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Courtesy of Lindsey Dawson.
You know you’re in for a different sort of dining experience when the place supplies disposable plastic gloves. We’ve come up steep, narrow stairs to a tiny box of a restaurant lined with white plastic walls.
If the Shanghai night wasn’t so hot the general impression would be of eating in a fridge. The decor is authentic if not chic. Perched on stools at plastic-sheeted tables, we’re grateful for the noisy air con unit in the corner keeping the temperature bearable.
And here comes the first course – a red plastic bowl heaped with a mountain of what look like tiny lobsters. ‘Crawfish,’ cries our street-food guide, Jamie Barys. ‘Enjoy! Just break them open for the good bits. You can suck out the brains if you like them.’
On went the gloves. In we dived. Despite my reservations, for I’m a tad squeamish about cracking open any food that still has feet and feelers, those little babies were delish.
Next course – and oh my God it’s getting good now – scallops in garlic sauce, sweet grilled bread, skinny mushrooms and leeks strung strip-wise on skewers like pennants on a small pole, tiny bites of barbecued, gamy lamb and grilled banana.
You don’t expect your guide to be a girl from Chattanooga, Tennessee, but Jamie adores China, speaks fluent Mandarin, and is a partner in a guiding company that takes people like me on food adventures. www.untourshanghai.com
Like many of her customers, I’d be nervous of street food if trying it on my own. I’d wonder how clean it was and where it had come from. “Go for food you can see being cooked in front of you,” she says. “Then you know it’s fresh. With crawfish, look for their backs to be rounded. If they’re straight you know they were dead before they got cooked.”
She’s found a host of reliable little places dishing up yummy things and her mission now is to share them with visitors . On her breakfast tour we hoed into lots more – puffy egg pancakes called danbing, fried dumplings (guotie) and my favourite, janbing.
These are big, thin pancakes cooked on a circular hotplate. The batter is made of three flours, mixed with oil and soy milk. An egg is broken over the crepe and smoothed over the entire top. As it keeps cooking it’s sprinkled with spring onions and cilantro, folded over, smeared with a little chili sauce, and then folded again around a crisp, fried wonton sheet. Cut into slices it makes a crunchy-centred, hand-held flavour sensation.
My mouth’s watering just thinking about it.
Air New Zealand flies direct to Shanghai five times weekly.
Fares start from $1662 return including taxes.
For further information and to book visit www.airnewzealand.co.nz
By Lindsey Dawson