When I found out that I would be interning in Shanghai for the summer, the first thing I decided to do was to sample all the delicacies that this cosmopolitan city had to offer. However, my plan began to falter as I started work and was exposed to the delicious canteen meal. It started to become a habit and a comfort zone.
But it was time to move on from canteen food to the traditional Shanghainese local food. Every time I asked my co-workers about the most typical Shanghainese food, I was always told that Shanghai is known for her Xiao Chi (literally meaning “little eats”). And the best thing to try is Xiao Yang Sheng Jian.
The menu I encountered was simple: 8 choices in total. At the very top, Xiao Yang Sheng Jian (fried pork bun) was written in bold black letters. Underneath, in a smaller font, there was a list of 7 different types of soups: beef soup, duck bone soup with vermicelli, duck curry soup, and puffed tofu soup to name a few.
As I waited in line, I watched through the glass window into the kitchen. Five kitchen workers crowded around a large aluminum bowl of minced pork mixture. These workers had thin white patties in one hand, and chopsticks in their other hand scooping up a hefty sum of pork onto the patty. With a swift flick of their hand, they successfully wrapped the bun by twisting the top shut. The wrapped buns went onto a large banquet kitchen tray, ready to be cooked.
These buns then traveled to one of the four large metal pans, which were covered with a wooden lid. It was left to steam for a few minutes before the lid was opened up again, and a hefty amount of vegetable oil was poured into the pan with the rest of the buns. The lid went back on again for a few more minutes for the buns to fry. Afterwards, the lid was lifted to reveal crispy golden brown Xiao Yang Sheng Jian. They were then transported onto a plate and sprinkled with chopped spring onions and white sesame seeds.
The buns were still steaming in the plates as they arrived on the table. With food on the table, my sauce mixed, chopsticks in one hand and a spoon in the other, I was ready to eat.
I took the bun with my chopsticks and placed a spoon below for support. I dipped the bun in my vinegar and chili mixture and slowly raised it to my mouth. I was already warned about the juice that will spill right out of the bun once I bit in, but I was not quite ready for when it actually happened. My first bite was a mixture of textures and tastes. The bun was chewy and crunchy at the same time. The hot juicy soup that flowed out of the bun contrasted with the sour and spicy flavors from the vinegar and chili mixture, giving it a very nice kick. The meat inside the bun was tender and moist.
It was easy to devour four pieces of Xiao Yang Sheng Jian within minutes, and we left the restaurant feeling very full and content.
I was really glad I broke free from my comfort zone to explore the city I lived in. Once I took the first steps in exploring the food in Shanghai, I opened up many new doors that led me to the most delicious food the city had to offer. If you are traveling abroad or visiting a new city, I highly recommend asking around about the local food because I believe that food can lead you to the city’s heart. If the city’s heart consists of “little eats,” all the better.
Julie Sophonpanich is a senior at Brown University, where she cooks family meals every Friday with her friends. She believes that anything accompanied by rice makes for a fulfilling meal.