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Shanghai showcase

China's most cosmopolitan cuisine makes a Southern California splash.

June 06, 2007|Linda Burum | Special to The Times

HIPPER than Hong Kong and more alluring than Beijing, Shanghai has always had a heady mystique. Situated on China's east coast, surrounded by the fertile Yangtze River delta, the city was home to the best eating in the country long before its recent fast-forward leap to modernity and a generation of new-wave restaurants.

Here in the San Gabriel Valley, as the Chinese immigrant population has grown and become more diverse, chefs and restaurateurs from the Shanghai area have begun to showcase the food of their region. Today a Shanghainese expat can quash nostalgia by digging into a steamer full of juicy dumplings at Mei Long Village in San Gabriel or by gathering with family and friends around a hotpot of crab roe-stuffed meatball soup at Shanghai Bamboo House in Temple City.

We've got fancy Shanghai-style dining rooms ready to lay out a traditional banquet, modest family restaurants and lowbrow dives. True, the globally inspired creations now cropping up in the mother city's contemporary and avant-garde restaurants are absent.

Classic comfort foods like red-cooked pork and drunken chicken rule in Southern California. But as Shanghai once again gains recognition as a food mecca, our local Shanghainese restaurants are growing in number and quality.

After several visits to any of these restaurants you begin to see the surprising breadth and variety of Shanghai's cooking, how it differs from the more familiar Cantonese style and why, with its many outside influences, it is the most representative of China's food as a whole.

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Refined ingredients

SHANGHAI'S cuisine is an inheritance, gathered over many centuries from the surrounding Yangtze cities that have been at various times seats of government, strongholds of commerce and havens for aristocrats from the north as well as a wealthy mercantile class. For centuries, these cities were centers of culinary innovation. Suzhou, for example, built a reputation for exquisitely made pastries that were the forerunners of modern Shanghai-style dim sum.

In Hangzhou, the elite members of society during the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279) dined at restaurants whose menus offered hundreds of beautifully crafted, often intricate dishes that some speculate has led to Shanghai's tradition of offering many appetizers.

As Shanghai grew from a small port into an international trade center, its cooks adopted and adapted elaborate ideas from the area's wealthiest cities. Even today, Shanghai menus offer the famous spareribs of Wuxi, fish of Hangzhou and braised meat balls of Yangzhou, among other dishes named for their places of origin.

In historic times, Shanghai's legions of gastronomes loved nothing better than to track down the most refined ingredients. Outings to small nearby towns that, like Tuscany or Burgundy, had developed reputations for local specialties, were a popular pastime. The famed Shaoxing wine, the nutty Zhenjiang (Chinkiang) black vinegar and the sweet-salty Jinhua ham are essential to Shanghainese cooking today.

So when most gourmands talk about Shanghai-style cuisine, it's understood to mean food from the surrounding region, especially the provinces of Jiangsu to the north and Zhejiang to the south.

The style that seems to define Shanghai cooking for many is the iconic "red-cooking" of Jiangsu. Its sweet-salty braising liquid made of soy sauce, Chinese wine, a touch of rock sugar and often other seasonings, is spectacularly unique in the way its syrupy meatiness captivates the palate. Almost every Shanghai-style restaurant in the Los Angeles area serves several red-cooked specialties, including the moist, unctuous braised pork "rump" (frequently mistranslated as "pump") and Wuxi pork ribs tinged with star anise and orange peel.

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On the lighter side

LOCALS will tell you, though, that they appreciate the light fresh tastes of Zhenjiang dishes that emphasize the flavors of a few ingredients. A Chinese adage exalts the cuisine of Zhenjiang, where "the sauce is white and the soup is so clear you can see the bottom of the bowl."

The marvelous shrimp sauteed with tea leaves at Chang's Garden, in Arcadia, with a faint bitterness of tea balancing the salty-sweetness of shrimp, is one such creation. At Jin Jian (also known as J&J) in San Gabriel, gluten puffs afloat in a clear broth with wisps of julienne pork and clear noodles is another.

A few Sichuan or Hunan dishes also pop up on most Shanghainese restaurant menus. These are milder versions than the originals, not because they've been Americanized, but because they worked their way into Shanghai's mainstream after immigrants from western China introduced chile-spiced foods.

With its complex network of waterways, Shanghai celebrates crabs, fish and seafood of all sorts at the table.

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