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Friday, 01 July 2016

Sensory Delights in Shanghai

Written by Jill Weinlein
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Over 25 million people live together in the city named "The Paris of the East" and "Pearl of the Orient." Walking along the streets of Shanghai is an entertaining journey with exotic sights, alluring smells and the constant sound of beeping bicycles, scooters, trucks, cars and vans.
Motor vehicles have the “right of way” on the streets and sidewalks, not pedestrians, so we carefully roamed paved roads looking for the best soup dumplings, exotic street food, prettiest parks and historical sights.
We stopped at street stalls to purchase branches of bright red lychee fruit with white flesh and an almond shaped seed. Packages of dried squid offered a snack of sweetness with an essence of chewy fish flavored jerky. Other delights included shredded dried sweet potato and a red package of preserved eggs. Other treats included colorful Jello type candy shots; little corn shaped candy; and large magenta skinned dragon fruit with white skin and little black polka-dot seeds.
Staying at The Oakwood Apartments in the Putuo District is a good value, for the cleanliness, location and spaciousness. The mid-rise is near a subway stop and above a shopping and dining mall. The full-service apartment offers studio, one and two bedroom apartments with full kitchens, washer and dryer, living and dining room areas. The kitchen and bathrooms were decorated similar to a four or five star hotel. It was very clean and the staff were helpful and friendly. Our unit was a comfortable "home-away-from-home" ideal for business travelers, couples and families visiting Shanghai.
Day 1: Shanghai is known for its cult worship of soup dumplings that are beautifully pleated, piping hot and bursting with flavor explosions of pork colored broth. We found a dumpling shop in the Yuyuan Garden that offered a large dumpling with a straw in the center to sip the meaty broth. It’s a deal for $2 in this touristy area.

To reach Yuyuan Garden, we first took the subway to People's Square boasting the largest garden in the city and museums displaying the past and future of Shanghai. The subways are clean and efficient to get around Shanghai, plus it’s safer than walking some of the busy streets. During rush hour, the trains are packed door to door with people. I was packed in so tight next to commuters, that I couldn’t raise my hand to scratch my nose. It’s very quiet on the subway car, yet I couldn’t help but giggle at the amount of body parts from other people that were crushed next to me. When the door opens you have to push forward forcefully or you will miss your stop.
Walking along the historic Bund built In 1840 during the Opium Wars, we appreciated the beauty of the grandiose buildings and foreign embassies. Known as the ‘Wall Street of Asia’ along the Huangpu River, with its grand architecture from the 1920s Golden Age before the war.

Across the river is the newer Pudong area with skyscraper buildings along greenbelts and park-like pathways. This used to be farmland less than 20 years ago. Now it hosts one of the tallest buildings in the world. The star of the area is the magenta colored, needle-looking, Oriental Pearl Television Tower.

Our next foodie challenge was to find the best Baozi or Bao. It’s a white bun filled with meat or vegetables. Some have green onions, tofu, and red bean paste in the center. These are easy to find throughout Shanghai in street stalls, food courts and sit down restaurants.
Looking for a cool treat, we found one of the most unique casual dining venues, while walking down one of the many alleys running through the Tian-zi-fang area in Shanghai, Dine at More Than Toilet - Delicious & Happy restaurant. It’s a restaurant where diners sit on commodes. Inside we gawked at all the tables with toilets instead of chairs. Their porcelain lids were sealed shut, and the tops were covered in colored velvet fabric. Golden urinals line the walls.
The owner Wang Zi-Wei has opened other Delicious & Happy restaurants in Asia. The food is pretty average and mostly Western cuisine with soup, pasta dishes, salads, pizza, however the chocolate swirled ice cream served in a small plastic squat toilet or urinal serving dish is very whimsical. It was a fun multi-level spot for a snack or meal.
Day 2: For breakfast we ladled congee or rice porridge into bowls and topped the popular breakfast dish with pickled vegetables, pork floss, peanuts, bamboo shoots, pickled tofu and cut up hard boiled egg.
We hired a driver and guide to take a ninety minute ride to the historic city of Suzhou for the day. Walking in a light rain, we visited the picturesque Garden of Humble Administrator - a UNESCO World Heritage site to learn about the history of the various Dynasty’s that owned this Chinese Garden. Strolling through the gardens we learned about 2,500 years of history, while admiring various stone bridges, beautiful rocks, water features and pagodas.
After a two hour tour, we stopped for lunch at a banquet restaurant and enjoyed dishes from the region that included whole river fish filled with tiny bones, tiny slippery unpeeled shrimp and egg rolls.
After lunch we visited a silk factory and learned how silk worm thread is turned into elegant robes, beautiful clothing and silk sheets and bedding. Later we finished exploring the city by canal boat in Suzhou, known as "The Venice of Asia” situated on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River.
Before driving back to Shanghai, we made a stop in Tongli Water Town, an ancient water town along the Yangtze River Delta. Almost every home in this area is built by a canal. Tongli is the ‘mini oriental Venice,’ with 15 different canals connecting the town with 40 different bridges. It’s a picturesque place to discover shops filled with flakey and warm pastry balls. Biting inside we discovered a cooked egg yolk surrounded by red bean paste. It provided a sweetness to the creamy yolk. Another shop made Taiwanese pineapple cake - called Fung lL Su. It’s a pineapple tart, with a thick, jammy filling and a buttery crust.

Day 3: In the morning we moved to the Pudong area to stay one night at the Mandarin Oriental hotel. Our luxury suite was elegantly decorated in soft color palette and offered sensational views of Shanghai. We had a beautiful sitting area, and bedroom with a king-size bed. Inside the closet were silk robes and plush slippers. Beyond was the marble bathroom with a soaking bathtub positioned next to the floor-to-ceiling windows to take advantage of the magnificent city and river views.
The property offers six dining options and afternoon tea service. The fine dining Fifty 8 Grill has a modern French cuisine menu, and Yong Yi Ting presents elegant local cuisine.
My favorite breakfast and lunch item at the hotel were dainty watercress dumplings. They were exquisite.
During lunch we took the Tourist Sightseeing Tunnel under the river to The Bund. It’s a 5 minute psychedelic journey of blinking lights with multimedia themes. Exploring Shanghai we walked over to the French Concession Expat area with its trendy shops, hip coffee houses, and stylish fashion boutiques.
We explored some outdoor street stalls and wet markets to admire the skewers of meat, squid and chicken. Other skewers had rice cakes, whole eggplant, mushrooms, tofu and fish balls. The wet markets have live fish and eels swimming in little plastic containers. Meat and fowl are butchered right before our eyes, as vendors throw water on the narrow walkways to "clean" the blood off of the walkway.
Locals and visitors tour these areas to purchase the brightly colored produce, chicken parts lined in a row, and eggs of many colors - white, brown, black and blue. Other stalls sell ice cream in a clear glass freezer. One is corn flavored ice cream shaped cleverly as corn on the cob.

On our last night, a staff member at the MO (Mandarin Oriental) hailed us a cab to take us to dinner at Lost Heaven in the French Concession. The traffic at rush hour was a parking lot in the Pudong area. There are too many cars in Shanghai and not enough infrastructure. What should take about 15 minutes, took us about 50 minutes of driving on side streets and in a stand still at long lights. Cars somehow squeeze three into two lanes. We were shocked we didn’t see any accidents. Horns toot, cars drive up on sidewalks and turn right into humans jumping out of the way. It’s pure chaos.
When we arrived at the tranquil multi-level restaurant, we ordered thick noodles with cold carrots, cucumbers and peanuts bathed in a spicy peanut sauce. The black cod plate and spicy chicken dishes were delicious too.
Hailing a cab back to the MO Hotel was frustrating. At least ten available cabs slowed down, noticed that we were Americans and stepped on the gas leaving us before we could step into the vehicle to go back to Pudong.
Finally, we decided to walk twenty blocks, before reaching a subway station with a train going under the river to Pudong. It was all quite an adventure that I will cherish for years to come. The cacophony of sounds, fascinating smells, tastes and impressive architectural sights in Shanghai and nearby cities is an experience that one must have at least once in their lifetime.

©Jill Weinlein

Last modified on Friday, 08 July 2016