It is December now! Christmas is on the corner, part and Event is more often, and ever-so-tired are your tastebuds after Restaurant Week. So I did some research into what even professional eaters have not eaten in Shanghai and picked my top 3 oddest foods available in Shanghai. All of these are pegged under 150 RMB in total, and addresses are attached for you to try them out yourselves.
Genoese Chickpea Crêpe, a.k.a Farinata
Farinata is a pizza-sized, pizza-shaped, un-pizza-like crispy… the thing that takes the taste of hummus without committing to its consistency. It is also one of those things with an Italian singsongy quality that attempts to cover up a humble composition, which in this case is essentially chickpea flour, olive oil, salt, and water, mixed well and unleavened. It is typically baked crêpe-thin on a copper plate, but some prefer it thickened up to 2 inches, with a soupy base and a contrastingly crunchy top. A punch and a slap of black pepper magnify the slightly piquant and grainy chickpea mix — no marinara, no cheese, but it still gives you enough of caloric content. Nutritionally, it is naturally gluten-free with complete vegan proteins, ideal for dieters and those with celiac disease.
So what makes it so odd? Okay, I started off light; this one is only really odd in its inception. Farinata was invented (more like accidentally discovered) by a boatful of shield-waving, anthem-chanting, starving, sea-sick Genoese. One day, one of the soldiers scooped up a handful of spilled chickpea flour and olive oil off the deck and, with the desperation that normally has you seriously considering street-corner cheese/oyster combos at 4 am, stuffed it in his piehole. Predictably, the glob was so unpalatable that he left the rest to dry out and just suffered his growling stomach. After a few days, someone else came upon the sun-baked leftover and found it transformed, elevated, not only aromatic but scrumptiously nutty. The rest is history. Back on land, the soldiers had fashionably named it “the gold of Genoa,” which we can only assume lost its niche appeal over time. Currently, the name farinata simply translates as “made from flour.”
Cost: Undeservingly high in Shanghai, 45 – 100 RMB.
For farinata w/ grilled scallops: Prego. 88 Hénán Middle Road, 2/F (河南中路88号2楼)
For farinata (made by request): UVA Wine Bar. 819 Shănxī North Road (陕西北路819号)
Tuscan & Taiwanese pork blood cakes
The concept behind this Tuscan invention is good, even great: a stratum of blood on top of a stratum of cake. It shows a commonality between Italian and Shanghainese cuisine in that nothing is wasted, ever. Call it thrifty, call it earthy. But let’s face it, it brings back the worst memories associated with syringes, bandaids and the stale smell of a clinic.
Unlike the other two, I decided to prove my own prediction that it will taste as bad as pickled bull rectum (that’s for another article) by making one of these in my home kitchen. Here’s what I found out: First, it is sweet, and the vanilla powder mixed into the batter helped conceal up to 80% of the raw gooeyness; second, it is visually appealing, with a few raspberries to garnish, vaguely resembling a lava cake. But my father protested my assumption that he preferred medium-rare when I served this surprise dish after dinner, and he also left this ungrateful comment: “I suppose I will grow pointy teeth and start choking in ecstasy.”
But in Taiwan, the mentioning of pork blood cake apparently makes omnivorous mouths water. Its Chinese name zhū xŭe gāo (猪血糕) can also mean a pork ice-cream — since xŭe (血) as in blood, is homophonous with xŭe (雪), meaning snow. Which seems fitting, since the savory blood snack sold for 10rmb max in night markets is exactly somewhere between mochi and a rice cake on a stick. Made from raw pork blood and glutinous rice, bound together and thickened by soy broth, it’s then rolled in a plate of crushed peanuts before being deep-fried until the coating crisps. The result is a sticky mouthful inside some crunch, sprinkled generously with chopped coriander on top of a golden yellow.
Cost: Low but lower if you fly to Taiwan, 16 – 56 RMB.
For zhū xŭe gāo w/ foie gras: BONOBO. 38 Dōnghú Road (东湖路38号).
For zhū xŭe gāo on a stick: LUTONG (滷董). 68 Yúyuán Road, LG2-9 (愚园路68号LG2-9室).
Pugliese & South Korean live octopus
I started with chickpeas, then moved to blood, now things are getting very weird. Possibly into the territory of “don’t encourage this.” However, information is neutral, and we trust you’ll make your own decision regarding this particular culinary “delight.” I recommend you skip this entry if you’re a bit squeamish, or a vegetarian.
There are many ways to enjoy a twitching tentacle-like for BBQ, or in a hot pot. But the most ancient form of consuming a live octopus has always been no fuss, freshly caught and fresh bitten into. There is a tradition in Puglia, Italy, for men to whip the squirming cephalopod against a cliff for hours to tenderize those succulent muscles. Sea salt is the perfect seasoning for this primal main course, but, of course, nowadays people add pepper, fresh squeezes of lemon, and olive oil for decadent animal cruelty on the coast.
Meanwhile, in South Korea, this high-protein, low-fat, and nutrient-dense goodie is thought to be best had as whole. Adult octopi are good, but toddlers are better. This is to preserve the wholeness of the suctions cups, which apparently titillate the cells in your mouth as they slide down your throat. For lubrication perhaps, this dish is drizzled in a slew of sesame oil.
If you can even work up the guts and savage gastronomic disregard for the sanctity of life to get far enough for seasoning.
Cost: 58 － 99rmb.
For live octopus in sesame oil: Lăo Tŭ Fáng (老土房). 2918 Lóngmíng Road (龙茗路2918号).
For live octopus on the grill: Bèi Zhēn Wū (贝臻屋海鲜碳烤). 168 Zĭténg Road, Bldg 9(紫藤路168弄9号)
by Quintana Hoyne