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Sensory Delights in Shanghai

Author: Jill Weinlein
Date of Trip: June 2015

Walking along the streets of Shanghai is an entertaining journey with exotic sights, alluring smells and the constant sound of beeping bicycles, scooters, cars and vans. There are around 25 million people living together in the city named “The Paris of the East” and “Pearl of the Orient.”

The purpose of my family’s trip was to visit our daughter studying in Donghua University in the center of the city. For five months, my daughter practiced speaking Mandarin and learned about Chinese Economics. While in China, she teased me with her postings of photos on her Tumblr – Adventure Thyme blog and WeChat. After class and during the weekends and holidays, Elizabeth roamed the streets looking for the best soup dumplings, exotic street food, prettiest parks and historical sights.

As our tour guide for four days, we tasted most of her new favorite foods and enjoyed some stunning sights. She welcomed us at The Oakwood Apartments with a table filled with many of her favorite snacks. There were branches of lychee fruit, a package of dried squid that were sweet, fishy, strong and chewy. There was also a package of chewy, shredded dried sweet potato and a red package of preserved eggs. Jello type of candy shots, little corn candy, and large magenta skinned dragon fruit with white skin and little black polka-dot seeds.

We chose The Outlook Apartments for its value, location, and spaciousness. Located in the Putuo District near a subway stop and above a shopping and dining mall, this 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” and is 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, I needed to try at least one. Our daughter posted a photo once of a large dumpling with a straw in the center to sip the meaty broth inside. I told her that I wanted find this unique snack.

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.

Next we walked along the historic Bund built In 1840 during the Opium Wars with grandiose buildings and Foreign Embassy’s. 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. The star of the area is the magenta colored ‘needle-like” Oriental Pearl Television Tower.

Once we reached Yuyuan Garden, we ordered the flowery looking dumpling she had photographed. It was served in a bowl with a straw for $2 U.S. dollars. Even though it was a little too doughy for my preference, It was a fun treat. The area also serves Baozi or Baos that are white buns filled with meat or vegetables with green onions, tofu, and red bean paste fillings.

Another photo I admired was taken at Dine at More Than Toilet – Delicious & Happy restaurant. Located down one of the alleyways running through Tian-zi-fang, we walked inside and gasped at all the tables with toilets instead of chairs. With their lids sealed shut, the tops were covered in purple and other colored velvet fabric. Golden urinals line the walls.

The owner Wang Zi-Wei has opened others in Asia. The food is pretty average and mostly Western cuisine with soup, pasta dishes, salads, pizza and chocolate swirled ice cream in a squat toilet or urinal serving dish. It was a whimsical multi-level spot for a snack or meal.

Day 2: For breakfast we ladled congee or rice poridge into bowls and enhanced the popular breakfast dish with pickled vegetables, pork floss, peanuts, bamboo shoots, pickled tofu and cut up hard boiled egg. For lunch we enjoyed a culinary experience out to the historic city of Suzhou and a tasty snack at the ancient water city of Tonglai.

Hiring a driver and guide, 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.

Afterwards, we stopped for lunch at a banquet restaurant and were served food from the region, such as whole river fish filled with tiny bones and tiny slippery unpeeled shrimp, egg rolls and a variety of chicken dishes.

After lunch we visited a silk factory and learned how silk worms thread is turned into robes, clothing and bedding. Later we finished exploring the city with a canal boat ride in Suzhou – “The Venice of Asia.”

In Tonglai, our daughter took us Inside one of the shops to purchase a flakey and warm pastry ball. Biting inside was a cooked egg yolk surrounded by red bean paste. It provided a sweetness to the creamy yolk. The shop keeper included two pieces of Taiwanese pineapple cake – called Fung lL Su. It was like 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 peaceful 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, while 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. We investigated more of the French Concession Expat area with its trendy shops, hip coffee houses and fashion boutiques.

Later, Elizabeth took us over to 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 your eyes as vendors throw water on the narrow walkways to “clean” them.

Local 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 to meet our daughter’s roommate “Queenie” and her family. The traffic at rush hour was a parking lot in the Pudong area. There are too many cars and not enough infrastructure. What should take about 15 minutes, took us about 50 minutes of driving on side streets, stop at long lights and a lot of frustration.

When we arrived, we let the girls order. I was envious how Queenie’s mother ate pork ribs with skilled dexterity, while I clumsily picked up the ribs and tried to keep them on my sticks. With relief, I noticed that Queenie’s father picked and held a rib in his fingers to gnaw the meat off the bone. I relaxed, picked up a bone and enjoyed every bite. We tried thick noodles with cold carrots, cucumbers and peanuts with a spicy peanut sauce and a black cod plate. All were delicious.

Hailing a cab back to the MO Hotel was quite a feat. At least ten available cabs slowed down, noticed we were Americans and stepped on the gas once our daughter, speaking in Mandarin, asked if they could take us to Pudong.

We must have walked 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 is an experience that one must have at least once in their lifetime.

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