Shanghainese dim sum — better than grandma’s, but don’t tell her

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When my friend Danica invited me to meet her in Manhattan’s Chinatown for a dim sum lunch at Shanghai Asian Cuisine and a “What’s that?” tour afterwards, I tried to get other people to join me.  The more people there are, the more you can order!

But in the end, I was not-so-secretly glad no one else could come.  That meant we could order and eat “boneless pig leg” with absolutely no guilt about ordering something no one else would eat.  And I shouldn’t have doubted Danica.  The fact that there were only two of us didn’t stop her from ordering seven perfect little dishes.

Of course, we had xiao long bao, otherwise known as soup dumplings, otherwise known as juicy buns.  These were filled with crab and pork, and Danica told me the bright orange color is meant to be remniscent of a very rare, very seasonal and very expensive Shanghainese crab.  The skins were wonderfully delicate.  When they had cooled a bit, Danica urged me to put a whole bun in my mouth and bite down.  Good thing I’ve known her since college, and I am not embarrassed to stuff a dumpling in my mouth in front of her.

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There was “mock duck,” which turned out to be thin tofu skins wrapped around mushrooms.  A little sweet for me but prepared with obvious care.

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Sesame noodles, with a bit of mung bean sprouts, very fragrant and a little resistant in the way all good noodles are.

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The aforementioned “boneless pig leg,” which gets served with a funny, syrup-like clear sauce.  I would never think of dipping thin slices of gelatinous pork in something sweet but it was absolutely delicious.  I love the texture of this kind of pressed pork, that layer of skin and fat that almost squeaks against your teeth.

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The fried wontons, in this array, should have seemed boring but they weren’t, not at all.  They were crisp, greaseless, and juicy.  What more could you ask of a wonton?

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The drunken chicken was almost my favorite, almost only because I couldn’t quite pick one favorite in the end.  I loved the quiet boozy flavor.

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And even though we hadn’t quite managed to finish everything, Danica ordered a pancake filled with sweet red beans for dessert.  I love eating with Danica.  She wisely ate one piece.  I ate four.  There must have been a little sticky rice flour in the dough, as the dough stayed chewy and resilient inside even as it was crispy on the outside.

Danica told me her Shanghainese friend introduced her to the restaurant.  She says, “The food is better than my grandmother’s!  But I can’t tell her!”

These wondrous little dishes were only the first of many amazing things I saw that day—loofah in its green, edible form; strings of Chinese sausage; beef “pizzies.”  But nothing blew my mind the way this jewelry display did.

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I’m so lucky to live close to Chinatown.  I hope the food keeps getting better and the jewelry porkier.

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