I had ordered, the round ones that easily peel back to reveal a purple-hued flesh. These are a different variety, with smaller elongated sections clustered tightly in a bulb, each piece ranging in size from half a pinky to a thumb. The color and even the taste are the same, but these shallots are threatening to ruin my life.

To read the rest of the essay, click here.

]]> Saucy Business The Relationship Doctor Culture Jing's Picks Jenny Gao

Fri, 01 Jun 2018 05:59:57 +0000

This is a guest post by my friend and writer Philana Woo. It is the first of a two part series on my foray into manufacturing in China to produce an all natural Sichuan chili sauce, which I am launching internationally on June 4.

Yesterday Jenny and I took a Didi an hour northeast of Chengdu city center to visit a hot sauce factory for her new business venture, Fly By Jing.

At the highway checkpoint, police asked to see our IDs. When they saw our foreign passports, they asked our driver where we were headed. He replied the Hotpot Cultural Institute, which I thought was clever. Later, I looked on Baidu maps and realized the factory was in fact known by that name.

Along the way, we passed a curious compound built in an architectural style I like to call ‘Gothic Revival lite’: a clear allusion to prestigious European institutions, imbued with historic significance, yet exempt from actually being dated. This style was a favorite among wealthy Chinese and set in a green grass gated compound, made for a credible school campus, albeit a massive one.

The sign read Sichuan Aviation Tourism College and we immediately imagined a Hogwarts for Chinese flight attendants. Later, Wikipedia would inform us the 2,700-acre facility is officially known as Civil Aviation Flight University of China, the world’s largest flight training institute, from which 90% civil aviation captains and 50% air traffic controllers graduated.

Sichuan Aviation Tourism College - a.k.a. Hogwarts for Chinese flight Attendants

As usual, our Chinese driver didn’t share our enthusiasm and was focused instead on navigating the by now winding mountain roads leading to the supposed factory. I say supposed because tucked deep inside the mountains is not what one imagines when one thinks of a hot sauce factory, even if it is the Hotpot Cultural Institute. Then again, I am not sure what to imagine, actually.

After a few missed turns and phone calls, we finally find it, an unassuming cluster of buildings guarded by a metal gate, at the end of an uphill driveway on the side of the mountain. We both wondered whether we were in the right place. We both also knew that this was, feasibly, not only a hot sauce factory, but one servicing over 1,000 domestic and international clients for this was, after all, China: land of the unassuming, home of the impossible.

Hot sauce billionaire, here we come.

Mr. Chen, the owner, comes out to greet us. He is an affable Chinese businessman in his late thirties or early forties (we learn later he is married with a 14-year-old daughter). Jenny found him through a series of leads and decided to look him up after discovering one of his longtime clients hails from her ancestral hometown. She figured this might give her some much-needed guanxi in an industry where her connections are tenuous at best. Jenny’s family is from the area, but they are academics and immigrated abroad long ago. They may be chili-eating people, but production was a whole other story.

He saw his other guests out, two unsmiling men (hot sauce moguls perhaps?), and began talking shop with Jenny in Sichuan dialect, of which I understood about 95%. He took us for a tour of the factory, handing us stained caps with hairnets from the women’s locker room before we walked in. I asked if I should tuck my hair in, but it didn’t seem to matter.

We walked into the next room, which contained heavy machinery that can chop, mix, and cook ingredients for hot sauce. There were about three workers doing their thing. The factory is small, the smallest Jenny has seen. After the tour, which took about ten minutes including standing in the middle of the room for about five, we returned to his office to discuss logistics.

At noon an alarm sounded and one by one, half a dozen workers trickled in to punch their card. The atmosphere was relaxed, sleepy—like much of Chengdu, one of China’s largest cities renowned for its leisurely atmosphere. Chengdu was chill chili to bureaucratic Beijing and shiny Shanghai.

Chen offered to take us for lunch in town, a fifteen-minute drive back through the winding mountain roads. We would need a lift down to catch a cab to our next destination anyhow. Jenny acquiesces. We end up at a famous Sichuan chain restaurant, the type equipped for banquets. A 100-day baby celebration is taking place. We can hear the enthusiastic emcee over the mic as we pull into the parking lot. We walk past a Hello Kitty photo backdrop and into a room full of adults eating at tables as kids run around. The server leads us upstairs, where it is quieter. At first we are given a room with a table that seats 15. There were 15 of everything, including ashtrays. We dutifully sat down, trying to space ourselves apart evenly.

These private dining rooms or baojian, were designed to offer a sense of exclusivity and are therefore preferred for business meals. Despite spending many a lunch and dinner in baojians, I remain entertained by the inevitable discrepancy between pomp and circumstance. In our case, we were three near strangers who met in the countryside, wiping off sweat with pre-wetted courtesy hand towels, about to engage in some hot sauce talk over a fancy meal served on a gigantic lazy Susan while a baby birthday took place downstairs.

It was absurd, awkward, and what Chinese business lunches tend to be. All we were missing was moutai, the 80-proof grappa-like grain alcohol used to mark any occasion, and especially business deals.

Chen offered the menu to us but we defer to him, our only request being for vegetable dishes as they are harder to come by during client meals meant to impress, meaning meat dishes take precedent. After taking a few minutes to order from an iPad menu, we commenced conversation. I was just beginning to tune out when something piqued my interest.

I overheard Chen describe one of the many extra services he offers clients, some of whom own restaurants. Employee turnover is high in the food and beverage industry, and the same is true in China, where such work tends to be occupied by the unskilled and underpaid migrant worker population. So in addition to hot sauce manufacturing, Chen will sometimes step in as a job recruiter, especially during major holidays when workers tend to quit or visit home and never return.

Chen begins describing his winning strategy. Basically, he divides the staff into teams. Each team contributes a set amount, i.e. 200rmb. The employer matches the amount, doubling the pool. Teams then have a limited time to each procure a new hire. Successful teams receive a reward that is the sum of the pool divided by the number of teams. Teams that fail to find a new hire don’t receive anything and lose their original contribution. But there’s another catch—in order to redeem their reward, teams are responsible for ensuring their hire stays at least three months.

The bleeding heart liberal in me immediately questions the ethics of placing the burden of recruitment and retention on existing employees. What if a team can’t produce a new hire despite its best efforts? I understand incentivization, but object to the corresponding penalty. Chen insisted it was simply gamification to goad employees into action. He seemed oblivious to the ethics of such an arrangement. Despite being aware that restaurants in China are overwhelmingly independent, pseudo legal operations in which human resources and employee rights are not really a thing, I still could not hide my indignation.

Jenny offered that we were not objecting to the reward aspect of the “game”, but rather the penalty. Chen assured us again that without a penalty, which moreover is nominal, people wouldn’t pitch in, so it was simply a win-win strategy. In his eyes, he was helping them help themselves, so to speak. Besides, there is no limit on how many teams would collect the reward. Of course from the employer’s perspective, the strategy was genius: Create a self-sustaining recruitment and retention program funded by employees themselves. Realizing we would not see eye to eye and not wanting to offend, I decided the drop the subject.

Cold stewed beef with chili flakes and raw garlic

The dishes began arriving. First, a cold dish of sliced boiled, tendony beef served with local chili flakes and garlic slices. Next, sautéed yam leaves and a large claypot with vermicelli, mushrooms, peppers, and smoked pork.

Perhaps deciding we might take better to a story of romance and reconciliation versus employee exploitation, Chen began telling us about his forays in relationship counseling, also among his client services.

One of his clients, a married couple with three kids, suffered from chronic marriage problems. Despite still loving each other, they bickered constantly and neither side would concede wrongdoing. The romance was dead, with the husband having affairs and the wife complaining bitterly about feeling underappreciated. Daily life had gotten the best of them and was starting to take a toll on employee morale. When Chen heard about this, he went to his client and offered to fix the issue in seven days time and at the cost of 30,000rmb. Incredulous, the client offered 300,000rmb. So the groundwork for Chen’s project was laid. He arrived to the restaurant in secret, without the wife’s knowledge. Within five days, he had prepped and rehearsed with everyone. Everyone being the husband and entire staff—because, according to Chen, they all wanted their bosses to reconcile too.

We wondered jokingly whether his strategy was to apply a monetary reward (funded by employees’ salaries) in exchange for helping reconcile the couple. Laughing it off in his affable manner, he continued describing the events that unfolded the following afternoon. At 5pm they shut down the restaurant, which earned an average of 2,000rmb a night. What’s that compared to a marriage saved? A taxi was sent to bring the wife from their home to the restaurant, with the pretense being that she was needed to sign a document since she is the co-signer for the lease. The cab driver was paid 150rmb for a drive that normally cost 30rmb for the service of precise drop off. When the wife arrived at the restaurant, she stepped onto a red carpet leading to the restaurant door. The employees, alternately carrying flowers and candles, stood on either side of the carpet. She immediately turned to leave but the cab had already driven off, as instructed.

At this point, Chen tells us that earlier in the day, he had crafted a text message for the husband to send to the wife. The gist of the message was: Dearest wife, I am sorry for my behavior of late. He normally doesn’t address her with such tenderness. The husband was then instructed to put his phone away and ignore his wife’s subsequent messages. This was meant to soften her for what was to come.

Back to the red carpet, music starts to play—a Chinese love ballad Chen forgets the name of, but sings for effect nonetheless. Something about the road ahead, handholding and crying. The wife stands her ground, facial expression stern behind glasses. The husband appears at the door of the restaurant. What was he wearing? I interject with rapt attention. A suit? Jeans? Without skipping a beat, Chen replies “casual wear”. So then the husband begins towards her, at first slowly, then faster, and finally, sprinting and getting down on one knee. One of the staff hands him a large bouquet of flowers. He begins reciting a monologue Chen had prepared. The monologue, like most of the setup, reflects romantic clichés in the Asian pop tradition. He acknowledges his love for the long-suffering wife he is unworthy of. He apologizes for his wrongdoing and asks for forgiveness. The volume goes up—no one is spared—everyone, from the husband to the staff and some members of the 200-person crowd that has gathered cry. By now the wife’s stone-cold expression is rendered poignant by the downward flow of tears.

Spicy daikon and beef stew

The last dish arrives, a stew of daikon and beef.

We pick at it, more interested in the outcome of his story than the slightly tough beef. Upon completion of the monologue, the staff do as they have rehearsed and push the couple together so they hug. What? You pushed them together? Yes, these things require “assistance”, Chen replied, again, without skipping a beat. But the production is not over. Afterwards, Chen shows the couple two videos he had prepared, one showing the consequences of a couple who divorce, the other of a couple who reconcile. The latter features the couple growing old together, surrounded by prosperity and posterity. But where did you find these videos I ask? Well, I’m quite interested in human psychology and relationships, he offers by way of explanation. I can’t help but think of the 90s anti-drug commercial: This is your brain, this is your brain on drugs. This is your relationship, this is your relationship post divorce.

He concluded through his experience that people need chang (场), which translates to context. I thought to myself: chang, as in the right music chang, as in the right lighting chang, as in a red carpet chang, as in flowers chang, as in a repentant husband chang, as in 200 people watching chang, as in people to nudge you together on cue.

Apparently the couple is still going strong.

Just when we thought he could not impress us further, he told us about yet another instance when his relationship doctoring came in handy. He once orchestrated a surprise wedding. A university friend happened to own a fledging wedding planning company. As a PR stunt, he planned his friend’s proposal to his girlfriend in front of dozens of people in a public square. The entire event involved a wedding ceremony that followed immediately after. They brought the woman’s parents, schoolteachers from the countryside. He told them he wanted to make her feel like the most special woman in the world for one day. So the parents were present, along with other friends and family. She said yes (we assume), and they whisked her off to get her into a dress and made up within ten minutes. The wedding business is booming.

We wondered between ourselves (in English), when he had time to travel around for days, weeks at a time acting as a relationship doctor.

But before we could ask too many logistical questions, he started telling us about the time his sister employed his skills. His younger sister owns three mother and baby product shops around town. One year, rent on all three shops increased by 20 to 30 percent. Her attempts to negotiate down the increase failed, so she called her brother, the renowned relationship doctor, for help.

He agreed to the challenge, but only to one of the landlords, not all three. First, they figured out the family structure of the landlord. Parents, wife, kid—five people total. Next, they spent days scouring Taobao to buy gifts suited for each family member. Then, they visited the family bearing all the gifts. After unloading the bounty, Chen says he is grateful to the landlord for supporting his sister’s business. As a gesture of his appreciation, he comes bearing gifts. He begins presenting each gift. Here, you see, is a foot washing basin I bought for 1,200rmb while on a business trip in Hangzhou. (It was 80rmb on Taobao, he informs us, with great pleasure.) It has many medicinal benefits…

The key, Chen emphasized, is large and many. He was referring to the gifts. Apparently after this presenting of presents went on for a while, the landlord pulled him and his sister aside and bargained with them. He agreed to extend the lease for another three years without raising the rent.

Just when we thought he had revealed all his cards, he begins telling us about the uses of temple and praying for his clients. By this point, we are quite fatigued by his storytelling but try our best to keep up with him. During the holidays, he goes to temple and buys special offerings for his clients, writing their names and various blessings. He then takes a photo and sends it to them. You see, people usually go to temple to pray for themselves, but when you pray for a client, they are extra impressed, he said.

At this point, Jenny and I simultaneously agreed he should write a book about all the ways of dealing with people.

Of course, this was his way of advertising his client services. (He even offered to set Jenny up.)

As we are leaving the restaurant, he gets the car first. When he pulls up, he is wearing glasses. Jenny and I both do a double take as if to ask, is that him? It is, we get on, convinced he looked different. But in fact he had been wearing glasses all along. It was just that he was different in our eyes, perhaps, due to the stories he had told.

Chen dropped us off in a small town where Jenny was in search of some rabbit curers (cured rabbit is a specialty in these parts). Unlike Chen, they don’t really give us the time of day and Jenny concludes she should bring them gifts next time.

]]> The Relationship Doctor Your Sichuan Food Primer Culture Jing's Picks Jenny Gao

Sun, 29 Apr 2018 13:53:24 +0000

A primer to Sichuan cuisine I wrote for Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown website.

In China, Sichuan food is known for its complex and sophisticated canon of tastes, but much of it has never made its way over to the West, where it’s invariably known for only a few dishes and face-numbing heat and spice, which grossly underestimates the cuisine.

Chengdu sits in the Sichuan basin, which is flanked by mountains on all sides and the vast Qinghai-Tibet plateau to the west, making it so difficult to reach that the Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai described getting there as “more difficult than the road to heaven.” But its fertile plains lured many onto the journey, and dynastic upheavals over the last few thousand years have drawn continuous waves of immigrants into the province. Each wave brought along its own culinary and cultural customs, making Sichuan food one of the original fusion cuisines.

For thousands of years, Sichuan was known as “the land of plenty” (天府之国 tianfuzhiguo). Its warm, wet climate and fertile plains created agricultural abundance, which was increased in the third century B.C. with the completion of the massive and sophisticated Dujiangyan Irrigation Project, harnessing the power of Sichuan’s many rivers. Located along the Silk Road and Tea Horse Road, major trade routes to the West, Sichuan also absorbed many outside influences into its culture and culinary practices, most notably the adoption of chili peppers from South America and cooking techniques from northern and eastern parts of China.


Sichuan people’s love of spice can be attributed to the region’s muggy climate. According to principles of traditional Chinese medicine, dampness creates imbalance in the body and must be driven out by eating foods that are “heating” in nature. In the early days, the heat came not from chilies but from a combination of ginger, Sichuan pepper, and cornel berries, the ruby red fruit of the cornus mas plant. These aromatics comprise the 辛辣 xin la, or pungent spice flavor, that is valued by Sichuan chefs over pure, fiery heat. It wasn’t until the 16th century that chili peppers arrived in coastal China via maritime trade routes, and centuries later that they were cultivated in Sichuan. Locals adopted chilies as they discovered their perfect harmony with the aromatic numb of Sichuan pepper, and they became an integral part of the cuisine.

辣椒 Chili Pepper

二荆条 Erjingtiao, the most popular variety of chili in Sichuan, is known for its mild spice but intense fragrance. It doesn’t overwhelm the taste of a dish but instead heightens sensations and awakens the palate to deeper flavors. Its uses are varied and inventive: dry-fried in oil for a scorched-chili flavor fermented with fava beans for Sichuan’s famous doubanjiang pickled to lend acidity to fish-fragrant sauce ground up and combined with aromatics to create the canvas for the most fragrant chili oil and mixed with various other spices to make dozens of Sichuan flavor profiles from mala (spicy and numbing) to guaiwei (strange flavor), a perfect balance of sweet, savory, spicy, sour, and numbing.

符合味 Compound Flavors

Not all of the region’s flavor profiles are spicy. Sichuan chefs are famous for combining a limited number of ingredients to form at least 24 compound flavors known as fu he wei. Of these, only about seven feature the spiciness famously associated with Sichuan cuisine. Lesser known but just as iconic, 椒盐味型 jiaoyanweixing (salt–and–Sichuan pepper flavor) is a deceptively simple combination of roasted ground Sichuan pepper and salt but is inventively applied on everything from fried chicken to freshly baked butter cookies. “Lychee flavor” has no lychees in it but combines sweet and sour notes in imitation of the fruit and is applied to a savory canvas like fried pork over rice. What unifies all of 24 flavors is a complex 鲜 xian(umami) quality that doesn’t overshadow the natural taste of raw ingredients but delicately draws out their essence.

花椒 Sichuan Pepper

An ancient Chinese spice that has been cultivated in Sichuan for thousands of years, huajiao (Sichuan pepper) is responsible for the cuisine’s famous tongue-tingling sensation. Some believe its use in Sichuan cooking is to numb the senses enough to allow one to eat even more chilies. Huajiao is actually the seed of a tree in the citrus family and isn’t related to the common peppercorn. There are dozens of varieties of in China, but the most famous is grown in Qingxi village, along the mountainous Tea Horse Road, an ancient trading route dedicated to the transport of tea and spices from China to the West. The small village produces a variety called 贡椒 gongjiao (tribute pepper), so prized for its many medicinal and culinary uses that it was offered in tribute to the emperor. The delicate kernels are painstakingly hand-harvested every August in small quantities and sell out almost immediately. Thrown whole into long braises and stews or roasted and ground to top iconic dishes like mapo tofu and twice-cooked pork, just-harvested gongjiao can be transformational.


苍蝇馆 Fly Restaurant

No discussion about food in Sichuan can ignore the 苍蝇馆子 (fly restaurant), an iconic fixture of Chengdu that has come to embody the very soul of Sichuan cooking. The name is given to hole-in-the-wall restaurants that are old and run-down, but so delicious they still attract people like flies. The prerequisites for a fly restaurant are 1. an impossible-to-find location down alleys and around corners 2. walls streaked with years of blackened grease 3. zero advertising or atmosphere and most important, 5. incredible flavors. Each restaurant has its own signature dishes that have been passed down and honed and over generations. Fly restaurants are some of the few places where luxury cars are parked next to old bicycles and where, for a brief moment, everybody hunkers down at the same tables, pressed back to back with their neighbors, united in the common pursuit of a delicious meal.

小吃 Street Snacks

Even before fly restaurants, there were vendors hawking tasty and inventive snacks on the bustling streets of Chengdu. In the late-19th to early-20th century, the buzz of commerce filled the air, and enterprising merchants created what is now Sichuan’s famously diverse canon of street food: steamed buns, wontons, freshly made soft tofu drizzled with chili oil and pickles, hand-pulled noodles, and so many others, all sold on mobile carts or in baskets, slung on bamboo poles over the shoulder. Many in my parents’ and grandparents’ generation remember those days as the golden era of street food. Competition was fierce, and excellence was requisite.

The winds of change swept through when “capitalist” vendors were driven off the streets during the Cultural Revolution, and their goods eventually disappeared. These days a lot of the more famous snacks can still be found in state-owned restaurants, which offer a sampling of every dish in a set menu but the flavors are usually abysmal compared to their former glory. Great snack stalls still exist but just need more sleuthing to be found.

A place that my mother went to as a child still serves the same thick, chewy strands of 甜水面tianshuimian (sweet-water noodle), bathed in an elixir of chili oil, sweet soy, garlic, and sesame paste. A wooden cart with no name parked by a red-brick wall outside an elementary school still serves the same light and fluffy egg pancake, called 蛋烘糕 danhonggao, stuffed with spicy stewed pork and pickled radish. A stall on a busy street corner still kneads bits of ground pork spiced with huajiao and salt into flaky, chewy dough the dough is pressed into a flatbread called 锅盔 guokui, which is then fried to a golden crisp on a griddle.

火锅 Hot Pot

More than just Sichuan’s favorite dish, hot pot is a way of life. Locals eat hot pot at least once a week. Either at restaurants or at home with family and friends, they sit around a bubbling pot of soup teeming with chili peppers, lard, and spices. The difference between Sichuan hot pot and versions from other parts of China is that the flavor is in the pot rather than the dipping sauce. The soup base is a complex layering of flavors built upon a base of rich beef tallow, fermented fava-bean paste, and chili oil, and up to a dozen spices and herbs thrown in as well. The result is a red-hot cauldron of flavor for cooking an enormous variety of ingredients, with only sesame oil, raw garlic, and a sprinkling of MSG used as a dipping sauce.

Eating hot pot is a social event, and it’s a marathon rather than a sprint. It’s not uncommon for gatherings to graze languidly over the pot for hours, at which point the last remaining morsels in the pot can be terrifyingly spicy—to the point of hallucination. In the early 20th century some restaurateurs, hoping to keep customers coming back for more, heightened these physical sensations still further with the (now illegal) addition of opium in the broth. In recent years innovations in hot pot have spurned trends like 麻辣烫 malatang and 串串香 chuanchuanxiang, both variations of meat and vegetables skewered on bamboo sticks, cooked in spicy broth, and dipped in ground chili and sesame. The skewers can be served hot or, increasingly popular in summer months, cold, as 冷锅串串 lengguochuanchuan.

卤菜 Stewed Meats

Another frequent sight on the streets of Sichuan are storefronts with wide windows, displaying caramel-colored poultry hanging from the ceiling and trays of stewed aromatic meats along with innards, tongues, ears, and tails. An essential part of the culinary lexicon, 卤菜 lucai is a mainstay of Sichuan homestyle cooking. They serve as banquet centerpieces and as cold appetizers before a meal. Meats are slow-cooked until tender in a rich and flavorful broth that has been seasoned with over 10 different spices, including cardamom, dried ginger, chili, and traditional medicinal herbs. The meats are then sliced and served at room temperature.

Old shops claim that the secret to their aromatic broths is years of adding to and replenishing their soup bases. A cross between the tradition of lucai and hot pot has recently produced the 冒菜 maocai craze. Now a popular street food, maocai consists of a choice of meat or vegetables, cooked in a broth heavy with aromatics and medicinal herbs, then dressed in a chili sauce or dipped in a mixture of dry chili and spices.

泡菜 Pickles

Pickled vegetables are fundamental to Sichuan cooking and, eaten along with rice, are arguably the most important part of a meal. The pride of every household is its collection of 泡菜坛子 paocaitanzi, handmade earthenware urns with a trough around the neck that acts as a water seal for the lid. The dark environment within fosters the perfect conditions for lacto-fermentation vegetables emerge from the urns naturally crunchy and acidic, distinctly flavored with Sichuan rice wine, ginger, cassia bark, star anise, huajiao, and chili.

Like lushui broth, pickling brine can be decades old, passed down by the matriarchs of the family, each generation adding its own signature to the flavor. Different crocks serve different purposes, some holding “old pickles” like the long-fermented mustard leaves used in the broth for 酸菜鱼 suancaiyu (pickled-vegetable fish). Others are expressly used for pickles to be left in the crock just overnight such vegetables have a high water content, like cucumbers, celtuce, and small radishes, giving them the name “shower pickles.” Often served for free as an appetizer, it’s not uncommon to judge a restaurant based on the quality of its pickles or a household on the cleanliness of its crock. Despite the simple ingredients and process, consistently perfect pickles are remarkably difficult to produce. Some claim that only the water and climate in Sichuan produce the right conditions for pickling others say that some people’s hands are ill suited to the craft and will spoil them every time.

Like much else in Sichuan’s food culture, pickling is an art and tradition that is steadfastly preserved, protected, and celebrated. As the Chinese saying goes, 民以食为天 minyishiweitian, “to the people, food is heaven”.

]]> Your Sichuan Food Primer Fly By Jing and Sichuan Soul Food Press Jenny Gao

Tue, 13 Feb 2018 02:18:25 +0000

I sat down with Radii China the other week to chat about Sichuan food, Fly By Jing, and plans for this year (including a move to Chengdu). Click the link to read more.

]]> Fly By Jing and Sichuan Soul Food Saying Goodbye to The Kitchen God Culture Jing's Picks Jenny Gao

Wed, 08 Feb 2017 03:39:25 +0000

The day after Trump's inauguration, I was in Tokyo doing some food 'research' on route back from my pop up dinner in Niseko. An American friend of mine Elizabeth, who had moved there a couple years back, invited me to join her and some others on a march at Hibiya Park, one of the 676 sister marches planned around the globe in alliance with the Women's March on Washington. About 650 of us, mostly expats, traversed the city in a respectful, quiet and distinctly Japanese fashion, in a neat double file to the side of traffic on the road. Later that night, I returned to my Airbnb in Shibuya and watched as Gloria Steinem declared that "God may be in the details, but the goddess is in connections" while 19 year old Nina Donovan's visceral words wrenched hearts and minds. I stayed up late into the night, unwilling to close my tired eyes so as not to miss a moment of history. I cried constantly. It never felt better to cry. I thought about China, missing from the list of 81 countries where peaceful marches took place. Nothing like this could ever take place here of course, regardless of the cause. But would a women's march even resonate in China? In the last couple decades, it seems that Chinese women's status in society has improved by leaps and bounds. Women here have higher education levels and salaries than ever before, and despite the best efforts of propagandist organs to stigmatize "leftover women", or any single, high-achieving woman over the age of 27, we are holding out, choosing to delay marriage to invest in ourselves (some credit due to best-sellers like Joy Chen's Do Not Marry Before Age 30 ). But can this really count as a victory for women in an established patriarchal system?

All thoughts on political activism left my brain as soon as I returned to Shanghai. It was the start of Chinese New Year (which begins with homeward migrations around mid January and doesn't fully end until Feb 11th with the Lantern Festival) and there was plenty of binge eating and drinking to do. It's my favorite time to be in Shanghai, the whole city shuts down, streets empty out and there is glorious peace and quiet for a few short days. I spent my time planning business goals for Fly by Jing in the new year (more on that later), and sometimes entire days in bed reading.

One of the things I was curious to read up on was the evolution of Chinese New Year traditions. I grew up with my parents outside of China, and would visit our extended family in Chengdu only during the summers when I had longer holidays. I had no siblings even though my parents weren't bound to the one-child policy abroad, and as it was just the three of us and we saw each other all the time, we didn't uphold elaborate CNY traditions, or any traditions for that matter. So it wasn't until my mid-20s after I moved to Asia and spent my first Chinese New Year with my extended family, that I realized the extent of my losses, missing out on windfalls of red pocket money over the years.

Aside from the commonly known traditions of visiting family, eating lucky foods (fish, rice cakes, longevity noodles, dumplings, etc), cleaning one's house before the New Year and lighting fire crackers to ward away bad luck, there are a few lesser known traditions that can still be found in rural China but are less and less common in urban centers like Shanghai. One of these is fermenting flour, or making a sourdough starter on the 28th of the 12th lunar month in order to steam enough buns the next day in preparation for the new year, as it was considered unlucky to steam buns in the first five days of the 1st month of the year. These days, who steams their own buns? Let alone make your own sourdough starter when you can just throw in some yeast and call it a day.

Another interesting food related custom was the practice of offering sacrifices to the Kitchen God on the 23rd of the 12th lunar month sending him off to the Jade Emperor, and then welcoming him back again on the fourth day of the new year. Intrigued, I delved down a rabbit hole of scholarly articles on the origins and lore of the Kitchen God, or Zhaoshen (God of the Stove). The story goes something like this:

Zhang Lang was married to a hardworking wife named Guo. Because of her hard work, his farm thrived, but despite this, Zhang was not content. One day he brought home a concubine called Lady Li and ordered his wife to serve her. Lady Li eventually drove Guo away so she and Zhang could live in perfect bliss. Over time, the farm went downhill and Zhang's good luck began to disappear. Lady Li ran off with another man. Now destitute, Zhang went from household to household asking for food, until one day he collapsed and fainted from hunger. When he came to, he was lying in a kitchen and was told by a woman tending him that a wonderful woman who would help anyone, had brought him here. This wonderful woman walked into the kitchen, and Zhang was horrified to see that it was his former wife, Guo. In shame, he tried to find somewhere to hide, but could only find the kitchen fire, so jumped into it and perished. In heaven, the Jade Emperor, hearing of Zhang's story exclaimed that because Zhang "had the courage to admit that he was wrong", he would become the Kitchen God. His new job would be to report back to the emperor each year, revealing the names of those who deserved good luck because of their generosity and those who deserved bad luck owing to their greed. (Summarized by Patricia Bjaaland Welch from Amy Tan's popular novel The Kitchen God's Wife)

On the 23rd of the lunar year, pictures of Zhaoshen, dressed in the robes of a bureaucrat and sitting next to his two wives, are burned to send him up with the smoke on his heavenly journey. Offerings of candy, sticky rice and wine are made, while his lips are smeared with honey to sweeten his report to the Jade Emperor. Curiously, women were not allowed to participate in this ritual a Chinese saying goes, "Men do not worship the moon and women do not pray to the stove god." It's worth noting that the Stove God is commonly regarded as the "ruler" of the family, which might explain why women were ruled out. This isn't just a symbolic imbalance of power either. Since the beginning of the productive era, social divisions of labor placed women firmly inside of the hearth and home while men roamed outside, shifting the centre of dominance in production activity and hence lineage, to the man (yes, there was a time when China was a matriarchal society !) On a basic level, male reproductive strategies are more effective when they can control the reproductive capacities of females, and since they're physically stronger, they usually manage to do so. Then as institutions for property developed, these patrilineal societies began to be organized around the primary function of transferring property from generation to generation, that is, from male to male.

In fact, it wasn't until the Tang Dynasty that it appeared that women had a slight resurgence of rights, as more property was transferred to women than at any previous time in Chinese history, giving them an unprecedented level economic independence. This came to an abrupt halt at the end of the Song dynasty however, when a revival of Confucianism led to a turn back to patriarchal principles, where according to Mencius, "a woman has to be subordinate to her father in her youth, her husband in maturity, and her son in old age". It's no coincidence that this is the same period that gave rise to the horrific practice of foot binding, literally breaking the bones in a woman's foot and confining her permanently to the indoors, what you might call a self-imposed mechanism for women to survive within a harshly patriarchal system.

But surely foot binding and slavery of women is a thing of the past right? Doesn't China have the highest number of self-made billionaire women in the world? These might be true, but according to the findings of Leta Hong Fincher in her insightful book "Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality In China", things aren't as rosy as they appear. In fact, in areas of property ownership, a strong indicator of marital power balance, we might be doing worse than we were a thousand years ago. She cites a 2010 national survey conducted by the Women's Federation showing that only one out of fifteen single women in China owned a home in their own name, and a 2012 study showing that men's names were on the deeds of 80% of marital homes while only 30% of women's were, stating in effect that "Chinese women have been been shut out of arguably the biggest accumulation of residential real-estate wealth in history, worth more than US$30 trillion in 2013."

So what does all this have to do with the Kitchen God? Well it is just slightly amusing that a man of questionable morality who jumps into a flame to escape his own shame would be rewarded with godly status, presiding over the home and policing the actions of its inhabitants. Ironically, the person who spends the most time in the home yet holds no ownership claim to it, and who he presumably is really keeping an eye on, is the woman. The Kitchen God is hardly the last bastion of the Chinese patriarchy and we still have a long march ahead of us, but this is one tradition that I'm happy is firmly ensconced in the past.

]]> Saying Goodbye to The Kitchen God Fly By Jing & Timeout Food Personality of the Year Culture Popular Jenny Gao

Wed, 16 Nov 2016 01:57:24 +0000

Wed, 02 Nov 2016 07:00:38 +0000

Hello world. It's been a minute. A couple of days ago, as if by the flick of a switch, a cold front swept through Shanghai and we are now firmly ensconced in the grips of what is shaping up to be the coldest Winter in years. The hibernation is making me reckon with an impressive backlog of posts, so here goes.

Firstly, I never got to share this episode of Bizarre Foods I filmed with Andrew Zimmern back in March. It came out on the Travel Channel in June, and I think it's really well done! Zimmern is the OG food and travel television personality, with his show Bizarre Foods running for over 10 years now. Most of his crew members have been with him since day one, and the tight team dynamics really show on set and in the final product. I think he's one of the few truly genuine personalities out there, along with fellow OGs Bourdain and Alton Brown, guided more by the thrill of discovery rather than their own celebrity. Andrew was a joy to be with, so warm, engaging and interested. He had also been to China on his own more than 20 times prior to this trip, and has endless curiosity and respect for this country, which I appreciated compared to some other "celebrity chefs" and journalists I've encountered who seem more interested in pillaging China for viral content than actually paying tribute to its riches.

There are a couple versions of the episode floating around on Youtube, but I won't link to them as they keep getting broken, I hope you're able to find one of these versions or catch it on the Travel Channel!

Here is a list of places we visited in and around Shanghai:

Da Hu Chun 大壶春 89 Yunnan South Road(Near Jinling East Road) 云南南路89号,近金陵东路 07:30-20:00 Daily

We got to go in the kitchen and try our hand at wrapping shenjianbao (fried soup dumplings) at this old school establishment. Super atmospheric, tasty, and good value to boot.

Lan Xin 兰心餐厅 130 Jinxian Road (Near Maoming South Road) 进贤路130号,近茂名南路 11:00-14:00, 17:00-22:00 Daily

Small home style Shanghainese eatery with just a few tables. Solid if not a bit monotonous.

Sister Wang's Epic Private Kitchen 汪姐私房菜 88 Xianxia Road (near Loushanguan Road) 仙霞路88号太阳广场,近娄山关路 Mobile:13917020450 (set menus starting at 600 RMB per person)

BELIEVE THE HYPE. Sister Wang is every bit as badass as she appears on the show. This self-taught cook and all around boss commands the wet market and her kitchen better than most professionals, leading Andrew to proclaim her the most skilled chef he's ever met. Her Wechat name is Vodka. I rest my case. Call wayy in advance.

Shouning Street Food Road 寿宁路美食街

The eateries on this street are open all day but best time to go is after dark. Lots of crayfish joints, bbq, and of course, snake.

Zhujiajiao Water Town 朱家角水镇

Quaint and historic water town about 40 minute drive from downtown Shanghai, nice for a day trip, some awesome street food stalls along the main path, worth a trip even if it's a bit touristy.

Han Da Long 100 Year Old Pickle Shop (涵大隆酱园) 287 Bei Da Road (Near the tourist boat dock) 朱家角镇北大街287号(近游船下客码头)

This place alone is worth the trip, a million different types of pickles and fermented goodness. You can sample before you buy, and trust me, you'll want to buy everything. I usually get some pickled bamboo, pickled young ginger, fermented tofu, and preserved mustard greens.

]]> Bizarre Foods in Shanghai with Andrew Zimmern Chengdu - Yu Zhi Lan Restaurants Popular Jenny Gao

Wed, 02 Sep 2015 10:33:00 +0000

Fuchsia Dunlop deserves a lot of credit for being the only serious writer in the West who has consistently championed Chinese chefs over the years, and with beautifully evocative prose. Her coverage of Yubo and Dai Jianjun among others have ostensibly been responsible for launching these chef's into the global limelight, and helped spawn a new wave of interest in China's rich culinary heritage. Her latest story in FT about rising Chengdu chef Lan Guijun is no exception. I'm consistently impressed by her pulse on the Chengdu scene and intimacy with its key players despite being based in London. Lan Guijun is a chef who has long been well-known amongst culinary aficionados in Chengdu, but only in the last few years morphed into his current incarnation ambassador of refined Chinese gastronomy. After disappearing off the scene in a long sabbatical during which time he studied traditional cuisine and the art of pottery-making in Jingdezhen, he has returned with a mission: to shed light on the intricacies of Chinese cuisine, and to do it an an elevated level of aesthetics and presentation on par with the most progressive cuisines in the world. Its about time this was expressed.

After reading her article, I was inspired to book a ticket to Chengdu and use the excuse of a family reunion to go to his restaurant Yu Zhi Lan. It did not disappoint 25 precise courses and practically every single one was on point. The setting is on a quiet tree-lined street in the centre of town, black unmarked doors lead into an intimate four-room house where several set-menu options are available based on price. We chose the starter option at 500 RMB per head. A single, perfect fig began the meal, and quickly progressed into 8 cold appetizers, arranged on an array of custom-made porcelain. A memorable dish of "golden thread noodles", a Chengdu snack-house favorite, was taken to a next level of precision with free-range duck egg yolk noodles, hand cut to a thousand silken slivers. The meal progressed with a finesse I associate with the kaisekis of Kyoto characteristically complex flavours from Sichuan were somehow made more delicate with a focus on the "yuan wei" or original flavour of its ingredients and a noticeable lack of additives and artificial flavouring. Attention to detail was paramount. The final dessert of "crystal mango jelly" came wrapped in the skeleton of a leaf so iridescent it glowed.

See the Flickr album for all the photos from this meal.

I leave you with this, the best expression of Chinese cooking I've heard in a very long time.

“I’m not fanatical about authenticity,” he says. “I’m from Sichuan, so whatever I cook is Sichuanese. Today’s invention is tomorrow’s ‘tradition’ anyway. We Chinese should stop droning on about our ‘four great inventions’ and all that, and look to the outside world. We shouldn’t forget our roots, of course we should preserve our traditions. But we shouldn’t be too conservative. I want to cook in a spirited way, not like a machine.

Thu, 28 May 2015 14:11:48 +0000

What hasn't been written about xiaolongbao, the humble Shanghainese soup dumpling? It is a marvel of engineering skin thin enough to be translucent, pleated around seasoned pork and bursting at the seams with umami-rich soup. Further enhanced with a dip in black vinegar and topped with thin slivers of ginger, it is consumed by daintily lifting by the top where the skin is thickest and raising to your lips in a soup spoon, lest any spillage occurs during consumption. Living in Shanghai, the birthplace of xiaolongbao, I'm spoiled to be able to indulge in a basket whenever the craving strikes. And it happens more often than I'd like to admit. Locals believe that a good xiaolongbao is in the ratio of skin, soup and meat. The thinner the skin and more plentiful the soup and meat, the better. But the perfect xiaolongbao is often elusive, a product of the nimble hands of young chefs who roll and pleat behind kitchen glass, affected by the immediacy with which you consume them after steaming, and perhaps also the amount of hunger and anticipation involved. At most mom and pop stalls in Shanghai, no two baskets taste exactly the same due to these and other variables. And although not necessarily the very best, the places that have mastered consistency of taste, flavor and texture are mega chains like Din Tai Fung and Paradise Dynasty, which is how we are able to enjoy them in their pure form as far away as Melbourne and Toronto.

But can the integrity of a xiaolongbao be distilled down to a science? This is the question a food writer friend of mine, Christopher St. Cavish set out to answer. He sought to examine the xiaolongbao as a set of features that can be indexed against each other for a purely objective ranking of Shanghai’s top xiaolongbao restaurants. I still remember when he first told me about his idea almost two years ago to create, in his words, a “quantitative interpretation of the colloquial standards for a well-constructed soup dumpling.” I thought he was nuts. Nevertheless, with a toolkit of a caliper, a digital scale and a lot of patience and perseverance, he managed to spend the next year meticulously/maniacally recording his observations of 52 restaurants in total, finally producing a beautiful printed documentation of it heretogether with my friend and former colleague at frog, the talented illustrator Ailadi Cortelledi. Since his publication launch, the project has gone viral, and he has appeared everywhere from Chinese national television to Jonathan Gold's twitter status as "Shanghai's freakiest dumpling geek" (congrats, Chris :))

Of course, a xiaolongbao is not just a feat of engineering. There is a bit of magic to it as well. That's where the house recipes shines, the quality of the dough, the seasoning of the meat and aspic with any variation of shaoxing wine, sugar, ginger, and spring onion. This is where subjectivity come in, and why a scientific examination of xiaolongbao can only take you that far.

The following are, in no particular order, a few of the best xiaolongbao restaurants in Shanghai, determined after more than four years of senseless gorging, countless baskets consumed, zero scientific measurements, and based completely on my own taste preferences. You'll recall some of these on my first list made several years ago, there are a few new additions. For each of my selections, I have included its ranking on Christopher St. Cavish's Xiaolongbao Index and its corresponding data set.

Class A dumpling on the Xiaolongbao Index with a score of 13.86 | Ave Weight: 23.5g | Ave Soup 5.02g | Ave Filling 9.39g | Ave Skin 1.04mm

First of all let’s talk about DTF, it is a global chain but cannot be knocked for that simply because of its remarkable accomplishment in standardization, efficiency and consistency. Founded in 1972 by a husband and wife team, it burst onto the global scene in the early 90s when it caught the attention of Japanese department store Takashimaya, which helped it apply standardization practices and expand across Japan. But it was really put on the map by famed chef and godfather of Chinese food Ken Hom when he wrote lauded DTF in an article for NYTimes that named it one of the "top 10 restaurants in the world" (!), hype that they have managed to ride until today. Later, with the development of an enormous central kitchen in Taiwan and standardizing its menu, DTF was able to expand even quicker to more than four dozen restaurants in China, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, and the United States. If you live outside of Shanghai, this is probably your best bet to getting a taste of a truly good xiaolongbao. The skin is thin, and each bao has at least 18 pleats every time. You can get original pork flavor, pork with crab roe, shrimp, etc. The combination of complete standardization and a rigorous training program for staff ensures the same delicious bite every single time.

One basket of 8 pork is 58 RMB

Shanghai Center, 1/F, 1376 Nanjing Xi Lu, near Xikang Lu Daily 10am-10pm

Class A dumpling on the Xiaolongbao Index with a score of 15.63 | Ave Weight: 26.97g | Ave Soup 4.83g | Ave Filling 12.65g | Ave Skin 1.12mm

Paradise Dynasty Xiaolongbao

Yes, another large chain. This restaurant group started in Singapore and has since expanded to China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan and Hong Kong. These guys also serve a consistently great xiaolongbao, but the attraction here is "the world's first fusion baos", with innovative flavors like ginseng, cheese, crab roe, garlic, loofah, Sichuan mala, foie gras and black truffle. I held out on trying these for a long time, thinking they were a bit too gimmicky, but when I finally gave in for the sake of research, I found them thoroughly enjoyable. Each of the flavors distinctly taste as they should, but don't overwhelm the taste of the actual pork. The skin is thin and are colored with what the restaurant claims are natural vegetable juices. I couldn't even pick a favorite.

One basket of 8 is 58 RMB

6/F,IAPM Mall, 999 Huaihai Zhong Lu, near Xiangyang Nan Lu Open daily 11am-10pm

Class A dumpling on the Xiaolongbao Index with a score of 12.49 | Ave Weight: 26.26g | Ave Soup 5.78g | Ave Filling 8.6g | Ave Skin 1.15mm

Now we get into some more "local" restaurants, although these are still chains in China. For some background, the xiaolongbao can be broken down regionally, with Nanjing, Shanghai and Suzhou/Wuxi being the dominant styles. They were originally invented in the neighboring town of Nanxiang, and tourists still flock to places like Nanxiang Xiaolong in Shanghai's Old Town for a taste of the traditional version which has thicker skin and less soup. There's also the Suzhou/Wuxi style with its sweeter filling and larger dumpling. But its the Nanjing Style, smaller, almost translucent skin with less meat that has become the preferred style of modern Shanghainese according to their votes on Chinese restaurant ratings site Dianping. Of this style, Jia Jia is the most well-known in Shanghai, and has perfected this in its delicate wrapper and well-seasoned meat and soup. The hoards of people in line at its Huanghe Road location every day would agree.

One basket of 12 crab roe & pork is 27 RMB

90 Huanghe Road, near Fengyang road Daily 6:30am-7.30pm

Class A dumpling on the Xiaolongbao Index with a score of 12.38 | Ave Weight: 23.29g | Ave Soup 3.86g | Ave Filling 9.02g | Ave Skin 1.04mm

I lauded this place four years ago and still maintain its one of the best. From the same owners as Jia Jia, this one is superior because it's less known and therefore less hectic. The product is pretty much exactly the same. The original location on a chill stretch of Jianguo Lu with a great old Shanghai vibe has done remarkably well, with over 2000 votes on Dianping giving it an 8.5/10 for flavor (no easy feat). They have now opened three additional ones, but I stick to the original. My order is always the same, a basket of crab roe and pork xiaolongbao, a bowl of scallion oil noodles (one of the best I’ve had), and an egg drop seaweed soup (pretty bland but nice to balance the other flavors with). Despite the baos not always looking like a million bucks (those girls in the kitchen aren't as whipped to shape as the masters at DTF), the flavor is always superlative.

One basket of 12 mixed flavors: pork, crab roe and duck egg yolk for 26 RMB

10 Jianguo Road, near Zhaozhou Road Daily6:30am-8:30pm

Not listed on the Xiaolongbao Index

Holy Cow hotpot & xiaolongbao

This one is maybe the most interesting newcomer on the scene. Holy Cow is actually a hot pot restaurant, a great one at that. Full disclosure: Anthony Zhao the owner and chef is a personal friend and I would follow him anywhere. He is kind of a celebrity in the Shanghai food scene, and is behind a super successful home-style Shanghainese lunch box restaurant called MiXiangYuan and just recently opened this coyly named hot pot place focused on fresh beef and organic veggies from his own farm. Where does the xiaolongbao come in you ask? Well he has invented (I claim- as I've never seen this done anywhere else) dunking xiaolongbao into hot pot. The skin is a bit thicker from the boiling rather than steaming, and gets infused with his intensely flavorful mushroom broth, adding another dimension to the xiaolongbao. Highly recommended.

608 Xiaomuqiao Road, near Zhongshan Nan Er Road (2nd floor) Daily 11.00am-11:30pm

Class A dumpling on the Xiaolongbao Index with a score of 24.32 (Highest on index) | Ave Weight: 27.10g | Ave Soup 5.08g | Ave Filling 12.42g | Ave Skin 0.72mm

You're probably wondering how the top scorer on St. Cavish's Xiaolongbao Index stacks up against the rest. At a whopping score of 24.32 it stands far ahead of its nearest competitor and seems to have an impossibly thin skin at average 70mm holding up an impressive amount of soup and filling. Zun Ke Lai is also a chain with three locations in Shanghai, but this one is the closest to the city centre in the Xujiahui Indoor Stadium on Line 1. Plaques on display in the restaurant suggest it has won several awards for its xiaolongbao, particularly the crab roe and pork variety. They were out of crab roe on my last visit, so I could only try the original, but it didn't disappoint. It really was the thinnest skin I'd ever seen, and held up remarkably well with its heavy contents. The soup and filling were umami rich and full of flavor, not the thin, msg-laden type. Its impressive how good these were, considering the place is actually more known for its house yellow croaker noodles. I'll have to go back for those.

Basket of 5 pork for 10 RMB

666 Tianyaoqiao Lu, in the Shanghai Indoor StadiumDaily 10:30am-10:00pm

But you can't talk about xiaolongbao in Shanghai without mentioning its cousin the shenjianbao, a tougher version with thick, bread-like skin that is shallow fried in a large cast iron pan, giving it a golden crispy bottom and finished with a dash of spring onion and sesame seeds. These are much larger, with mounds of pork inside and are similarly filled with scalding soup, making it even more tricky to eat than xiaolongbao. As usual, follow the protocol of biting a hole in it first while in a soup spoon, then I like to pour a bit of vinegar into and around the bun and slowly make your way through. Trying to attempt in one bite will result in dire consequences for your tongue, face and shirt.

One of the best places to get them is Xiao Yang Fried Dumplings, it is considered the golden standard of shenjianbao in the city and has become so popular since opening in 1994 that it has since grown to 55 locations. Its hot pink signboard is literally everywhere. It is also remarkably consistent, the dumpling cooks are efficient, churning out dozens of dumplings every five minutes. The lines may be long, especially at the Huanghe Road location across from Jia Jia, but it moves fast and you'll always be getting the baos fresh off the pan. They've recently introduced shrimp shenjianbao, which are a fine specimen as well, filled to the brim with juicy shrimp meat and flowing with pork juices. As with the xiaolongbao, enjoy with a liberal dash of black vinegar.

Order of 4 pork for 6 RMB and order of 4 shrimp for 16 RMB

97 Huanghe Lu, near Fengyang Lu (more locations) Daily, 6.30am-8pm

]]> The Best Xiaolongbao in Shanghai 5 Best Things I ate in London Restaurants Jenny Gao

Fri, 01 May 2015 08:33:00 +0000

It seems I've been on a perpetual travel and food binge over the last few weeks, I am thankful for those of you who are still connected to me on social media despite the deluge of posts that do little more than inspire anger and hunger, probably at the same time. But all those kilos gained weren't all for naught, here are the best five things I sampled in London for your reference. I've eaten an abhorrent amount to uncover these, so you don't have to. The things I do.

First up: 1. The Trotter Nuggets at Bao London £4

Pig trotter nuggets at Bao London

Bao is a new restaurant in Soho that started from a pop up stall (sound familiar?) serving Taiwanese style fluffy buns with creative flavors like panko crumbed daikon, soy milk marinated chicken, and lamb shoulder. I tried almost every one on the menu (lamb shoulder with coriander sauce had the most punchy flavours), the buns definitely shine. But the stars of the meal were actually the sides for me, in particular - the pig trotter nuggets pictured above. The turnip tops with salted egg were also great.

2. This is kind of a cheat because it is three different things at one place. Street food culture has taken off in London like nothing else, and its become hard to keep track of all the new pop ups and markets around town. Street Feast is one of the bigger ones that pop up on weekends in Dalston Yard and it is packed to the gills on Friday nights.

a) The first item is the Bleeker Black, signature burger at Bleeker Street (also a pop up-turned-brick and mortar spot opened by an ex-lawyer from New York who left the corporate world for a food truck and and a grill - the dream, really) The ingredients are tops here, they only use rare-breed, pasture-fed beef from a small farm called The Butchery in Bermondsey, where it is dry-aged for 40-50 days, which gives it an intense beefy flavour. The kicker is the layer of blood sausage in between two patties, its not strongly flavored but you might prefer it that way. Slap some american cheese on it, sandwich between a grilled sesame bun and you have yourself a strong burger.

Bleeker Black Burger at Bleeker Street, Dalston Yard

b) While you're there, get some of these naan sliders from Rola Wala, creative Indian-inspired and intensely spicy toppings like paneer, dal, Kashmiri chicken tikka and roast pork with pomegranate served on top of grilled naan bread.

Naan sliders at Rola Wala in Dalston Yard

c) MORE BURGERS. After a few more pints at the many bars in the yard you'll be hungry again, and the sliders from Slider Bar don't disappoint. Unfortunately it was so dark and I was so ravenous by this point that I don't have pictures of the sliders, but they were the perfect, greasy companion to soak up all the craft beer I downed.

Slides and Tacos at Street Feast Dalston Yard

Everything at the market comes in around £10, which is not cheap, but fun to go with some friends and share. You can skip most of the other savoury food here, but do line up for the freshly fried doughnuts at You Doughnut!

3. This is a secret to no one, but I still have to mention it. The Salt Beef Beigel (£3.50) at Beigel Bake on Brick Lane, ask for extra mustard.

Salt Beef Beigel at Brick Lane Beigel Bake

4. Quality Chop House was a great discovery this time, thanks to Foodie Hub TV for inviting me to London and introducing this place. Its a charming wine bar, dining room and butchers shop that has been around since 1869. They do English food right, in a completely unironic way. Its actually devastating how good the food is here. Take for example this dish of Confit Potatoes:

Confit Potatoes at Quality Chop House

Like a savoury mille feuille treat, these potatos go through an arduous process to arrive at the table looking so fine. Potatos are first thinly sliced, then submerged in duck fat and slow cooked, pressed for 48 hours until the layers meld into each other, and then deep fried at 180 degrees for 6 minutes. And also this dish, which tasted of the English countryside in spring:

Wild mushrooms, chanterelles, chicken liver, foie gras parfait with summer truffle shaving

5. At another institution, St John Bread & Wine, some fellow food bloggers and I sat down for the Foodie Hub TV Global food awards with appearances by culinary legends Fergus Henderson, Nuno Mendes (Chiltern Firehouse) and others. With mostly hits and some misses, the dish I most enjoyed was this simple appetizer of freshly picked radishes and greens dipped in aioli. Maybe its because I live in China, that I almost never taste vegetables that are so fresh and so clean.

Fresh radishes, endive, greens dipped in aioli @ St John Bread & Wine

The other standout was St John's gingerloaf and spiced ice cream with butterscotch sauce. The English know how to make their comfort desserts, and this one is as fine as its gets.

Gingerloaf and Butterscotch sauce at St John Bread & Wine

Another place of note was Honey & Co., a husband-and-wife-run cafe that serves a great breakfast and middle eastern grub at a decent price. I had the shakshouka and sausage roll, both of which were simple and good.

The dud of the trip was a coerced visit to Barshu in London's chinatown. Proclaimed to be one of the finest Sichuan/Chinese restaurants in the city, it turned out to be an overpriced and superbly average experience, with a couple of embarrassingly bad dishes. Save your money for a trip to Chengdu.

]]> 5 Best Things I ate in London My Top 5 Places to Eat in Shanghai Restaurants Popular Jenny Gao

Fri, 01 May 2015 08:17:00 +0000

The good people over at Smartshanghai just profiled me for their Industry Nights series, where they tap people in the F&B industry for recommendations on where to eat and drink. Here is the article, along with a mean mug. Note: These aren't actually my top 5 places, it's hard to pick top places, and I always give different lists to different audiences. But these are solid, and definitely some of my most frequent haunts. [INDUSTRY NIGHTS]: JENNY GAO The co-founder of Baoism drops recommendations for rowdy all-night Korean, high-end Japanese beef, and serene vegetarian vibes. Industry Nights is a semi-regular column featuring the haunts of chefs, restaurant owners, F&B managers and other marginally sane people with good eating recommendations. Like the gua bao -- those steamed buns stuffed with meats and fillings and folded over like a taco, which David Chang and Eddie Huang popularized in the west -- Jenny Gao started in China and returned in remixed form. Born in Chengdu, her dad's job as a nuclear physicist had the family moving around all the time. She ended up in Shanghai 3.5 years ago after stints in Toronto, Beijing and Singapore, working in marketing, tech, food tours, and design, all while writing her food blog, Jing Theory. That blog led to a couple book projects, a BBC documentary, and working on episodes of Eddie Huang's Fresh off the Boat show on VICE and Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods. These days, along with her partner Alex Xu, she runs the gua bao shop Baoism down in the food court in Xintiandi's Hubindao mall. The same force drives her blog and the restaurant -- an urge to share Chinese food with the world. She is a fan of that baijiu fire water, considers Sichuan the best cuisine on earth, and plays a lot of Wu-Tang Clan and other '90s hip hop in her restaurant. Surprisingly, most of her new customers have never heard of gua bao before: "You'd think it's like a foreign food here," she says. But trends take off fast in Shanghai. As for how Baoism got started, she explains:"[The] idea came about when we were just shooting the shit about what was missing in the food world here… A lot of popular brands these days are western, and there's so much to celebrate in Chinese food culture. I felt that was wrong, and had written about that a lot in my blog, too. I felt there was space for something quick, casual, tasty, safe/clean, but most importantly also accessible (read: affordable) for young people in urban China. The plan is to open more, in Shanghai, beyond Shanghai, and even beyond China."We asked her to give up five of her favorite spots in town, and she came back with a list of Taiwanese BBQ, late-night Korean, and low-key vegetarian joints.

4/F, 130 Ziyun Xi Lu, near Xianxia Lu View ListingTaxi Printout

"This is a pretty badass Japanese spot introduced to me by Austin Hu. They focus on sukiyaki, which is the nabemono style of simmering beef in a pot of broth at the table along with vegetables and tofu. They definitely know their beef here, with selections of wagyu and kobe ranging in price from moderate to very pricey. They also dole out fresh, raw seafood, platters of giant sea urchin in the shell, scampi, o-toro and more. I didn't expect to love the raw horse sashimi as much as I did, and the sweet soy-glazed kinki (Japanese thornyhead) fish will hurt your wallet but definitely not your stomach."

2. Jini Dapaidang (吉尼大排档)

No 26, 1101 Hongquan Lu, near Hongxing Lu View ListingTaxi Printout

"This is always a good crowd favorite, my friends and I call it 'Red Tent’, because you basically sit under a large tent in what looks like a parking lot of a strip mall out in the Honqiao hinterlands. It's filled with red-faced salarymen and groups of rowdy kids hunched over platters of fried chicken and bubbling vats of kimchi soup. It's hot, it's loud, it's lawless, and to be honest the environment probably makes the food taste better than it actually is. But who are we kidding, you're here to get sloshed more than anything. So get one of those giant troughs of Asahi, some fried chicken, seafood pancake, and the kimchi hotpot with spam, sausages, rice cakes and tofu. Don't forget to ask them to throw an instant ramen on top."

3. Hutong Taiwanese BBQ

Suite 206-208, 400 Changle Lu, near Maoming Nan LuView ListingTaxi Printout

"I was turned onto this place by my friend Betty Richardson, the white girl with the most Asian taste buds alive. Don't know how she managed to find this, but girl's got direction. This place is hidden on the 2nd floor of a nondescript mall at the random corner of Changle and Maoming. I'm not really sure how to define Taiwanese BBQ, but it seems to combine all the best of Korean and Japanese BBQs and then adds cheese to it. Winning combo. The service is stellar, knowledgeable staff take you through the menu and cook for you at your table. I mean, everything is good, but what you need to get are the beef tongue with mountains of chopped scallion, the squid ink sausage served with their house made armageddon hot sauce, crab roe stuffed raw scallop, mentaiko and cheese-baked yam, the staff rice -- a combination of scallions, onions, salmon furikake all mixed together -- and the simple dessert of sweet potato baked with cheese, so good I almost wept."

4. Wu Guan Tang (五观堂素食)

349 Xinhua Lu, near Dingxi LuView ListingTaxi Printout

"My favorite vegetarian in the city. It's in a pretty lane house on Xinhua Lu, Buddhist-owned, and serene AF, with the dopest hidden rooftop patio. The menu is handwritten of course, and all inventive, seasonal dishes. It lacks the glam of Wujie, and isn't as rustic as Godly, but the vibe is just right. The food is thoughtful and full of flavor, you won't find mock meat in brown sauce or unidentifiable molecular spheres here. Make sure you get the baked scalloped potato 烤土豆, it looks innocent enough, arrives sliced in a little metal tin, but under that golden caramelized top it's just pure buttery crack. My other favorite is the 'dragon eye beans' (shoutout to Asian vegetables) stir fried in preserved olive leaves served with 窝窝头, these fluffy little concave baos made of cornmeal, like the Tostitos Scoops of Chinese food."

5. Senator Saloon

98 Wuyuan Lu, near Wulumuqi Zhong LuView ListingTaxi Printout

"I hate to do this, because they don't need any more publicity. But if I'm going to be real with myself, this is the place I've spent more time in than anywhere else in Shanghai. (According to Swarm, I've checked in here more than my yoga studio, which tells you where my priorities are, and where all my money has gone. and that I'm a huge nerd who uses Swarm). The Old Fashioned is best value for getting turnt real quick, but I've recently discovered their off-the-menu Blood & Sand, which should come with a warning label for being way too fucking delicious, try not downing that one in under three minutes. Don't sleep on the food either. The cheesy edamame and Mac n Cheese > late night booty any day. A few drinks deep and I just can't help myself."

]]> My Top 5 Places to Eat in Shanghai Chinese New Year Feast Regular Jenny Gao

Thu, 19 Feb 2015 03:35:27 +0000

When I was young, family gatherings were a rare thing. Every couple of years, my parents and I would travels the thousands of miles back to Chengdu and visit my dear grandparents and extended family of uncles, aunts and cousins. Each time we met, there were changes to take in babies I had never met , kids and teenagers I'd never watched grow, divorces, remarriages, grey hairs and facial lines. It was a revolving cast, but the stage remained the same, set around the kitchen table in my grandparents house. If you've seen the BBC Exploring China documentary that was filmed in their home, you'd have an idea of what one of these gatherings are like. Having grown up far removed from the rest of my family and feeling culturally alienated as a kid, I thought the endless dishes and baijiu toasts were remarkably tedious and couldn't wait to slink away after scarfing down my food. Eventually with age came sense and curiosity, and I became more aware of the fleeting nature of these familial feasts as they are, anchored around my aging grandparents. I now linger at the table, reaching for seconds and thirds, listening intently to family tales being passed around. The feelings of communion and cheer when we all gather around are intricately tied to what's on the table, usually several people have chipped in a side dish or two, there has been a discussion for days over the menu, and the kitchen has been abuzz since dawn with activity. The dishes absorb the energy and love, you taste it all. Nothing embodies this ritual more than the Chinese New Year reunion.

This year, only the second time in my life the whole family has celebrated CNY together in one place, the feasts were dotted with several highlights. A family friend and noted gourmand, hearing I was in town, prepared a batch of his homemade beef jerky for me, insisting on sharing his top secret recipe developed over countless hours. An uncle, knowing I loved his version of a spicy shredded rabbit, celtuce and vermicelli salad, rolled up his sleeves in the kitchen, and even gave me two extra smoked rabbits to take home. I was joined in Chengdu by my dear friend Crystyl from Shanghai, who added an extra dynamism to our gatherings, I always love seeing my hometown and family through new eyes.

This was also the year that they started work on the inevitable, tearing down the tattered, hundred year old courtyard behind my grandparents' apartment. I've often posted photos of the courtyard with its memorable clay roof and leafy pomelo tree weighed down by its fruit. It is probably the most deeply etched sight in my memory, and hard to believe that there may be no remnants of it at all the next time I come. But perhaps the most best part of this trip was my grandfather being honored for fighting against the Japanese in WWII, sixty years after being incarcerated for his involvement with the KMT and given no recognition for his contributions. Recently, a group of young civilians in their 20s and 30s in Sichuan spearheaded efforts to locate these veterans and present them with small tokens of appreciation. I'm thankful they found my grandfather, many others have long passed in obscurity.

The year of the ram is looking pretty exciting. After more than a year of work and months of successful pop ups, Baoism is finally about to open its first location in Xintiandi in a couple short months, and I can't wait to share more details with all of you soon! For more updates you can follow our IG or Wechat @baoismchina and check out our website

Happy New Year to you and yours !

]]> Chinese New Year Feast Artisanal Food Producers in China: Wuyuan's Song Feng Tsui Regular Restaurants Jenny Gao

Wed, 21 May 2014 08:26:34 +0000

One of the most fun and interesting parts of the prep work for opening Baoism is discovering and talking to artisanal food producers. We've been meeting with some established and small-scale organic food producers around Shanghai and are constantly discovering more. There are many challenges facing small natural food producers in China including capital, logistics, distribution and supply constraints. Often consumers have never heard of them, don't know that the option for artisanal food exists, and wouldn't know where to buy it even if they did. These rural operations find their outlet through local markets, and small scale or high end distributors. Most of the perishable stuff never make it to the big cities.

For us, it is of utmost importance to find these artisans, whether oil producers, soy sauce or tofu makers, and promote and protect their craft, while educating China's new generation on the art and heritage of our food.

One great example is Wuyuan's organic food and condiment producer Song Feng Tsui, who Baoism will be working with to source our oil and soy bean products among others. I've written before about the landscape of Wuyuan, one of China's most beautiful countrysides, but the area is also known for its fertile soil and well-preserved food traditions.

In particular, Wuyuan is famous for its camellia oil which are made from local tea tree seeds harvested in Autumn. The normally picturesque villages are even more mystical in the late Autumn light when locals cook their breakfasts by firing up the otherwise unusable shells of the tea tree seeds, creating an aromatic smoke that lingers in the air. The seeds themselves are laid out to dry under the sun before being cold-pressed into the light, fragrant cooking oil with a very high smoking point, perfect for Chinese wok fry dishes. In light of recent oil scares in urban cities, the organic and slow-produced camellia oil of Wuyuan is commanding a more premium price and is a major source of income for locals.

Song Feng Tsui is a company that has managed to consolidate some of this production from single family operations into a larger entity attempting to commercialize and bring more attention to the region and its bounty. In addition to packaging camellia oil in beautiful glass bottles, they also produce organic cooking condiments with fermented soy beans, dried pickled bamboo and are even working on bottling the pure spring water from surrounding mountains.

The owner Mr. Chen is a man with an eye for detail, an appreciation of craftsmanship and quality, and a respect for nature's gifts. This is evident in everything from the product quality, packaging, typeface and logo, to the design of his new visitor center currently being built in Wuyuan using recycled building material (evocative of Wang Shu's Ningbo History Museum)

Today after our morning meeting, we were treated to a delicious home-style feast cooked by his wife and prepared with some of the organic produce, meat and oils from Wuyuan. We are super excited to embark on a working relationship with Song Feng Tsui, and can't wait to share more about their products soon.

For now, take a look at this gorgeous video (in Chinese) about the production of camellia oil in Wuyuan.

]]> Artisanal Food Producers in China: Wuyuan's Song Feng Tsui Journey of a Restaurateur in China Restaurants Culture Jing's Picks Jenny Gao

Mon, 07 Apr 2014 05:39:43 +0000

Apologies for the long hiatus on the blog. Like most people, my life seems to be a perpetual cycle of calendar alerts and deadlines these days, but I thought it was a good time for an update. Last July, just before I turned 26, I quit my day job at one of the world's most innovative design firms to focus on figuring out what I really wanted to do with my time. I have been lucky in my career I've traveled the world and worked with amazing people on interesting and impactful projects, but I couldn't escape the creeping sense of urgency to slow down and face the ambiguity this question brought up in my mind. I realized that I couldn't wait for the answer to just come to me there's no moment of enlightenment when one just figures out what to do with their lives. I knew I owed myself the same dedication and time as I had given to my jobs in the past, but that the reward in this case would be infinitely greater. I can't believe its been 9 months now. time flies.

Since July, I've traveled through Ethiopia with two of my best friends, worked on a Vice documentary, explored the Tibetan plateau area of Western Sichuan, completed a major section of a large book on restaurants around the world being published in 2015, wrote freelance for many international publications, worked on an exciting PBS/BBC documentary on China coming out in 2016, and kept busy the rest of the time running a mildly-successful little operation on Airbnb.

Around December, a friend and I began discussing how we felt about the state of food in China. I've long talked about the lack of progress in contemporary Chinese cuisine unlike the West, where fetishization of cooks and their place in popular culture borders on unhealthy, China hasn't yet gone through that period. Chefs hide behind the banner of a restaurant's name, and cooking schools remain a vocational fallback plan. As much as the Chinese love to eat and discuss what they're eating (Dianping, the Chinese user-generated restaurant review site destroys Yelp, with a single restaurant in Shanghai getting more reviews than the total number for some major US cities), cooking is still decidedly unglamorous, and coupled with the crushing costs of starting a restaurant in China, young people face endless obstacles getting into the field.

The result is an over-saturated market of mediocre chains, old school traditions, and massive restaurant groups squeezing out the independent operators. There's no new blood attempting to turn the system on its head, push the cuisine forward with the times, or even just to question the status quo. Combine this with the alarming numbers of food safety scandals China has seen over the last decade, which don't appear to be ceasing anytime soon, and it starts to look pretty bleak.

Shanghai is very atypical of a Chinese city. It is a hodge podge of cultures, blending East and West in undecipherable ways and offering a frenetic view into the future. The urban middle class swells in cosmopolitan centers like Shanghai, and of these, the younger generation is the first of a wave of hyper-connected, Western-influenced, sophisticated and discerning tastemakers. They can be found at artisanal bakeries in the French Concession, roaming glitzy Hong Kong malls like K11 and iAPM, shopping for organic produce, and making a personal statement with their fashion and brand choices. They embrace the contradiction that is modern China, and are overwhelmingly nationalistic, as evident in the rise of "Innovated/Designed/Created in China" movement, notably within the realms of tech and fashion. My friend and I share a lot of the same sentiment despite having grown up in the West, we have fully formed identities in our Chinese cultural heritage. Having also had the privilege of a wealth of global experience, we saw the unfettered opportunity to bridge this gap in food.

As we both lead relatively busy lives, we were drawn to the idea of quick service food, convenient and handy, but that didn't come out of a bag and wasn't at one point goop. Existing options in the market include Western fast food (KFC, McDonalds), Chinese fast food (Uncle Fast Food, Kung Fu underwhelming taste, fluorescent interiors, questionable quality), and upmarket, healthy eateries (mostly Western salads/sandwiches more trustworthy, but generally 3-4x as expensive). As lifestyles get increasingly busy, eating most meals out is not uncommon in Shanghai, and the single most pressing issue on people's minds (above even abysmal pollution) is food safety. Yet clean and safe food is hard to come by few restaurants are clear about where they source their ingredients, and the supply chain breaks down in so many places that it is often hard to even trace food safety scandals to their source.

We decided that what was missing is a restaurant concept that is convenient, contemporary (Chinese), affordable, and importantly- transparently sourced. The Chipotle model is obviously a great illustrator of the rewards of doing business with integrity. We wanted to create this for China a holistic experience where the menu, service, interior, packaging, and user experience all add up to a brand identity that is greater than the sum of its parts. It seems misguided to accept that food safety is something the Chinese should just live without. Clean and wholesome food should be accessible to everyone, which is why affordability and accountability are key to our concept. Above all, we wanted to create a New China aesthetic and experience in food, one that a modern generation of Chinese can identify with as their own. And we wanted to make it scalable to reach across China, with the first store opening in Shanghai, where we live.

This is how Baoism was born. The name came from a business I wanted to start a long time ago taking people on food tours around Shanghai. Everyone loves baos, and the name I thought had an almost mystical quality to it. When we decided on the menu, naturally baos (Taiwanese style with various fillings) were on top of the list of items to serve that are tasty, convenient (hand-held) and versatile. I've also always loved the idea of a Chinese burrito, replacing the tortilla wrap with scallion oil pancakes that street vendors make here, so that was added to the menu. Lastly, after talking to numerous people in our target demographic (white-collar millennials) we knew we couldn't do without the perennially popular rice bowl.

We decided to work with a chef consultant to develop the menu, a good friend who has had years of experience cooking in the city's best Chinese and Western kitchens as well as operating his own successful lunch spot in a busy area of Shanghai. We wanted to create dishes with a modern interpretation of traditional Chinese food, borrowing from the best of global cooking techniques and using unexpected flavor pairings. For example, we are experimenting with sous vide to slow cook our pork belly to consistent perfection, and playing with flavors like coffee and tamarind in our otherwise traditional Chinese beef and fish dishes. The menu is slowly coming together, but that's just one small piece of the puzzle.

We've been on the lookout for our first location, and it is proving to be a challenge. Our criteria is to be close to office buildings for the lunch crowd, close to transport, with a neighborhood feel and good foot traffic into the nights and weekends. We didn't anticipate real estate to be quite so expensive in Shanghai and have had to increase our budget set aside for rent. As a startup with ambitious expansion goals, the high ratio of rent to revenue is worrying.

Sourcing is another major challenge. As the cornerstone of what our brand stands for, we have to be meticulous with sourcing, only working with partners who have similar high standards of quality and integrity, using technology to track and streamline the supply chain as much as we can. Mostly we just want to be honest with our customers and narrow the awareness gap of what people eat and where it comes from.

Branding identity, store design, customer flow, consistency, scalability, marketing, etc are all other massive tasks to tackle before our targeted opening date of October 2014. For the first two items, we are under discussions with progressive Chinese design talent that understand our vision of Baoism representing a flavor and aesthetic that is contemporary, yet rooted in the traditional.

This is all an exciting work in progress, and it feels really good to be bringing a vision to life. Stay tuned and follow me on Instagram/Twitter where I'm a bit more active as I continue on this journey to becoming a restaurateur in China.

]]> Journey of a Restaurateur in China Fresh Off the Boat Shanghai Episode Press Restaurants Jenny Gao

Tue, 28 Jan 2014 09:20:47 +0000

Sat, 14 Dec 2013 05:02:21 +0000

Download link: Jing Theory Guide to Shanghai (Under "Share", click 'Download'. Issuu will prompt you to log in, and once you do so the download starts automatically)

Map: Companion Google Map for Jing Theory Guide to Shanghai (You can turn on or off layers for different categories like Eat, Drink, Sleep, etc.)

Travel has always been the one constant in my life. Before I was old enough to grasp the changes, I was moving regularly with my parents to far flung places. I've lived in big cities, countrysides and gridded suburbs. I was thrown into complex cultural and social structures that I couldn't fully grasp at my young age but embodied viscerally. This routine came not without its own challenges and exasperations, but back then I really thought my experiences were normal.

Since then, I've come to rediscover travel on my own. Perhaps an act of rebellion towards being repeatedly uprooted growing up, I somehow cannot stop moving. I've evolved to travel differently. I always opt to live with locals when I can in Nepal I ate nothing but dhal bhat three times a day for three months. In Western Sichuan I was lucky to be invited to a traditional Tibetan wedding after befriending a family of herdsmen in the grasslands. I am blessed with equally curious and intrepid friends in cities around the world.

In the age of social travel, it is easier than ever to lock into a network and truly incarnate the essence of a city. In some places this is not as easy, where you need to rely on excellent tomes like Bradt and Insight, and on the kindness of strangers. Earlier this year, several days spent in the arid desert of the former Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict zone illustrate this well. The Danakil Depression is the hottest and most inhospitable place on earth, where your survival rests on your driver, his beat-up Toyota pickup, guards strapped with antique Beretta submachine guns, and local tribesmen.

I've lived in Shanghai for about two years now, which is among the longest I've lived anywhere. For now it has become home a city of 14 million souls where I take comfort in feeling singular, but also the ability to disappear into a sea of faces like my own. Shanghai is a delirious city, manically developing and demolishing, constantly alluding to but never revealing the substance beneath the rubble. But somehow a bike ride down tree-lined Wukang Lu in late summer can always restore the ecstasy of living.

I've long wanted to produce a reference to things I love about Shanghai. The JINGTHEORY Guide to Shanghai is a curated archive of my tastes, manifested in eclectic places, activities and things. It is not meant to be comprehensive, but rather a current snapshot of my interests and preoccupations. It is above all for lovers of food, art, design and architecture a glimpse into one person's view of Shanghai.

You can view it across devices and platforms and download the pdf on Issuu. For now it is just digital, but will be available in a pocked-sized print format very soon. If you are interested in receiving a hard copy, let me know.

]]> JINGTHEORY Guide to Shanghai New York Magazine: Chengdu vs Beijing Restaurants Jenny Gao

Wed, 06 Nov 2013 18:11:38 +0000

The question I get asked most frequently is, "What do I eat when I go to Chengdu?" For a food-crazed city like Chengdu, the answer to that question is boundless. A place where ancient food culture meets the dizzying pace of new dining trends, and where the term 'foodie' makes no distinction at all because everyone is a certified 吃货, its no wonder that Chengdu's food scene is constantly evolving. New fly restaurants and snack vendors set up shop every day, but few have the staying power of some of Chengdu's long-standing 老字号 time-honoured establishments. I was recently interviewed by New York Magazine (. ) on three of my favourite spicy dishes in Chengdu. Here's the excerpt

Thanks to its famous, fiery cuisine, Chengdu was named a UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2010. Local food blogger Jenny Gao ranks her top dishes from kinda to insanely spicy.

Mildly spicy: Salt and Sichuan peppercorn cookiesGong Ting Bakery (58 Wuyuangong Jie 8694-2646) is an institution—every grandmother goes there. You can see people lined up from a mile away. (Don’t worry, the line moves fast.) They use ingredients you won’t see anywhere else in China and have a cookie called jiaoyan taosu that’s seasoned with salt and Sichuan peppercorns—it’s such a complex flavor combination.”

Medium spicy: Tianshuimian (sweet water noodles) “This is a classic Sichuan street dish. Zhang Liangfen (39 Wenshuyuan Jie no phone) does it amazingly. They are traditionally served cold and are really thick—imagine twice the size of an udon noodle and super-chewy, like gnocchi. They ladle a mixture of sauces on top and then sprinkle it with sesame seeds. The combination is divine.”

Very spicy: Pig-brain mapo tofu “Sichuan food is defined by ‘fly restaurants’—basically tiny, hole-in-the-walls known for the most flavorful food. One of the most famous is Ming Ting (30 Yijiefang, Waicaojia Xiang 8331-5978), and their best dish is an unusual take on mapo tofu. The pig brain adds a really interesting texture to it, and the dish is super-spicy. The thing about Sichuan food is that it’s well balanced, so all the sweetness and savouriness balance out the spice.”

*Note: before going to Ming Ting, call ahead to check if they have moved to their new (as yet unknown) location yet. As of early October, '13 they are still in the former Waicaojia outdoor market, but inevitably, the city has ordered the storied old market to shut down earlier this year to make way for urban development and Ming Ting will sadly be a victim of the same fate.