“The devil, darkness, and death may swagger and boast, the pangs of life will sting for a while longer, but don’t worry; the forces of evil are breathing their last. Not to worry…He’s risen!” – Charles R. Swindoll
Happy Easter, peeps!
Every spring, I find myself increasingly partial to Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite (1919 Edition). Maybe it’s me, but I see a lot of parallels with the score and Easter. I’m after all, a very audio-visual individual and sounds, films and movement helps me reconcile with the resurrection story in a way that the bible alone cannot. There are similar overarching tones, with both emoting a sense of rebirth and renewed hope through adversity, death and temptation. It’s a tale of hope that is especially poignant for me as I find myself lost in the doldrums, unable to escape the well I’ve dug myself into. I remind myself to keep the faith, and to continue treading while I try for the umpteenth time, to catch my break. It’s with that renewed faith and hope, that I’ll keep moving forward, and on.
After what seems like an eternity of procrastinating and disappointments, the circumstances favored a visit to Shanghai Renjia. The Shanghainese restaurant, tucked in the edge of the northeastern residential town of Ang Mo Kio, is a small, simple set-up that accommodates no more than seven tables a sitting. Despite its popularity, Shanghai Renjia has resisted the allure of expansion, and it maintains a certain homely, convivial vibe to it. It’s almost European really, the style of it all – service on a genuine, human scale. The man of the restaurant, who doubles as the restaurant manager, emanates a beacon of positivity while keeping the small operation a well-oiled machine. He’s incredibly sociable, and will gladly share his recommendations and stories on how the dishes on the menu came to be. The boss looked almost touched when he learned that me and my mom “lived in the area”, and appeared almost relieved that we weren’t just diners who came through “friends’ recommendation”.
There are approximately 20 items on the menu, none of which any food-loving Singaporean should find anything alien. Whatever’s here, you’ll find at Shanghai dim sum specialty restaurants across the island. At the same time, they’re not exactly the same. Here, your favorites look less polished, less refined, and yet they look ever more appealing, but that’s fine, for Shanghai Renjia almost lends itself to Shanghainese cooking as the Shanghainese do at home, and that’s something that’s rare, even in Shanghai itself. With the business a complete (Mainland Chinese) family business, i.e. husband and wife, and the son if the NUS undergraduate scholar (who looks like the guy who’d be a good husband…these fairly newer Singaporeans were after all, Shanghainese once, and you know what they say about Shanghainese men), service, particularly the wait for the food, can take a while. If you’re the kind of person who wants to be served your meal promptly, or are in a rush, I’d advise you to rain check Shanghai Renjia to another day, when you’ve got the luxury of time.
The Handmade Noodle with Braised Pork Ribs and Minced Chicken Cubes was bar none, the best la mian I’ve ever had. The seasoning’s kept deliberately simple: flavored with a toss of fragrant shallot oil and braised pork sauce. The result is a comforting bowl of love, Shanghai style. My mom and I loved this so much, one could almost sense a wave of competition for just one more spoon of noodles.
If you ever visit China, drop all your inhibitions, and eat as the locals do, at their local version of a “zhi char” stall. They’re everywhere, even on the tourist trail but these places hide in plain sight, ignored by visitors. I was fortunate to live close to one of these spots when I was holidaying in Beijing – it was sooo good, I went almost everyday, trying everything that my imagination could come up with (there’s no menu and the chefs will cook up anything you can think of). A definite must-try at these neighborhood diners must surely be their stir-fry vegetables. Steamed or boiled halfway, and then tossed into a wok of smoking oil, soy sauce and sliced chili for a brief moment, the bland looking plate of greens packs a punch! Like crack cocaine, it was irresistibly addictive and within a couple of minutes, it disappeared into the bowels of the human abdomen.
You wanna know what I feel is the best thing about Shanghai dim sum? The buns can be fried! While most delights in Hong Kong dim sum – the buns in particular, where there’s absolutely no exception – is steamed, Shanghai cuisine is ironically, more flexible when it comes to preparation techniques. At one moment, you could be having a chilled steamed chicken swimming in Chinese wine. In the next, you could be sipping on a freshly steamed xiao long bao. Of course, if you’d like to indulge, snacks like the Pan Fried Bun are available. The Pan Fried Meat Bun, a ubiquitous Shanghai street classic, is first steamed, then partially pan-fried till the bottom half of the bun becomes a wonderful crisp golden brown. This combination of cooking technique gives it the best of steaming and frying: crispy yet fluffy on the inside. It was a lovely recreation, although I felt that it was a little lacking in “something”.
Last but not least is the Shanghai Renjia favorite, Shanghai po…I’m sorry, we didn’t order the very popular Popiah. My mom wasn’t hungry “at the time”, and the boss did caution us that we couldn’t order this midway once he enters our order. Instead, we went for the xiao long bao. Interestingly, the restaurant is insistent that their version requires no sliced ginger or vinegar. As an obsessive compulsive sauce-dipper just like any other Singaporean, it was certainly…weird. With the need for sauce unsatisfied, one starts to notice things that one didn’t notice before. The dumpling has a slight hint of ginger, although I considered that I might’ve been imagining it. The dumpling skin seemed a tad thick, but I was reading somewhere that actually, the dough shouldn’t be completely paper-thin. One thing I certainly didn’t need to imagine was the flavor. Unlike some places, where you really do need the pungent tang of the vinegar to mask the intense pork smell, this xiao long bao didn’t. Instead, it was sweet, fragrant and just good, really.
p.s. Sorry for the shitty photos. I still use an iPhone 4.