Foodbuzz 24×24: Cooking Shanghainese with my ChubbyMama

Dear Food Diary:
For this month’s Foodbuzz 24×24, my proposal was geared towards a personal mission. As you might of realized from reading this blog, I don’t cook much. Yet I grew up eating amazing Shanghainese home cooking and my parents owned restaurants. Friends always ask how was it possible, I’d reply with a big smile that all my efforts were put to good use, developing my taste buds and an hearty appetite. But it got me thinking… maybe it was time to learn these classic dishes for my own good. After all, the best cure for a homesick tummy are these nostalgic meals shared with family. It’s no secret, restaurants just can’t compare.

So during this trip home, I took the opportunity to spend an afternoon learning Shanghainese cooking with my ChubbyMama. She was super shy and humble about being in this “spotlight”. According to her, these aren’t anything out of the ordinary and most Shanghainese mom’s would have them under their belt. That might be true, but like any other kid, I think my mama’s cooking is the best. These flavors are so precious to me. I’m thrilled to have finally captured some… and Foodbuzz allowed me to share them with “nong” (that’s “you” in Shanghainese).

ChubbyMama doesn’t have any recipes, nor has she ever owned any measuring device. It’s all done by eye and experience. She assures me, you just know! I’m not so sure, so I tried my best to quantify the ingredients/time for our sake. Here are some of my favorite Shanghainese dishes, consider this Shanghainese Cooking 101… 

THE INGREDIENTS: • 1 1/2 Pound of Pork Belly  • 8 Hard Boiled Eggs  • 1/2 Can of Beer  • Ginger   Chinese Rock sugar  • Scallion  • Soy Sauce • Salt 

PREP WORK: PORK BELLY was cut into cube pieces with skin intact. Then they were brought to boil in water. Then washed in cold water to remove the foam that surfaces from boiling. Add oil and ginger in pan, seared for a couple minutes in high heat.

ADD SCALLIONS, BEER : ChubbyMama explains that the beer tenderizes the lean meat, so it’s better than adding water. Scallions are also added at this point. Bring it boil in high heat. 

ADD SOY SAUCE, SALT: A generous amount of Superior Quality Dark Soy Sauce adds good color, since it isn’t as salty, you can add salt according to taste. Turn the heat down to low, cover it and cook for about 25 minutes.

ADD CHINESE ROCK SUGAR: Add a piece of chinese rock sugar. For braising, this not only gives the dish sweetness but also a shine. Cover again and let it continue cooking in low heat. While this keeps braising…

PREP WORK: HARD BOILED EGGS have been pre-cooked. My mom pokes holes in them so the flavors can penetrated. She says this looks better than cutting lines with a knife. 
SEARING HARD BOILED EGGS: Adding eggs to braised dishes is pretty common, but I’ve never seen anyone else do what my mama does. She gives boring eggs a little extra texture. Not sure where she got the idea from, but it’s been this way ever since I can remember. It makes it distinct and unique. (Of course she had to use 8 eggs, since 8 is such a lucky number in chinese).
LET IT BRAISE: After the eggs are added. Covered it again, and… let it braise, let it braise. Usually for another 20-30 minutes. (The total cooking time from beginning to end should be about 45-60 minutes or until the liquid has been mostly absorbed and the pork is tender). 
RESULT: Finally it’s time to dig in!
The pork belly is tender and oozing with flavor, savory and sweet. Layers of texture stacked on top of each other in one bite. The skin is chewy and a little sticky in the best way possible, if pork skin isn’t deep fried, this is the next best way to enjoy them. The fat melts in your mouth while the lean meat steps in to let its presence known. Each bite is pork heaven. 
The egg, like a sponge has soaked in all the flavors from the soy sauce pork. Break in and add a spoonful of the soy sauce goodness thats left. The searing gives it a texture similar to that of deep fried bean curd sheets. While the center remains firm. All over pipping hot white rice… hmmmm… I’m brought back to a day after school at 8 years old. A happy time and place I’d revisit any day.

THE INGREDIENTS • 2 Cups of Rice • Chinese Ham (Virginia Ham works just as well) • Shepherd’s Purse (this green vegetable is available fresh in Shanghai but since we don’t have that here, regular Bok Choy will do)
PREP WORK: CHINESE “Ching Hua” HAM (or VIRGINIA HAM) and SHEPHERDS PURSE (or BOK CHOY) are cut into strips. Heat the pan with olive oil (any vegetable oil works fine, but my parents are trying to be healthy) and cook the ham first in high heat.
ADD VEGETABLE: Once the ham has been seared and cooked, throw in all the green vegetable and let it wilt for a couple minutes in high heat.
ADD RICE: Pour in the pre-washed and uncooked rice. 
MIX IT ALL: Start mixing everything evenly. Cover and turn the heat to low, let it cook for about 25-30 minutes. If you like a crust on the bottom, like that of a paella, you can turn the heat on for 5 minutes at the end to achieve the crunchy rice crust. 
RESULT: The rice is soft, the vegetable almost melts and the saltiness is brought out by the ham. The slight fattiness of the ham also brings out the cured meat flavors, which goes perfect with the fresh and unique shepherd’s purse aromatic fragrance. Unlike white rice, vegetable rice doesn’t need any dish to go along with. This is like a one pot wonder, so easy, I think I got it! Best with a dab of Broad Bean Paste with Chili and enjoy. 

THE INGREDIENTS: • Fresh Hairy Crab Roe and meat (Blue Crab Roe and meat works too)  • Soft Tofu  • Cooking Wine  • Ginger  Scallion
FIRST STEP: After my mama takes out the fresh roe and meat by hand (this happens to be the end of hairy crab season in Shanghai), she heats up oil and sautes the fresh roe and meat with ginger, adds a couple drops of cooking wine and lets it simmer in water.
ADD TOFU: After 5-10 minutes, add cubed soft tofu pieces and let it continue simmering.
THICKEN: Dissolve some cornstarch powder in cold water, the amount will depend on how thick you prefer (the normal ratio of water to cornstarch is 1:1.5). Then slowly pour it in the soup while stirring constantly, but careful not to break the soft tofu.
ADD SCALLIONS: Before serving, add salt to your liking and cut some fresh scallions. Serve immediately while its hot. 
RESULT: Soft tofu coated with natural umami at its most magnificent possible way from the hairy crab. The fresh crab roe is firm, textured like egg, but tastes like the yolk of the ocean. The fresh crab meat is very delicate and sweet. Each spoonful is intensely perfumed by crab flavor and melt in your mouth combination is brightened by scallion. The dash of cooking wine helps take away any fishyness and lets the crab shine. 

THE INGREDIENTS: • A whole Ribbon Fish  • Vegetable Oil  • Ginger  • Salt
PREP WORK: RIBBON FISH is washed, pat dry and coated with salt. Let it sit for 10 minutes.
HEAT THE PAN: Once the oil is hot, place a couple slices of ginger along with the fish. Deep fry until golden brown. 
RESULT: Perfectly fried pieces of Ribbon Fish is super crunchy on the outside, but soft and delicate on the inside.
The white meat is flaky and delicate. Falls perfectly off the center bones. Lightly salted, it’s moist and tender. The end tale pieces have less meat, therefore they are crunchier, like a thick piece of fish chip.

My ChubbyMama finally lets me take a picture of her, front and center. She’s awesome and hilarious. As a kid, she was such a disciplinarian, I was super afraid of her. But even when she was mad, she would always make sure I had a hearty meal. Now that I’m an adult, I can truly say that she is one of my best friends. Because she is such a good listener, I don’t ever have to see a shrink. 

ChubbyMama and I had a lot of fun doing this post. I hope you guys will find these “recipes” helpful towards cooking Shanghainese 101. I can’t wait to try them. 

All this food and more had to be shared with my ChubbyFamily of course. They are always so excited to see me back. Cheers to good food and good family! No table setting is needed when eating at home, just an everyday casual affair of lots of yummy dishes and even more laughter. “Jaja” (thank you in Shanghainese) Foodbuzz for making this happen!

P.S. Chubby’s RATING: